JAY ZEAMER JR.’S PARENTS SUSPECTED early on that their oldest child was a born renegade. The boy was not long out of cloth diapers, no older than four, when he began disappearing from the Zeamer household in the verdant suburb of Orange, New Jersey. Sometimes his mother, Marjorie, would find him sitting on the roof of the porch jutting from their clapboard Victorian home, having crawled out of an upstairs window to study the stars in the night sky. At other times he went missing for hours, before a frantic Jay Sr. would receive a call from a local policeman informing him that his son had been discovered wandering among the breweries and hatmakers that dominated the city’s downtown streets.
Jay’s wanderlust should not have come as a surprise to his parents, particularly Jay Sr. The branches of the Zeamer family tree were thick with wayfarers and adventurers, including at least fifteen of Jay’s German-born forebears who had fought for the Colonies during America’s Revolution. Continuing the custom, Jay Jr.’s great-great-grandfather John had become a teamster by the age of fourteen, hauling lumber and whiskey across hundreds of miles of Pennsylvania backcountry over bone-jarring tracks. And his grandfather Jeremiah had traced the Oregon Trail to California by covered wagon and sidewheeler steamer at the conclusion of the Civil War. Then he had sailed home to Philadelphia via the Cape Horn passage to edit and publish a weekly newspaper.
After Jay Sr. had served a short apprenticeship on his father’s newspaper, he too took to the road, wrangling an appointment through a family friend to Puerto Rico’s Department of Education. “The job involved bookkeeping,” he wrote back to his family, “of which I had no practical knowledge.” His government employer apparently agreed, and dismissed him after seven months.
But Jay Sr. had made use of his short stint in San Juan to become fluent in Spanish, an achievement that he parlayed into a job as a stenographic interpreter on various Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands and, later, for the Mexican Railway in Veracruz. Sensing that revolution was imminent, he left Mexico in 1911, and spent his next 42 years, he wrote, as a globe-hopping “traveling man,” selling leather belting for machinery “the world over covering all industrial countries except Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.”
Jay Sr. made his home base in the southeastern Pennsylvania town of Carlisle, not far from where his great-great-grandfather had purchased a 218-acre homestead in 1765 from the family of William Penn himself. And it was into this cosmopolitan family that Jay Jr., the first of four Zeamer children, arrived on July 25, 1918.
World War I was well into its fourth grinding year when Jay Jr. was born. Since America’s entry into the conflict a little over a year earlier, newspapers had covered the war like no other before. That July was no different, and as the Zeamers welcomed their first child into the world the front pages of newspapers and radio broadcasts were replete with reports from the Western Front chronicling the latest bloodletting at the Second Battle of the Marne, Germany’s last great offensive. Like hundreds of small towns across the country, Carlisle, with close to 11,000 residents, did its patriotic part, and had also mourned its fallen sons, including the privates Doyle Ashburn and Harvey Kelley, who were killed that week on the banks of that faraway French river.
Jay Sr. had enlisted in the Army infantry at the war’s outset and earned his “doughboy” credentials in boot camp, although the lingering effects of a childhood bout with tuberculosis had kept him stateside. Still, if the appellation of the “War to End All Wars” was to be believed, he and Marjorie hoped and prayed that babies born in 1918, including their older son, would never have to fight in another global conflict.
Jay was only two when his father pulled up stakes in Pennsylvania and moved the family to New Jersey in order to be nearer to the major transportation hubs of Newark and New York City, a mere 15 miles away from Orange. It was around this time that Marjorie, a striking, dark-eyed brunette whose cheekbones could cut falling silk, realized that if she didn’t keep a constant eye on her oldest boy she often would have no idea where he’d vanished to.
Despite its proximity to New York, Orange in the 1920s had only recently shed its pastoral roots. And though its main streets were by then crowded with breweries and thriving boot- and shoemaking factories taking advantage of the tannic acid produced by the town’s thousands of hemlock trees, spinneys of thick oak enclosing small farmsteads were only a short distance away. These rural areas virtually called out to be explored by a boy who was, as Marjorie wrote of Jay Jr., “brimming with an almost unrestrained energy, a curious spirit of investigation and adventure.”
At the same time Jay also exhibited a natural mechanical bent. His parents marveled over the toy trains and automobiles he built in his father’s workshop, mobile facsimiles propelled by springs or elaborate elastic-band motors that the boy concocted from scratch. Foremost in the Zeamer family’s memory, however, was Jay’s fascination with airplanes; his brother Jere, three years younger, described the model planes Jay constructed as “impressive for both their complexity and quality.”
