USAAF Nov 1942
8th PRS c1943
Built by Boeing at Seattle. Constructors Number 2477. Delivered to the U. S. Army. Ferried overseas via Hawaii to Australia.
Assigned to the 5th Air Force, 19th Bombardment Group, 435th Bombardment Squadron. Nicknamed "Lucy". Also known as "Old 666" or "666" for the last three digits of the U.S. Army serial number.
On November 4, 1942 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby piloted by Lt. Melville Ehlers with co-pilot Lt. Bill Wilson in a bombing mission against Lae. About 30 miles from the target at 15,000', one of the life rafts accidentally deployed, ripping off the radio aerial and wrapping around the port elevator, and the bomber descended to 9,300' and gunner Pfc Lowell Lee fired his machine gun at the raft to deflate it, but it remained wrapped around the elevator. Also aboard was navigator P/O John Edkins, RAAF. The crew attempted to continue the mission, but the life raft tore away part of the elevator, and they aborted the mission and managed to returned safely to 7-Mile Drome with the raft still attached to the damaged elevator.
Next, assigned to the 43rd Bombardment Group, 65th Bombardment Squadron. On September 25, 1943 piloted by Harry Park.
On May 18, 1943 this B-17 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby piloted by Captain Jay Zeamer, Jr. on a test hop local flight to test the instruments then returned to 7-Mile Drome.
On May 28, 1943 this B-17 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby piloted by Captain Jay Zeamer, Jr. on a photographic reconnaissance and mapping mission over New Ireland making two runs over southeastern New Ireland. During the flight, sighted a "new" airfield, likely Namatanai Airfield and observed a convoy of three enemy ships. Afterwards, returned to 7-Mile Drome.
On June 2, 1943 this B-17 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby piloted by Captain Jay Zeamer, Jr. on photographic reconnaissance and mapping mission from 20,000' over the Admiralties, then proceeded eastward mapping the Buka Passage from 11,000' then returned to 7-Mile Drome.
During early June 1943, this B-17 was field modified with an additional six 50 caliber machine guns added for defensive firepower. On June 15, 1943 this B-17 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby piloted by Captain Jay Zeamer, Jr. on a local flight with ten aboard to test fire all sixteen 50 caliber machine guns and for a transition training flight before returning to 7-Mile Drome.
On June 16, 1943, this B-17 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby piloted by Captain Jay Zeamer, Jr. with co-pilot J. T. Britton. Proceeded on a solo mission to photograph Japanese installations on Buka and then map the western coast of Bougainville as far south as Empress Augusta Bay in preparation for the Allied landings scheduled for November 1 1943. It was hoped clear photos could be taken to prepare detailed charts for the invasion force.
Over Buka Island, they observed approximately 22 enemy fighters taking off from Buka Airfield below. As this B-17 began its photographic run over Bougainville, it was was attacked head on by Zero fighters. The head-on attack knocked out the B-17's oxygen and hydraulic systems and all flight instruments. During this initial attack, bombardier 2nd Lt Joseph R. Sarnoski, O-888520 was wounded when a 20mm cannon round exploded in the nose. Although wounded, he he continued to fire the nose machine gun and claimed two enemy fighters, until he died at his battle station.
Zeamer, with a broken leg and multiple deep lacerations, put the bomber into an almost vertical dive from 25,000 feet to about 10,000 feet. He could judge his altitude only by the increase in engine manifold pressure. As he leveled off, an estimated 17 enemy fighters resumed the attack from all quarters, staying with the B-17 for 45 minutes until they ran low on fuel. During the running battle in which Zeamer saved the B-17 by taking violent evasive action. The crew claimed two fighters shot down and probably downed another two.
Although weak from pain and loss of blood, Zeamer refused medical aid and remained at the controls until the enemy fighters had left. He assessed the condition of the bomber, decided it could not make it over the Owen Stanley Mountains back to Port Moresby, so directed his co-pilot to land at Dobodura Airfield. With no brakes or flaps, the B-17 ground-looped to a stop with one dead and six wounded aboard.
On the ground, a total of 187 bullet holes from 7.7mm machine gun bullets and 5 cannon shells from 20mm shell hits were noted on the bomber. Aboard, Five crew members including Zeamer were wounded during the combat. Sarnoski died during the engagement. Only the co-pilot and two gunners were unhurt. Afterwards,
Captain Jay Zeamer and 2/Lt Joseph R. Sarnoski both earned the Medal of Honor, while the remainder of the crew earned the Distinguished Service Cross for this mission.
Later, this B-17 was assigned to the 6th Photographic Reconnaissance Group (6th PRG), 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (8th PRS) and operated from 14 Mile Drome (Schwimmer) near Port Moresby.
During February 1944, flown back to the United States. Scrapped during August 1945 at Albuquerque, NM.
Sarnoski died the day of the mission. He was permanently buried at Honolulu National Cemetery (Punchbowl) at section A site 582.
Zeamer retired from the USAF with the rank of Lt. Colonel. He died on March 22, 2007. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery at section 34 site 809-4.
Captain Jay Zeamer Jr. Official Flight Log from April 22, 1944 to May 31, 1943, page 6
May 18, 1943 "B-17E, AC 41-2666, R1820-65, P.M.-Local, 10 [crew], Test hop + instruments."
May 28, 1943 "B-17E, AC 41-2666, R1820-65, P.M.- New Ireland-P.M., 9 [crew], 2 mapping runs on S.E. New Ireland - 23,000 ft. Sighted new Jap Airdrome + 3 ship convoy."
Captain Jay Zeamer Jr. Official Flight Log from June 1, 1943 to June 18, 1944, page 7
June 2, 1943 "B-17E, AC 41-2666, R1820-65, P.M. - Admiralty Islands, Buka Passage - P.M., 9 [crew], Photo-mapped Admiralties-20,000', Recco Buka Passage - 11,000'."
June 15, 1943 "B-17E, AC 41-2666, R1820-65, P.M. - Local, 10 [crew], Test fired all 16-50 cal., test hop + transition"
June 16, 1943 "B-17E, AC 41-2666, R1820-65, P.M. - Buka Passage-Bougainville-Buka, 9 [crew], Recco + 'Photo mapping, 16 Jap fighters - shot down 5, 187 bullet holes & 5 cannon hits, Sarnoski killed - 5 wounded."
Note, it is often incorrectly reported that this B-17E was field modified with a nose mounted machine gun that the pilot could fire from the cockpit control column.
The Canberra Times "Exciting Trip For Fortress on Bombing Raid" November 6, 1942
New York Times "Swift Raid on Lae Described" November 6, 1942
Los Angeles Times "Jay Zeamer, a Decorated Pilot in World War II, Dies at 88" March 26, 2007
Dogfights, Season 1, Volume 4 Long Odds includes episode about this B-17 with interview footage of Zeamer, originally aired 2007 segment related to this B-17, audio interview with Zeamer, interview with Britton
YouTube "OLD 666" Dogfights Season 1, Volume 4 segment related to this B-17, audio interview with Zeamer, interview with Britton
Home of Heroes Jay Zeamer & Joe Sarnoski One Plane - Nine Heroes Two Medals of Honor
Peta Pixel "The Most Honored Photograph" by Roger Cicala Oct 29, 2013 includes several mistakes and misconceptions often repeated about this aircraft and mission
Thanks to Steve Birdsall, Edward Rogers and Larry Hickey for additional information
Are you a relative or associated with any person mentioned?
Do you have photos or additional information to add?
May 22, 2017