Most WWII books are written about the European Theatre, but few are written about the war that took place in the South Pacific. With most attention given to the European Theater, it is great to see books written about the forgotten men not only fighting the Japanese aggression in the Pacific but also constant typhoons, inhospitable terrain, heat, diseases from the jungle, malaria-causing mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, unfriendly tribes and not enough men, food, supplies, and equipment. Overshadowed by the heroics of the 8th Air Force fighting in Europe, the men of the 5th Air Force had to make do with what little aircraft and spares were eked out to them to stop the Japanese quest to control southeast Asia and the Pacific.
I’m always on the lookout for WWII books about the Pacific Theater. Lucky 666 by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin is the true story of one of the most important air reconnaissance missions of World War II. The book started slow by talking about the crew’s childhood and their lives. This backstory helps to figure out why they made the choices they did. From childhood, Capt. Jay Zeamer and his bombardier, Joe Sarnoski, looked up at the sky and dreamed of flying and commanding some of the most advanced planes of their time.
Zeamer was always a rebel and a maverick and wanted to do things his way. When confronted with any challenge in his life, from elementary school through his time in the USAAF, Jay Zeamer found a way around it with ingenuity, knowledge, and unstinting effort. He was always willing to take on any job or mission that others avoided if he could do it his way.
The book also chronicles in large part the initial U.S./Allied air campaign and military strategy, the generals, aircrews, and other battles against Japan in the South Pacific. It helps set up the background of the long march of island hopping to start the defeat of Japan’s aggression.
Lucky 666 is about pilot Capt. Jay Zeamer judged to be a misfit by his superiors and bombardier Sergeant Joseph Raymond Sarnoski and their crew of misfits of the 43rd Bomber Group of the Army Air Force. They were denied their own plane but wanted to fly, so they rebuilt a dilapidated B-17 bomber from spare parts in the base junkyard. Its tail identification numbers end in 666, so they named it Old 666 and transformed it into a true Flying Fortress equipped with the best guns to survive a dangerous reconnaissance mission.
In 1942, the Japanese war machine had rolled up nearly all of the Pacific Theater, and the American forces were clinging to what little unconquered territory remained. Following the capture of Guadalcanal, Americans prepared to invade Bouganville, but very little was known about this island’s defenses, so U.S. forces planned a reconnaissance mission.
Toward the end of May 1943, Jay Zeamer found out that the 43rd headquarters needed volunteers to do the most dangerous reconnaissance mission, photo mapping over Bougainville Island. Nobody wanted the mission but Zeamer sensed an opportunity. Zeamer explained the situation to his “Eager Beavers” who all agreed to do it. On June 16, 1943, Zeamer and Sarnoski and their crew, against overwhelming odds, went on an incredible 1200-mile solo suicide mission and brought back films of hidden reefs off Buka and enemy defenses in Bougainville Island. Their successful mission laid the groundwork for the next offensive and changed the momentum of the War in the Pacific. Their sacrifice and bravery saved the lives of many Marines who would safely pass those reefs and eventually capture those islands critical to victory.
The narration of the flight comes near the end of the book. It is a gripping account of the longest continuous dogfight in the annals of the U. S. Army Air Force history lasting about 40 minutes, with one B-17 against as many as 30 Japanese fighter planes. Luckily, Old 666 was the most heavily armed B-17 bomber of the war. They made a crash landing back with crippling damage to the aircraft and wounded crew members, and one dead – Sarnoski, who was supposed to go back to Washington in the last week of June but decided to go on one more mission with the crew before heading back home. The plane received 187 bullet holes and five cannon holes, but it still landed. The film was developed, and the photos were invaluable to Adm. Halsey and his invasion planners.
The mission won pilot Jay Zeamer and bombardier Joe Sarnoski who died on the mission, our country’s highest honor – Medal of Honor. It is the most highly decorated bomber crew in the history of U.S. military service. The mission resulted in every crew member earning the Silver Stars, Distinguished Service Crosses, Purple Hearts, and two Medal of Honor. The single bomber shot down several enemy fighters. According to the Far East Air Chief at the time, General George Kenney, “Jay Zeamer and his crew performed a mission that still stands out in my mind as an epic of courage unequaled in the annals of air warfare.”
Lucky 666 is an inspiring WWII story of bravery, duty, and heroism. It is also a tale of leadership, friendship, and sacrifice set against the horrific backdrop of dangerous aerial warfare, wounded crewmates, and a pulse-pounding emergency landing in the jungles of New Guinea. It’s a shame that the suffering, devotion, and sacrifice made by the men in the Pacific is not widely known.
I close with this quote from Jay Seamer: “You can always find a way to do anything you want if you are dead set on doing it, come hell or high ack-ack.”