Jay Zeamer, Jr.

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Jay Zeamer, Jr.
Lt. Col. Jay Zeamer, Jr.
Born (1918-07-25)July 25, 1918
Carlisle, Pennsylvania
Died March 22, 2007(2007-03-22) (aged 88)
Boothbay Harbor, Maine
Place of burial Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Army Air Forces
Years of service 1939 - 1945
Rank US-O5 insignia.svg Lieutenant Colonel
Unit 65th Bomb Sqdn, 43rd Bomb Grp
Fifth Air Force
Battles/wars World War II

Jay Zeamer Jr. (July 25, 1918 – March 22, 2007) was a pilot of the United States Army Air Forces in the South Pacific during World War II, and received the Medal of Honor for valor during an air mission on June 16, 1943. After the war, he became an aeronautical engineer and worked in the aerospace industry.

Early life[edit]

Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Zeamer grew up in Orange, New Jersey, the son of a women's club leader and sales representative for (later vice-president of) a global leather exporter.[1][2] He spent many summers at Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where he enjoyed rowing a homemade boat in the harbor.

Zeamer became an Eagle Scout at the age of fourteen.[3] (He is one of only nine known Eagle Scouts who also received the Medal of Honor. The others are Aquilla J. Dyess, Robert Edward Femoyer, Eugene B. Fluckey, Thomas R. Norris, Arlo L. Olson, Mitchell Paige, Benjamin L. Salomon, and Leo K. Thorsness.) After a freshman year of high school in Orange, he was enrolled by his father in Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, where he completed the Senior Infantry Reserve Officers Training Corps course.[4] Winning honors in marksmanship each year he was there, he served in the Culver Rifles Color Guard his last two years.[5] After completing Advanced Camp for the Reserve Officers Training Corps, he was given a certificate in lieu of a commission in the Infantry Officer Reserves Corps for which he could apply upon his twenty-first birthday.

He attended a year of junior college at Culver after graduation, taking on a more rigorous curriculum and attending summer school, allowing him to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) as a second-year student.[6] In August 1939, after turning twenty-one in July, he received his infantry commission, becoming a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve, assigned to the 312th Infantry, 78th Division.,[7][8]

Interested in aviation since childhood, in 1938 Zeamer had joined the M.I.T. flying club based in nearby Norwood. Within a year he was licensed himself with a hundred solo hours in his logbook; he also served as manager of the club. In October 1939, Zeamer applied for the Army Air Corps flight training program and was accepted in December.[9] His entrance to the program was deferred until after his graduation from M.I.T. in June 1940 with a B.S. in civil engineering, specializing in structural engineering. Zeamer began elementary flight school training as a flying cadet in the Chicago School of Aeronautics, Glenview, Illinois, where his leadership skills earned him the position of Captain of Cadets of Class 41-B.

Military service[edit]


In March 1941, he received his wings and a commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps after graduating from basic and advanced flight school at Maxwell Field, Alabama. Initially assigned to the 96th Bombardment Squadron of the 2nd Bombardment Group as assistant engineering officer, Zeamer was transferred to the 63rd Bombardment Squadron, 43rd Bombardment Group, where he served as squadron executive officer. It was there that he first met his future bombardier, Joseph Sarnoski. Sometime during the summer, Zeamer and "all the rest of the second lieutenants" were sent to Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio, for assisting with the service testing of the new B-26 Marauder by the 22nd Bombardment Group. Following his return to Langley, Zeamer was assigned to the group's 19th Bombardment Squadron as a co-pilot. On December 8, 1941, the 22nd was transferred from Langley to California to fly anti-submarine patrols and reconnaissance off the west coast of the United States. In March 1942, the 22nd BG was deployed to Australia, where Zeamer flew his first combat mission as a B-26 co-pilot on April 6, 1942. He was promoted to first lieutenant that same month. Still, due to issues of reaction time and aggressiveness on the controls, Zeamer had never checked out as first pilot in the B-26.

