In 1942, the United States was fighting a war in two major theaters: Europe and the Pacific. But in the early days of WWII, the US and its allies had a “Europe First” strategy which resulted in more troops, supplies, and attention being funneled to that theater. American forces in the Pacific were charged with protecting Australia from Japan, but given scant resources to fulfill that mandate.
But a group of enterprising and rebellious bomber airmen stationed in Papau New Guinea grew tired of playing defense against the Japanese and decided to take the war to the enemy by going on daredevil, near-suicide missions.
In his book Lucky 666, Bob Drury shares the incredible story of these airmen and their ringleader, Captain Jay Zeamer. Bob walks us through the history of the war in the Pacific, including internal battles between U.S. commanders and the lack of logistical support American forces in the Pacific received during the early days of the war. He then introduces us to Zeamer, sharing what set him apart from other airmen and why so many were drawn to his charismatic leadership. Bob then shares how Jay and his renegade crew took an old dilapidated B-17 bomber and fixed it up themselves so they could take the war to Japan, and how the men split their time between landing in the brig and receiving awards for valor. It all leads up to a climatic dogfight — the longest in US aviation history — that would help turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.
This is a story about friendship, leadership, and gritty boldness that’s also incredibly moving. Grab a tissue. You’re going to need it by the end.
- How Bob even discovered the story of this ragtag group of WWII airmen
- The background of the Southwest Pacific theater in WWII
- Why the Pearl Harbor attack doomed many of the men in the Pacific theater
- How these men jury-rigged their airplanes to make them airworthy
- The battle for leadership in the Pacific
- The Japanese military machine
- Jay Zeamer, the protagonist of our story
- How the aircraft they called “Old 666” came to be
- How the men outfitted the old airplane to exactly their liking
- Why the men volunteered for a number of suicide missions
- The incredible damage Old 666 sustained
- What did Bob learn from this story about being a man?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Bob Drury’s other books
- Voices of the Pacific: Untold Stories of WWII’s Marine Heroes
- Jay Zeamer
- Joe Sarnoski
- Bob Drury’s website
- Images of Lucky 666
- Bougainville Campaign
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In 1942, the United States was fighting a war in two major theaters: Europe and the Pacific. But in the early days of World War II, the U.S. and its allies had a Europe First strategy, which resulted in more troops, supplies and attention being funneled to that theater. American forces in the Pacific were charged with protecting Australia from Japan, and preventing their spread, but given scant resources to fill that mandate.
But a group of enterprising and rebellious bomber airmen stationed in Papua, New Guinea, grew tired of playing defense against the Japanese, and decided to take the war to the enemy by going on daredevil, near-suicide missions. In his book Lucky 666, Bob Drury shares the incredible story of these airmen and their ringleader, Captain Jay Zeamer.
Bob walks us through the history of the war in the Pacific, including internal battles between U.S. commanders and the lack of logistical support American forces in the Pacific received in the early days of the war. He then introduces us to Zeamer, sharing what set him apart from other airmen, and why so many were drawn to his charismatic leadership.
Bob then shares how Jay and his renegade crew took an old dilapidated B-17 bomber and fixed it up themselves so they could take the war to Japan, and how these men split their time between landing in the brig and receiving awards for valor. It all leads up to a climactic dogfight, the longest in U.S. aviation history, that would help turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.
This is a story about friendship, leadership, and gritty boldness that’s also incredibly moving. Grab a tissue, you’re gonna need it by the end. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/lucky666.
Bob Drury, welcome to the show.
Bob Drury: Thanks Brett, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you co-authored a book called Lucky 666. This is an incredible story. How did you learn about this story of a bunch of ragtag airmen who flew an impossible mission during World War II?
Bob Drury: Believe it or not, Brett, it was from a friend of mine now, a grizzled old Marine, Dick Benelli, and he was a protagonist in a previous book that Tom and I wrote together, called The Last … . It was about the Chosin Reservoir, during the Korean War. The Last Stand of Fox Company. Dick and I just became friends, Uncle Dickie, he told me to call him. And we still speak every couple of weeks. He’s in his 90s now.
Tom and I were working on a book about the 11 Marine security guards who were mistakenly left on the Embassy roof in Saigon in 1975. And Uncle Dickie called me. He said, “Whaddaya workin’ on next?” That’s how he spoke. That’s how he still speaks.
And I said, “I don’t know, Dick, we’re kind of searching around. We got a few ideas.” And as you probably can imagine, Marines are not very fond of the Army. But he said, “I got a story for ya. I can’t believe I’m sayin’ this about the Army. Didja ever hear about these guys, the longest dogfight of World War II?”
And I said, “No, Dick, what are you talking about?” And he gave me some information, and I started poking around into it. And this magnificent story just … It appeared before us. And as we dug further into it, we realized it wasn’t just about this dogfight. It was about the entire South West Pacific theater, how ignored it was, the infighting between the Army and the Navy, between MacArthur and Chester Nimitz. And we just knew we had something.
And to this day, I thank Uncle Dickie for turning me on to Lucky 666.
