Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hitchens' and Other Razors

No 1 Son ,Thomas, sends me text messages from time to time with suggestions that I might like to do a Bytes thereon. The latest was an article with 6 Christopher Hitchens quotes.  Thomas is an admirer of Hitchens and his works.

Hitchens (1949-2011) was a British-American author and journalist who was known for his contrary views on various matters, notably on religion. Hitchens saw the concept of a God or a supreme being as destroying individual freedom. His view was that free expression and scientific discovery should replace religion as a means of teaching ethics and defining human civilization.

One of the Hitchens quotations sent by Thomas has become known as Hitchens’ Razor (should it be Hitchens’s Razor?):

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

It is a commonsense approach to many things

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Some comments:

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In philosophy, a razor is a principle or premise that allows one to eliminate unlikely explanations for a phenomenon. 

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The full Hitchens’ quote:

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Hitchens was not the first to coin the phrase or the methodology expressed by it. The Latin proverb “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur” has been widely used since the 19th century. It translates to “What is asserted without reason may be denied without reason”, meaning that if no grounds have been given for an assertion, then there are no grounds needed to reject it.

Hitchens’ use of the phrase in English and his reliance on the methodology expressed by it has brought it to greater public awareness .

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Another noted opponent of religion, Richard Dawkins has formulated a different version of the same law:

“The onus is on you to say why, the onus is not on the rest of us to say why not.”

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Some other razors:

Occam’s Razor:
When faced with competing hypotheses, select the one that makes the fewest assumptions
(sometimes paraphrased as the simplest explanation is usually the right one)

Popper’s falsifiability principle:
a theory can be scientific only if it is falsifiable, that what is unfalsifiable is unscientific
(don’t feel bad if you don’t understand this, I don’t get it either).

Newton’s flaming laser sword:
If something cannot be settled by experiment then it is not worthy of debate.

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Some philosophers have proposed anti-razors, for example:

Plenitude Principle:
Everything that can happen will happen eventually.
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Wednesday, October 30, 2013


I was recently reminded of my trip to the new Ikea store at Tempe, a suburb of Sydney. The store and its car park are so big that I believe it would be visible from space - at 39,000m2/420,000sq ft, it is the largest Ikea store in the Southern hemisphere. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. You are deliberately made to walk through the entire store as though in a maze with a map, to first locate what you want in the display area, get the code, then find the flat packs in another location, then transport the flat packs to the checkout and then to your car . . . never again!!   And that's not even taking into account the later assembly.

What brought it to mind was reading the following:

I've just been to the doctor and was diagnosed with low blood pressure. 
He wrote me a prescription for two sets of Ikea self-assembly wardrobes.

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Some Ikea items . . .

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Ikea, a Swedish company registered in the Netherlands, is the world’s largest furniture retailer.

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 Ikea was founded in Sweden in 1943 by 17 year old Ingvar Kamprad.

Kamprad began to develop a business as a young boy, selling matches to neighbors from his bicycle. He found that he could buy matches in bulk very cheaply from Stockholm, sell them individually at a low price, and still make a good profit. From matches, he expanded to selling fish, Christmas tree decorations, seeds and later ballpoint pens and pencils. When Kamprad was 17, his father gave him a cash reward for succeeding in his studies. Ikea was founded in 1943 at Kamprad's uncle Ernst's kitchen table. In 1948, Kamprad diversified his portfolio, adding furniture. His business was mostly mail-order.

Today he is one of the world’s richest men,

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As a teenager,Kamprad was directly involved in the pro-Nazi New Swedish Movement (Nysvenska Rörelsen) until at least 1948, causing tensions when IKEA began opening stores in Israel, although one source has claimed that the movement was not pro-Nazi. Kamprad devotes two chapters to his time in Nysvenska Rörelsen in his book, Leading By Design: The IKEA Story and, in a 1994 letter to IKEA employees, called his affiliation with the organisation the "greatest mistake of my life." After the revelations came to light, he pledged £1 billion to charity. 