With the arrival of his old group, the 43rd, in Australia flying the new "F" model Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in August 1942, Zeamer sought and obtained a transfer from the 22nd to the 43rd. He reported for duty with the 403rd Bombardment Squadron in Torrens Creek, Australia, on September 22, reuniting with his gunnery trainer and friend from the previous summer, Joe Sarnoski.[10] Lacking any experience in the B-17, Zeamer had to scrounge for flights at first as a self-described "squadron errand boy" before gaining combat experience in October as a substitute copilot and even navigator.[11] Despite having not yet been checked out as first pilot in the B-17, Zeamer flew his first mission as pilot-in-command on November 20, a photoreconnaissance of Simpson Harbor at Rabaul, New Britain. He was awarded the Silver Star for the mission, which also served as his transition to first pilot.

Around the end of 1942, Zeamer began putting together his own crew, beginning with Sarnoski and squadron navigator Charles "Rocky" Stone. Popular accounts of the crew and its formation refer to them as "screw-offs," "renegades," and "misfits," but aren't borne out by the actual record and are either fiction or gross exaggeration. In time they did began calling themselves the "Eager Beavers" for Zeamer's constant volunteering for missions as they came available. An early incarnation of the crew was awarded Air Medals for the sinking of a merchant vessel at Rabaul on January 17, 1943. The bombing of Milne Bay that same day, as well as significant personnel losses to malaria and dengue fever, led to the 403rd being returned to Australia soon after for recuperation. Almost two months of non-combat followed, prompting another transfer for Zeamer, this time into the 65th Bomb Squadron of the 43rd BG, based in Port Moresby, New Guinea, in late March 1943. He was promoted to captain in early April, as well as made squadron operations officer. On April 12 the Eager Beavers flew a mission to Rabaul for which he was awarded the Oak Leaf Cluster (Silver Star).

In May 1942, Zeamer was made squadron executive officer, and took up the upgrading of a B-17E, #41-2666, recently acquired from the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, for photographic mapping purposes. The aircraft was one of the few in the theater equipped with the trimetrogon camera system, which allowed the creation of photo mosaics for generating maps. The crew replaced the engines, stripped the plane of extra weight, and augmented it with several additional guns, including dual .50 caliber M2 Brownings in both the radio compartment and both waist positions, and a fixed .50 in the nose for Zeamer to fire himself from the control column. Contemporary accounts including the 65th BS morning report for that day as well as Zeamer's own flight log record it as having sixteen guns total. The aircraft came to be known by the crew as "'666," or popularly as "Old 666."[12]

Medal of Honor[edit]

Medal of Honor citation

The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to:

ZEAMER, JAY JR. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps. Place and date: Over Buka area, Solomon Islands, June 16, 1943. Entered service at: Machias, Maine. Birth: Carlisle, Pa. G.O. No.: 1, January 4, 1944.


On 16 June 1943, Major Zeamer (then Captain) 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, Major Zeamer proceeded with his mapping run, even after the enemy attack began. In the ensuing engagement, Major Zeamer sustained gunshot wounds in both arms and legs, one 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 Major Zeamer himself shot down one. 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, Major Zeamer, with superb skill, resolution, and courage, accomplished a mission of great value.

In April 1943, Zeamer and the crew had been approached about a solo, 1,200-mile (1,900 km) round-trip photo-mapping mission of the western coast of Bougainville, with emphasis on Empress Augusta Bay where any marine landings would be made. Such maps were considered vital to a future invasion of the island in support of coalescing plans for the reduction of Rabaul. It was presented as a volunteer mission because extended mapping runs would require straight and level flight runs of up to 22 minutes deep in hostile territory.

The necessary weather for such a run proved elusive for two months, until mid-June. When the 8th PRS was unable to get the necessary photos on June 15, Zeamer was contacted again. At 4 a.m. the next morning, 16 June 1943, after intense preparations the day before, the crew headed for Bougainville. Twice already, once the night before and once as the aircraft was taxiing for take-off, they were ordered by V Bomber Command to do a photo recon of the Japanese airstrip on Buka, a small island off the northern tip of Bougainville. Zeamer rejected the idea both times as too dangerous, almost guaranteeing interception by enemy fighters while in sustained level flight for the mapping.

