Jay Zeamer, Jr. – Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army Air Corps

Jay Zeamer Jr. (born July 25, 1918) was a pilot of the United States Army Air Forces in the South Pacific during World War II, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor during an air mission on June 16, 1943.


Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Zeamer later moved to Orange, New Jersey, the son of a traveling-salesman.

Zeamer became an Eagle Scout at the age of thirteen, and enrolled in Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, at fourteen. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after graduating high school and enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps as a prospective officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

With a developing interest in aviation he joined a local flying club in nearby Norwood for lessons. In 1939, while still at MIT, Zeamer was commissioned a second lieutenant Infantry in the Army Reserve. He graduated in 1940 with a degree in civil engineering and was assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Zeamer was discharged to enlist in the Regular Army as a flying cadet and completed primary flight school at Glenview, Illinois, where his leadership skills earned him the position of Captain of Cadets. In March 1941 he received his wings and a commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps after graduating from advanced flight school at Maxwell Field, Alabama.

His 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.

On June 16, 1943, volunteered to fly an unescorted B-17 nick named ‘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 mission has been recreated by The History Channel as part of Episode 12 of its series Dogfights, “Long Odds”, first telecast January 19, 2007.

Zeamer was promoted to Major on July 8, 1943, and Lieutenant Colonel in April 1944. He spent fifteen months of hospital recovery at Walter Reed General Hospital and returned to active duty at Mitchel Field, New York as a Tactical Field Air Inspector. On January 18, 1945, Zeamer retired from the USAAF on disability.

He returned to MIT and obtained a Master's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1946, then joined Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut. In 1949 he married, and he and wife Barbara raised five daughters. Lieutenant Colonel Zeamer is the last living USAAF recipient of the Medal of Honor.

The MIT squadron of the Arnold Air Society has been named the “Lt. Col. Jay Zeamer Squadron” in his honor.

From Contemporary Press Reports
March 23, 2007:

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine –Jay Zeamer Jr., a World War II bomber pilot who was awarded the Medal of Honor, died Thursday at a nursing home. He was 88.

Zeamer, a Major in the Army Air Corps, also earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars and two Air Medals for his service in the South Pacific. He earned the Medal of Honor for fighting off enemy attacks during a photographic mapping mission in which he suffered wounds that caused him to lose consciousness.

A native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Zeamer grew up in Orange, New Jersey, and spent most of his summers in Boothbay Harbor, rowing his homemade boat across the harbor. He studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering.

Zeamer, who enrolled in the Army ROTC program at MIT, 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 sustained gunshot wounds in both 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.

Zeamer's wounded bombardier, Second Lieutenant Joseph Sarnoski Jr. of Simpson, Pennsylvania, who shot down two of the planes and kept on firing until he collapsed on his guns, 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.”

Gov. John Baldacci directed that flags in Maine be flown at half staff Monday, the day of Zeamer's funeral.

“Jay Zeamer was a hero in every sense of the word,” Baldacci said. “He will be remembered for his great contributions to Maine and to this country for his service during World War II, and he will also be remembered by his community as someone who had the greatest heart and spirit.”

After the war, Zeamer worked at Pratt & Whitney in Hartford, Connecticut, before moving on to Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles and then Raytheon in Bedford, Massachusetts. He retired in 1968 to his beloved Boothbay Harbor, where he bought a skiff and oars and rowed around the harbor.

In addition to his wife, Zeamer is survived by their five daughters: Marcia Zeamer of Medford, Massachusetts, Jacque Zeamer Damon of Eliot, Jayne Zeamer of Winchester, Massachusetts, Susan Zeamer of Falmouth and Sandra Neubert of Easton, Connecticut.

A celebration of Zeamer's life will be held Monday at American Legion Post 36 in Boothbay Harbor with burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

26 March 2007:

Several hundred people, ranging from two star generals to private citizens, said goodbye to Jay Zeamer of Boothbay Harbor Monday. He was Maine's last recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Zeamer was remembered in a special ceremony at the American Legion Hall in the Lincoln County town of Boothbay. A friend called Zeamer “a real true American hero”. He earned the Medal of Honor for bravery while flying a B-17 bomber in the South Pacific. His plane was attacked by nearly two dozen Japanese fighters. He was badly wounded, but kept the plane in the air until the long fight ended.

People in Boothbay Harbor honored Zeamer for his heroism 50 years later. Monday, his daughter said her father was always humble and modest about being a Medal of Honor recipient.

“It was the first time I think he resolved in his mind it was ok to be a hero. And he said it beautifully that day ‘I'm here to represent those who didn't get the notoriety and did so many things for our country and go unrecognized. I'm only a representative of that,'” said Jackie Damon.

Damon also said her father was a quiet guy with a great sense of humor. Jay Zeamer will be buried in May at Arlington National Cemetery.

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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, Major Zeamer (then Captain) 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, Major Zeamer proceeded with his mapping run, even after the enemy attack began.

In the ensuing engagement, Major Zeamer sustained gunshot wounds in both arms and legs, one 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 Major Zeamer himself shot down one.

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, Major Zeamer, with superb skill, resolution, and courage, accomplished a mission of great value.

29 March 2007:

Lieutenant Colonel Jay Zeamer Jr., Maine's last surviving Medal of Honor recipient and a Boothbay Harbor resident for many years, died Thursday, March 22, 2007, at St. Andrews Village in Boothbay Harbor. He was 88.

On Monday, a celebration of Zeamer's life was held at the Charles E. Sherman Jr. Post, American Legion in Boothbay. Over 200 people were in attendance. Also on Monday, in remembrance and honor of Zeamer, Maine Governor John Baldacci directed that the United States flag and the State of Maine flag be flown at half staff. Zeamer will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, during a Service of Burial on May 10 at 1 p.m.

