Yes, it was true what they said about it. The faded green B-17 Flying Fortress was shot up and being cannibalized for parts. Hell, it was just a few days from the scrap heap. Yet, Captain Jay Zeamer knew there was no other option but to try and restore it to airworthiness.
He and his crew, known for their rowdiness and dislike of military discipline, were marked men. They were at the bottom of the list for assignment to a new aircraft and had to make do with whatever they could find. And here it was, a plane believed to be jinxed because every time it flew a mission it got shot to pieces and crews were reluctant to fly it. But Zeamer shrugged off the concerns and towed it from the bone yard to a vacant spot near the flight line of their squadron, the 43rd USAAF bomb group based in Port Moresby, New Guinea.
It was spring 1943. The U.S Pacific campaign was less than a year old and in full swing. The first offensive actions had begun in the Solomon Islands and resulted in Guadalcanal and Tulagi falling, and sea and air battles raging all over the surrounding area up to Bougainville, the largest island which remained firmly in Japanese hands. Already though, there were plans to complete a full conquest of the chain and provide staging areas for the drive toward the next island groups and draw closer to the Japanese mainland.
Everything and everybody in the American arsenal as well as Allies focused themselves on the costly task of bringing as much death and destruction as possible to an enemy determined to fight to the end. And of great importance in this effort were four-engined bombers like the B-17 and B-24 Liberator. From the first days of combat in the South Pacific, these squadrons proved the only ones capable of carrying heavy enough bombloads to hit targets the enemy thought out of reach.
Zeamer’s bird at first could hardly meet that requirement. An earlier E model of the Flying Fortress, it still carried some of the smaller .30 caliber machine guns in a time when it was clear that only the more powerful . 50 calibers would suffice. So, one of the initial orders were enough .50s to replace the .30s – not just on a one-for-one basis, but expanded to an almost unbelievable ratio.
Normally, a Flying Fortress could carry up to 13 guns, but Zeamer instructed the maintenance crews to modify mounts and create new ones where none were supposed to be. After much improvising and welding, the aircraft ended up sporting 19 .50 caliber machine guns, including twin .50s on either side of the waist gunner positions, where normally there was just one. They added two in the nose where none were previously and, most impressive, one on top of the nose that could be fired by Zeamer himself from a button on the control column. They even mounted a .50 behind the twin .50s ball turret position on the bottom of the fuselage. They also stowed several .50s inside the plane in case of emergency.
Performing these modifications took the word Flying Fortress to the extreme, so much so that, when done, the B-17 truly bristled like a porcupine, impressing onlookers counting the new protrusions from every opening. And as the days passed, the rest of the Fortress was rebuilt to the point to where it looked as ready to take off as the ones Zeamer watched with envy day after day. Declaring it finished, he inspected his new ride inside out and pronounced the plane ready for combat to his commanding officer.
Given its history though, one that many felt was a one way ticket to doom, others decided to take it upon themselves to name it for them…Old 666. Unlike most of the bombers surrounding it, Zeamer’s B-17 lacked any artwork or nicknames on its nose or anywhere else. All it had was a tail number, 41-2666. During all the sweat put into the restoration, Zeamer didn’t seem to care about naming his aircraft, nor the ominous meaning of the last three digits or anything else people thought up. He had been too busy to wonder about such frivolous things and kept his focus solely on getting his crew back into action.
Once on the flight line and the first mission assigned, the crew, fully aware that many of the onlookers thought their bird was cursed, filed out of the operations room and boarded the bomber in the dead silence typical of so many who prepared for events that could be their last. Some said prayers while Zeamer read off the checklist and after a few minutes the groan of the Pratt & Whitney Cyclone engines began to spool up the propellers.
Idling steady, soon Old 666 crept forward to join a line of bombers moving at walking pace to the takeoff point, until it too throttled forward down the runway like so many others. Except, due to Zeamer’s modifications, it rose into the sky as the most heavily armed aircraft in the Pacific Theater, yet still able to keep up with the formations as they started the bombing campaign against Japanese installations all over the South Pacific. And just like he had been told, from the first mission on out, that plane came back full of holes and pieces shot off, giving credence to others feelings that those poor souls rode a cursed ship.
Zeamer refused to believe it. He attributed it to the risks he took. He flew the plane like a daredevil, in one instance trying to skip bomb at a Japanese aircraft carrier and passing just 50 feet over its decks. In another over Rabaul, he flew so low that he knocked off tree branches and brushed the rooftops of houses, before yanking back on the column aiming the bird skyward. On a night mission just a few days later over Wewak, after seeing several bombers get caught in the glare of searchlights, he immediately dove the plane earthward with machine guns blazing and managed to knock out two lights and damage three others. Yes, Old 666 came back hurt, but it still came back.
Then, May 5th brought Zeamer and Old 666 closer to the end than ever before, when it seemed like it got picked out of the formation by every Japanese anti-aircraft gunner in the Pacific, who battered and buffeted it with flak, exploding its oxygen tanks and destroying a stabilizer. Some crafty flying ensued to bring the bomber down on its return, where more than sixty holes of varying sizes were counted. The maintenance crews went to work as they always did when the plane lumbered up to its space, and quickly got it patched up and aloft a short time later to be riddled some more.
It all would be forgotten after June 16th.
The day prior, an important mission request came down the pipe. After he read it, Zeamer volunteered for the job, and in the early morning, at 0400 hours with most of the base asleep, the only engines being gunned were Old 666 as it lumbered into the air, absent of bombs, and climbed for the dark clouds.
Onboard was a cameraman to photograph Bougainville’s lush coastline, still in enemy hands and infested with Japanese fighter aircraft. A crappy assignment, but necessary, as intelligence wanted better photos for mapping potential invasion beaches. Zeamer realized that taking this mission and disregarding the danger as he had so many times before tempted fate. Today might really turn out different as he knew he would be all alone with no fighter escort, nor mutual gunfire support from other bombers. If trouble came, he knew only flying skills and his gunners marksmanship mixed with luck could bring them home one more time.
The flight to Bougainville stayed peaceful, but the coast remained too dark for mapping in the early morning. With time on his hands, he turned for nearby Buka to get some photos of the aircraft revetments and its massive airfield. Once they were overhead, what the cameraman saw horrified him. Over 400 aircraft were parked all over and not just in revetments. On the runway were Japanese fighters warming up for takeoff. The cameraman sent word to Zeamer to put the plane back on course for Bougainville, with orders for all to watch the sky. Just as quick, the tail gunner reported the planes lifting off as they sped away.
It was 0700 hours
Arriving back over Bougainville, the camera clicked as the coast was much more visible. Zeamer knew that, if he broke and ran from the impending trouble, a substantial portion of Bougainville, with its unpredictable reefs, would remain uncharted and might prove to be the landing beach were everything went wrong, all because they didn’t map it… So despite the anxiety rising in him, he stayed level and true, skirting the dark green edges of the island waiting for the cameramen to say he had enough photos.
Then it happened. In an instant, five Japanese fighters rushed out from a cloud directly in front and spread out, their wings alight sending streams of tracer toward him.
Zeamer pressed the fire button, his fixed gun lit up. A Japanese plane spurted flame and twirled away just as rounds from others began hitting the nose.
Plexiglas shattered around 2nd Lieutenant Joseph Sarnoski, the bombardier, who fired back furiously until rounds and fragments ripped into him and hurled him backwards. Bleeding into a puddle on the cold aluminum floor, Sarnoski somehow mustered the strength to crawl back to his guns and resume firing, as more fighters began swarming, around the plane trying to coordinate their attacks.
Zeamer heard the cameraman’s confirmation and shoved the throttles to the wall, banking the plane left and right trying to spoil the attackers aim. Old 666 came alive, blinking with machine gun fire that reached out at the multitude of fighters, some 16 in all, racing in often upside down with guns blazing. The bomber shook under the hits before the planes dived away, outrunning the pieces and chunks raining from the plane. At times, Zeamer rolled the plane through what seemed like a vortex of head on attacks. “I don’t know how he did it, but he did,” Co-Pilot, 1st Lieutenant J.T Britton said afterward.
More continued coming in from both sides and cries bellowed from different compartments as bullets and shells hit crewmen. Those who could stared down their sights through determined eyes and continued firing, sending another fighter down in flames, then another. Through it all, Zeamer continued his desperate maneuvering until the windscreen before him atomized under gunfire and fragments slammed into his torso and shattered his left leg.
The oxygen supply oxygen supply was destroyed and air to their masks ceased. With the air too thin to breath, he said, “I rolled the airplane over and stuck the nose straight down, and figured we better get the hell out of here.” He dove the plane in an almost vertical descent down to 10,000 feet pulling back to level off as more fighters followed only to be driven back by the .50 calibers continuing to belch and throb from the now smoking plane…
(Continued in Part 2, coming soon)