Arriving too early at Bougainville to start the mapping, Zeamer put the question of whether to pass the time over the ocean or go the Buka recon to the crew. Voting for the recon, Zeamer flew northeast in a loop to come back over Buka on their way into the mapping run. Photos taken that day reportedly showed twenty-one Japanese fighters taxiing or taking off to intercept. With approximately a minute left in the mapping run, "Old 666" faced a coordinated attack by eight A6M3 Model 22 Zero fighters from 251 Kōkūtai, as well as an unidentified twin-engined fighter. The ensuing attack mortally wounded bombardier Sarnoski, who struggled back to his gun to drive off a second Zero after being blown from his position by a 20 mm cannon shell from the first. Another of a total of four 20 mm shells destroyed the pilot's side of the instrument panel and broke Zeamer's left leg above and below the knee and leaving a large hole in his left thigh. He was also hit by shrapnel in both arms and his right leg, with a gash in his right wrist. Three others were also wounded, including the navigator and top turret gunner, who responded to a resulting oxygen fire by putting it out with their bare hands.

Due to the loss of oxygen and to escape their attackers, Zeamer dived the plane violently from 25,000 feet (7,600 m) to approximately 10,000 feet (3,000 m), estimating the altitude by an increase in engine manifold pressure. The Japanese followed them down and commenced a forty-minute series of passes at the nose of the B-17. Despite his wounds, Zeamer avoided any further extensive damage to the B-17 by repeatedly turning into the oncoming fighters just inside the trajectory of their fixed fire, a technique he learned while in the 22nd BG. By doing so, the Zeros would continue rolling into the Fortress without hitting it, but exposing themselves to the rear guns of the B-17. Eventually all of the Zeros broke off due either to damage, lack of ammunition, or lack of fuel.

After the engagement, an assessment revealed that the B-17's oxygen and hydraulic systems were destroyed, as well as all of the pilot's flight instruments. The magnetic compass and engine instruments on the copilot's side were undamaged, as were all four engines. Too wounded to move and unwilling to give up command of the plane, Zeamer advised the top turret gunner as he took over copiloting duties, allowing the unwounded copilot to attend to the wounded. The lack of oxygen, in addition to Zeamer's and the navigator's injuries, meant a return to Port Moresby over the Owen Stanley Mountains was impossible. Instead they made an emergency landing at an Allied fighter airstrip at Dobodura, New Guinea. Without operable brakes or flaps because of the destroyed hydraulic system, the B-17 was ground-looped without incident by the co-pilot. The casualties were one killed (Sarnoski) and four wounded. Zeamer was initially thought dead from loss of blood, but was treated with the other injured crew members by the 10th Field Ambulance of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps before being transported back to Port Moresby the next day.

Colonel Merian C. Cooper, chief of staff to the deputy commander of the Fifth Air Force, Major General Ennis Whitehead, recommended Zeamer be awarded the Medal of Honor, to which Fifth Air Force commander General George Kenney concurred. Zeamer received the award from Chief of the Army Air Forces General Henry H. Arnold on January 16, 1944, at the Pentagon.

Sarnoski was also awarded the Medal of Honor, marking only the third time in U.S. history that two members of the same crew received the Medal of Honor for a single mission. (The others were Robert G. Robinson and Ralph Talbot in World War I, and Addison Baker and John L. Jerstad just two months after Zeamer's Medal of Honor action during the Allied raids on oil refineries in Ploieşti, Romania.) All other members of Zeamer's crew received the Distinguished Service Cross. It remains the most highly decorated single air mission, and Zeamer's regular crew the most highly decorated, in American history.

Promotions and discharge[edit]

Zeamer was promoted to major on July 8, 1943, and lieutenant colonel in April 1944. He spent 15 months in recovery, regaining most of the use of his left leg, and returned to active duty at Mitchel Field, New York as a Tactical Field Air Inspector. On January 18, 1945, Zeamer retired from the USAAF on disability.

Later life[edit]

He returned to MIT and obtained a master's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1946. Zeamer then worked for a series of aerospace companies: Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut, followed by Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles, California, and finally Raytheon in Bedford, Massachusetts. Zeamer moved to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in 1968, where he enjoyed rowing in the harbor, as he had done in his childhood. He retired in 1975.