Author Elisabeth Asbrink says in her book And in Wienerwald the Trees Remain that Kamprad was an active recruiter for a Swedish Nazi group, and stayed close to sympathisers well after World War II. The details go beyond what Kamprad has previously admitted. In her book Asbrink says Kamprad actively recruited people to the fascist Sweden’s Socialist Union (SSS) and that the activity prompted security police to set up a file on him in 1943 when he was 17 - the same year that he founded Ikea. Asbrink says the security police intercepted his post, and noted that he "had some sort of functionary position" in a youth Nazi organization.  She also claims that he remained in contact with Nazi sympathisers until at least 1950.

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The acronym IKEA is made up of the initials of Kamprad’s name (Ingvar Kamprad) plus those of Elmtaryd, the family farm where he was born, and the nearby village Agunnaryd.

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As of October 2011, IKEA owns and operates 332 stores in 38 countries.

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In September 2004, when IKEA offered a limited number of free $150 vouchers at the opening of a new store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, three people were crushed to death in a stampede that followed the store's opening.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

P L Travers and Mary Poppins

In Ashfield, NSW, a suburb of inner western Sydney, where I used to live and where I still have my office, there are various statues:

. . . a disembodied head in Hercules Street of Quong Tart, a 19th century merchant and one of Sydney’s personalities (a future Bytes item) who lived in Ashfield . . . 

. . . a statue in Ashfield Park of Philippines national hero Jose Rizal . . . I have no idea why it is in Ashfield or in Ashfield Park. He has very small hands, doesn’t he . . .

. . . and a statue, also in Ashfield Park, of Mary Poppins . . . 

The MP statue was erected by Ashfield Council after lobbying by 13 year old Gracie Drew, to acknowledge that the author of Mary Poppins, P L Travers, lived with her sisters and mother in a house overlooking Ashfield Park between 1918 and 1924, after having moved from Queensland.

So why am I telling you this?

A new movie, Saving Private Ryan Mr Banks, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, looks at the life of Travers, her negotiations with Walt Disney and the the making of the film Mary Poppins in 1961. Hanks plays Walt Disney. 

Saving Mr Banks is due for release in late December, 2013 but the film omits some of the more controversial aspects of Travers’ life.  Unlike Mary Poppins, her creator was not practically perfect in every way.

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Some factlets about P L Travers:

She was born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Queensland and suffered an impoverished childhood, which inspired her magical stories and characters. Her father, Trvers Robert Goff, was a banker who turned to alcohol, lost all his money and died at age 43 in 1905 - it is widely considered that the character Mr Banks was based on him.  ( "Hardly Mr Yeats," commented her father when she showed him her first poem at the age of seven).

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Goff began publishing her poems whilst a teenager and wrote for The Bulletin. She was also an actress, adopting the stage name Pamela Lyndon Travers. 

Travers as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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In 1931 Travers moved to England and concentrated on writing fiction under the name P L Travers. With her friend Madge Burnand she moved into a rented cottage in Sussex and started work on Mary Poppins. It was published in 1934 and was an immediate success. Sequels followed, the last in 1988. It was the Harry Potter of its day.

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Travers spent years rejecting attempts by Disney and other US film companies to acquire the rights to MP. Eventually she relented and sold the rights to Walt Disney, accepting a $100,000 advance, around $2 million dollars today, as well as five per cent of the film's profits and the chance to approve the script personally.

PL Travers, right, with Walt Disney, centre, and Julie Andrews

Travers hated the Disney film. She was against the diluting of the MP character, her pretty appearance and the animated, sugary musical numbers. Because of her stream of complaints and criticisms, both during and after production, she was banned from the premiere. 

When she complained to Walt Disney that the animated numbers needed to be deleted, she was told by Walt “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”

Obviously a spoonful of sugar didn't make the movie get up for her.