Brett McKay: Before we get to the two characters, the main characters you follow in this book, there’s a whole host of characters. But two is Jay Zeamer and Joe Sarnoski. Let’s get some background on the book, because as you said, this theater of war is often overlooked when people think about World War II.
I mean, everyone always talks about Normandy and Europe, and then certain parts of the Pacific, Guadalcanal, Midway. Let’s talk about what was going on. Where did this book take place, and what role did it play in the war?
Bob Drury: Well, let me give you a little background, Brett. Believe it or not, within months of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Empire controlled one-eighth of the earth’s surface. Now granted, a lot of that was ocean. But they were so ready to fight, and they just spread in the west, they were on the Burmese/Indian border.
And due south from there, they had taken the Dutch East Indies. If you went northwest, they had a large chunk of China, and even briefly, a couple of the Aleutian Islands. And then, if you curve south from there, they had the Solomons. In other words, they were girding Australia. And everybody expected Australia to be next.
But, our policy, President Roosevelt’s policy and the War Department’s policy was Germany first. So, what little resources we had in the Pacific, and specifically, in the South West Pacific, were basically MacArthur and Chester Nimitz were told, “Hold off the Japanese until we take care of the Nazis.” Eighty-five percent of all materiel, men, grounds crews, went to Europe, Germany first.
And so, these airmen who were in Australia, and eventually made it to Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea, they weren’t content with just playing defense. And believe it or not, Australia had a secret plan. They so expected to be invaded, that they had a plan to cede the top half of the continent to the Japanese, and hold out in Melbourne and Sydney.
And so that’s the background of where our characters. This is the world our characters in Lucky 666 stepped into. Kind of forgotten, half-assed, they didn’t get the materiel they needed, and they were told, “Just try to put up a good fight until we can help you out, after we defeat Hitler.”
Brett McKay: Also, they weren’t getting the materials they needed. But the materiel they had, a lot of it was decimated at Pearl Harbor.
Bob Drury: Exactly. And the planes that they managed to get out of the Philippines, the B-26 Marauders mostly, a couple of B-17 Flying Fortresses. And any planes that they already had in Australia, that’s all they were getting. I mean it was official policy. We cannot send you any more planes.
So, a fun part of the research of this book was just talking to … There was still a few guys alive when we were researching the book. But their sons and their nephews, they all had letters saying, “These guys were going up and there was no troops on the ground in Australia. There was not even any Australian troops. They were all fighting in North Africa under Montgomery, the British general. And so it was just airmen.
And the Navy was loath to give MacArthur any of their ships. He wanted them all, of course. So he had this ragtag group of airmen. And the planes they had were the only planes they were getting. They did not have grounds crews, they had to act as their own grounds crews. And a lot of them became not only ace pilots and bombardiers and turret gunners and tail gunners, but they became mechanics and maintenance men. And they were going up, they were hammering out soup cans to patch the bullet holes in their bombers.
They discovered that the Australian sixpence coin fit perfectly in the ignition’s magneto of a B-17. Believe it or not, they even, when they ran out of air filters, they would use women’s sanitary napkins. I remember one letter we wrote, one guy preferred Kotex over any other brand, because it worked so well as an air filter.
And this is just, I say this by way of the Rube Goldbergesque nature of the Fifth Air Force, the Forgotten Fifth, they were called. Of course, over in Europe, there was the Mighty Ace Air Force, and that got all the ink, and all the reporters, and all the maintenance crews, and all the backup parts. And the Forgotten Fifth, down in Australia, they had to make do with whatever they could find.
Believe it or not, they did, and they did a very good job of it.
Brett McKay: Right, not only were their planes terrible, the stuff that was left over, but the food, I think one of the generals went over there to do an inspection and he saw there was maggots in the rice, and just disgusting. They were eating it, because that’s all they had.
Bob Drury: That’s all they had, there was their protein, lice and maggots. And then when they finally, I’ll probably have to explain where Port Moresby is. The Japanese were planning to invade Australia from a base in New Guinea, Papua, New Guinea. And they had landed, and they had set up a couple bases in the north of the country. And it’s a big country.
In the south, on a little peninsula there was an air base. It was an old Australian air base. The U.S. took it over and it was a hellhole. It was surrounded by jungle. There were usually more people in sick bay than there were air crews ready to go up. Dysentery ran rampant, malaria, the jungle itch, they called it. And this is where our men, our boys, our fly boys were stationed. And the Japanese bombed them every single day. Because in order to invade Australia, they had to drive the Americans out of Port Moresby.
And finally, MacArthur, and I’m getting a little ahead of myself. But I just want to set up the scene. MacArthur, of course, he wanted to be the Eastern Ike. He wanted, if Eisenhower was running Europe, MacArthur and his gargantuan ego, he wanted to run the Pacific War.
But the Navy, believe it or not, had been planning, even though they were surprised at Pearl Harbor, they had been planning for a war against Japan for decades. And they said, “No. All this planning, we’re not turning it over to MacArthur. We’re not turning it over to any other service. We know what we want to do.”
