Podcast #394: The Renegade WWII Pilots Who Helped Win the War in the Pacific

In 1942, the United States was fighting a war in two major theaters: Europe and the Pacific. But in the early days of WWII, the US and its allies had a “Europe First” strategy which resulted in more troops, supplies, and attention being funneled to that theater. American forces in the Pacific were charged with protecting Australia from Japan, but given scant resources to fulfill that mandate.

But a group of enterprising and rebellious bomber airmen stationed in Papau New Guinea grew tired of playing defense against the Japanese and decided to take the war to the enemy by going on daredevil, near-suicide missions.

In his book Lucky 666Bob Drury shares the incredible story of these airmen and their ringleader, Captain Jay Zeamer. Bob walks us through the history of the war in the Pacific, including internal battles between U.S. commanders and the lack of logistical support American forces in the Pacific received during the early days of the war. He then introduces us to Zeamer, sharing what set him apart from other airmen and why so many were drawn to his charismatic leadership. Bob then shares how Jay and his renegade crew took an old dilapidated B-17 bomber and fixed it up themselves so they could take the war to Japan, and how the men split their time between landing in the brig and receiving awards for valor. It all leads up to a climatic dogfight — the longest in US aviation history — that would help turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.

This is a story about friendship, leadership, and gritty boldness that’s also incredibly moving. Grab a tissue. You’re going to need it by the end.

Show Highlights

  • How Bob even discovered the story of this ragtag group of WWII airmen
  • The background of the Southwest Pacific theater in WWII
  • Why the Pearl Harbor attack doomed many of the men in the Pacific theater
  • How these men jury-rigged their airplanes to make them airworthy 
  • The battle for leadership in the Pacific 
  • The Japanese military machine 
  • Jay Zeamer, the protagonist of our story 
  • How the aircraft they called “Old 666” came to be 
  • How the men outfitted the old airplane to exactly their liking 
  • Why the men volunteered for a number of suicide missions
  • The incredible damage Old 666 sustained 
  • What did Bob learn from this story about being a man? 

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