Skip to comments.Veteran’s Day Remembrance: The Ball Turret Gunner
Posted on 11/11/2019 5:37:23 PM PST by Retain Mike
The near certainty the United States would be drawn into WW II prompted creation of an autonomous Army Air Force. Until the war in Europe began, standard doctrine gave an air corps had no mission beyond supporting the ground forces. Now air power advocates received the authority to prove the theory that bombers could win wars. The B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress carried 10-13 .50cal machine guns for defense and the Norden bombsight for precision daylight attack. Under combat conditions peacetime accuracy was never realized and bombers suffered horrendous losses until the P-51 Mustang could escort them all the way to the target. Now granted a lot of the men ended up as prisoners of war, but one historian noted that Kamikaze squadrons had a lessor casualty rate until fighter escorts could accompany the missions. Completing 25 missions was so extraordinary in 1942 and 1943, that the aircraft and crew of the Memphis Belle returned to the United States to sell war bonds.
Even though all crew members had to contemplate a dismal fate, that of the ball turret gunner exceeded all others. The man operating the two machine guns on the belly of these aircraft is described by Gregory Freeman in his book The Forgotten 500.
Nobody really wanted to be in a ball turret. This Plexiglas ball hanging from the bottom of the bomber was one of Americas latest innovations in air warfare. An ingenious piece of machinery built by the Sperry Corporation; the ball turret was a heavily armed bubble just big enough to hold a grown man but only on the small side. It had room for the gunner and its two fifty-caliber machine guns and little else. The extremely cramped quarters meant that the gunner was the only crew member on a bomber who did not wear a parachute during a mission. Provided the hoist worked, he was left sitting up in the main part of the plane, where he would have to go to get it and put it on before escaping with the rest of the crew. [Clare] Musgrove always told his students: Stow your chute where you can find it in a hurry. You wont have much time.
The ball turret was not a place for the claustrophobic. It was a tiny space, though it had a great view of the scenery below or the fighter plane coming up to kill you. The entire unit rotated around in a circle and also up and down, so that the gunner could fire on planes coming from any direction. Being suspended underneath the plane gave the gunner a sensation of flying free, and that often meant that the attacking fighter seemed to be going after him personally rather than trying to shoot down the bomber itself. Everyone on the plane was riding an adrenaline surge during a fighter attack, but none more so than the ball turret gunner who was furiously firing his fifty caliber machine guns at the German plane trying to kill him in his little glass bubble.
The ball turret gunner sat curled up in a fetal position, swiveling the entire turret as he aimed the two guns. As he moved the turret quickly to find attacking planes and then follow them with his guns, the gunner could be in any position from lying on his back to standing on his feet. The gunner sat between the guns, his feet in stirrups positioned on either side of a thirteen-inch-diameter window in front, his knees up around his ears and very little room for moving anything but his hands. His flight suit provided the only padding for comfort.
An optical gunsight hung in front of his face, and a pedal under his left foot adjusted a reticule on the gunsight glass. When the target was framed in the sight, the gunner knew the range was correct and he let fly with the machine guns, pushing down one of the two firing buttons located on the wooden handles that controlled the movement of the ball. Shell casings were ejected through a port just below the gun barrels, pouring out as fast as the beads of sweat on the gunners face.
The plane carried two 150 round belts of ammunition per gun for the ball turret and fed them down from boxes mounted on either side of the hoist. The ball turret in the B-24, which Musgrove flew, could be electrically raised and lowered, unlike those on the B-17 bombers, which had to be manually cranked up into the fuselage. Musgrove thought this was a great improvement over the B-17 design, because no one wanted to be trapped in a ball turret. There was no way to exit the turret without raising it into the fuselage of the plane, so a turret that could not be retracted was a deathtrap for the gunner. Any system that made it faster and easier to retract the turret was welcomed by the gunners. They had all heard the stories of ball turret gunners who were trapped in their glass bubbles when battle damage prevented them being retracted into the fuselage. Not only was the gunner left out there with no protection, probably with his guns empty or inoperative, but he also faced the prospect of the big plane landing with him hanging from the belly.
It was every ball turret gunners nightmare, and it became a horrifying reality for some. If the gunner was already dead in the turret and it could not be retracted into the plane, the crew sometimes would jettison the whole apparatus, because the plane was not designed to land with the ball turret hanging underneath. But if the gunner was alive, they would have to tell him that they had no choice but to put the plane down eventually. The ball turret gunner had a long time to contemplate his fate, maybe to say good-bye on the intercom to his crewmates, as the damaged plane limped back to the base or looked for a field in which to crash. All he could do was sit in the glass bubble like a helpless fetus in the womb, watching the ground come closer and closer. When the plane landed, the ball turret was often scraped off the belly, taking the gunner with it. This problem occurred with the B-24. There was sufficient clearance with the B-17 for the turret to be in the lowered position, if the plane could land with the wheels down.
These bombers were mainly crewed by teenagers and men in their early twenties. Veterans Day provides an opportunity to contemplate the extraordinary hazards some of these young men, become our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, faced to be considered the Greatest Generation.
