Monday, November 20, 2017

Old 666

Well...I'm anticipating, but not betting on, a quiet week this week.  Faculty and Students are off, so shouldn't be jamming printers or forgetting passwords or other actions of similar "demise of all life in the universe" nature as usually occurs when they're around.  

The members of my team will be working on issues affecting our production databases and involve taking those off line for (hopefully) short periods of time.  Our boss has taken pity on us and updated our equipment.  He expects this will enhance our productivity.

We shall see if his expectations are met.

Meanwhile on the home front, Thanksgiving dinner is still being procurred
No Sarge, those are not Buzzards.  A large flock of turkey hens ran in front of the truck on the way to Church this Morn.
As Mrs Juvat is out at Trade Days, peddling women's wear, I had the opportunity to watch a little bit of Dogfights, and stumbled across this episode.

.I had originally selected it because Col Thorsness' Medal of Honor flight was included, but watched the other two segments first.  I'll leave the first segment for the members of the Staff with Navy attachments to discuss.

The second segment, however....

Piqued my interest.  It begins at 18:50.

And I realized I hadn't written one of these posts in a while, so here's the story of two more Recipients of the Medal of Honor from the Air Force or it's antecedents.

Their names are Joseph Sarnoski and Jay Zeamer.
Lt Sarnoski
Major Zeamer

This was kind of interesting to me for a variety of reasons.  First, when I hear about B-17s, like most people I immediately think of 8th Air Force, Great Britain and Nazi Germany.  The Flying Fortress flew in every theater of war in WWII, and while I knew that, I didn't appreciate some of the aspects of that fact.

Second, there were multiple incidents of two Medal of Honor recipients on a single crew.  One is described here. Lt Sarnoski and Major Zeamer are unique in that, although they were in the same aircraft when the action occurred, they received them for different reasons.

This site, as usual, has quite a bit of detailed information about the mission, providing some of those bon mots that bring the incident to life.  

Apparently, Major Zeamer was a natural leader, who had  had a problem checking out as a pilot in the B-26.  In fact, at the time of this mission, was NOT a qualified B-17 pilot. He had only passed the qualifications to be a co-pilot.

My interpretation of this was not that he lacked the flying ability, but that he lacked the ability to comply with what would later become the SAC way of flying.  Based on this, or perhaps because of this, he was sent to 5th Air Force in the South Pacific, in the B-26.  He raised the ire of his mates there by, apparently falling asleep, during the bomb run on missions evidently due to boredom.  He was transferred to a B-17 unit, where he was assigned to some one who "got" him, and trained him.  
Major Zeamer is 2nd from left back row, Lt Sarnowski is last on the right back row.

Major Zeamer eventually put together a crew of misfits like himself, found a shot up B-17 that was being cannibalized and restored it to flying status, added additional armament to it and began flying missions no one else wanted to fly.  
Believed to be the only picture of their aircraft

Such was the state of the war in that theater, that no one really asked to see his "papers" authorizing him to fly as pilot in command.  My kinda guy!  

Fighter Pilot is an Attitude, not an AFSC!

In any case, in June of 1943, Major Zeamer takes a mission to map Bougainville, in preparation for invasion.  Somebody, flying a chair, had also asked them to take pictures of the airfield at Buka.  Major Zeamer declined as that would have alerted the Japanese to his approach.

As he's approaching the target, he realizes he's 30 minutes ahead of schedule, so decides to fly over Buka and take the pictures.  He does and now back on time, but with the Japanese alerted, flies on to perform his mapping mission.

Lt Sarnoski had received orders sending him stateside in 3 days as he's been in theater for 18 months and more than exceeded his required missions.  Everything I read about him said he was an outstanding bombardier as well as an excellent shot with the machine gun.  He volunteered to go on the mission as his replacement had come down with malaria and was grounded.

The mission is going to be dangerous for a couple of reasons, as they are taking pictures to be used as maps, the aircraft cannot deviate from the flight path at all.  Straight and level.  Also, in order for the mission to be successful, the film must make it back to base.  Getting shot down is mission failure, as well as the usual bad stuff involved with getting shot down.

They are in the final phases of the mission when they notice Japanese Zero's  taking off and pursuing them.  Modifications to their B-17 were such that instead of the usual 10 x .50 Cal machine guns, they had 19.  The first Zero's that attacked from the tail were shot down.  

Other Zero's maneuvered around to the front for a head on attack.  One is shot down by Lt Sarnoski, but another one attacks and shatters the front end of the bomber severely injuring him, throwing him back under the flight deck.  Damage is such that Major Zeamer can see him through the holes.

Declining first aid, Lt Sarnoski manages to pull himself back to his position and resume firing, destroying a Japanese Dinah twin engine fighter.

Major Zeamer has not escaped injury from the head on attacks either.  He's severely injured in the legs and arms, and is flying the aircraft with his fingers.  

