Tom Clavin Interview: The Untold Story of Forgotten World War II Hero Jay Zeamer's Impossible Mission
Image attributed to Tom Clavin
In 2013, authors Tom Clavin and Bob Drury’s biography of Native American warrior chieftain Red Cloud, The Heart of Everything That Is, was published to critical and commercial success, and the book spent numerous weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Clavin and Drury’s latest book, Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission, released October 25, 2016, tells the untold story of forgotten American World War II hero Jay Zeamer and his crew in the Pacific Theater.
Lucky 666 is a tale of friendship, heroism and sacrifice and features personal letters, diary entries, US Army Air Force after-action reports and even the translated Japanese Imperial Air Force’s official account of the longest dogfight in history.
“Jay Zeamer was one month shy of his 25th birthday when that mission took place, and he was the captain. Joe was 28 or 29 and the old man on the crew. Their flight engineer, Johnnie Abel, was 19 years old. My father was very upset that he might miss the war, so when he graduated from high school in June of 1945, he was 18 and joined the Navy right away. His big brother was already in the Navy. He couldn’t wait to join because he was worried about missing the war (laughs). That’s what many of these guys did. They were 18 and 19 years old.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tom, Lucky 666 is the second World War II book that you’ve written with Bob (Drury)?
Tom Clavin: Yes, it is. The very first book that we did together was called Halsey’s Typhoon that came out in 2007, and it was a WW II story that focused on the Navy. Then, we did three other books that were of different time periods. This is the second one we’ve done that takes place during WW II.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you two write together?
Tom Clavin: We figured it out the first time around, and we stuck to it, which is that usually for about the first six months of a project and often longer, I’m researching. I need to get the head start with the research. Not that Bob doesn’t do research, but most of the weight is on my shoulders to collect as much research material as possible and start to organize it. There’s a six month or longer time period before Bob starts writing.
We figured early on that you can’t have four hands on a keyboard, so it would be better to have one consistent voice that’s telling the story. Also, even though both of us have done work on books and have been writers individually on our own projects, I think that he has more of a muscular style of writing. He’s actually been a war correspondent and has been in some dicey situations. So, I thought his style of writing suited the material we were doing better than my style of writing. That’s just a fact.
We established early on that I would do a majority of the research. He would do the writing, and then, as he’s generating copy, it comes back to me for editing, revising, fact checking, going back to the research and making sure we didn’t make a mistake. Inevitably, a book comes out, and somebody will point something out that we missed (laughs). But, the idea is to try and reduce that risk as much as possible.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you come across the story of Captain Jay Zeamer?
Tom Clavin: This happened because of the second book Bob and I did together called The Last Stand of Fox Company. It takes place in November 1950 in Korea with this Marine Corps Company, and one of the characters in the book, Dick Bonelli, was a corporal at the time. Dick is now a hale and hearty 86, and we’ve been in regular touch for years since we first started researching and working on that book.
My recollection is about four years ago, Dick came across a clip on YouTube that was of Captain Zeamer, or at that time, retired Colonel Zeamer, being interviewed about that mission. It was done pretty late in Zeamer’s life. He died at 88, and this was done maybe three years earlier. He sent us that clip, and said, “This is a terrific story. Are you guys familiar with it?” I wasn’t, and we looked at the clip.
We were finishing up our previous book called The Heart of Everything That Is, but we were already casting out our lines saying, “What’s another project we can work on?” We started to look into the life of not just Jay Zeamer, but the other crew members and that mission in particular. We got more and more intrigued, and eventually that was the project we pitched to our publisher that we’d like to do next.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was Captain Zeamer’s motivation to make that “impossible” mission in June 1943, and how was that particular mission of great value to the war effort?
Tom Clavin: Yes. Those are definitely two separate questions that do end up intertwining. What interested us about Jay Zeamer was he had these two sides to his character or personality. He was an Eagle Scout and a graduate of MIT. He very much believed in the war effort. He believed in the Army Air Corps. So, he was kind of a straight arrow in that regard, but he was also a renegade. He was not very good with authority. He liked doing things his own way.
What eventually happened was that Zeamer became a captain without a crew basically because he was a daredevil, too. There were other crew members who wouldn’t fly with him because he took too many risks. He thought he took risks because he was saving lives, which turns out he did. He did win two Silver Stars before this June 1943 mission.
I think a big motivation for Zeamer was that when he had the opportunity with this crew, he felt he had something to prove to the upper brass, to the other crew, the other captains, the other pilots. That was a big motivation for him, other than completely grasping the importance of the mission. It wasn’t like he was saying, “Oh, they’re going to send me on some dumb foray someplace that’s not worth anything.” He knew this was important.
