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The Most Honored Photograph

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Photograph in public domain, this copy from Naval Aviation Museum

 

Doesn't look like much, does it? But, depending upon your definition, this photograph, a team effort by 9 men, is the most honored picture in U. S. History. If you want to find out about it, read on. It's an interesting tale about how people sometimes rise beyond all expectations. It takes place in the early days of World War II, in the South Pacific, and if you're a World War II history buff, you may already know about it.

The Screwed Up Pilot

First, let's get this out of the way. Jay Zeamer wasn't a photographer by trade. He was mostly a wanna-be pilot. He looked good on paper, having graduated with a degree in civil engineering from MIT, joining the Army Air Corps, and receiving his wings in March, 1941. He was a B-26 bomber co-pilot when World War II started.

His classmates all rapidly became lead pilots and squadron leaders, but not Jay. He couldn't pass the pilot check tests despite trying numerous times. He was a good pilot, but just couldn't seem to land the B-26. Landing, from what I've read, was considered one of the more important qualifications for a pilot. Stuck as a co-pilot while his classmates and then those from the classes behind him were promoted, he got bored and lost all motivation.

Things came to a head when co-pilot Zeamer fell asleep while his plane was in flight. Not just in flight, but in flight through heavy anti-aircraft fire during a bombing run. He only woke when the pilot beat him on the chest because he needed help. His squadron commander had him transferred to a B-17 squadron in Port Moresby, New Guinea where he was allowed to fly as a fill-in navigator and occasionally as a co-pilot. He was well liked and popular -- on the ground. But no one wanted to fly with him.

Zeamer finally managed to get into the pilot's seat by volunteering for a photoreconnaissance mission when the scheduled pilot became ill. The mission, an extremely dangerous one over the Japanese stronghold at Rabual, won Zeamer a Silver Star  -- despite the fact that he still hadn't qualified to pilot a B-17.

The Eager Beavers

Zeamer become the Operations Officer (a ground position) at the 43rd Air Group. Despite his lack of qualification, he still managed to fly as a B-17  fill-in pilot fairly often. He had discovered that he loved to fly B-17s on photoreconnaissance missions, and he wanted to do it full-time. There were only three things standing in his way: he didn't have a crew, he didn't have an airplane, and oh, yeah, he still wasn't a qualified pilot.

He solved the first problem by gravitating to every misfit and ne'er-do-well in the 43rd Air Group. As another pilot, Walt Krell, recalled, "He recruited a crew of renegades and screwoffs. They were the worst -- men nobody else wanted. But they gravitated toward one another and made a hell of a team."

The plane came later. An old, beat-up B-17, serial number 41-2666, that had seen better days was flown into their field to be scavenged for spare parts. Captain Zeamer had other ideas. He and his crew decided to rebuild the plane in their spare time since they weren't going to get to fly any other way. Exactly how they managed to accomplish their task is the subject of some debate. Remember, there were so few spare parts available that their 'plane' was actually brought in originally to be a parts donor.

But rebuild it they did. Once it was in flying shape the base commander congratulated them and said he'd find a new crew to fly it. Not surprisingly, Zeamer and his crew took exception to this idea, and according Walt Krell the crew slept in their airplane, having loudly announced that the 50 caliber machine guns were kept loaded in case anyone came around to 'borrow' it. There was a severe shortage of planes, so the base commander ignored the mutiny and let the crew fly - but generally expected them to take on missions that no one else wanted.

The misfit crew thrived on it.  They hung around the base operations center, volunteering for every mission no one else wanted. That earned them the nickname The Eager Beavers, and their patched up B-17 was called Old 666.