Zeamer married in 1949, and with his wife Barbara raised five daughters: Marcia, Jacque, Jayne, Susan, and Sandra. Barbara Zeamer stated that he rarely talked about his wartime experiences or the medal. "I think he didn't feel he deserved it. He was so close to his bombardier [Sarnoski] and he felt terrible about his being killed."

Zeamer died in a nursing home at age 88. At the time of his death, he was the last living Medal of Honor recipient of the Army Air Forces.[13] Zeamer's funeral was held on May 11, 2007, with a burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The governor of Maine, John Baldacci, ordered that flags in the state be flown at half-staff on the day of the funeral.

Awards and decorations[edit]

Gen. “Hap” Arnold presenting the Medal of Honor to Zeamer as his parents look on
USAAF Wings.png Army Air Forces Pilot Badge
Medal of Honor
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Silver Star with oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster
Purple Heart
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Air Medal with oak leaf cluster
American Defense Service Medal
Bronze star
American Campaign Medal with service star
Silver star
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with silver service star
World War II Victory Medal

United States Army and U.S. Air Force Presidential Unit Citation ribbon.svg  Army Presidential Unit Citation


Zeamer's Medal of Honor mission was featured on The History Channel[14] and in Martin Caidin's article "Mission Over Buka," published in the February 1956 edition of Argosy magazine. Caidin adapted the article for the first chapter of his 1968 book Flying Forts: The B-17 in WWII.[15]

There was a "Lt Col Jay Zeamer Squadron" in the Arnold Air Society under Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AFROTC program, but the Arnold Air Society has been derecognized by M.I.T.

The 43d Airlift Wing's headquarters building on Pope Air Force Base was named in Zeamer's honor in October 2008.[16] Since 2011, the building has been the headquarters of the 43d Airlift Group.

In 2011, Zeamer was selected as the exemplar of the class of 2014 at the United States Air Force Academy. His name is now worn on the left sleeve of that class's athletic jacket uniforms.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Obituary for Margery Herman Zeamer". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. The New York Times. Retrieved 10 September 2016. 
  2. ^ "Obituary for Jay Zeamer Sr.". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. The New York Times. Retrieved 10 September 2016. 
  3. ^ "E-mail from NESA regarding Zeamer Eagle Scout". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. Clint Hayes. Retrieved 10 September 2016. 
  4. ^ "Jay Zeamer CMA ROTC record". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. Public Domain. Retrieved 10 September 2016. 
  5. ^ "Jay Zeamer Culver yearbook bio". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. Clint Hayes. Retrieved 10 September 2016. 
  6. ^ "Zeamer M.I.T. record". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. Public Domain. Retrieved 20 September 2016. 
  7. ^ "1939 - Zeamer commission to 2nd Lt.". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. Public Domain. Retrieved 20 September 2016. 
  8. ^ "1939 - Zeamer Affidavit for Flying Cadet Appt". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. Public Domain. Retrieved 20 September 2016. 
  9. ^ "1939 - Zeamer flying cadet application page 1". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. Public Domain. Retrieved 20 September 2016. 
  10. ^ "1942 - Jay Zeamer reports to 403rd/43rd". zeamerseagerbeavers.com. Public Domain. Retrieved 20 September 2016. 
  11. ^ "Capt. Jay Zeamer, Official Flight Log". Pacific Air War Archive. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Retrieved 7 September 2016. 
  12. ^ "Good “Old 666”, the Cursed Bomber that No One Wanted to Fly took on 17 Japanese Fighters Alone and Lived to Tell About It". www.warhistoryonline.com. March 12, 2016. 
  13. ^ "Aerospace World: Jay Zeamer, Jr., MOH". AIR FORCE Magazine. Archived from the original on February 17, 2012. Retrieved May 12, 2007. 
  14. ^ "Long Odds (episode)". Dogfights (TV). The History Channel. January 19, 2007. 
  15. ^ "Stories, Listed by Author". The FictionMags Index. Phil Stephensen-Payne. Retrieved 8 September 2016. 
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2015-09-10.