And of course, they eventually carried it out. It was the famous Island Hopping Campaign, led by Chester Nimitz, Bill Halsey, where they took one island and then the next and the next and the next. But, in order to solve the turf war between MacArthur and Nimitz, instead of making one man the supreme commander in the Pacific, the War Department, George Marshall, FDR, they drew a line, almost went right down the Solomon Islands. Everything to the west was MacArthur. And that would be Australia, New Guinea. And everything to the east, all the islands that the Marines took, that was Nimitz.
So MacArthur is chafing, a) that he does not have complete control of the Pacific War, and b), that he has no troops. And at one point he put forth a plan. To dissolve the Marine Corps and make those troops Army under him. And of course, you could imagine how well that went over with the Marine Corps and with the Navy.
So this war within the war almost hampered the efforts, the coordination efforts that we had against the Japanese at the time. Now, this early in the war, I might be overstating it when I say coordination effort. Because as I said before, it was just, the plan was hold Australia until we defeat Germany. Please hold Australia.
But, these airmen, they weren’t content to hold Australia. In New Britain at the top of the Solomon Islands, the best harbor in the Pacific was at Rabaul. New Britain was an island, Rabaul was the capital of the island. That’s where the Japanese set up their air base.
Now, we could not reach that Rabaul to bomb it from Australia without refitting and refueling at Port Moresby. It was 500 miles from Port Moresby, which is why we had to take over the base at Port Moresby, so we could fly at first our B-26 Marauders. And finally, when they did get some shipments of the B-17 Flying Fortress.
So a thousand-mile round trip, you couldn’t have fighter escorts. Fighters couldn’t carry enough fuel to fly that far. And these guys started taking the war against Washington’s orders, almost, to the Japanese. They started looking for convoys to bomb. They started to see how many planes they could get into Rabaul and out of Rabaul.
Now, sometimes it wasn’t worth it. They might send up a bombing run of say 12 B-17s. And only eight would make it back. Two might have been shot down, and two more might have had to ditch into the sea. But, they decided that they were going to go on the offensive, no matter what the War Department thought. And not only were they just going to defend Australia, but they’re going to strike back against the Japanese.
I know that was a long answer. I apologize.
Brett McKay: No. No, it’s great. So the state of the U.S. military in the Pacific was resources, scarce. It was all going to Europe. Sort of the ragtag of the military was sent to the Pacific. And there was this conflict between Nimitz and MacArthur. What was the Japanese military like? Were they really organized, disciplined …
Bob Drury: Yes.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Give us an-
Bob Drury: Yes. They knew. They knew from the very beginning, they said, first of all, their first misstep was not taking out, not attacking our aircraft carriers, just happened to be at the harbor at the time. If our aircraft carriers had been in the harbor at the time, the war in the Pacific might have been over then and there.
But once they realized, “Damn, the U.S. still has its carriers. We have to make quick work of this. We cannot give the giant United States time to refit all its factories and all its manufacturing base for a war footing.” And they knew this. So they needed to conquer as much as possible, as fast as possible. And that was the whole Australia gambit. Once we take Australia, Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands are a hop, skip and a jump away. The Untied States will be forced to sue for peace. That was the Japanese point of view.
And on the other hand, as I explain, our point of view is we cannot let Australia fall. As long as Australia is a bulwark against Hawaii and the American West Coast, we can go about our business in Europe. So we’ve got to hold off the Japanese at all costs.
Brett McKay: All right. But again, not only did these guys hold them off, they’ve taken the fight to the Japanese.
Bob Drury: Well, it sounds like such a cliché, but when you read the letters and the journals and the diaries from the time, it was kind of good old American ingenuity. We’re not gonna take this lying down. And let’s face it, we got knocked. We got knocked pretty hard to the mat at Pearl Harbor. But, suddenly, there’s the battle of Coral Sea. Suddenly, there’s the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. And of course, Midway.
And we realize, “Hey, these Japanese aren’t the supermen. Yes, sure, their fighter planes, the Zeros control the skies. And we don’t have fighters that can effectively go up and dogfight with these heroes. But you know what? Our bombers can fly further. Our bombers can carry more of a payload. And yes, we’re not content just to defend the territory that we already have, which of course, at the time, consisted of Australia and a few islands like Guam and New Caledonia.
And once I think, a spurring point might have been the Japanese invasion of Guadalcanal. Because once the Japanese were on Guadalcanal, if they had established air bases there, they would’ve been within easy bombing range of Melbourne and Sydney.
And that’s when we made the turnaround. It was Nimitz and Halsey, said, “We gotta retake Guadalcanal and while we’re retaking Guadalcanal, we want MacArthur to start putting pressure on the Japanese bases, not only in New Guinea, but all the way up in New Britain. We’re gonna go after Rabaul.” Fortress Rabaul, it was called.
I mean, everybody remembers Fortress Singapore falling on the first day, the day after Pearl Harbor fell. The British outfit in Singapore. But Fortress Rabaul was really the key to the Pacific War. And we went after, and it took us years and years, but we got it.
Brett McKay: All right, so that’s the background of this story. It’s a classic underdog story, I think. So let’s get to these two characters. First is Jay Zeamer. Who was he, what was his background like, and how did he end up in Port Moresby?
