Debunking the Myths of Old 666

The Medal of Honor. It is the highest honor that can be given to a member of the U.S. military, often coming at a high price to the recipient. To date, more than 3000 men and one woman have received the Medal of Honor for going above and beyond the call of duty. There is one story in particular that continues to fascinate everyone for a couple of reasons: two men from the same mission received the Medal of Honor and the story itself has evolved into a legend. With that being the case, there are several myths of this harrowing story that we would like to set straight. First, a short recap of a B-17 mission that took place on June 16, 1943.

The Most Decorated American Air Crew, cover art for Ken's Men Against the Empire, Vol. I. Painting by Jack Fellows

This painting depicts B-17E #41-2666, nicknamed LUCY, piloted by Capt. Jay Zeamer, Jr. of the 65th Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group on June 16, 1943 flying a crucial photomapping mission for the invasion of Bougainville Island in the Solomons later that year. LUCY, alone, without fighter cover, was surrounded and attacked over the objective by eight Japanese Zero fighters from 251 Kokutai. The pilot refused to abort and held the plane on the required straight and level course until his assignment was finished.

During the air battle that followed, half of his crew was seriously wounded. The bombardier, 2/Lt. Joseph R. Sarnoski, fought back heroically throughout the engagement until he died of his injuries, earning him the Medal of Honor. Zeamer, although grievously injured himself, was also awarded the Medal of Honor for piloting the B-17 until the mission was complete, then assisting other crewmen on the long flight back to base in the severely damaged bomber, ensuring the safe return of the precious photos. The rest of the crew received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor, making them the most highly decorated American aircrew in history. Zeamer eventually recovered from his near-fatal injures.

Unfortunately, as the years have passed, this amazing story has been embellished and those embellishments have been accepted as fact in print and on the screen. We’ve compiled a list of the three worst offenders.

  1.  Capt. Zeamer and his crew were attacked by 15-21 Japanese fighters.
    False. Their plane was attacked by eight fighters. Due to the ensuing chaos, it was easy for fighters to be double counted by members of the crew in different areas on the B-17. Some would fall away, smoking as they dove, and those were also potentially double counted.
  2. The crew and pilots were a bunch of “screw-ups and misfits.”
    False. While Capt. Zeamer had a hard time getting the hang of the B-26 (it was a tricky plane to fly), he was well-liked by everyone. He was in his element after he transferred from the 22nd to 43rd Bomb Group and started flying the B-17. Zeamer handpicked his crew, looking for men who were disciplined, could keep a cool head during combat, got along well with everyone, and were willing to go the extra mile when needed.
  3. LUCY was rescued from the scrap heap.
    False. Even though this B-17 was known as a “Hard Luck Hattie” because it was so problematic during missions, it was never sent to the boneyard. Still, it wasn’t the best shape when Zeamer acquired it and he and his crew spent a considerable amount of time updating it to their specifications for mapping missions.

This is but a brief overview of an epic mission from World War II. If you want a more detailed account of the mission and LUCY (profiled in Appendix V), buy a copy of our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I. You can also head to Clint Hayes’ site for a deep dive into the mission as well as a biography of Capt. Zeamer.

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11 thoughts on “Debunking the Myths of Old 666

  1. The story of ‘ole 666’ has become legendary and whilst factually inaccurate, a little embellishment doesn’t hurt now and again. I certainly didn’t realise how much of it has been embellished so thanks for putting the story straight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Much thanks for the plug. I agree on both counts: Anyone who wants to know the sprawling story of the 43rd Bomb Group, in detail and in both B&W and glorious color, can’t do better than Ken’s Men Against the Empire, and anyone who wants to know the full *true* story of Jay Zeamer and his Eager Beavers—from the mouths of the men themselves, their squadron mates, and families, not to mention a treasure trove of original source materials—should stop by.

    Clint

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for telling the story Jay Zeamer and his crew. I had the honor and privilege of knowing Jay and his family while living at an inn his family ran in Hyannis. He was the most thoughtful and unassuming guy, and I would never have known about his military service unless someone in the community had mentioned it to me. When I got around to asking about it, he seemed reluctant at first, but then led into the story by saying, “Well, it had been a tough day at the office . . .”
      He also told me that he didn’t have his crew study or memorize the fighter silhouettes commonly used to help differentiate among Zeroes, Tonys or friendly aircraft. “I didn’t trust silhouettes. I’d tell them (the crew), if they get too close, give them a burst. If they’re friendly, they’ll back off.”
      He was like a lot of World War II vets who had been through hellish life-changing experiences, but got on with their lives without much fanfare. He liked to ride a bike that he has assembled from old parts. One day someone stole it. “I’d like to find the bastard so I could shoot him,” he told me, but I don’t think he stayed angry very long.

      Liked by 1 person

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