The Eager Beavers:(Back Row) Bud Thues, Zeamer, Hank Dominski, Sarnoski (Front Row) Vaughn, Kendrick, Able, Pugh. http://www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part2/07_zeamer_sarnoski.html

 

Once they started flying their plane on difficult photoreconnaissance missions, they made some modifications. Even among the men of a combat air station, the Eager Beavers became known as gun nuts. They replaced all of the light 30 caliber machine guns in the plane with heavier 50 caliber weapons. Then the 50 caliber machine guns were replaced with double 50 caliber guns. Zeamer had another pair of machine guns mounted to the front of the plane so he could remotely fire them like a fighter pilot. And the crew kept extra machine guns stored in the plane, just in case one of their other guns jammed or malfunctioned.

As odd as all this sounds, the South Pacific theatre in the early days of World War II was a chaotic area scattered over thousands of miles with very little equipment. Having a plane with an apparently nutty crew who volunteered for every awful mission not surprisingly made the commanding officers look the other way.

Buka

In June, 1943, the U. S. had secured Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands. They knew the Japanese had a huge base at Rabaul, but were certain there were other airfields being built in the Northern Solomon Islands. They asked for a volunteer crew to take photographs of Bougainville Island to plan for an eventual invasion, and of Buka airfield on the north side of the island to assess for increased activity there. It was considered a near-suicide mission -- flying hundreds of miles over enemy airspace in a single, slow bomber. Not to mention photoreconnaissance meant staying in level flight and taking no evasive action even if they were attacked.

 

Credit: World Factbook

 

The only crew that volunteered, of course, was Jay Zeamer and the Eager Beavers. One of the crew, bombardier Joseph Sarnoski, had absolutely no reason to volunteer. He'd already been in combat for 18 months and was scheduled to go home in 3 days. Being a photo mission, there was no need for a bombardier. But if his friends were going, he wanted to go, and one of the bombardier's battle stations was to man the forward machine guns. They might need him, so he went.

They suspected the airstrip at Buka had been expanded and reinforced, but weren't sure until they got close. As soon as the airfield came in sight, they saw numerous fighters taking off and heading their way. The logical thing to do would have been to turn right and head for home. They would be able to tell the intelligence officers about the increased number of planes at Buka even if they didn't get photos.

But Zeamer and photographer William Kendrick knew that photos would be invaluable for subsequent planes attacking the base, and for Marines who were planning to invade the island later. Zeamer held the plane level (tilting the wings even one degree at that altitude could put the photograph half a mile off target) and Kendrick took his photos, which gave plenty of time for over 20 enemy fighters to get up to the altitude Old 666 was flying at.

The fighter group, commanded by Chief Petty Officer Yoshio Ooki, was experienced and professional. They carefully set up their attack, forming a semi-circle all around the B-17 and then attacking from all directions at once. Ooki didn't know about the extra weapons the Eager Beavers had mounted to their plane, but it wouldn't matter if he had; there was no way for a single B-17 to survive those odds.

During the first fighter pass the plane was hit by hundreds of machine gun bullets and cannon shells. Five crewman of the B-17 were wounded and the plane badly damaged. All of the wounded men stayed at their stations and were still firing when the fighters came in for a second pass, which caused just as much damage as the first. Hydraulic cables were cut, holes the size of footballs appeared in the wings, and the front plexiglas canopy of the plane was shattered.

Zeamer was wounded during the second fighter pass, but kept the plane flying level and took no evasive action until Kendrick called over the intercom that the photography was completed. Only then did he begin to move the plane from side-t0-side allowing his gunners better shots, just as the fighters came in for a third wave of attacks. The third pass blew out the oxygen system of the plane, which was flying at 28,000 feet. Despite the obvious structural damage Zeamer put the plane in an emergency dive to get down to a level where there was enough oxygen for them men to survive.

During the dive, a 20mm cannon shell exploded in the navigator's compartment. Sarnoski, who was already wounded, was blown out of his compartment and landed on a catwalk beneath the cockpit. Another crewman reached him and saw there was a huge wound in his side. Despite his obviously mortal wound, Sarnoski said, "Don't worry about me, I'm all right" and crawled back to his gun which was now exposed to 300 mile an hour winds since the plexiglass front of the plane was now gone. He shot down one more fighter before he died a minute or two later.