Bob Drury: Well, you know what, you put it well. The story is almost like peeling an onion. The big picture, the outside picture of what’s going on in the South West Pacific theater. The next is the Forgotten Fifth Air Force. And the next, you peel the next layer off and you come to the men. The men who were actually flying these missions. These recon missions and these bombing missions.
And of course, the protagonists of the Lucky 666 is Jay Zeamer. Kind of a handsome blond upper middle class. Think, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Stalag 17, think Peter Graves in Stalag 17. He always wanted to be a pilot. He went to a military high school. And then he went to MIT, where he was in the ROTC, and he was in the Flight Club. He flew Piper Cub. And then when war broke out, he signed up with the Army Air Force. Don’t forget, there’s no Air Force, a separate service, at the time. It was the Army Air Force.
But, there was just something off about Jay. He was affable, everyone on the ground loved him. He was a great teammate. I think back then, if they had the diagnosis, he might have been diagnosed as some type of autistic because once he got in the pilot’s seat, he just continued to screw up.
His first plane was a B-26 Marauder. And these planes, these bombers, because their engines were so large, they were notoriously hard to take off and land. And Jay just couldn’t stick the landing. All his flight instructors, who loved him, who loved him as a man and loved him as a friend, and loved him as an airman, but they would grab the controls from him, because he was going to crash land every time he went up. So he could never get out of the copilot seat, the right seat, they called it.
So he’s on all these bombing missions, and he’s in the right seat. And weird things are happening. He’s falling asleep as they’re approaching their target. He might’ve been one of those, like those kids who are too smart for their grades. That might’ve been Jay. But he just was not happy with the B-26 Marauders.
And eventually, his squadron became very unhappy with him. They didn’t trust him anymore. Said, “I can’t have this guy sitting next to me if he’s gonna fall asleep.” So they managed to get him to transfer him out, and he went into a unit that was flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. And it was almost this symbiosis between the Flying Fortress and Jay Zeamer. Something kicked in.
He started as a copilot, and he learned that the B-17 was almost as maneuverable as a fighter plane. And once again, crewmen didn’t want to fly with him because he was aggressive. He’d do a bombing run, and then he’d start attacking Zeroes. The crews he was with, was like, “Hey wait a minute, hold on. We did our bombing run. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
And he said, “No, I’m going after that guy down there.” So finally, even the B-17 crew said, “This guy’s crazy. We’re not flying with him anymore.” So what did he do? He had no options. If he wanted to get up and fly, he had to go out and find his own crew. And he did.
Brett McKay: And we’ll get to how he found his own crew and his own plane here in a bit. But he had a good friend that he met when he signed up with the military, and they reunited. It’s Joe. Tell us about Joe.
Bob Drury: Joe Sarnoski. Couldn’t have been-
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Bob Drury: … a bombardier. Bombardier by trade, probably the best. One of the best in the Fifth Air Force. Joe and Jay had been, before they were shipped overseas, they had been stationed together at Langley Air Base in Virginia. And they did not know each other, although they were both born in Pennsylvania.
Unlike, kind of upper middle class Jay, Joe was one of 16 children of Polish immigrants. Father was a coal miner who was diagnosed with black lung. He bought a small farm, Joe grew up dirt poor. In fact, Joe’s first paycheck, he came home at Christmas with gifts for his younger sisters. And it was the first Christmas gifts any of the Sarnoski children had ever gotten.
So anyway, at Langley Air Base, the brass hats from Washington are coming down, they’re putting on an exhibition, a bombing expedition. They’re dropping duds, of course. And they have targets laid out. And Jay’s watching, and of course, the brass at Langley picked out their best crews to put on this exhibition. And the lead bombardier was Joe Sarnoski.
And Jay Zeamer’s watching. This guy hit the target from 10,000 feet, from 12,000 feet. And he said, “Who is this guy? I’m a pilot, I’m supposed to know everything about any plane I fly. If I ever get a B-17, I want to know what makes this bombardier so good.”
So he sought out, he was an officer, Joe was a staff sergeant at the time. He sought out Joe Sarnoski and he said, “Hey listen, can I buy you a beer?” And Joe is a little taken aback here. “Who’s this officer, coming up to me and asking me to buy him a beer. Is this a joke, is somebody pulling a prank on me?”
But as it turns out, they became not best friends quite yet, but they became very good acquaintances. And Jay, the superior officer, picked Joe’s brain about everything he knew about bomb sites. About targeting. About lead time.
So, then they separate. They both are shipped to Australia, but with different units. Joe spent some time in the North Atlantic. He thought he was going to end up in Europe. He was kind of surprised when he found out that he was going to Australia. He’s based in Australia. One day, Jay flies in with his B-17, and here comes this new bombardier in a jeep.
He says, “You’re Joe Sarnoski.” He said, “Yes, I am, Captain Zeamer. How are you? What have you been doing here?” Said, “I’ve been in Australia for three months.” And Sarnoski said, “I have too. But they have me teaching in the interior. I want to get up in a plane.”
And Jay said, “Let me see if I can do something about that.” And so Jay basically plucked Joe. Joe was such a good bombardier that they didn’t want him up there. They wanted him teaching. Jay plucked Joe and said, “I need this man on my crew.”