In 1926, when Jay was eight, his father’s successful career had allowed the family to put away enough money to purchase a clapboard vacation cottage in the bucolic seaside hamlet of Boothbay Harbor, Maine. By this time the Zeamer family had expanded to six with the arrivals of Jere and two sisters: Isabel and Anne. The first summer that the family packed into their station wagon and headed north, it was as if an entire new world opened up to their eldest child. In fact, Boothbay Harbor would have a hold on Jay for the rest of his life.
The Zeamer cottage was hard by the seashore and surrounded by a seemingly unending forest that made the outlands of Orange seem sparse. This heightened young Jay’s innate curiosity. It was as if the little New England hamlet had sprung from the ground solely for his amusement, and he would disappear for hours on end exploring the ancient Abenaki Indian trails that crosshatched the thick north woods. There was also a timeless aspect to the harbor itself, and the buzzing hive of fisherman and shipbuilders made it seem to Jay like the busiest place on earth.
On summer afternoons, when the prevailing southwest breezes strengthened to form thunderheads to the north, Jay imagined being transported back in time. One day he fancied himself fighting in the Revolutionary War, perhaps as the captain of the ship of the line in the Continental Navy which had traded shot with a British antagonist right outside the cove; the next, he was a mate aboard the Confederate schooner that sneaked into Portland Harbor a few miles down the coast at the height of the Civil War and made off onto the high seas with a captured Union revenue cutter.
Jay’s love of the water came to fruition with the rowboat that he built from scratch, like his toy cars, trains, and airplanes, shortly after his tenth birthday. He had nailed it together from cadged planks and stray building material he found lying about the village—even its oars had been fashioned from hardwood scavenged from behind an abandoned sawmill—and it was the joy he took in sailing this flat-bottomed dory that sealed his parents’ suspicion that he was a different kind of boy.
Though Jay Sr. took his older son’s adventurous nature in the spirit of a proud father, Marjorie hated it when Jay rowed off alone during the predawn hours in what she referred to as “the tub,” sculling across the placid cove, dipping out of sight into the harbor’s every rocky nook. She would watch nervously from her front porch as he weaved among the rows of tall-masted schooners, survivors of the Great War’s Merchant Marine fleet, lying at anchor far off in the Gulf of Maine. Jay’s little rowboat, she remembered, “was no masterpiece, to be sure,” but it was watertight and shipshape, and Jay never seemed to tire of tying onto those old schooners and clambering up through their rigging, staring out to sea. It was if something was beckoning him to make a mark in the wide world.
Soon Jay became a regular sight prowling the fishing wharves down at the harbor. His mother was taken aback one afternoon when, as she walked into the village center with her son, several fishermen and lobstermen waved and paused to chat with her boy about everything from the tide tables to the day’s catch. On special occasions, such as a birthday or holiday, Jay would even be invited to accompany these hard, leather-skinned men out on their day trips. Later, when the Zeamer family sat down to dinner, Jay regaled them with fishing lore and the rudiments of navigation he had soaked up like a sponge. He made certain, of course, to leave out the salty phrases his new friends were teaching him. Jay’s parents sensed that it was on these day trips that their son was discovering what it was like to be part of a crew working together toward a shared goal.
Sometimes in the early evenings Jay rowed out to the harbor mouth to await the return of the village’s small commercial fleet, his dory nearly obscured by the flocks of complaining seagulls swooping for scraps. This was when Marjorie fretted the most. It was not unusual for sudden squalls to blow in at that time of day, scouring rocky Popham Beach with pelting sheets of vertical rain that turned the bay into a roiled cauldron. But fishermen rushing home would spy Jay in his little eggshell craft, throw him a rope to tie on, lift him aboard, and then proceed while his rowboat bounced along in the wake of their vessels.
Jay was also known about the village as the boy to see for any odd job that needed doing and doing well, and by his early teens he had saved up enough money to buy a small, used daysailer. From then on, his excursions became even more daring. Once he’d been far out in the bay with his two best friends, Norton Joerg and Russell Thompson, when a late-afternoon thundergust capsized the boat and left the three boys clinging to the upturned keel. A passing lobsterman helped them right the craft and towed them back to port. Jay was as humiliated as he was thankful. But that was far from the worst of it.
His mother was fond of telling the story about the first time her son and his two friends tacked out beyond the last lookout station on distant Squirrel Island. The morning had begun as a fine summer’s day to be out on the water, and for once Marjorie felt no trepidation as she packed lunches for Jay, Norton, and Russell. She did not even notice when an eerie summer calm settled over the sea, although her son and his friends certainly did. The boys were stranded miles from shore, and forced to take turns paddling toward land with the little boat’s single oar. Dusk came and went, and then darkness fell, and search parties in motor craft crisscrossed the sea-lanes beyond the harbor’s opening to no avail. At last, near midnight, the exhausted and famished threesome splashed onto the beach and nearly collapsed.