The Allies, by June 1943, had clawed their way back to where they were starting to go on the offensive. They had already taken Guadalcanal, and they realized that the key to really turning the tide of the war was to capture all of the Solomon Islands because that opened the door to Tokyo in a way. It gave them a big launching pad to take Tokyo from there. The one island they had not yet overtaken was called Bougainville.
Admiral Halsey and his staff and the marines were planning on the invasion of Bougainville and taking over its very valuable airstrip, but they knew nothing about it. It had never been in American hands. It had always been controlled by the natives there, and the Japanese had it for years. What was so important about this mission was that it wasn’t a bombing mission. It was a reconnaissance mission.
The top brass was looking for volunteers and said, “Listen. It’ll be one lone bomber unescorted because fighters do not have the field capacity to make this trip. The bomber will have to fly 600 miles into the heart of the Japanese stronghold in the Southwest Pacific and do photographing and mapping of the island of Bougainville, and it has to come back.” That’s what was so important about this mission.
If the planners of the invasion could see what the defense of the island was like, could see where the reefs were, they could start to pinpoint the best landing spots for the invasion. That could save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives when they day came. It could even determine whether they invaded Bougainville or not. If they remained clueless of what the island was like they might’ve said it was too risky, and they’d have to come up with Plan B.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How was Old 666 different from the typical B-17 bomber that was used in World War II?
Tom Clavin: Well, two ways. One was that it was constructed by Zeamer and his crew of “misfits.” That’s why we call the book a “Dirty Dozen” kind of book because the guys that Zeamer recruited were not necessarily held in high esteem by their captains because they were renegades themselves. He recruited this crew, but he didn’t have a plane. One day, one of the crew members said, “There’s this old beaten up, broken down bomber at the end of the runway there. Why don’t we see if we can reconstruct it?” That’s what they did.
They requisitioned parts, they stole parts from other people and warehouses in the middle of the night. They eventually put together this plane they called Old 666 because the last three serial numbers on its tail were 666. That’s one thing that made it unique. The other thing was, during part of the reconstruction effort, it became the most heavily armed B-17 in the Pacific. Typically, at that time, a B-17 would have maybe anywhere from 9 to 13 machine guns and usually .30 caliber machine guns.
What they did is arm that thing to the teeth. They ended up with 17 .50 caliber machine guns and two spare .30 caliber machine guns. They had machine guns poking out of every window. This thing was like a porcupine with machine guns poking out of it. It became the most heavily fortressed flying fortress in the Pacific. That turned out to be a really good thing to have because during the Bougainville mission, they weren’t surprised that they were attacked by Japanese Zeros, but they had no idea there were that many Japanese Zeros in Bougainville.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The mission would not have been successful without Zeamer’s partner and bombardier Joe Sarnoski. Did Joe have the same character traits as Jay?
Tom Clavin: You know, Joe wasn’t as much of a renegade as Zeamer. He was like a regular Joe, so to speak. He was a little more straight-laced than Zeamer. Joe was a devout Catholic. There’s one chapter in the book called “The Flight of the Geishas.” The top brass had discovered, through some spying, that there was a geisha house on one of the islands, and at a certain time every night, you could find many of the top Japanese brass. So, they said, “We’re going to bomb it.”
They sent Old 666 on this bombing mission. Joe was the bombardier, but he knew there were innocent women, so he refused to bomb it. He got into some hot water for it, but he wasn’t killing innocent women. Anyway, Joe was not the kind of renegade and anti-authority type that Jay was, but he and Jay were very close friends. Jay even referred to Joe as “my best friend.”
They began to become really close friends back when they were stationed at Langley in Virginia together in 1942. When they were reunited in New Guinea in 1943, they just found a very deep friendship. They were both born in Pennsylvania. Jay had a middle-class upbringing and was a MIT graduate. Joe was one of 16 kids from coal-mining country in Pennsylvania. There were lots of differences, but they just really clicked together as really close friends. Basically, Joe would go anywhere Jay would go.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jay was all of 25 years old when he made that mission in June 1943. In many films, soldiers are portrayed as older, but in reality, this war was fought by teenagers and men in their 20s.
Tom Clavin: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that because we do get that image from Hollywood. For decades, the people who were playing captains and lieutenants could be in their 40s or even 50s. But, that was not the case, partly by attrition. By June 1943 when this mission took place, many of the guys stationed in Port Moresby, New Guinea and going on these missions were in their 20s.