Sources I've found say this aerial battle went on from 40 minutes to an hour as the B-17 makes it's exit from the target area. As they prepare to make a final attack, Major Zeamer pulls the B-17 into a steep dive into some clouds. The Japanese being low on fuel and ammunition, assume that was a death dive and RTB.

Major Zeamer pulls the aircraft out of the dive and continues to command the aircraft between periods of unconciousness due to blood loss.  The Co-pilot is performing first aid on Lt Sarnoski and the aircraft is being flown by one of the Gunners.

RTB takes about 4 hours and Lt Sarnoski succumbs to his injuries enroute.  Major Zeamer revives in time to make the actual landing and passes out again on shutdown hearing the medics say to "leave the pilot for last, he's dead."

Fortunately, that wasn't true, although the Doctors eventually pulled 150 pieces of metal out of him, most parts of the B-17.

He passed away in 2017.

One of the sources I found for Lt Sarnoski was entitled, "From a common man, uncommon Valor".  I think that has been a frequent summation for the folks on that monument at Lackland.

Major Zeamer's Citation:

On 16 June 1943, Maj. Zeamer (then Capt.) volunteered as pilot of a bomber on an important photographic mapping mission covering the formidably defended area in the vicinity of Buka, Solomon Islands. While photographing the Buka airdrome. his crew observed about 20 enemy fighters on the field, many of them taking off.  
Despite the certainty of a dangerous attack by this strong force, Maj. Zeamer proceeded with his mapping run, even after the enemy attack began. In the ensuing engagement, Maj. Zeamer sustained gunshot wounds in both arms and legs, 1 leg being broken. Despite his injuries, he maneuvered the damaged plane so skillfully that his gunners were able to fight off the enemy during a running fight which lasted 40 minutes. The crew destroyed at least 5 hostile planes, of which Maj. Zeamer himself shot down 1.
 Although weak from loss of blood, he refused medical aid until the enemy had broken combat. He then turned over the controls, but continued to exercise command despite lapses into unconsciousness, and directed the flight to a base 580 miles away. In this voluntary action, Maj. Zeamer, with superb skill, resolution, and courage, accomplished a mission of great value. 

Lt. Sarnoski's Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. On 16 June 1943, 2d Lt. Sarnoski volunteered as bombardier of a crew on an important photographic mapping mission covering the heavily defended Buka area, Solomon Islands. 
When the mission was nearly completed, about 20 enemy fighters intercepted. At the nose guns, 2d Lt. Sarnoski fought off the first attackers, making it possible for the pilot to finish the plotted course. When a coordinated frontal attack by the enemy extensively damaged his bomber, and seriously injured 5 of the crew, 2d Lt. Sarnoski, though wounded, continued firing and shot down 2 enemy planes.
A 20-millimeter shell which burst in the nose of the bomber knocked him into the catwalk under the cockpit. With indomitable fighting spirit, he crawled back to his post and kept on firing until he collapsed on his guns. 2d Lt. Sarnoski by resolute defense of his aircraft at the price of his life, made possible the completion of a vitally important mission.



  1. Hey Juvat;

    I remember reading about that mission and that airplane, they called the "Devils Chariot" if memory serves and it fit the attitude, then saw it in "DogFights", you ain't kidding...Those guys clinked when they walked. Thank you for the write up.

  2. You're welcome.
    I hadn't heard "Devil's Chariot" used for their aircraft. Some Sources I found called it "Lucy", most seemed to suggest the crew called it Old 666 (hence the title).
    Here's the most credible description I found "In the months of missions that followed Jay's crew was so busy that they never had the time to adorn their bomber with the traditional nose-art, commonly seen on aircraft of that era. Though many subsequent accounts refer to Jay's bomber as Lucy, that was a title Zeamer and crew denied and avoided reference to even in later interviews. The only markings the converted B-17E bore was the tail number. She became known simply as Old 666.

  3. An informative post juvat.....thanks.

  4. Wow! They must have beefed up the engines on that bird to carry all those massive, well, you know.

    1. Machine guns? Ammo for the machine guns? Yeah, I'd say there was a lot of Brass things in that Bomber!

    2. One of the modifications to the B-17E was a 'fighter' version, including the first real chin turret, dual .50 waist guns instead of the single .50, armor and lots more ammo.

      They were very effective on the flight to the target, but could not keep up with the lightened -17s after they dropped their bombs.

      A curious attempt to provide cover for bombers in Europe before drop tanks and extended range P-51s became common.

    3. Yup.

      As stated, sitting ducks trying to fly home with all that ammo on board. Idea was dropped in favor of the new chin turret for everyone.

  5. Had seen the episode years ago and found it fascinating. Noticed this book on it earlier this year:
    It was a very good read. Much deeper into the men than the TV episode could go.

    1. Added to my Kindle, will start tonight. Thanks.

  6. I think I first read about this mission in 'Flying Forts' by Martin Caidin. Also read of ships RTB with so many holes that you could hear them 'whistle' as they landed. Brass indeed. LOTS of brass.