Jay was grounded from sailing for two weeks, a punishment somewhat mitigated by the second passion of his young life, the Boy Scouts of America. The Maine forests were God’s gift to a curious young man who reveled in the Scout ethos of individuality and responsibility. In 1930, as the United States plunged deeper into the Great Depression, most 12-year-old boys were happy just to have Scouting as a relief from the frightening economic times. The nation was still predominantly rural, and Scouting offered a chance to master skills they could very well use when they became men. Jay appreciated that, but there was something more to the organization for him. He wanted to be the best Boy Scout who ever lived.
He so took to the Scout essentials of swimming, camping, Morse Code, mapmaking, first aid, knot-tying, canoeing, and all the rest—neighbors would listen and smile as he practiced his campfire songs in the backyard—that in time there was hardly room left on his uniform’s sash for the scores of merit badges he earned. On family blueberrying hikes up nearby Mount Pisgah he assumed the role of field guide, pointing out the different types of trees, animals, birds, and even insects. And on clear nights he would gaze at the sky and mentally sketch the constellations while memorizing the origins of their ancient names. Within a year he had risen from Tenderfoot to the highest rank, Eagle Scout; and back home in New Jersey he became the youngest patrol leader in the history of Orange’s local Troop 5.
This presented a problem. Despite Jay’s Eagle Scout rank, his scoutmaster recognized that placing a 13-year-old in charge of older boys was bound to create tensions. So instead of assigning Jay his rightful place in the troop, the Scoutmaster culled a group of 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds for Jay to mentor and train. Soon Jay’s charges were not only holding their own against the older Scouts in local and regional competitions, but besting them outright at informal jamborees.
This was all well and good until Jay Sr. and Marjorie noticed a steady decline in Jay’s test scores during his freshman year at Orange Public High School. Despite his obvious intelligence, Jay found his schoolbooks virtual chloroform in print and preferred instead to devote most of his energy to honing his Scouting skills. His father was befuddled. Jay Sr. considered the Boy Scouts a worthy venture, but not at the expense of his son’s studies. After several warnings that Jay seemed to ignore, at the conclusion of the school year his parents pulled him from Orange High School and enrolled him in Indiana’s Culver Military Academy. It was his father’s hope that the boarding school’s reputation for academic rigor would, as Jay put it later in life, “knock some schooling into me.”
So it was that in late August 1933, as the last days of summer shortened and the fishing boats of Boothbay Harbor were refitted for the coming cod season, Jay left behind his beloved sea. He was, for the first time, bound without surrounding family to make his own way in the world. For his parents, it was a prescient decision.
The Impossible Mission
The Impossible Mission
It is 1942, the Japanese war machine has rolled up nearly all of the Pacific Theater, and American forces are clinging to what little unconquered territory remains. While US Marines claw their way across Guadalcanal, small contingents of US Army Airmen make their way to the lonely, embattled Allied airbase on Papua New Guinea. Their mission: to defend Australia from invasion, harass Japanese supply lines, fly perilous bombing missions over enemy-held strongholds, and make reconnaissance runs to provide intelligence for America’s nascent island-hopping campaign.
Among these men are the pilot Captain Jay Zeamer and the bombardier Sergeant Joseph Raymond Sarnoski, whose swashbuckling reputations precede them. Zeamer, who cannot convince his superiors to give him his own plane, teams up with Sarnoski to recruit a crew of fellow misfits to rebuild a dilapidated B-17 bomber from spare parts in the base’s junkyard. They christen the plane Old 666, naming it from its tail identification numbers. In June 1943, Zeamer and Sarnoski and their crew volunteer for a 1200-mile suicide mission into the heart of the Japanese Empire that may well change the course of the war—but which only one of the two friends will survive.
In Lucky 666, Drury and Clavin bring to vivid life one of the last great untold stories of World War II. Featuring personal letters, diaries, US Army Air Force after-action reports, even the translated Japanese Imperial Air Force’s official account of the longest dogfight in history, Lucky 666 is a tale of friendship, heroism, and sacrifice set against the horrific backdrop of vicious aerial warfare, wounded crewmates, and a white-knuckle emergency landing in the jungles of New Guinea—a must-read for anyone who loves pulse-pounding narrative nonfiction.
- Simon & Schuster |
- 368 pages |
- ISBN 9781476774855 |
- October 2016