Jay Zeamer was one month shy of his 25th birthday when that mission took place, and he was the captain. Joe was 28 or 29 and the old man on the crew. Their flight engineer, Johnnie Abel, was 19 years old. My father was very upset that he might miss the war, so when he graduated from high school in June of 1945, he was 18 and joined the Navy right away. His big brother was already in the Navy. He couldn’t wait to join because he was worried about missing the war (laughs). That’s what many of these guys did. They were 18 and 19 years old.
Even if they enlisted right after Pearl Harbor, by 1943, they were still only two years older. They were still only 20, 21, 22 years old because of attrition, especially because the mortality rate of these bomber captains was rather high. You would get guys like Jay Zeamer who were 24, 25, 26 years old, and they were leaders of bomber crews.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What did Jay Zeamer’s family say about the book?
Tom Clavin: Jay’s widow is still alive. She loves the book. We heard the same thing from one of Jay’s five daughters. She said that other family members are very happy with the book because they think it portrays Jay accurately, their recollections of the kind of character and personality that he had. They were also glad that Jay and the kind of men he represents are getting this recognition.
We’ve heard the same thing from Joe Sarnoski’s family. Members of Joe’s family cooperated with us, too, when they shared letters, diaries and stories that had been passed down through the family. So far, we’ve been very grateful at the reaction we’re getting from the family members, and not just the Zeamer and Sarnoski families. I heard from Richard Vaughan who’s one of the four kids of Old 666 crew member William Vaughan. They’re very pleased with the book because they think it’s accurate and also because it shines a light on the heroism of their relatives.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It certainly would’ve been different for America and for the rest of the world if the United States and its allies had lost the war.
Tom Clavin: Ever so often you see a book or a TV show where they do revisionist history. There’s one on Amazon called The Man in the High Castle, which is about what would’ve happened if Germany had won the war. It is kind of interesting, but thankfully, it is fiction.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When we last spoke, you said that the problem with The Heart of Everything That Is as a film was that it would be very tough to find a Native American actor who has pull at the box office. Has that situation changed?
Tom Clavin: Well, yeah. The book has been optioned by Ridley Scott’s company. A writer and director named Peter Landesman who has written and directed a couple of movies, the most recent one being Concussion with Will Smith, is going to adapt The Heart of Everything That Is, from what we’ve been told. Landesman is in post production now on Felt starring Liam Neeson, the story about the whistleblower Deep Throat. We’re told that he’s going to direct and Ridley Scott’s going to produce. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Nothing happens overnight.
How they’ll resolve the issue of the main character being a Native American, I don’t know. I do know the way the process works is that it’s not really up to us (laughs). They optioned it and sent us a check. They have a certain amount of time to do something with it, and they don’t necessarily want the writer’s input. So, we’ll be as surprised as everybody else to find out. We’ve had a couple of very good conversations with Peter, and he seems sincere. He may ask us for input, but I’m not expecting it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lucky 666 would make a great film.
Tom Clavin: It would. We have somebody that represented us with the Red Cloud book who’s now pitching this. We haven’t had any bites yet. We’re told that some people have expressed interest and that they’re reading it. Ever so often lightning strikes with somebody, but so far it hasn’t happened.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s next, Tom?
Tom Clavin: Actually, there are three things I can tell you very briefly. Next February, there are two things coming out. One is The Heart of Everything There Is for 10-14 year olds. It’s like the Red Cloud book, but it has been rewritten and adapted for a young readership. My recollection is when I spoke to you in 2013, I was in Cincinnati to give a talk.
That evening, there was a woman in the audience who was from Cincinnati, but she’s a teacher at the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota. She was one of a number of people who had said to Bob and me, “Boy, there is so little material available about American Indians in the school system in libraries for youngsters.” So, when we eventually had a discussion about that with our editor at Simon & Schuster, they said, “Why don’t we adapt it as a book for the 10-14 years old age range?” That’ll be out in February. It’s still called The Heart of Everything That Is, but it’s for young readers.
Also in February, I have a solo project that’s being published. It’s called Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That sounds fun!
Tom Clavin: It is fun. It’s all of the rollicking stories and adventures of Wyatt, Bat and numerous good and bad characters that all congregated or passed through Dodge City in the 1870s. That’ll be out in February. My next book with Drury that we’re heavily involved in now is called Valley Forge: George Washington and the Rescue of the American Revolution.
That’s really focusing on those few months there that the army almost disintegrated, and George Washington almost lost control of the army. When that winter ended, if that army had not emerged from Valley Forge, forget World War II. We’d still be talking in British accents right now (laughs). We’re heavily immersed in writing that one. We’ve gotten about 75% of the research done. I think that’s probably going to be a 2018 release. So, we’ll be talking again.
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