The Forgotten 500 by Gregory Freeman
United States Army Air Forces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Army_Air_Forces#Army_Air_Forces_created
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_B-17_Flying_Fortress
Consolidated B-24 Liberator https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consolidated_B-24_Liberator
Norden bombsight https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norden_bombsight
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_the_Ball_Turret_Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State, And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
My most often contact with these men started about age twelve when my dad began taking me out golfing on the weekends. There was a man who used the first golf cart I ever saw, because as a brigade commander of the 41th infantry in New Guinea he was debilitated by sickness. I remember one fairly good golfer who had kind of a weird back swing. I found out he was crippled while serving with the Big Red One in Sicily. My Economics professor in college served with one of the first UDT teams clearing barricades and mines in the surf zone before Pacific landings. I often ended up as a dishwasher at the country club and noticed the chef always limped as he moved around the kitchen. He saw my puzzled look, and said he got the limp from a wound received when he was with the Rangers at Pointe De Hoc. Those are just a few of the stories I remember among so many others I could tell or have forgotten.
But burning in my heart
The memory smoulders on
Of the gunner’s dying words
On the intercom
I once met a UDT guy who also cleared the beaches the night before the Normandy landings. Brave on top of brave
I remember the WWII guys.
My father who served in Europe.
the men he hired, vets, parapaligics to do fine electrial work. All died when I was young.
The men who drank too much on weekends.
The men who had a hitch in their step courtesy of a missing limb and a prothsetic.
The men who didnt say much. But were kind, in their own ways.
Around a year ago, a B-17 navigator’s body was found in Germany and returned to his home town of DeFuniak Springs. The Air Force at Eglin provided a moving funeral with the salutes and a missing man flyover with what looked like F-35s to me.
All his family were gone but some cousins were still around. His family had thought he was buried in a mass grave but a tourist happened to see his tomb stone in Germany and knew who he was. The Germans had actually given him a proper burial which was pretty decent in that they were losing over a thousand a day.
Thank you for this article. They certainly were the Greatest Generation.
I watched a show about the B-17 Flying Fortress. The one position I wouldn’t want to be in was the ball turret gunner. Just being stuck in that little space would be a nightmare. Add to that being upside down and having flak and enemy fighters shooting straight up at you. It must have been crazy and intense during battles. The show I watched showed the B-17 crash landing with the ball turret gunner stuck in his turret. He didn’t survive the landing. It took a special type of person to do that job. You had to be short enough and brave enough to get into the ball turret.
Some are still around.
I have coffee with one five mornings a week at the VFW.
One of my big regrets is that I never talked to him about any of that, since he died when I was in my twenties. By the time I would have been interested in it everyone who might know was dead. Bad son.
My late Father was a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater and he told me about the Norden bombsight. He also told me that their plane was one of first to use a new super secret radar. I don’t recall now what he called it. He passed in 1988.
My father in law received the DFC as a B24 waist gunner. Only 20 yrs old. His fellow waist gunner ‘Joe’ said that he had what seemed to be a superhuman aim. ‘Pops’ never wanted to talk about the combat though. He had funnny stories to tell about life on the bases.
Joe told Pop’s kids after he passed that Pops once had to man the ball turret when the gunner went into shock. He and Pops pulled him out, and Pops squeezed into it. He was 6’3” and skinny, but Joe managed to get the door closed. War at 28,000 ft.
Hard to imagine.
My dad was a WWII Navy aviator who flew F4U Corsairs. I asked him about the war many times and he didnt want to talk about it. He did start talking about it a few years before he passed away. He was almost 90 when he died.
Yeah, my Dad didn’t talk much about the war either until just he died at age 70 in 1988.
I have an Easter card sent by my uncle Harold, from England, to one of his only siblings (15 yr old twin sisters. One my mom). He told them he would take them out to a movie and ice cream when he got home on leave.
Never happened. Less than three months later, as a tail gunner in 24, he never made it out of the spinning burning ship.
My mom kept that card in pristine condition. She’s gone, so I treat it the same.
My father was USAF Korean era, but we had older family members and friends who served in WWII.
One was a navigator on a bomber that was shot down over Germany. He spent a couple of years in POW camp. Sadly he had problems with alcohol and would often sit in the corner and sob. He never talked about his experiences.
Another friend was a tail gunner. He was “lucky” and came back safe. After the war, he assembled a large collection of Nazi memorabilia. He was open about his service and showed off his collection. I wish I had paid more attention to the stories he told and the items he owned.
Three of my mother’s uncles served. Two in Europe and one in the Pacific. They were pretty closed mouthed about their experiences. My father’s uncle was in the Navy.
My stepfather was also in the Navy, junior officer on a ship in the Pacific.
All of these men are gone now. May they rest in peace.
It is an Honorable and Righteous thing, that you do so, and speaks well, and proper, of you.
All Honor to You for doing so.
Fwiw, my HS girlfriend’s dad was a bottom ball turret gunner, B17 & B24 aircraft. = He once told me that when he volunteered for the USAAC, “they took one look at me” & told him that they had “- - - a perfect job for a guy like you.”
(Mr. Burkhart & my dad left for the USAAC on the same bus at 0700, 08DEC1941.= Their houses were 6 miles apart, btw & that morning was the 1st time that they met.)
Mr. Burkhart was 5’3” & 116 pounds at 18YO.
He survived FOUR crashes & flew 26 missions.
(My dad was “in B-17s” & said that, “- - - those guys had more pure guts than the rest of the crew combined, as they knew they were going to be toast in a crash.”)
Imagine you are the pilot of one of these bombers that has to crash land with the wheels up and you cant raise the belly turret. Or assume you are a waist gunner on a B-17 and the pilot orders everyone to bailout. You are the one designated to can crank that belly turret up.
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