During World War II, there was a crew with the U.S. Army Air Forces 43rd Bomb Group of the Fifth Air Force that became famous in the Pacific Theater. It was led by Army Capt. Jay Zeamer, a 24-year-old B-17 Flying Fortress pilot who was known to many of his superiors as a “misfit.” Zeamer had a penchant for disobeying the rules, which is why he wasn’t actually given men to command. But just like many other rules, he skirted that one, too: He created his own crew out of other “misfits” like him.
Zeamer and his team were stationed at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, an important allied position that was constantly being threatened by Japanese forces. If Port Moresby fell, the key U.S. ally of Australia would have been in grave danger.
In the spring of 1943, Zeamer’s crew found a damaged old B-17E on the island. Since they didn’t have their own plane, they decided to repair it and make it mission-ready once again – even adding 19 machine guns instead of the usual 13. The plane was dubbed Old 666 (because of its tail number, 41-2666), and its crew became known as the Eager Beavers for regularly volunteering for the most dangerous missions.
The last of those missions came on June 16, 1943. Zeamer’s crew was called upon to perform a special photo reconnaissance mission over Buka Airfield on the Japanese-occupied island of Bougainville, about 600 miles east of Port Moresby. That area was being considered for a possible amphibious invasion by the allies, and aerial photographs were needed to help with the planning.
All was OK until Old 666 was about 10 miles from its destination, when several Japanese fighters spotted them and took to the air to bring them down.