And Jay didn’t even have a crew! That was the beauty of it. He said, “I need this man on my crew,” and Jay didn’t even have his own crew. So Joe was the first man, and just so happened that the next day, they were calling for volunteers for a recon mission over Lai, which was a Japanese base, L-A-I. Lai. It was a Japanese base in northern New Guinea. Jay said, “I’ll take that.” And he said, “Joe, you want to go?”
And Joe said, “I’d love to. Let’s load up some bombs. Let’s drop some bombs on ’em while we’re reconning.” They did it, they hit the target, they came back, and Joe and Jay looked at each other and a light bulb went off over their heads, saying, “You know, we work well together. Let’s find some other crewmen like us. I don’t know where we’re gonna get a plane, but let’s get the crew first, and then we’ll worry about the plane.”
Brett McKay: Okay. So this partnership arises. And what’s interesting is, because that no one really cares about this part of the Pacific, that these guys were able to basically do what they wanted. Right?
Bob Drury: Exactly. Exactly. This would have never flown. Half the antics, Tom and I kinda write about it in Lucky 666, would have never have happened. You’d be in the brig if you’d do this kind of stuff in European theater of war. But the Pacific was such a vast theater of war, and our resources were so few, that you could get away with a lot more in the Pacific. I’ll give you a perfect example.
In the European theater of war and in the Pacific theater of war, every airman was required to wear the same uniform. The long coveralls. The flak vest. The helmet. Jay would often go up in a long pair of socks and Australian shorts and bush boots. And he was not alone. It was a very loose and lax atmosphere, compared to the stiffer, more military regulations in the European theater.
So when someone like Jay can scam a commanding officer out of a teaching post into saying, “Listen, I need this bombardier for my crew,” when he really doesn’t even have a crew. That would never fly in Europe. But a lot of that kind of stuff went on in the Pacific theater.
Brett McKay: So how did Jay form this crew? Everyone didn’t want to fly, no one wanted to fly with him because he was-
Bob Drury: No, no, no, no.
Brett McKay: … using the bomber to dogfight, which was crazy.
Bob Drury: Yeah, and he took too many chances. People would come down and said, “I’m never flying with you again. You’re nuts! You’re crazy.” He said, “That’s fine. I’ll find somebody else.” And that’s exactly what he did.
Jay was also a storyteller. Joe was a quiet guy. And Jay and Joe started this class in his tent. And crewmen of like minds would drop by and they’d just sit all night, and they’d talk. They’d talk bombing. They’d talk recon. They’d talk wind shear. They would talk anything that had to do with military flight.
And gradually, a circle formed around Jay and Joe. And as you can well imagine, it was kind of an outre circle. I mean their tail gunner, Pudge Pugh, was a Jack LaLanne buff. They called him Pudge, ironically. We have photos of him in the book. He’s a big, muscular guy, looks like Schwarzenegger. He can barely fit back, get through the tail pipe to get to his gun. Most of the B-17s at the time had two waist gunners who stood back to back. Uh-uh. This George Kendrick, their waist gunner, said, “These guns are all mine. I’m manning both sides, no one else is coming in here.”
George had worked his way, paid his way through college on the west coast as a pool shark. So they’ve got a pool shark, they’ve got a Jack LaLanne buff, the youngest staff sergeant in the Pacific theater, Johnnie Able, 19 years old, great mechanic. But he wants to be a top turret gunner. But mechanics and maintenance crews were so few and far between, his superior was loath to let Johnnie Able to go up. He needed him. He needed him to fix these rotors.
So finally Jay pulled rank and he plucked Johnnie Able to become his top turret gunner. I mean, Brett, their communications guy, their commo guy was an expert knife fighter. Why they figured they needed a knife fighter at 30,000 feet, I never found out.
But these are the kind of men that gravitated towards Jay and Joe. And before you knew it, they had a crew. Okay. We’ve got a crew. Where’s our plane? Well, there’s not enough planes to go around. Jay was still copiloting at the time. Every once in a while he’d get a pilot’s assignment. But for the most part, he was copiloting.
And someone, a colonel said to him, almost half jokingly, “Sure, you wanna go down the boneyard at the end of the runway,” that’s where they kept all the shot-up planes that weren’t going up again, “Wanna fix one of them up, sure, you can have it.” That’s exactly what they did.
Brett McKay: So that was Old 666.
Bob Drury: That’s the tail number, they found a shot-up plane, and the first thing Jay Zeamer instructed the crew, he said, “Listen. We’re gonna make this plane the fastest in the Pacific theater. So I want you to strip a thousand pounds out of this. I don’t care where you find it, but find a thousand pounds.”
So they just, everything from … Well, you can imagine what a piss pipe is. Everything from piss pipes to extra lockers to overhead bins. Boom. Out the door. Out the door. Next, they said, “Okay, we’re gonna scrounge every other plane in this boneyard until we get tires. Until we get four new engines.” They weren’t new engines, of course. But they were four engines that worked.
And finally, he said, “Now, we’re gonna make this the most heavily armed plane, not only in the Pacific theater, but perhaps in the world. We’re taking out all these little namby-pamby 30-cal machine guns and we’re putting 50-cal machine guns in. And where every other B-17 has one, we’re gonna put two.”