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Disney sought rights to sequels. Travers never granted any further film rights to anyone.

* * * * *

Cameron Mackintosh approached her about rights to a stage musical when she was into her 90s. Travers agreed provided that:

· only English-born writers (and specifically no Americans) were to be directly involved with the creative process of the stage musical;

· no one involved with the Disney film was to be used.

So adamant was she in her directives not to use Americans in the stage musical that she also included the directives in her Will. 

* * * * *

Although she never married, she had romantic relationships with both men and women. Her biographer Valerie Lawson writes that she probably had a sexual relationship with Madge Burnand.

* * * * *

At the age of 40 Travers, unmarried and wanting a son, adopted a baby boy from Ireland.

The adopted child was named Camillus Hone and he was one of 4 children, which included Camillus’s twin, Anthony, who had been placed into the care of their struggling grandparents. Travers refused to take Anthony or any of the other siblings. She selected Camillus based on advice from her astrologer. In so doing, the author of a children’s book about a nanny with magic powers cruelly blighted the lives of two children.

Travers with Camillus

Anthony remained with his grandparents. Neither boy was aware of the other twin's existence until the age of 17, when Anthony appeared unannounced at Travers' London home. He had learned of the existence of his twin and tracked him down. Travers had Anthony thrown out but they met up again and shared a 3 day drinking binge. There was little meeting after that. Camillus had been brought up in luxury and travelling, Anthony had been raised in poverty. Their upbringings had been so dissimilar that their only common aspect was their partiality to alcohol. Both died alcoholics in sad circumstances

* * * * *

Travers died in London in 1996 aged 96.

Camillus died in 2011,

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Goodbye, Mary Poppins, don't stay away too long.


And while discussing local statues, can anyone tell me why a newly created park at a road closure in Dulwich Hill, near to where I live, has a spaceman sitting on a seat holding a ball (the Earth?) . . . 

. . . and does anyone else also think that it resembles Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet? . . . 

That's Leslie Nielsen on the left, btw, with Anne Francis.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Last Words: Edith Piaf

“Every damn fool thing you do in this life you pay for.”

- Edith Piaf

Édith Piaf (1915 – 1963), born Édith Giovanna Gassion, was a French singer and cultural icon who became widely regarded as France's national popular singer, as well as being one of France's greatest international stars. Her singing reflected her life, with her specialty being ballads. 

Piaf was abandoned at birth by her mother, a Parisian cafe singer, and her father, a circus acrobat, she was raised for a time by her paternal grandmother who ran a brothel in Normandy. There she was looked after by the prostitutes who worked in the establishment. Blind from karatitis at age three, she was sent at age 7 on a pilgrimage honouring Saint Therese, funded by the combined monies of the working girls at her grandmother’s brothel. The pilgrimage reportedly cured the blindness. At age 14 she joined her father in acrobatic street performances and began to sing in public. 

Parting with her father, she remained singing on the streets, At age 16 she fell in love with a delivery and had her only child, a girl Marcelle, by him at 17. He raised the child but she died of meningitis at age 2. 

She was discovered in the Pigalle area of Paris by nightclub owner Louis Leplee. Her extreme nervousness and her height of 142 centimetres (4 ft 8 in), inspired him to give her the nickname La Môme Piaf ("The Waif Sparrow", "The Little Sparrow", or "Kid Sparrow"). Leplée taught her the basics of stage presence and told her to wear a black dress, later to become her trademark apparel. Leplee used marketing and publicity to boost her nightclub performances into a number of recordings. Following Leplee’s murder in 1936 by mobsters with ties to Piaf, she was acquitted of being an accessory in his death. She engaged Raymond Asso to counter the resultant negative publicity, a man with whom she would later be romantically involved. He changed her name to Edith Piaf and commissioned songs for her that had allusions to her earlier life on the streets.

