Medal of Honor: B-17 E 'Lucy' Flying Fortress in the Pacific
While swarms of Flying Fortresses were obliterating the Nazi war machine in Europe, the air war in the Pacific was very different. Small formations of Fortresses, from rough coral-cut airfields on tiny islands, trekked across the empty abyss of the Pacific to attack equally rough and tiny Japanese bases. It wasn't uncommon for B-17s to conduct single-aircraft raids or reconnaissance flights. Sometimes aircraft just vanished. It was a different kind of war but no less dangerous than what was happening over Europe.
History of B-17 'Lucy' (Old 666):
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 13 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.
Tenacity over Bougainville: Zeamer and the “Eager Beavers” display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
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 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 at least 17 Japanese fighters of the 251st Kōkūtai, commanded by Warrant Officer Yoshio Oki. Japanese reports write about seven 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 to 8,000 feet, 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. 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.