Jay Zeamer, a Decorated Pilot in World War II, Dies at 88
Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2007
From the Associated Press
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, died 15 March 2007 at a nursing home in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. He was 88.
Zeamer, a major in the Army Air Forces, also earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars and two Air Medals for his service in the South Pacific.
He 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 suffered gunshot wounds in his 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.
Second Lt. Joseph Sarnoski Jr. of Simpson, Pa., Zeamer's wounded bombardier, shot down two of the planes and kept firing until he collapsed on his guns. He 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."
A native of Carlisle, Pa., Zeamer grew up in Orange, N.J. He studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering.
After the war, Zeamer worked at Pratt & Whitney in Hartford, Conn., before moving on to Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles and then Raytheon Co. in Bedford, Mass. He retired in 1968 to Boothbay Harbor, where he had spent summers as a boy, rowing his homemade boat across the harbor.
In addition to his wife, Zeamer's survivors include their five daughters.
He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Published December 1985
Battle Over Bougainville
Jay Zeamer and his crew had to get back to New Guinea with intelligence essential to the invasion of Bougainville.
When Capt. Jay Zeamer, a member of the 43d Bomb Group, lifted his B-17 off the runway at Port Moresby, New Guinea, on June 16, 1943, he knew, as did every member of his crew, that this was a vitally important mission. The lone, unescorted bomber was headed for Buka, a small island just north of Bougainville, some 600 miles to the northeast of New Guinea. They were to photograph Japanese installations and then map the west coast of Bougainville as far south as Empress Augusta Bay in preparation for the Allied landings that were scheduled for late October or early November. There might not again be a clear day over the area in time to fly another mapping mission and prepare detailed charts for the invasion force. It was now, or perhaps never.
In the course of his 47 previous missions, Zeamer had flown over Bougainville before and encountered only light opposition. But, unknown to Zeamer if not to higher headquarters, the Japanese had moved about 400 fighters into Rabaul and the Solomon Islands during the night of June 15. Zeamer was flying into a hornet's nest, as he was soon to find out. But Zeamer would have volunteered for the mission anyway, and so would have most of his crew. After months of frustrating shortages and overwhelmingly adverse odds, the war in the Pacific was turning around. Slowly, the Japanese were being pushed back in the Southwest Pacific, and Bougainville was a key to taking, or bypassing, the great Japanese base at Rabaul.
In the nose of the B-17 was 2d Lt. Joseph Sarnoski, who had received an unorthodox introduction to the craft of bombing. In the late 1930s, he and another raw recruit at Langley Field, Va., were put through an informal course on the Norden bombsight to demonstrate its simplicity and to prove that bombardiers could be turned out en masse if the US became involved in a major war.
The photo recce part of the Buka mission went off without incident, though 22 enemy fighters were seen taking off from the island's airfield. A few minutes later, Zeamer started a mapping run along Bougainville's west coast. Forty-five seconds from completion of the run, his B-17 was attacked head-on by five Japanese fighters. Though wounded in the attack, Sarnoski continued to fire his nose gun, shooting down two enemy aircraft. Had it not been for him, says retired Lt. Col. Jay Zeamer, the B-17 would have been destroyed by that initial attack. For his part, Zeamer shot down one of the attackers with a nose gun fired by a button on the control column--a rare, perhaps unique, achievement for the pilot of a heavy bomber.
Then a 20-mm shell exploded in the nose of the bomber, hurling Sarnoski into the catwalk under the cockpit and riddling Zeamer's arms and legs with shell fragments. With a supreme act of will, the mortally wounded Sarnoski dragged himself back to the nose and continued to fire until he fell dead over his guns.
The head-on attack knocked out the B-17's oxygen and hydraulic systems and all flight instruments. Zeamer, with a broken leg and multiple deep lacerations, put the bomber into an almost vertical dive from 25,000 feet to about 10,000 feet. He could judge his altitude only by the increase in engine manifold pressure. As he leveled off, an estimated 17 enemy fighters resumed the attack from all quarters, staying with the B-17 for 45 minutes until they ran low on fuel. During the running battle in which Zeamer saved the B-17 by taking violent evasive action, his crew shot down two fighters and probably downed another two.
Although weak from pain and loss of blood, Zeamer refused medical aid and remained at the controls until the enemy fighters had left. Then, during moments of consciousness, he assessed the condition of the bomber, decided it could not make it over New Guinea's Owen Stanley Mountains, and directed his copilot to land at Dobodura on the east coast. With no brakes or flaps, the B-17 ground-looped to a stop with one dead and six wounded aboard. Only the copilot and two gunners had escaped injury.
For their heroic roles in that incredible mission, both Zeamer and Sarnoski were awarded the Medal of Honor, the only instance of World War II when two members of a crew were so honored for separate and independent acts of heroism in combat. All other members of the crew were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses.
A year later, Zeamer was released from the hospital. In January 1945, he was retired for disability resulting from his combat wounds. He now lives in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
Source of this article is unknown
Jay Zeamer's 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.
This is a photo of Jay Zeamer, age 82, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. He is standing over the grave of Joseph R. Sarnoski. This is the first time he has seen the grave of his bombardier
Medal of Honor Citation
ZEAMER, JAY JR. (Air Mission)
Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps
Place and date: Over Buka Area, Solomon Islands, 16 June 1943
Entered service at: Machias, Maine
Birth: Carlisle, Pennsylvania
G.O. No.: 1, 4 January 1944
On 16 June 1943, Maj. Zeamer (then Capt.) volunteered as pilot of a bomber on an important photographic mapping mission covering the formidably defended area in the vicinity of Buka, Solomon Islands. While photographing the Buka airdrome. his crew observed about 20 enemy fighters on the field, many of them taking off. Despite the certainty of a dangerous attack by this strong force, Maj. Zeamer proceeded with his mapping run, even after the enemy attack began. In the ensuing engagement, Maj. Zeamer sustained gunshot wounds in both arms and legs, 1 leg being broken. Despite his injuries, he maneuvered the damaged plane so skillfully that his gunners were able to fight off the enemy during a running fight which lasted 40 minutes. The crew destroyed at least 5 hostile planes, of which Maj. Zeamer himself shot down 1. 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. In this voluntary action, Maj. Zeamer, with superb skill, resolution, and courage, accomplished a mission of great value.
Medal of Honor Citation
SARNOSKI, JOSEPH R. (Air Mission)
Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 43rd Bomber Group
Place and date: Over Buka Area, Solomon Islands, 16 June 1943
Entered service at: Simpson, Pennsylvania
Born. 30 January 1915, Simpson, Pennsylvania
G.O. No.: 85, 17 December 1943
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. On 16 June 1943, 2d Lt. Sarnoski volunteered as bombardier of a crew on an important photographic mapping mission covering the heavily defended Buka area, Solomon Islands. When the mission was nearly completed, about 20 enemy fighters intercepted. At the nose guns, 2d Lt. Sarnoski fought off the first attackers, making it possible for the pilot to finish the plotted course. When a coordinated frontal attack by the enemy extensively damaged his bomber, and seriously injured 5 of the crew, 2d Lt. Sarnoski, though wounded, continued firing and shot down 2 enemy planes. A 20-millimeter shell which burst in the nose of the bomber knocked him into the catwalk under the cockpit. With indomitable fighting spirit, he crawled back to his post and kept on firing until he collapsed on his guns. 2d Lt. Sarnoski by resolute defense of his aircraft at the price of his life, made possible the completion of a vitally important mission.
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