WWII Medal of Honor recipient dies at 88

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
March 23, 2007

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine --Jay Zeamer Jr., a World War II bomber pilot who was awarded the Medal of Honor for fighting off enemy attacks during a photographic mapping mission in which he suffered wounds that caused him to lose consciousness, died Thursday at a nursing home. He was 88.
Zeamer, a major in the Army Air Corps, also earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars and two Air Medals for his service in the South Pacific.

A native of Carlisle, Pa., Zeamer grew up in Orange, N.J., and spent most of his summers in Boothbay Harbor, rowing his homemade boat across the harbor. He studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering.

Zeamer, who enrolled in the Army ROTC program at MIT, was awarded the nation's highest military honor for his actions on June 16, 1943, after volunteering for the mapping mission over an area near Buka in the Solomon Islands that was well-defended by the Japanese.

While photographing the Buka airdrome, Zeamer's crew spotted about 20 enemy fighters on the field, many of them taking off. But Zeamer continued with the mapping run, even after an enemy attack in which he sustained gunshot wounds in both arms and legs that left one leg broken.

Despite his injuries, he maneuvered the damaged plane so that his gunners could fend off the attack during a 40-minute fight in which at least five enemy planes were destroyed, one by Zeamer and four by his crew.

"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," according to the citation posted by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

He had been listed by the society as one of 36 living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II.

Zeamer's wounded bombardier, 2nd Lt. Joseph Sarnoski Jr. of Simpson, Pa., who shot down two of the planes and kept on firing until he collapsed on his guns, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Zeamer's wife, Barbara, said her husband rarely talked about his experience during the war.

"His daughters never knew he'd won the Medal of Honor until they were in junior high school," she said. "I think he didn't feel he deserved it. He was so close to his bombardier and he felt terrible about his being killed."

Gov. John Baldacci directed that flags in Maine be flown at half staff Monday, the day of Zeamer's funeral.

"Jay Zeamer was a hero in every sense of the word," Baldacci said. "He will be remembered for his great contributions to Maine and to this country for his service during World War II, and he will also be remembered by his community as someone who had the greatest heart and spirit."

After the war, Zeamer worked at Pratt Whitney in Hartford, Conn., before moving on to Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles and then Raytheon in Bedford, Mass. He retired in 1968 to his beloved Boothbay Harbor, where he bought a skiff and oars and rowed around the harbor.

In addition to his wife, Zeamer is survived by their five daughters: Marcia Zeamer of Medford, Mass., Jacque Zeamer Damon of Eliot, Jayne Zeamer of Winchester, Mass., Susan Zeamer of Falmouth and Sandra Neubert of Easton, Conn.

A celebration of Zeamer's life will be held Monday at American Legion Post 36 in Boothbay Harbor with burial at Arlington National

His initial assignment was an engineering officer service testing the new B-26 Marauder with the 22nd Bombardment Group (Medium), based at Langley Field, Virginia, following which he was assigned to the group's 19th Bombardment Squadron as a co-pilot. On December 8, 1941, the 22nd BG was transferred from Langley to California to fly anti-submarine patrols 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. 1st Lt. Zeamer transferred to the 43rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) in September 1942, a group that flew the four-engined B-17 Flying Fortress, as a supernumerary with group headquarters.

On September 14, 1942, the 43rd BG moved to a forward base at Port Moresby, New Guinea, where it conducted both bombing and photographic reconnaissance missions. Acting primarily as an intelligence officer, Zeamer began flying combat again in October, filling in on combat crews needing a second pilot, and on a mission in November to photograph Simpson Harbor at Rabaul, New Britain, earned the Silver Star. Promoted to captain in April 1943 and becoming a pilot in the 43rd BG's 65th Bomb Squadron, Zeamer was awarded a second Silver Star for a night mission to Wewak in May 1943.

Medal of Honor mission

On June 16, 1943, volunteered to fly an unescorted B-17 nicknamed 'Old 666' to Buka, a small island off the north coast of Bougainville, a 1200-mile round-trip mission, to photograph Japanese installations and map the west coast of Bougainville as far south as Empress Augusta Bay in preparation for Allied landings scheduled for early November. Apparently unbeknownst to Allied intelligence, the Japanese had moved about 400 fighters into the Solomon Islands on June 15. The mission was Zeamer's 47th in combat.

The photo reconnaissance mission was without incident, although Zeamer's crew reported observing 20 fighters taking off from Buka airfield. Zeamer continued south to the mapping run and shortly before its completion, his B-17 was intercepted by five Japanese fighters attacking from the front. Though wounded in the attack, bombardier 2nd Lt. Joseph Sarnoski continued to fire his nose gun, shooting down two fighters. Zeamer also destroyed one of the attackers using a nose gun fired remotely by a switch on the flight control column. A 20-millimeter cannon shell exploded in the nose of the B-17, severely wounding Sarnoski and knocking him out of the compartment. Sarnoski dragged himself back to his station and continued to fire until he died at his position.

The B-17's oxygen and hydraulic systems were destroyed, as were the pilot's flight instruments, in the initial attack. Zeamer, injured with a broken leg and numerous fragment wounds, dove the bomber steeply from its assigned mission altitude of 25,000 feet to approximately 10,000 feet (where the crew could survive without use of the oxygen system), estimating the altitude by an increase in engine manifold pressure. An estimated 17 fighters began a series of attacks after the bomber leveled off, waging a 45-minute battle until low on fuel. Zeamer saved the B-17 by taking evasive action to disrupt their deflection, and the crew of the B-17 shot down at least two additional fighters.

Zeamer refused first aid for his wounds and flew the B-17 until the fighters broke off the engagement. Lapsing in and out of consciousness, he assessed the battle damage to the bomber, and concluded they would be unable to climb over the Owen Stanley Mountains, instructing the copilot, who was unwounded, to make 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 by the co-pilot. Of the crew, one was killed-in-action (Sarnoski) and six others wounded-in-action.

At first thought dead from a massive loss of blood, Zeamer survived the ordeal, although nearly losing his injured leg during recovery. 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. He 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, the only instance of World War II when two members of one crew were honored for separate and independent acts of heroism in combat in the same engagement. All other members of Zeamer's crew received the Distinguished Service Cross.
I read about him in Martin Cadin's book on the B17. Also in other places. He was definitely a guy who marched to his own drummer.


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