The battle continued for over 40 minutes. The Eager Beavers shot down several fighters and badly damaged several others. The B-17 was so heavily damaged, however, that they didn't expect to make the several hundred miles long flight back home. Sarnoski had already died from his wounds. Zeamer had continued piloting the plane despite multiple wounds. Five other men were seriously wounded.

Flight Officer Ooki's squadron returned to Buka out of ammunition and fuel. They understandably reported the B-17 was destroyed and about to crash in the ocean when they last saw it.

The B-17 didn't quite crash, though. Zeamer had lost consciousness from loss of blood, but regained it when he was removed from the pilot seat and lay on the floor of the plane. The copilot, Lt. Britton, was the most qualified to care for the wounded and was needed in the back of the plane. One of the gunners, Sergeant Able, had liked to sit in the cockpit behind the pilots and watch them fly. That made him the most qualified of the crewman, so he flew the plane with Zeamer advising him from the floor while Britton cared for the wounded.

The plane made it back to base. (Britton did return to the cockpit for the landing.) After the landing, the medical triage team had Zeamer removed from the plane last, because they considered his wounds mortal. Amazingly, the one thing on the plane not damaged was the cameras. The photos in them were considered invaluable in planning the invasion of Bougainville.

Epilogue

All of the wounded men recovered, although it was a close thing for Captain Zeamer. In fact, a death notification was sent to his parents somewhat prematurely. He spent the next year in hospitals recovering from his wounds, but lived a long and happy life, passing away at age 88.

Both Zeamer and Sarnoski were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the mission, the only time in World War II that two men from one plane ever received America's highest medal for valor in combat. The other members of the crew were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor as an award for bravery.

So, somewhat surprisingly, the most decorated combat flight in U. S. history didn't take place in a major battle. It was the flight of Old 666.

Roger Cicala

Lensrentals.com

October, 2013

 

REFERENCES:

Caidin, Martin: B17: The Flying Forts. 1968.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Zeamer,_Jr.

http://jhnwriter.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/jay-zeamer-pilot-of-the-old-666-who-flew-straight/

One Plane, 9 Heros

The Greatest Air Battle of World War II

 

Authors note: This is inspired by, and dedicated to, all the photographers and videographers who have (and still do) put themselves in harm's way to get the shot.

 

49 Responses to “The Most Honored Photograph”

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Jim, that is a recon photo of the Buka airstrip on Bougainville. One of my sources credited stated it was one of the photos taken during this flight, but there seems to be some controversy about whether it might have been a later photo - copies seem to have been labelled differently in different archives.

Jim Lawton said:

I've enjoyed the story, but want to clarify what the title of the post is referring to. What are you presenting as "The Most Honored Photograph" ? The first photo is identified in this way: "Doesn’t look like much, does it? But, depending upon your definition, this photograph, a team effort by 9 men, is the most honored picture in U. S. History."

There is no identification of, or credit given for the photo itself, and what is depicted. Is this a combat photo of any engagement described? Please respond.

Jim Johnson said:

Hey Doc: Thanks for the info and color on this WWII classic. It's been passed around our group of enthusiasts and ex-airline employees. Will look for more. I've got to come around and visit sometime.

Willam Becker said:

This is the area in which the 15th Weather Squadron, 5th Air Force operated. Throughout the New Guinea Campaign, which lasted until the surrender of Japan. When American forces arrived the Japanese were still on the offensive. It was because of US Army Air Power that they were unable to maintain those forces.

simon said:

thanks Roger, absolutely awesome article (I like it much better than reality, reality has a much too serious taste for me)

DEBRA HARGERSILVER said:

I READ THE STORY WITH FASCINATION AND AWE. I LOVE THESE STORIES OF AMERICAN PATRIOTISM AND HEROISM! THEY ARE SO INSPIRATIONAL FOR ME. I'M ALSO THRILLED TO READ OF THE STORY NOT ONLY GOING INTO A BOOK, BUT ALSO INTO A MOVIE. I COULD EVEN SEE BEN AFFLECK PLAYING THE PART OF ZEAMER WHILE I WAS READING IT. DON'T KNOW WHY I SAW HIM IN MY MIND'S EYE, I JUST DID. BY THE WAY, I EDIT AND PROOFREAD FOR A LIVING, FREELANCE. THERE ARE QUITE A FEW MORE ERRORS IN THE TEXT BODY THAN MENTIONED IN THE ABOVE COMMENTS. IF YOU ARE IN NEED OF A GREAT PROOFREADER, I AM PASSIONATE ABOUT PERFECTING THE PRINTED WORD, WHETHER IN DIGITAL OR HARDCOPY FORMATS. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO LOOK ME UP ON FACEBOOK, OR EMAIL ME: deltadawnpublishers3[AT]gmail[dot]com. I HOPE TO HAVE A WEBSITE UP AND RUNNING SOON, ALONG WITH ALL THE OTHER THINGS ON MY PLATE I NEED TO DO. HOWEVER, I CAN PROVIDE PORTFOLIO SAMPLES UPON REQUEST. I WILL BE LOOKING FORWARD TO THE SEEING THE MOVIE!

Bruce Gamble said:

Glad to see the significant interest in this, as well as contributions and corrections to the original posting.

I'm happy to report that I devote an entire chapter to this incredible mission in my new book "Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan's Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943 to August 1945."

Much of the material in Mr. Cicala's original post is accurate, and considering that this is a camera/photography site, that's commendable. I'm pleased to have received considerable support from Dave Armstrong, who previously commented on this post, and who corresponded extensively with the late Jay Zeamer.

Target: Rabaul, the third book in the Rabaul trilogy, has just been published by Zenith Press and is now shipping out to the usual online booksellers and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Regards,
Bruce Gamble

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Matt, I couldn't find one, but I would think it's somewhere in the Nat'l archives.

Matt said:

Roger,
Thanks for another excellent photo history piece. I think this may be your best yet, and certainly your most compelling.
Do you know if a high-res version of the recon image at the top is available somewhere on the net? I looked around a little, including on the National Aviation Museum site, but never did find it. I'd like to print out a copy and put it on the wall by my desk.
Anyway, thanks again, and Clint, I'll keep an eye out for that movie.

Sincerely,
Matt

Clint said:

Dave Klaus:

I'm glad you caught that. I somehow missed that in the article. Yes, the Ploesti raid was incredible. I believe there are a couple of other instances of multiple MoHs for a single mission as well. I know there was one in WWI with Bleckley and Goettler. Good information to have out there.

Clint

Brian said:

"fell asleep while his plane was in flight... through heavy anti-aircraft fire during a bombing run"

Now that is some dedicated sleeping-on-the-job!

Thanks for all the updates and corrections, Clint. The "band of misfits" stuff sounds a lot like the "Black Sheep" story which was sensationalized for TV. I hope your movie gets made without the usual Hollywood changes.

The B-26 was notoriously difficult to fly. It was designed to fly fast, including landing and takeoff. I believe they eventually used fighter training for new B-26 pilots as it was more appropriate. My point being that there is no discredit to Zeamer for having difficulty qualifying on that airplane.

Ruth Cooper said:

A great story, highlighting the American spirit.
Thank you.

Dave Klaus said:

Very interesting story. One slight correction: this was not the only time during WW II that two men in the same ship were awarded the Medal of Honor for the same mission.

45 days after the mission described here, on 1 August 1943 during the Operation TIDAL WAVE attack on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, two 8th Air Force B-24 men, Lt Col Addison Baker and Maj John Jerstad, were each posthumously awarded the CMH for their extremely brave attack through intense flak at treetop height.

After following the leading bomb group's early turn that took them well away from the target area, Baker and Jerstad decided to break away from the lead group and attack the target anyway. Baker & Jerstad led the 93rd Bomb Group into the target area at treetop height from the wrong direction. Their ship was hit and burning fiercely before they even reached the target, but they continued to lead their formation right over the target, crashing with complete loss of life just beyond.

