|Only known image of Old 666.|
|Type||Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress|
|Fate||Scrapped, August 1945|
Old 666, B-17E 41-2666 was a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber which was assigned to the United States' 43rd Bomb Group in 1943 and was the aircraft piloted by Lt. Col. (then Captain) Jay Zeamer on the mission that would earn him and 2d Lt. Joseph Sarnoski each a Medal of Honor, and every other member of the crew a Distinguished Service Cross.
By 1943, Old 666, tail number 41-2666, had suffered heavy battle damage and had gained a reputation as a cursed bomber, often coming back from missions with heavy damage. Grounded at Port Moresby Airport, it was parked at the end of the runway where other aircrews could cannibalize it for needed parts. A military photographer told Zeamer, "I know where there’s a bomber, but no one will fly it anymore because every time it goes out it gets shot to hell!"
Captain Zeamer, who had been unable to acquire a new bomber of his own because of discipline problems within the crew, had the bomber towed out of the 'bone yard' and, with enormous effort, not only restored the badly battered aircraft to flight status but made many changes.
They included increasing the number of machine guns from 10 to 19, replacing the waist gunners' standard single guns with twin guns, replacing all .30 cal machine guns with the larger and more powerful .50 cal, and adding a fixed-position gun that could be fired from the pilot's station. Zeamer's crew put guns where they did not even need them, and left spare machine guns on the aircraft's catwalk; if a gun jammed at a critical moment they could dump it and quickly replace it. They also mounted a gun behind the ball turret near the waist. These modifications made Old 666 the most heavily armed bomber in the Pacific Theater.
In the months of missions that followed, Zeamer'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 the bomber as "Lucy," that was not a title Zeamer and his crew ever used. The only markings the converted B-17E bore was the tail number—the bomber became known as "Old 666".
In May, Zeamer and crew made a skip-bombing run on a Japanese aircraft carrier, swooping within fifty feet of its decks. A few days later on a daylight bombing raid over Rabaul, Old 666 came in so low it was brushing the roofs of the housetops. On a night mission over Wewak the Japanese gunners on the ground managed to fix the flight of incoming American bombers in the glare of several large searchlights, but, in an audacious display of airmanship, Zeamer dived on the positions, shooting out three lights and damaging two others.
On a May 5 mission over Madang, Old 666 was hit more than 60 times by anti-aircraft fire, the stabilizer was shot out and the oxygen tanks exploded, yet the aircraft landed safely and was quickly patched.
On June 16, 1943, a request went out for a special mission: an unescorted, single-ship mapping mission over hostile territory. Capt. Zeamer and crew volunteered. Taking off at 4 a.m. to make use of cover of darkness, 'Old 666' and crew headed for Bougainville, where they were instructed to take reconnaissance of the Japanese controlled island, to determine logistics and enemy strength for the upcoming Invasion of the Solomon Islands.
The flight required flying over 600 miles (970 km) of open sea to reach the target. By 7:40 a.m., with only 22 minutes of flight-time remaining to complete its mission, the crew of Old 666 was intercepted by a reported (by the bomber's crew) 17 Japanese fighters of the 251st Kōkūtai (Air Group), commanded by Warrant Officer Yoshio Oki. Japanese reports write about eight A6M Zeros intercepting Old 666. One Zero suffered engine failure and was forced to ditch, leaving only seven Zeroes to intercept the B-17.
After making a pass at the heavily armed tail, the fighters came in against the normally lightly armed nose, only to find that this specific bomber possessed much-heavier forward firepower. Oki's Zero was hit in the fuel tank and broke off his attack early, returning to Buka Airfield accompanied by his wingman. 20mm cannon shells from another Zero smashed into the cockpit and nose, wounding both Zeamer and Sarnoski. Sarnoski crawled out of the nose to seek first aid attention, but when a "twin-engine fighter" attacked nose-on, he crawled back to his guns and shot it down before collapsing.
The second attack wave knocked out the plane's oxygen system, forcing the bomber to dive from 25,000 feet (7,600 m) to 8,000 feet (2,400 m), where the crew could breathe normally, in just a matter of seconds. By 8:45 a.m. the American bomber was over open seas, and the enemy fighters, low on ammunition and fuel, were forced to turn back to Bougainville. Six out of nine of Old 666's crew were dead or wounded in varying degrees, their aircraft heavily damaged. It was during the return flight that Zeamer lost consciousness and Sarnoski, still manning his guns, died. Upon landing, co-pilot Lt. Col. (then 1st Lt.) J.T. Britton told the ground crews to get Zeamer first, but the ground crew said, "He's gone!"; Zeamer, however, was not dead, and lived to receive the Medal of Honor; Sarnoski was awarded his Medal of Honor posthumously. In one of the most decorated flights in history, the rest of the crew received Distinguished Service Crosses.
Official Japanese records show that only one of the seven intercepting A6M Zeros was badly damaged by the defensive fire of Old 666 with two more being hit by .50 BMG rounds. They all returned to base safely. Seven of the eight Japanese pilots that intercepted Old 666 also participated in a strike against Allied shipping at Lunga Point later that day. 28 fighters and dive-bombers were lost in the attack, including Yoshio Oki.
After the war
With the arrival of B-24's by mid war most B-17Es were either converted into unarmed transports or scrapped. Old 666 was returned to the United States in February 1944 and was salvaged at Albuquerque in August 1945. This mission was featured on the History Channel show Dogfights, episode title "Long Odds".
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Old 666.|
- Wings of Valor II- Jay Zeamer and Joseph Sarnoski
- Japan Center for Asian Historical Records, Item ID C08051658400, Page 44 and 45
- Gamble 2013, p. 77.
- Gamble 2013, p. 78.
- Zeamer and the crew's description of the aircraft matched the characteristics of a Kawasaki Ki-45 heavy fighter. Gamble 2013, p. 80.
- Zeamer and the "Eager Beavers", National Museum of the US Air Force, 29 Apr 2015, retrieved 3 Mar 2016
- Jay Zeamer Jr. Obituary
- Gamble 2013, p. 81.
- "Long Odds (episode)". Dogfights (TV). The History Channel. January 19, 2007.