She was France’s most popular entertainer during the years of World War 2 and, subsequent thereto, became an international success. She appeared on the Ed Sullivan show eight times and at Carnegie Hall twice.

Piaf died of liver cancer at age 47 in her villa in the French Riviera in 1963. Her last words - “Every damn fool thing you do in this life you pay for.” – followed months of passing in and out of consciousness. She is buried in Paris next to her daughter Marcelle.

Denied a funeral mass by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris because of her lifestyle, her funeral procession nonetheless drew tens of thousands of mourners. The ceremony at the cemetery was attended by 100,000 fans, causing Charles Aznavour (whose career she had helped launch) to comment that it was the only time since the end of WW2 that he saw the traffic in Paris come to a complete stop.

Some Edith Piaf quotes:

I want to make people cry even when they don't understand my words.

I think you have to pay for love with bitter tears.

You never know a guy till you've tried him in bed. You know more about a guy in one night in bed than you do in months of conversation. In the sack, they can't cheat!

For me, singing is a way of escaping. It is another world. I'm no longer on earth.

As far as I'm concerned, love means fighting, big fat lies, and a couple of slaps across the face.

If God has allowed me to earn so much money, it is because He knows I give it all away.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Old 666

For those up on their Bible studies or conversant with horror pics, 666 is the number of the Beast, an associate of the AntiChrist at the time of theApocalypse: “If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666.” (Revelation 13.18).

It is a popular journey amongst thrillseekers to take Flight 666 on Friday 13th to Helsinki, usually abbreviated to Hel:

Today’s post, however, is not about Beasts or Friday 13, but about a World War 2 bomber and a story which makes Chuck Norris jokes look tame.

A B-17 bomber, the type that was modified by the crew of Old 666

The following report is adapted from Wkipedia:

Old 666, B-17E 41-2666 was a World War 11 B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber which was assigned to the United States' 43rd Bomb Group in 1943 and was the aircraft piloted by Lt. Col. (then Captain) Jay Zeamer on the mission that would earn him and 2d Lt. Joseph Samoski each a Medal of Honor, and every other member of the crew a Distinguished Service Cross.


By 1943, Old 666, tail number 41-2666, had suffered heavy battle damage and had gained a reputation as a cursed bomber, often coming back from missions with heavy damage. Grounded at Port Moresby Airport, it was parked at the end of the runway where other aircrews could cannibalize it for needed parts. A military photographer told Zeamer, "I know where there’s a bomber, but no one will fly it anymore because every time it goes out it gets shot to hell!"

Captain Zeamer, who had been unable to acquire an aircraft of his own, had the bomber towed out of the 'bone yard' and, with enormous effort, not only restored the badly battered aircraft to flight status but made many changes.

They included increasing the number of machine guns from 13 to 19, replacing the waist gunners' standard single guns with twin guns, replacing all .30 cal machine guns with the larger and more powerful .50 cal, and adding a fixed-position gun that could be fired from the pilot's station. Zeamer's crew put guns where they did not even need them, and left spare machine guns on the aircraft's catwalk; if a gun jammed at a critical moment they could dump it and quickly replace it. They also mounted a gun behind the ball turret near the waist. These modifications made Old 666 the most heavily armed bomber in the Pacific Theater.

Zeamer and his men zealously guarded their scrounged weapons and parts from other flight crews, even to the extent of sleeping in their plane.

In the months of missions that followed, Zeamer's crew was so busy that they never had the time to adorn their bomber with the traditional nose art, commonly seen on aircraft of that era. Though many subsequent accounts refer to the bomber as "Lucy," that was not a title Zeamer and his crew ever used. The only markings the converted B-17E bore was the tail number—the bomber became known simply as Old 666. 