It was just over a month ago, on February 9, when Zeamer's World War II heroics were brought to light again when he was presented with a Medal of Honor flag at a ceremony held at St. Andrews Village.

During World War II, then Captain Zeamer volunteered on June 16, 1943, to pilot a bomber on a very important photographic mission of the Buka airdrome in the Solomon Islands. While on the mission, his plane was attacked by about 20 enemy fighters. Despite being wounded in both arms and both legs, he continued the mapping mission and maneuvered the damaged plane so that his gunners could fend off the attack. During the 40-minute fight, at least five enemy planes were shot down.

“Although weak from loss of blood, Zeamer refused medical treatment 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.

“Jay Zeamer was a hero in every sense of the word,” said Governor Baldacci on Friday. “He will be remembered for his great contributions to Maine and to this country for her service during World War II, and he will also be remembered by his community as someone who had the greatest heart and spirit.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Zeamer was a true patriot. His heroic and selfless acts during World War II will long be remembered,” said Maine's U.S. Senator Susan Collins. “He was most deserving of our nation's highest military honor, and we continue to owe so much to him and all of the brave men and women who defended us in the past and continue to defend our freedom today. His courage and leadership saved the lives of his flight crew and he set an example of bravery for generations to come.”

Zeamer was presented the Medal of Honor by General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, on January 16, 1944 at the Pentagon. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Zeamer was awarded two Silver Stars, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Purple Heart and two Air Medals.

On the 50th anniversary of the air battle, Zeamer was honored locally with a ceremony held at the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library on June 16, 1993.

A Hero, A Maverick and A Loving Father

At Monday's memorial service, family and friends fondly remembered the “quiet, unassuming” man they knew as a hero, a maverick and a loving father.

Al Roberts, who conducted the service, drew a round of applause at the outset when he said “We owe people like Jay Zeamer and all others in the armed services a big debt of gratitude.”

Zeamer's youngest daughter, Sandra Neubert of Easton, Connecticut, then sang a beautiful rendition of the “Lord's Prayer,” with accompaniment by Dominic Garvey on piano.

Roberts followed by reading one of Zeamer's favorite quotes, Teddy Roosevelt's “who counts” quote: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly …”

Daughter Jayne Zeamer of Winchester, Massachusetts, told of her father's work in recovering and transforming the B-17 he flew on that fateful day. “He and his crew took it out of a junk pile in Australia and transformed it into a hot rod,” said Jayne. She told of his 18-month recovery from the attack, how he had met their mother, Barbara, and his future in-laws on a train and married her five months later in 1949.

“We had a rich childhood,” said Jayne of her and her four sisters' upbringing on a farm in Groton, Mass. She talked about how he taught them responsibility by assigning them farm chores, taking care of two cows and other animals. He also taught them how to skate and ski.

She told of his summers in Boothbay Harbor and how he had built a rowboat at the age of 10, of his fishing exploits with their mother, and how one day he came into the house “soaking wet,” even though it wasn't raining – he had jumped overboard to retrieve an outboard engine and wasn't about to let it go.

“He taught each of us how to change the tires and how to change the oil in our cars,” said Jayne.

“He treated everyone kindly and without prejudice. He was a true gentleman,” said Jayne.

Long-time friend Svend Jorgensen of Boothbay recalled how he met the Zeamers through Fred and Gladys Pratt and their boating trips together in Boothbay Harbor.

“Jay and Fred built a shelter for Jay's daughters' horses at Fred's place,” said Svend, who added that Jay's attention to detail led Fred to say, “Jay, I'll finish it from here.”

He recalled enjoying watching the Fourth of July fireworks from the Zeamers' porch at their Commercial Street home and how he and Jay enjoyed talking as fellow engineers.

“He will be greatly missed,” said Svend.

Cindy Chadwick, who entertained with P.J. Cousens in the early '70s, said the Zeamers “seemed to be part of our travel company, catching our shows in Boothbay Harbor and Florida whenever they could.”

“Jay was a quiet man who would never boast. The Zeamer family, with their five beautiful and talented daughters, always opened up their hearts and homes to us.”

Legionnaire Palmer Payne talked about how he came to purchase the Zeamer home, “a local landmark,” 13 years ago and Jay's attendance at the Legion Post's meetings.

“He had never visited the local Coast Guard station so I called over there and said I was bringing him over,” said Payne. “The whole station came outside to greet us. He really enjoyed talking to these men, these kids who were a little older than teenagers. It didn't matter to him who you were. He treated everyone the same.”

Payne talked about Zeamer building his own bike and “zooming around town.”

“When I showed him a book about his wartime heroics, he gave me a small paperback book and said `This is the real story.' In the place where it read that the pilot (Zeamer) had died, Jay had scribbled that part out and wrote in a big, fat `NO.'”

Al Roberts talked about Jay's extensive education, his love of animals, his idea to raise chinchillas – “he bought 28 of them from Canada to raise as house pets” – the Christmas tree farm in Groton, the “white tornado” streaking through town on that bicycle, and other stories.

“He always believed that there's always a way to get something done,” said Roberts. “What a wonderful legacy that is for you grandkids,” said Roberts to Zeamer's grandchildren, who filled a row of seats behind Barbara and “the girls.”

“He was a true maverick,” said Roberts.

Local Legionnaires Palmer Payne and Bill English led a brief ceremony with prayers and Legionnaires from around the region saluted the flower-shrouded altar, which held Zeamer's urn, photos and an American flag.

Following the playing of “Taps,” the flag was presented to Barbara Zeamer by Major General John Libby of the Maine National Guard.

Following the service, attendees greeted the family and refreshments were provided.

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