This Day in History: A B-17 crew fends off nearly two dozen Japanese fighter planes
On this day in 1943, a B-17 crew fends off nearly two dozen Japanese fighter planes. Captain Jay Zeamer and Second Lieutenant Joseph Sarnoski would later receive the Medal of Honor for their actions. It remains one of the few times that two members of a single crew were so honored for separate acts of heroism during the same combat.
Allied forces were then preparing for an invasion in the Solomon Islands: They needed the area photomapped! Any attempt to get that intelligence would be dangerous, of course. The mission required a plane to make a 1,200 mile round trip, solo, in hostile territory.
Zeamer and his crew volunteered anyway.
“The notice was put on the bulletin board asking for volunteers to photomap Bougainville Island,” Zeamer later explained. “All my fellows volunteered for it . . . . We’d fly anything that needed to be done.”
The mission began on June 16. The crew first stopped at Buka for a quick recon of an airstrip. Twenty-two Japanese fighter planes were there. THAT was a lot! Zeamer had to decide: Would they really continue to work on photomapping, with so many enemy fighters nearby?
Yes, they would. In fact, Zeamer’s crew had mostly completed their task when they suddenly came under attack.
Twenty-millimeter shells began ripping through the bomber, tearing out windows and blowing out flight instruments. Zeamer himself was hit almost immediately: Both his wrists were hurt, as was one leg. “There’s blood running down from my hands,” he later said, “and my hands are slippery on the wheel, but I figured we had to get the hell out of there.”
Zeamer’s bombardier, Sarnoski, had been wounded, too. Nevertheless, Sarnoski “crawled back to his post and kept on firing until he collapsed on his guns,” as his Medal citation describes. His wounds were mortal, but his actions turned out to be critical in breaking up the initial attack. Sarnoski gave Zeamer time—and Zeamer would use it.
Zeamer maneuvered the plane into a steep dive, but the Japanese followed closely behind. For 40 minutes, those Zeroes chased the B-17. Zeamer was badly injured, but he simply kept going: He was the only one with the experience to fly that B-17 like it was a fighter plane—so he did.
“I had to fly that thing like crazy. We didn’t need any more hits,” he later said.
Zeamer zipped in and out, simultaneously sidestepping enemy fire and giving his own gunners opportunities to fire upon the Japanese. Finally, the remaining Zeroes left. They were running low on fuel. They’d expended more than 1,200 rounds of ammunition, but still couldn’t take Zeamer down.
By then, the B-17 was crippled. Its oxygen system, flaps, and brakes didn’t work. Five crew members were wounded and Sarnoski was dead. The B-17 was 500 miles away from friendly territory. But Zeamer still had critical reconnaissance film to deliver. They simply had to make it. He relinquished the controls to a co-pilot—but retained overall command.
By the time the plane landed, Zeamer was barely holding on. Rescuers rushed in to unload the wounded crew. “I was passing out off and on from loss of blood,” Zeamer later said. “I could hear ‘em say, ‘Get the pilot last. He’s dead.’” He wanted to tell them they were wrong, but he lacked strength to do it.
Nevertheless, he’d made it. Zeamer and Sarnoski would later receive the Medal of Honor for their actions. Every other crew member received the Distinguished Service Cross.
Their amazing journey into—and out of—hostile territory made Zeamer’s crew one of the most decorated in American history.
America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (Jim Willbanks ed. (2011)
Bob Drury & Tom Clavin, Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission (2016)
Medal of Honor citation (Joseph R. Sarnoski; WWII)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Jay Zeamer; WII)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)