Whenever there was a mission--any mission, no matter how dangerous--Jay Zeamer and his crew were the first to volunteer. They hung around the operations centre just waiting for a mission. Soon they too, earned a nickname.  They were called the Eager Beavers:

(Back Row) Bud Thues, Zeamer, Hank Dominski, Sarnoski
(Front Row) Vaughn, Kendrick, Able, Pugh

According to Walt Krell, a personal friend of Zeamer and a fellow WW2 pilot:

"Whenever the 43rd got a real lousy mission--the worst possible mission of all that nobody else wanted to fly--they went down to see Jay Zeamer and his gang. They couldn't keep them on the ground, no matter how bad or rough that mission might be. They didn't care. They crawled into that airplane and just flew and what was more they always carried out their missions. It was the damnedest thing. They'd fly in the worst possible weather, the kind of storm that made other pilots grateful they were on the ground. And Zeamer would always find his way in. Sometimes the weather would be so bad, in ships that were shot up, other planes would crash, or the crews would bail out because it was impossible to get back down safely. Impossible for everyone except Jay Zeamer, that is."

In May, Zeamer and crew made a skip-bombing run on a Japanese aircraft carrier, swooping within fifty feet of its decks.

A few days later on a daylight bombing raid over Rabaul, Old 666 came in so low it was brushing the roofs of the housetops. On a night mission over Wewak the Japanese gunners on the ground managed to fix the flight of incoming American bombers in the glare of several large searchlights, but, in an audacious display of airmanship, Zeamer dove on the positions, shooting out three lights and damaging two others.

On a May 5 mission over Madang, Old 666 was hit more than sixty times by anti-aircraft fire, the stabilizer was shot out and the oxygen tanks exploded, yet the aircraft landed safely and was quickly patched.

Mapping Mission:

On June 16, 1943 a request went out for a special mission: an unescorted, single-ship mapping mission over hostile territory. According to Walt Krell it was "a reconnaissance mission that nobody wanted to take. Nobody in his right mind, maybe. So they went to see Jay Zeamer and his crew...."

Capt. Zeamer and crew volunteered. Taking off at 4 a.m. to make use of cover of darkness, 'Old 666' and crew headed for Bougainvillea, where they were instructed to take reconnaissance of the Japanese controlled island, to determine logistics and enemy strength for the upcoming Invasion of the Solomon Islands. The flight required flying over 600 miles (970 km) of open sea to reach the target. 

Captain Zeamer had also been given an additional last-minute order. While in the air over the coastline of Bougainville, he was instructed to fly over the smaller island of Buka which was separated by a thin waterway known as the Buka Passage. There he was to make a reconnaissance of the Japanese airfield there to determine logistics and enemy strength. According to one report on the mission the new assignment changed the mission from being one of immense danger to one of sheer suicide. 

Arriving at Bougainville Island 30 minutes ahead of schedule and still too dark for photographs, Zeamer ordered the flight to go to Buka.

By 7:40 a.m., with only 22 minutes of flight-time remaining to complete its mission, Old 666 was intercepted by at least 17 Japanese fighters (15 A6M Zeros and 2 Ki-46 Dinahs) of the 251st Kokutai Squadron, commanded by Chief Flight Petty Officer Yoshio Oooki. 

A detailed account of the air battle can be read at:

After making a pass at the heavily armed tail, the fighters came in against the normally lightly armed nose, only to find that this specific bomber possessed much-heavier forward firepower, resulting in two A6M Zeros being shot down. 20mm cannon shells from a third Zero smashed into the cockpit and nose, wounding both Zeamer and Sarnoski before being shot down itself. Sarnoski crawled out of the nose to seek first aid attention, but when a Ki-46 Dinah attacked nose-on, he returned to his guns, shot it down and then shortly thereafter collapsed. The second attack wave knocked out the plane's oxygen system, forcing the bomber to dive from 25,000 feet (7,600 m) to 8,000 feet (2,400 m), where the crew could breathe normally, in just a matter of seconds.

By 8:45 a.m, over an hour after the attack began, the American bomber was over open seas, and the enemy fighters, low on ammunition and fuel, were forced to turn back to Bougainville. 

