Old 666, a World War II B-17E Flying Fortress bomber that was the aircraft piloted by Lt. Col. Jay Zeamer Jr. on a special mapping mission in 1943 that would earn him, and his bombardier a Medal of Honor, and the rest of his entire crew a Distinguished Service Cross.
Why the B-17 was called Old 666 was due to the aircraft's serial numbers, 12666. It had gained a bad reputation as a cursed bomber, because it would often suffer heavy battle damage during missions. Aircrews of other bombers would often cannibalize the poor aircraft for spare parts, and it was always parked at the end of the runway.
The then Captain, Jay Zeamer Jr., who had been unable to find an aircraft, or aircrew, had the bomber towed out of the 'bone yard', and remarkably, with tremendous effort, restored the badly battered aircraft to flight status. In doing so, he made some significant changes. They included a major upgrade in armament. The original number of machine guns for a B-17E was 13, Zeamer added 6, changing the waist gunner's standard single gun to double, replacing all 0.30 cal. machine guns with the larger, and more powerful 0.50 cal., and adding a fixed-position gun that could be fired from the pilot's station. His crew even placed guns where they were not needed, leaving spare machine guns on the plane's catwalk, so that if a gun jams at a critical moment, crew members could just dump it, and get a another one.
On June 16th, 1943, a request from headquarters asked for an air crew to go on a special mission, a single ship unescorted mapping mission over hostile territory (Bougainville). Old 666's crew eagerly volunteered. Taking off from Port Moresby at 4 a.m. sharp, and on schedule, they wanted to use the darkness as cover for at least part of the mission. For 3 hours, Old 666's engines churned the air as Jay Zeamer flew the aircraft Northwest to the enemy, the rising Sun visible to the East. Shortly before 0700, the faint light of dawn revealed the distant outline of Bougainville Island, where awaiting Zeros were ready to pounce at a moments notice. The peacefulness of the morning was broken by the high tension.
For the first few minutes, the Old 666 did not meet trouble, and the cameras within her clicked away steadily, her crewmen standing readily behind their machine guns, scanning the sky for any signs of enemy aircraft.
At 0740, Zeamer had only 22 minutes of flight time left. However, it was going to be a long morning, and the action has not started, yet. In the distance, Old 666's crew could make out at least fifteen Zeros, and 2 Dinahs. Still, they persisted that their mission was of high priority. The battle between a lone American bomber and maybe 20 Japanese aircraft was about to unfold, and the result would be an American victory.
Zeamer returned to friendly territory safely, but with the cost of his bombardier, Joe Sarnoski, who remained at his guns in the most critical moments of the flight to shoot down the Japanese planes that were going to harm his friends. He was buried on a knoll near the New Guinea airstrip, and scores of airmen attended his funeral. Sarnoski was a brave, and heroic man, just like all the other people that was in Old 666 during that mission.
Upon landing, the semi-conscious Zeamer overheard his co-pilot remark, "Get the pilot last. He's dead!" However, Zeamer was not. Fortunately. A premature death notification was even sent to his parents back in the United States, but Zeamer, against all odds, survived the long ordeal in the hospital at New Guinea. He, and Lieutenant Johnson, who was also severely wounded, was not immediately informed of Sarnoski's death, only to find out about it several days later. Most of Old 666's crew were wounded in that mission.
The Eager Beavers, crew of Old 666 during the special mapping mission of Bougainville Island. (Back Row.) Bud Thues, Jay Zeamer Jr., Hank Dominski, Joseph R. Sarnoski (Front Row.) Vaughn, Kendrick, Able, Pugh. http://www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part2/07_zeamer_sarnoski.html
Zeamer was awarded the Medal of Honor, and Sarnoski too, but he was not there to recieve it. The rest of the entire crew recieved the Distinguished Service Cross, and they more than deserved it. This was one of the most decorated flights in history.
This mission was featured on the episode "Long Odds", of the History Channel show, Dogfights.