And as it turns out, Old 666, they never got around to naming it. You know how, you see the war movies, “Tojo’s Death Dream,” and “Here Comes the Bomb.” They never got around, they were so busy building this plane, they never got around to naming it. And because the last three tail numbers were 666, they just took to calling it Old 666.
They put in 19 50-cal machine guns, including one which Jay, he had Johnnie Able hook it up, so he could fire it from the steering column in the pilot’s seat. He called it his Schnozzola Gun. And when they finally passed their flight test, they were indeed the most heavily armed, most B-17s would carry 13 to 14 guns. Jay carried 19. Seventeen manned and two, his motto was, “Anything doesn’t work, throw it out. Your gun jams, throw it out, we’re carrying two extra, just hook it in. Hook it into the ratchet.”
And so, once they passed their flight test, as you can imagine … Well, maybe you can’t imagine, so I’ll explain it to you. They just start volunteering for every crazy mission that came down the pike. This crew, they were as regular as the Angela standing outside the Operations Hut. Every morning. “Whaddaya got? Whaddaya got? Whaddaya got? Where you goin’? You got anything for us?”
And, people were more than happy to say, “Yeah. We need somebody to lead a bombing run over Rabaul.” Or, “We need to see, we understand that there might have been reinforcements brought into Lai. We need a single recon mission up there. Can you do that?”
And, as it happens, they started to get a reputation. “These are the go-to guys. These are the guys we want when the mission looks almost suicidal. Let’s get Zeamer and his crew of eager beavers.” They got a nickname, The Eager Beavers.
And that wasn’t their only nickname. I mean, we found some magazine and newspaper articles from the time, and back then the word “screw” was kind of a swear word. And yet, in every one of these guys were known as the Screwups. These were the Screwups that would do any mission for you. But half the time you’d have to bail them out of the brig, because that’s where they’d be after a bar fight.
Brett McKay: So, they volunteer for all these different missions. Some of them pretty much suicide missions. Tell us about the mission where it was definitely a suicide mission, and they engaged in this epic dogfight that’s probably the longest that happened in World War II.
Bob Drury: This was June, 1943. Now and I wasn’t kidding about the brig, either. I mean Jay and Joe were always getting in trouble. Jay, at one point he didn’t like the way the crew was eating. And we talked about it before. The food was just horrible.
So he made a run, he knew a farmer back in Australia where he’d been stationed in Australia. He borrowed a B-17, made a run, filled it up with meat and fresh vegetables, and came back and got caught. They threw him in jail.
On another point, he and Joe, there was a whorehouse on Rabaul that American intelligence had figured out, the top Japanese admirals and generals were using the top floor of this fancy old hotel as a whorehouse, and they were bringing in geisha girls from Japan to service them.
And so Jay and Joe were told, “You gotta bomb this hotel.” But, they went up twice and twice, Joe disobeyed orders. Once he bombed a fuel dump, and once he bombed an ammunition dump. And both times he came back and he just said, “You can throw me in jail, but I’m not bombing no geisha girls.”
So they did. They threw him in jail until a reporter found out about it, a reporter from the Associated Press who wrote about it, and a general got all upset about it. No, a congressman, a visiting congressman, got all upset about it. Got ’em out of jail.
Brett McKay: I was going to say, too, one interesting point with these guys. Sometimes they’d do these antics and later they were thrown in jail. But then, later, they would get some sort of commendation for what they did.
Bob Drury: Right. They’d win the Silver Star for something they had been in the brig for. That’s how loose the rules were, especially in the South West Pacific.
So in June of 1943, Admiral Halsey, his Marines have retaken Guadalcanal. And they’re slowly making their way, it’s like the mini–island hopping of the Solomon Islands. And they’re taking every Solomon Island from south to north. The big one, at the very top of the chain, Bougainville.
It’s just south of New Britain, which again, is the home to Rabaul, Fortress Rabaul. If the Allies can get Bougainville under their control, and put airstrips in Bougainville, now they’re close enough to Rabaul for fighter planes to give the bombers air escorts.
So Bougainville is the next big … I know we talk about Midway and we talk about, but Bougainville was one of the unsung fights of World War II. But Halsey a), he knows the Japanese control Bougainville, but he’s not quite sure where their strengths lie, and what kind of defense they have. And b), he wants to land his invasion force in Empress Augusta Bay, which is known to have some of the worst and sharpest coral reefs in the world.
So, he needs a recon flight. A fighter plane won’t make it. It can’t get that far, doesn’t have enough fuel. They’re not gonna send up a flight of bombers. They need one bomber to fly 1,200 miles round trip. And, take pictures of Bougainville. Both where the Japanese defenses are, and they had had an ultraviolet light cameras that would pierce the bay, and show them where the reefs are.
So, okay. Of course. Jay and Joe. They hear about this and they’re down at the Operations Hut the next morning, saying, “Yeah, we’ll do this. We’ll do this.” And I gotta say, for the first time, Jay did go to the crew. I’ve been around a lot of military people. War is not a democracy. But for this, this was such a dangerous mission, Jay did go to his crew and explain to every man, “Listen, I’m taking our chances of making this at 25%. And if any one of you doesn’t want to go, I understand completely.”