All the while during the battle Zeamer had continued the mapping and photography that had been his mission. He had kept Old 666 level whilst that photography and mapping had been carried out.

By the time the attackers headed home, one crew member was dead and 5 were wounded in varying degrees, their aircraft heavily damaged. It was during the return flight that Zeamer lost consciousness and Sarnoski, still manning his guns, died. Upon landing, co-pilot Lt. Col. (then 1st Lt.) J.T. Britton told the ground crews to get Zeamer first, but the ground crew said, "He's gone!"; Zeamer, however, was not dead, and lived to receive the Medal of Honor; Sarnoski was awarded his Medal of Honor posthumously. In one of the most decorated flights in history, the rest of the crew received Distinguished Service Crosses. 

Sarnoski needn’t have flown. He had spent nearly 18 months in the combat theatre, had flown dozens of missions and had earned both the Silver Star and Air Medal. Having been ordered home to instruct new bombardier recruits, he had his bags were packed for departure three days hence. Believing that the chances of the return of Old 666 would be improved by his participation in the high risk mission, he had volunteered to be part of the crew.

A death notification was sent to Captain Zeamer’s parents in the United States but the notification was premature. More than 120 pieces of steel were picked from his body and three days of blood transfusions were required to keep him alive. During the ordeal he had lost 50% of his blood volume and by best estimates, he should not have survived. His leg was shredded and it was feared that his leg would have to be amputated. Only the fact that he had lost so much blood that the surgeons believed he would not survive the amputation prevented that happening.

In his memoirs, Fifth Air Force Commander General George Kenney wrote: "Jay Zeamer and his crew performed a mission that still stands out in my mind as an epic of courage unequalled in the annals of air warfare."

On June 30, two weeks after the photo/mapping mission of Bougainville, Operation Cartwheel was launched with MacArthur's infantry landing 60 miles south of Lae and Admiral Halsey's 43rd Infantry (US Army) landing on New Georgia in the first leg of the march to Bougainville. Six months later US Marines stormed ashore on Bougainville Island. Their landing point was at Empress Augusta Bay, the place where Zeamer and crew had ignored enemy fire until the needed photographs of the landing site could be taken.

The following is from Wings of Valor:

Jay Zeamer spent fifteen months of hospital recovery as a result of his serious, multiple wounds. Following his release from the hospital he returned to active duty at Mitchell Field in New York as a Field Air Inspector. On January 18, 1945, Zeamer retired on disability as a Lieutenant Colonel. 

Jay returned to MIT to earn his Master's degree in aeronautical engineering and went on to work for Pratt-Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut in 1946. In 1949 he fell in love and married, and he and wife Barbara raised five daughters.

Sixty years after the end of World War II Jay Zeamer, now eighty-two years old, joined other veterans of the Pacific War for a reunion in Hawaii. There he visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (known as the Punchbowl). More than 33,000 of his comrades who never made it home are buried or commemorated there.

Walking slowly among the headstones, Jay stooped forward to rest on his cane and read an inscription. "I didn't know he was here," Zeamer said to a nearby Air Force reporter, while the tears of a half-century welled up in his eyes. Indeed, following the end of the war, Captain Zeamer's valiant bombardier had been re-interred on American soil.

Jay let his cane fall to the green grass, straightened the arch in his back, and presented a long and heart-felt salute to his fallen comrade. Then, with tears still filling his eyes, he forced his war-torn legs to bend so that he could kneel at the grave of Lieutenant Raymond Joseph Sarnoski to arrange a lei of flowers around the headstone.

Lt Joseph Sarnoski

Lt Col Jay Zeamer in later years

Jay Zeamer died on March 21, 2007 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The day of the funeral, John Baldacci, the Governor of Maine, ordered that all flags throughout the state would be flown at half-mast.

See Jay Zeamer and view his story at: