"Old 666", a Courageous Mission to Bougainville, And Two Medals of Honors

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
65 years ago, this famous recon mission was flown

Wings of Valor II- Jay Zeamer and Joseph Sarnoski

Jay Zeamer Jr. Obituary

Old 666 (B-17 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Old 666, B-17E 41-2666 was a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber which was assigned to the 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 bombardier Joseph Sarnoski a Medal of Honor, and every other member of the crew a Distinguished Service Cross.


By 1943 Old 666, serial numbers 12666, had suffered heavy battle damage and had gained a reputation as a cursed bomber, often coming back from missions with heavy damage. It was parked at the end of the runway where other aircrews could cannibalize it for needed parts. A friend of Zeamer's said to him, "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 an aircraft or crew of his own, 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 gunner's standard single gun 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 didn't even need guns, 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. 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 simply 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 dove on the positions, shooting out three and damaging two others.

On a May 5th mission over Madang, Old 666 was hit more than sixty times by anti-aircraft fire, the stabilizer was shot out and the oxygen tanks exploded, yet the aircraft landed safely and was quickly patched.

The Mapping Mission

On June 16 1943 a request went out for a special mission, a single ship unescorted mapping mission over hostile territory. Capt. Zeamer and crew eagerly volunteered.

Taking off at 4 A.M. to make use of darkness to cover at least part of the mission 'Old 666' and crew headed for Bougainville, where they were instructed to make a reconnaissance of the Japanese airfield there to determine logistics and enemy strength.

The flight would require flying over 600 miles of open sea to even reach the target. By 7:40 AM with only 22 minutes of flight-time remaining to complete his mission, Old 666 was intercepted by no less than 17 Japanese Fighters.

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, resulting in two A6M Zeros being shot down. 20mm cannon shells from a third Zero smashed into the cockpit and nose wounding both Zeamer and Sarnoski before being shot down itself. Sarnoski crawled out of the nose to seek first aid attention but when a second wave of fighters attacked nose on he returned to his guns. He shot down an incoming Ki-46 Dinah before collapsing on the guns.

The second wave knocked out the oxygen system and forced the bomber to dive from 25,000 ft to 10,000 ft, where the crew could breathe normally, in just a matter of seconds.

By 8:45 AM the American bomber was over open seas and the enemy fighters, low on ammunition and fuel, were forced to turn back to Bougainville, most of the crew had been wounded in varying degrees and the aircraft was shot full of holes. It was during the return flight that Zeamer lost consciousness and Sarnoski, still manning his guns, died.

Upon landing the co-pilot told the ground crews, "Get the pilot last. He's dead!" He was not, and Zeamer lived to receive the Medal of Honor, but Sarnoski's Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously. In one of the most decorated flights in history, the rest of the entire crew received Distinguished Service Crosses. This mission was featured on the episode "Long Odds" on the History Channel show Dogfights.


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I thought for my post number 666 I would start a thread on this subject.
Since it already was made I went ahead and resurected it instead.
I brought together the relevant threads I could find about it too.

This was one heck of a mission.
It amazes me more each time I read about it.

It was profiled on an episode of "Dogfights"
Old 666 starts at roughly 9 minutes.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdYDHo7s4_Y

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KO-u2nE_Cjw

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnHMA98Z5V8

Old 666 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Eric found a couple of nice sites about "Old 666" in this thread.

Hope you enjoy the video. :)


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