Joe, just a week earlier, had already gotten his papers to be shipped back to the States. He was going to become a bombardier instructor in the States. He didn’t have to go. And they weren’t even carrying bombs. There was no sense having a bombardier.
But Joe said, “No. I’m not sending you up there, there was going to be somebody in the nose, that’s where the bombardier was stationed. Said, “I’m not sending you up there with somebody you don’t know. I’m going.”
So Jay and Joe and the crew, they stepped forward. They go out. They take off, they’re taking off at three in the morning. Suddenly, a jeep comes out on the runway. Stops their plane. Officer runs up to Jay, hands him, actually, ran up to the waist gunner, hand him a note, waist gunner runs it up to Jay in the cockpit.
And it says, “Listen, while you’re up there, reconning Bougainville, can you also take photos of this little island at the tip of Bougainville, the northern tip. It’s called Buka. We know there’s an air strip there. We just don’t know how big, we don’t know how many enemy planes. What have they got there at Buka?”
Jay says, “No. I’m not doing that.” Because, in order for these cameras to work, he had to fly at a slow and steady pace. Five hundred miles per hour, at the same, if he tipped a wing a couple of inches, it would throw off the Lat Long. The latitude and longitude, by miles. That’s the only way these cameras will work, especially when they were photographing the reefs beneath the water.
And he said, “If I fly slow and low over Buka, there’s a enemy airfield on Buka. There’s two on Bougainville. They’re gonna, why don’t you just telegraph them and let ’em know I’m coming?”
So they get there, but what they hadn’t counted on is that because they’re flying with no bombs, they’re just flying with cameras, and their big tail wind, they arrive an hour early. It’s too early for the cameras to work. And so Jay gets on the horn, the inter plane radio, and says, “Okay fellas, listen, we’ve got an hour to kill. We can either vector out over the sea and come back when the sun’s right for taking pictures. Or, we can do this Buka thing that they want us to do.” And everybody voted for Buka.
So they fly over Buka. Cameras can’t work, but they see, they take notes of how many planes are on Buka. Suddenly, the tail gunner comes up, says, “They’re coming up.” Twelve planes are coming up off Buka after them.
But now Jay is still . . . He’s got a choice. He can photograph low and slow, Bougainville, and most especially the Empress Augusta Bay, and let those Japanese planes catch him. Or he can take off. He can run for home. He’s already done half his job. He’s already found out what’s on Buka. He says, “No. If we don’t get this film back to them, they’re just gonna send up another crew. Why put another crew in danger? Let’s do this work here.”
So they fly low and slow, and sure enough, the planes from Buka, not only the planes from Buka catch ’em, but two flights come up from Bougainville’s air … . Now they’re surrounded, 44 minutes of a dogfight, they shot down six Zeroes. Everybody, every crew member except for Pudge Pugh in the tail, and the bottom turret gunner, is wounded or bleeding out.
The plane is shot to hell. Finally, they’ve been fighting for so long that the Japanese Zeroes are running out of fuel. That’s the only reason they make it back. But they realize, “We don’t have enough, we can’t get enough lift to get over the mountains to get into Port Moresby. Plot us a course for Dobladora, which is on the east coast of New Guinea.”
He said, “I don’t know if we’re gonna make it. We might have to ditch. But we got to get this … It was poignant. In one of the letters Jay sent to his mother … Yes, it was his mother … And he said, “Mom, I realized when I’m on a bombing run, when you drop your rocks …” That’s what they called it, dropping their rocks. “… When you drop your rocks, if you don’t make it home, if you have to make a water landing, or even a crash landing before you reach the air field, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve done your job. You dropped your rocks.”
But now, Jay is saying, “If I don’t get this film back, this entire mission will be for naught.” And just sheer force of will, he’s sitting in the cockpit. The cockpit, the whole left side of the cockpit, is torn off. He has taken a rock to the cockpit. The copilot is out cold. He doesn’t know if the copilot’s dead or not. And he can look down and he can see that his left leg looks like hamburger. And he can feel that he’s bleeding out. He can feel his boot filling with blood.
And suddenly, he looks at his right wrist and with each heartbeat, blood is spurting out of his right wrist. He’s also taken shrapnel there. He turns around, he looks up to Johnnie Able. Johnnie Able tries to drop down from the top turret to help him. Johnnie Able drops down and he realizes he’s been shot in both legs and he can’t stand up.
Suddenly, there’s a fire. There’s a fire back in the commo room. They go back to the commo room and Willie Green, the commo guy, is out. He’s taken shrapnel to the neck. He’s laying on the ground, trying to stop the bleeding from his neck. Johnnie Able puts out the fire with his bare hands. Burns his hands.
And all the while, because of the rocket that blew up their entire cockpit, now Jay can see down right into the nose. And he sees Joe Sarnoski, just leaning over his two machine guns. A puddle of blood around him. He’s figuring Joe is dead. He doesn’t know for sure, but he’s figuring Joe is dead. He’s not moving. But his main thought is, “I gotta get this film back, or this entire flight will be for nothing.”
