History of Photography

The Most Honored Photograph

Published October 29, 2013
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.


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.


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


October, 2013



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



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.


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in History of Photography
  • Excellent editorial. At first I was a little reluctant to start reading this, but once I got a little ways into it I couldn’t stop. This is a great tale of loyalty and brotherhood among soldiers. The B-17 is my all time favorite airplane and from what I’ve read, if this crew was in any other aircraft from that era, they most likely wouldn’t have survived.

  • Roger Cicala

    Clint and Dave, thank you for correcting and expanding. The great thing about writing this blog is that after I post something on a subject I’m interested in, I always learn more about it from the comments. In my reading I had assumed that while Caidin was a questionable source, Krell and Kenney could be considered pretty solid. Clint, please let me (and everyone else) know when your novel comes out – can’t wait!


  • Clint Hayes

    I posted a complimentary but lengthy corrective to this a couple of hours ago—prior to Mr. Cicala’s response to Dave Armstrong (a friend of mine)—but it still says it’s awaiting moderation.

  • Mike

    The original A-Team, or the aviation equivelant of Kelly’s Heros. Dennis Leary would be the perfect choice for the movie.

  • Roger Cicala

    Hi Dave,

    Sounds like you have more thorough knowledge than I. I know Caidin’s version in B-17 has several factual inaccuracies (I think he even stated Lt. Britton was too wounded to fly) and I tried to make sure anything I used from his version was corroborated by others. The Walt Krell quote seemed often repeated and authentic, but perhaps it originated with Caidin. His reputation was such back in the day that others may have simply repeated it.


  • Clint

    I congratulate you on one of the best write-ups of this crew and mission I’ve seen. I’ve seen a lot of them over the years, due to the fact that I’ve been researching and writing about this crew for twenty years now. Besides years of accumulated archival research, I had the good fortune and privilege to talk to some of the surviving crew members of the Eager Beavers, including Zeamer himself, as well as their squadron mates and family members. Speaking of movie rights, I’m currently finishing a feature screenplay about Zeamer and his crew with a novel to be published next year.

    Two things I have to point out, though, that are important to the story:

    1) The crew was most certainly not a group of screw-offs and misfits. I talked to the Walt Krell mentioned in the article myself and he was glad for the opportunity to clear things up about that. He was going by what he was told, years later, not by men he actually knew. Krell was not only in a different squadron, he was in a different bomb group, the 22nd. He had no connection to Zeamer’s new outfit whatsoever except to be stationed at Iron Range airdrome with them for a short time in the fall of 1942. On the contrary, most of Zeamer’s crew were much like him—reserved, extremely competent and self-sufficient, and professional. Joe Sarnoski and Jay’s initial navigator, Charles “Rocky” Stone, were the squadron bombardier and navigator, respectively, flying with the 403rd Squadron’s C.O., Major Thomas Charles (yes, Major Tom), until Charles was lost on a recco mission on November 29, 1942. Several of Jay’s crew were already well decorated before the 16 June 1943 mission over Bougainville.

    2) The recon of Buka airstrip was a secondary mission tacked on at the last minute to the primary mission of mapping Empress Augusta Bay on the west coast of Bougainville Island. Zeamer turned the Buka recon down, in fact, emphatically, because it would endanger the mapping mission. The only reason they ended up over Buka at all was because they arrived half an hour early for the mapping run; they needed the sun higher to map. So he asked the crew if they should go ahead and grab Buka, despite the danger. Being the crew that they were, they said of course. If not them, someone else would have to do it. That’s just the kind of guys they were. (All of them would tell you that was how the vast majority of the guys down there were. They had a job to do and they did it.)

    Of less importance, 666 was not their primary aircraft. It had indeed been sitting at the end of the runway at 7-Mile strip outside Port Moresby (seven miles outside of Port Moresby, to be exact) being cannibalized for parts. Zeamer became interested in it because it was designed for photo-mapping; it originally came from the States with the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron and got shot up over Kavieng in December 1942 badly enough that it was left for scrap. The crew did get it hauled out for them to repair, and being excellent mechanics themselves—Zeamer himself could tear a car down to its bolts and rebuild it—did most of the repair work themselves. Due to the nature of photomapping, as you well point out, they decided to arm the plane to the teeth, ending up with a total of 16 .50s on board, with extras on board in case some jammed. But they only ended up flying the plane four times, one of which was its test flight, and the fourth being the fateful MoH/DSC flight.

    It is a truly remarkable story, and I hope this isn’t taken as criticism of your piece. It’s not intended as such. The record has been wrong for a very long time, being repeated from the same few mistaken sources (one of whom was General George Kenney himself, commander of the 5th AF). You do the crew great justice in telling their story. I just like to correct the record when I can. By the end of next year, you’ll be able to get the amazing full story in print, and not long after that—if I have a breath in me—you’ll be able to enjoy it in a theater near you.

    Clint Hayes
    Allen, TX

    (My wife Carole is a boudoir photographer. That’s actually how I came across your account in the first place.)

  • Dave Armstrong

    The thing about this crew being a bunch of misfits and screwoffs is a myth unfortunately started by Mr. Caidin in his book. It is ABSOLUTELY untrue, and I wish people would stop perpetuating it.