[Roger, please feel free to remove this sentence if you wish] I have considerably more information on this mission available on my website http://www.Low-Level-Ploesti.org.

Thanks for sharing the Eager Beavers story with us.

omer einav said:

wonderful article and discussion!!!
Some pictures have great stories to tell especialy when a skillful investgative writer (like roger) is doing it!

George said:

This is an amazing and truly inspirational story. Hats off to that great man..

Clint Hayes said:

This being a photography rather than a warbirds site, I'm guessing more interest would be in the cameras and photography. The plane used the tri-metrogon camera system, referring to the use of three cameras equipped with Bausch & Lomb's "Metrogon" lenses. The cameras used were probably K-17s, the most commonly used field mapping cameras at the time. I'm not as familiar with the camera system, only that they were arranged in the waist belly aft of the belly turret, left to right in line, the sides at a 30° angle to the center camera. That's my understanding, at least.

More here: http://mysite.verizon.net/yenrav/20cms/cameras.htm

Paul said:

Excellent story and excellent updates! Thanks to all.
Paul

Clint Hayes said:

David Shell,

I do have to point out that you're incorrect that the B-17 never used .30s. Every model through the "E" officially used at least one Browning .30 in the nose, and had sockets for two.

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=2452

The Y1B-17A, which became the B-17A, originally had five .30s mounted, which were converted to .50s. The British actually complained about the weak .30s in the B-17C, which led to the adoption of .50s in the D. I keep using the word "officially," though, because I've interviewed more than one veteran of the SW Pacific theater who recalled having to switch out not just singles for twins in the Cs and Ds, but .30s for .50s, and not just in the nose.

As for the number of twin .50s almost throughout 412666, there is no doubt. I interviewed members of the crew itself and they testified to the gun placements. The nose consisted of a single .50 on each side and a single .50 mounted to the decking to the side of the bombardier, controlled by a button on the pilot's control wheel. This was not, in fact, the only or even first use of a pilot-controlled nose gun. A few pilots in the SWPA made similar field mods; there are a few photos online of them. Twins were used throughout the rest of the aircraft, including both waist positions, with an additional single .50 mounted through the bottom of the plane between the belly turret and the tail wheel, for a total of 16 guns. Two extra .50s were usually brought along as insurance in case others jammed, in which case they would be jettisoned and replaced. The crew was less concerned about speed than protection. Even so, it was Zeamer's flying skill and techniques that usually made the biggest difference in tough engagements.

Clint Hayes said:

Roger,

Thanks for posting. Martin Caidin was a great writer—his book Flying Forts will make you swell with pride over all things B-17—but he was undoubtedly a sensationalist and did not vet his facts responsibly. (He quite obviously single-sourced his own account of the mission from Kenney's. The similarities are legion.)

Kenney was a man who'd experienced a lifetime of memories in a few momentous years and tried to recall all of them after the war. I don't generally begrudge him his inaccurate memories. Plus, he was just damn proud of his boys and wanted to brag on them.

Walt Krell was an incredible man, and rock-solid when it came to anything having to do with his own personal experience. He left a wonderful and prodigious legacy behind in terms of recollections of his time in the South Pacific. I don't believe there is any doubt about Zeamer's falling asleep on that bombing run—I was told he could sleep anywhere—but again, that was something of which Krell had direct knowledge. I honestly don't know from whom he could have picked up the misfits-protecting-their-plane storyline. All I know is that it simply wasn't true.

Some may find the story loses something because of that—our society loves the rebel—but I never have. To me, it's actually more stirring that these young men, most of whom were under 25, approached their job with such dedicated, professional purpose, and found in Jay Zeamer—affable, unflappable, and with an iron will—the perfect leader for their particular crew. Good for you for bringing the story to your readers' attention, and I'll definitely let you know when the book is available. Hopefully I won't have to let you know when a film comes out.

Clint

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