Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 6, 2010
In addition to RPGs, I’m also an aviation and flight sim buff, and I get a little geeked over military history. Yes, I could totally grow a beard and become a wargamer. But I won’t.
Over the weekend, I discovered the story of “Old 666.” I was watching an old episode of the History Channel’s “Dogfights,” and we were amazed by this story of a very unique B-17 bomber and its crew in World War II. I had to look up more details, and discovered that almost as amazing as the story of the plane and her crew and the “mapping mission” was that Hollywood still hasn’t turned it into a movie.
But maybe the reason nobody has made the movie yet is that the story would sound so incredibly cliche and formulaic. It’s not just a case of life imitating art, but life imitating the most over-the-top storyline Hollywood hacks could come up with. I’m sure that there are a lot more details to make it even more interesting, but here’s the story as I understand it (and you can read a much more lengthy version of it here).
A Pilot Without a Plane
So you’ve got this very likable protagonist pilot, Jay Zeamer, who had a dramatic need problem. He kept failing his certification on the bombers of his squadron. He was bounced around, filling in anywhere when a crewmember was absent. What he really wanted to do was to be a the pilot with his own crew. But while he had a reputation for being very cool under fire and in an emergency, but it didn’t mix well with his growing boredom and frustration with being stuck in the second seat. With very little to do, he’d often just fall asleep in the copilots chair, even – in one instance – in the middle of being attacked with anti-aircraft fire.
He was transferred to a new squadron flying B-17s – the “Flying Fortress.” His reputation followed him, and he again found himself as something of a “temp” guy. However, through this, he became something of a jack-of-all-trades. Eventually, he even found himself filling in as a pilot on some flights, in spite of never having successfully passed off his certification for that aircraft. But he was still just “filling in,” a “rover” without a plane or crew of his own.
“Renegades and Screwoffs” and a Cursed Plane
At the bottom of the list to receive a plane or crew, he took matters into his own hands. He put together a crew of similar misfits from the squadron – the men that no one else wanted — a bunch of “renegades and screwoffs,” a fellow pilot called them. Soon, he had a crew, but no plane. Then one day, a friend told 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!” It was an old B-17 that had been grounded after sustaining so much damage that it had been towed to the “bone yard” to be cannibalized by other crews for spare parts.
Zeamer and his misfit crew seized the plane, and worked to restore it and make it airworthy again. Not just restore it – they decided to customize it. They added nearly 50% more guns to the bird, including a forward-firing machinegun so Zeamer could also shoot, like a fighter pilot. They replaced the .30 caliber machine guns with bigger .50 caliber guns – or, in some cases, twin .50 caliber guns. When they were done, their aircraft – number 41-2666 (or 12666, depending on the account) was the most heavily armed bomber in the entire Pacific theater of World War II. They never added customary nose-art to the bomber, leaving it unadorned. So it became known by its serial number on its tail – “Old 666.”
These guys were nicknamed “The Eager Beavers” because they consistently volunteered for the most dangerous, crazy missions. They’d frequently come back shot full of holes, but they made it home. Zeamer and crew of renegades gained a new reputation for courage and incredible airmanship. In one night mission, for example, the enemy troops managed to fix the entire flight of bombers with large searchlights, illuminating them so they could be shot down by anti-aircraft guns. Zeamer used his giant aircraft as a fighter, diving on the searchlight positions and using his forward-firing machine guns to destroy three of them and damage two others, saving the other planes and their crews.
The Mapping Mission
Their final mission together was a critical reconnaissance mission – a solo flight deep into enemy airspace. It was a purely a volunteer operation, as it was far too dangerous to be assigned. Zeamer and his crew volunteered (except the ones sick with malaria) – even the bombardier, Joe Sarnoski, whose position would not be required on this mission. Sarnoski was, in fact, had already packed his bags, as his tour of duty was over. He was ordered home to serve as an instructor.
As they approached their targets in the early dawn, seventeen enemy aircraft were scrambled to intercept. The smart thing to do at that point would have been to turn around and fly home. Zeamer decided to complete the mission. As they were completing their photography run, they were jumped. The enemy fighters focused on attacking the front of the B-17, which was traditionally lightly armed. They hadn’t accounted for the customization of the “Eager Beavers”.
Two fighters were shot down immediately, however, both Zeamer and Sarnoski were badly injured. In Sarnoski’s case, the wound was mortal. He’d been blown out of his chair and nearly cut in half. He crawled, bleeding, back to his guns, and shot down one more attacking fighter before passing out, still clenching the gun controls. Zeamer’s wrists were severely lacerated by shrapnel, pumping blood with every heartbeat, and his feet had been shattered by an exploding shell beneath them which had also destroyed his rudder pedals. The oxygen system had been destroyed, necessitating a dive from 25,000 feet down to 8,000 feet to keep the crew breathing. Somehow, Zeamer maintained consciousness, and fought to weave in and out of the attacks as they zig-zagged for home.
The combat lasted a grueling 45 minutes. When the co-pilot brought the plane in for a landing and the medical crew came, they believed Zeamer was dead. Sarnoski had finally died during the flight. Old 666 had taken 187 bullets and bore the gaping holes from five explosive 20 mm rounds. But they’d completed their mission, and brought back mapping photos that may have saved the lives of hundreds or even thousands of marines in the upcoming attack several months later.
While it was the end of Jay Zeamer’s combat career, he survived, enduring fifteen months of hospitalization for his injuries. Both Zeamer and Sarnoski (posthumously) received the Medal of Honor for the mission, and the other seven crewmembers each received the Distinguished Service Cross. They also received five Purple Hearts for injuries they received from the battle, as more than half the crew were wounded in the engagement.
It’s a heck of a story. It sounds like it would make a great movie, too. But people would probably complain about how unrealistic it was. But here’s the excerpt from the Dogfights documentary:
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