    1. Yeah, it makes you wonder if they were Brave, Nuts, Scared Stiff, or all the above. I'm betting some combination of all. But they DO have my respect.

  7. The Pacific Theater was always a source of innovation, due to long supply chains, shoestring resupply, and the 'Europe First' philosophy.

    Many innovations, like attaching flare 'chutes to light bombs, skip-bombing, putting a 75mm howitzer into a B-25 and also putting as many .50s on the front of a light or medium bomber as possible, came out of the Pacific.

    So did, er, air-powered refrigerators (load beer cans into the ammo boxes on fighters, go up for a few minutes, come down, and, Voila! Cold beer (if it isn't frozen.))

    Or the wonderful P-38 transport pod, which was a belly tank with a window, outfitted to carry 1 person in the modified tank. Yeah, right. Screw that!

    1. The parachute bombs were so that the medium bombers could go at Nap of Earth over Jap positions and drop the bombs. Chutes retarded the forward movement and the fall, giving accuracy and the ability to escape the explosions.

      Very effective against gun positions and airfields, and especially fuel storage facilities.

      Kinda a combination of cluster bombs and those fancy low-level bomb-fin kits for the 500lb-ers the AF boys use.

      Skip-bombing, on the other hand, is proof that great ideas can come out of the bottom of a 5th of whiskey, as that is the only way I can think that a pilot would actually think flying balls-to-the-wall 20-50ft above water level directly at an armed Jap ship and dropping a time delay bomb so that it skips along the water and hits the ship. Yeah, definitely a "Here, hold ma beer" moment.

      As to the thought of mounting a mountain howitzer in the front of a plane, well, someone was playing a serious game of 'who's got the bigger gun' game.

    2. Some of those "improvements" made it into my flying career. Air Powered Refrigerators for one. As well as parachute retarded sunrises.
      But, I'm with you on windows in baggage pods for transport.

    3. The geometry of the skip bomb would make it difficult to be accurate without the time delay. (It would also make it exponentially more dangerous to the attacking aircraft). But, if you think of it as a large bullet basically travelling as fast as the aircraft with only a bullet drop of that 20-50 feet, it was probably pretty accurate. Of course, to both sides in the fight, apparent target motion is minimal.
      The howitzer AND skip bombing might have been entertaining. The howitzer to make 'em duck, the bomb to put them under.

    4. I heard that timing the drop was, ah, interesting. Nothing like bouncing the bomb right back to you...

      Balls, lots of balls back then. And a Command that decided to look the other way for several years to allow things to just get done.

    5. Yeah, that latter statement may very well have won the war in that theater. Although Nimitz seems to have let his Commanders have some pretty good leeway also.

    6. The very nature of the theater, with little packets of troops, sailors, flyers and jarheads splattered here and there, with no easy way for upper command to show up or easy way for lower commanders to easily visit upper echelons helped a lot. Just look at some of the unapproved modifications of PT boats, some strange things done to tanks to make them pill-box busters and plane modifications. I read a book on the B-17 and if I recall there was one -17 that was used as a transport that was a franken-plane made out of several different crashed planes, all of different models, even the wings didn't match model-wise.

      Nimitz would have been court-martialed today. As would Lemay. Most of the top commanders or ship commanders by 1943 would never have been able to survive in peace-time.

      Secretary Mattis is an unusual exception to the 'peace-time general officer' rule.

    7. Andrew, this B-17?

    8. Yep. Cobbled together out of pieces-parts.

      Nothing like this would have happened in the European Theater. Cannibalize down-checked or wrecked planes, yep. Build a plane out of wrecks? Nope.

      Your google-fu is strong, RHT447. Wise in the use of the interwebs, you are.

    9. Thankee for the kind words. I would say my google-fu is fair to middlin'. However, my collection of bits and pieces about the air war in WWII is vast. (My memory? Thank God for post-it notes) You may have seen me mention here that my dad was a B-17 pilot. He flew 35 combat missions with this group--

      Been a topic of study for me since I could first read. And you can probably guess where I get my screen name.

  8. Thank you for making these fine Americans known to me. Yet another great post.

    Paul L. Quandt

  9. so, truth time.

    you lost me at "peddling women's wear."

    Just sayin.

    1. Yes, well....She has fun. I stay way the heck away. The best thing that's going to happen with me anywhere near women changing clothes is nothing, and it rapidly heads south from there.

  10. I can stub my toe and be rolling around on the floor until the pain subsides. These guys get shot multiple times and KEEP FLYING THEIR AIRCRAFT. Heroes- every one of 'em.

  11. I thought so. After watching the video, I felt obligated to look further into it to see if the producers hadn't "hollywooded" it a bit. If anything, they may have downplayed it. I neglected to mention that in addition to the 2 Medal of Honor recipients, the rest of the crew received Distinguished Service Crosses (7) and a total of 5 Purple Hearts. Not bad for a bunch of misfits.


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