    Notwithstanding the continuation of Mr. Caidin’s hyperbole, this IS a great story.

    It is Sarnoski, no “v” in his name.

  • Brad

    Thank you so much for sharing. My grandfather was a B-17 bombardier, making this read all the more fascinating.

  • Tim R

    I believe the correct spelling of the bombardier is without the “v,” i.e., Sarnoski, as indicated below the photo.
    To Mr. Shell’s comment about the extra weight of the modified guns making the plane too slow, remember, they saved a lot of weight by not carrying bombs.

  • @ Dummey

    In that case they would have been using oblique cameras but oblique cameras are useful for reconnaissance but not for mapping. In fact I wouldn’t be suprised if they also carried two oblique cameras too (photo B-17 usually did but this was a bit of a rebel group but if you are gong to get shot up you might want to get the most data you can).

    As they were on a mapping mission so they were certainly shooting vertical images (as seen in the included image above).

    I also note that all the descriptions say lots about the guns and nothing about the cameras calling as they were the important bit!. They probably used the common Fairchild K-17 that gave a 9×9 inch image on film with a 12 inch (normal!) lens or 24 inch (moderate tele – 80mm eq) lens. That latter lens is 21° x 21° wide image. Or the “double width” 9 x 18 inch K18 (which gives even more latitude for roll with a 21° x 41° view angle.


    The claim seems to be a word of mouth propagation of the “silly” numbers that get more exaggerated over time like “fish that got away” stories.

  • Really enjoyed the piece.

  • Ripper of a story – thanks for writing this up!

  • David Shell

    Finally, while there’s some evidence that the pilot had a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the nose of the aircraft that he could fire directly, there’s not much evidence that the other gun stations had dual mounts installed. The Dorsal, Ventral and Tail positions had twin mounted .50 calibers by design and while it was possible for the waist positions to have twin .50 calibers mounted, such as with the experimental YB-40 variant which the 8th Air Force utilized in Europe before the advent of long range fighter escort, this added so much weight to the aircraft that it became an easy target for enemy fighters.

    Links to a wiki entry on the YB-40. https://www.google.com/search?q=YB-40&oq=YB-40&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.3400j0j7&sourceid=chrome&espv=210&es_sm=122&ie=UTF-8

  • David Shell

    Nice write up, although I did notice a couple of errors.

    First, the B-17E Flying Fortress never mounted .30 caliber machine guns. It mounted .50 caliber machine guns from the time that the design was first introduced as the Model 299. Now, it is true that the number of guns were increased from that original model to the B-17E model, but no version of the B-17 in use by the USAAF ever used the .30 caliber machine gun.

    Also, the B-17E mentioned in the story above not only survived the photo recon mission to Buka, but was repaired and returned to service, where it remained in service until shipped back to the Mainland US in 1944, at which point it is assumed to have been scrapped.

    Details of this can be found at the following link.


  • Matt

    Wow. WWII, airplanes and photography in one post. Bravo!

  • Fletch

    Phhhh – no offence but the composition is rubbish and the corners aren’t sharp!!!!

    😉 Great read Roger, inspiring.

  • Nqina Dlamini

    Great read as usual. I live for these stories, keep it up.

  • Dummey

    @Kevin Purcell: It could very well be possible that they were some amount of tilt already so that they could skirt the edge of the base. In which case an additional degree of tilt could put them off by a mile.

  • NancyP

    Thanks for that inspiring story.

  • It’s a great story but there is some hyperbole (that’s not really needed) and as this blog is usually about data and measurement I have to comment.

    “tilting the wings even one degree at that altitude could put the photograph half a mile off target”.

    I saw another internet write up that claimed a 1 degree tilt put the camera off by one mile at 25,000 feet.

    Half a mile is 2640 feet. They were flying at 28,000 feet.

    What is the tilt that would point a vertical camera half a mile off target?

    arctan(2640/28000) is about 5.4 degrees.

  • Roger Cicala

    Thanks Bob and Ralmo – I’ve made those corrections. You both get to join the Honorary Blog Beta Tester Group.

  • Bob

    Hi Roger, great article, just thought I’d let you know of a little mistake. Port Moresby is in Papua “New” Guinea. Not “New” Zealand. Otherwise a great read.

  • Raimo K

    Rabaul, not Rabual… a small typo but a great story 🙂

  • miejoe

    Simply amazing!

    My biggest surprise while reading this was that it hasn’t been made into a movie yet! They can’t even make up stories this good!

  • Roger Cicala

    Thank you, Brian. You are now an official Roger’s blog beta tester!

  • Terrific, Roger. Thanks!

  • Wonderful article. It is amazing what people are capable of when called to duty.

  • intrnst

    +1 @Eric
    Another copy of the already famous Sicala’s Phototales
    Roger that, over.

  • Awesome as always. Keep them coming

    FYI the 5th paragraph below the map appears to have a typo

    “came in for a second pass, which caused just as the first”

    Thanks Brian

  • Eric Larsen

    Another outstanding historical narrative, Roger. Thanks!

Follow on Feedly