And sure enough, they make Dobladora, crash land in Dobladora, they’re being carried out. As the meat wagon boys, that’s what they called the medics, the meat wagon guys come, they tear off what’s left of the glass around the cockpit, and Jay, who’s out kinda, it looks like he’s out cold, but he hears a voice say, “Forget the pilot, get him last. He’s dead.”
And he wants to scream, “I’m not dead! I’m alive.” But they got him last, he lost half the blood in his body, they were lining up for weeks to give him transfusions. And as you well know, Brett, this was the only flight in the history of either the U.S. Army Air Force or the Air Force, where two members of the same flight crew were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor: Jay Zeamer and Joe Sarnoski were both awarded our military’s highest honor.
One of them was awarded posthumously. Now, I’m tempted to say to your audience, if you want to find out which one, go buy the book. But if you want to know I’ll tell you.
Brett McKay: We’ll say, go buy the book. We’ll leave it at that.
Bob Drury: It was Joe who died.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Bob Drury: Because you know why? I have a poignant story. I’m jumping ahead a little.
Brett McKay: No, go ahead.
Bob Drury: Jay went through many, many operations, but on … oh my goodness … I’m gonna cry. On the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Jay was invited back to Pearl Harbor. He was living in Maine at the time. He was invited back to Pearl Harbor for a ceremony. And at one point, he was taken to the Punchbowl, which is the giant graveyard area, in an old extinct volcano.
And as far as Jay knew, Joe was buried back in New Guinea. They buried him on the mound. Jay was in a hospital when they buried Joe. He wasn’t even conscious when they buried Joe. But the guys who could walk or who could be wheeled out, the crew members who could be wheeled out, they attended the ceremony. They buried him under a mound, near Port Moresby.
And for all Jay knew, Joe was still there. And so he’s being escorted into the Punchbowl, and a communications officer, by this time he was a retired colonel. “Colonel Zeamer, we have something we’d like you to see.”
And they led him to a grave. And unknown to Jay, previously, 10 years earlier, Joe’s body had been dug up and transferred back to the Punchbowl. And when Jay saw the headstone, and the marker … It wasn’t even a headstone, it was a marker … That was Joe Sarnoski.
Jay was on crutches by this point. He put his crutches down, and he knelt down and he started crying over the grave. And that’s how we end the book. And … I’m a little speechless. So. Say something.
Brett McKay: No. It’s a great story of friendship, of heroism, of grit, determination … I’m curious as you wrote this book, and you talked to the family members of these guys … This is The Art of Manliness podcast. What did you learn about being a man after writing about these guys?
Bob Drury: You know, Brett, I think you’re familiar with my background. Not only do I write military history, nonfiction books, but for a good 20 years, almost two decades, I was a foreign correspondent, a war correspondent. I was in hellholes in Afghanistan to Iraq to Darfur, to Sarajevo.
And I think what strikes me the most to answer your specific question is how little it takes, whether it’s World War II, whether it’s Korea, or whether it’s Dashti Qala in Afghanistan, how little it takes for ordinary men like Jay Zeamer and Joe Sarnoski and hundreds, thousands of war fighters, kids to me that I’ve met over the last 20 years … How little it takes them to go from being ordinary men rising to extraordinary circumstances. Let me put it that way.
And I think we all have something in us that we don’t know we have in us until we’re faced with that kind of situation. And more times than not, and I’ve been in some hairy situations. I mean, I took a bullet in my leg in Afghanistan. I got blown off a helicopter in Iraq, I still have some shrapnel in my arm from Sarajevo.
And more times than not, I’ve seen people who could be your neighbor, your grocer, your local cop, your fireman. I’ve seen them run towards the fighting, than run away from the fighting. And it makes me … I don’t want to get all sloppy … patriotic on you. But it makes me feel good when I see, whether it’s older men, guys older than me, like Dick Benelli, the Marine at the Chosin who gave me the idea for this book. Or whether it’s some 19-year-old kid.
If they have it inside of you, then I think it’s probably inside of me. And I think you could probably say the same thing about yourself. And I think most of your listeners can probably say the same thing about themselves. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not.
Brett McKay: No, it makes perfect sense. It’s a great way to end. Bob, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Bob Drury: You know what? I have an amazon.com page. If you just go to amazon.com and type in the bar in the subject line, Bob Drury, all my books come up. In fact, I’m line editing, we have to do this again, Brett, because I just last week, we handed in our next one. It’ll be out in October on Valley Forge.
Brett McKay: Oh, fantastic.
Bob Drury: You want to talk about The Art of Manliness. What those soldiers went through.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Bob Drury: My goodness gracious. But yes, Bob Drury on amazon.com. And you’ll see my work, and you’ll even see a picture of me with my bald head.
Brett McKay: Well Bob Drury, thank you so much for talking to us. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Bob Drury: Brett, thank you. Thank you for enjoying the book.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Bob Drury, he’s the co-author of the book Lucky 666. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at aom.is/lucky666, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure you check out The Art of Manliness Web site at artofmanliness.com. And if you enjoy the podcast, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take time to give us a review on iTunes, which [inaudible 00:49:28] helps out a lot. And if you’ve done already, thank you. Please share this show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it.
As always, thank you for your continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.