Skip to comments.Veterans Day Remembrances: The Ball Turret Gunner
Posted on 11/11/2022 9:21:13 AM PST by Retain Mike
On Veterans Day we remember from WWII the hazards faced by the young men who became our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers. For example, the 8th Air Force suffered over 26,000 dead compared to the Marine Corps losing nearly 20,000 killed in the Pacific. Their bombers were mainly crewed by teenagers and men in their early twenties, but of all crew members the ball turret gunner confronted the most dismal fate.
The emerging certainty the United States would be drawn into WW II promoted creation of an autonomous Army Air Force. Until the war in Europe began, dominate Army doctrine gave the air corps no mission beyond supporting the ground forces, though the prototype for the B-17 began life in the mid-30’s. In opposition to this entrenched position, Giulio Douhet, an Italian general, and air power theorist, maintained air power could shatter civilian moral and elicit demands to surrender by destroying a country’s vital centers. Now air power advocates fought and won the Pentagon battle for the authority to prove the theory that bombers could win wars.
The instruments for the American initiative in Europe were the B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers which carried 10-13 .50cal machine guns for defense and the Norden bombsight for precision daylight attack. Under combat conditions, peacetime bombing accuracy was never realized. The bombers also suffered horrendous losses until a more robust P-51 Mustang significantly reduced losses by escorting them all the way to and from 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 bombers throughout the mission. 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.
The situation of 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 America’s 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 won’t 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 gunner’s 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, and had to be raised for landing. The B-17 bombers had sufficient ground clearance if the landing gear functioned, but in an emergency the hand crank could reposition the turret from inside the aircraft fuselage and allow the gunner to exit, and hopefully in time to grab his parachute if he had to exit a stricken aircraft. 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 B-17 or B-24 turret without raising it into the fuselage of the plane, so a turret that could not be retracted could become a deathtrap for the gunner. They had all heard stories of gunners who were trapped in their glass bubbles when battle damage resulted in a crash. Musgrove said,
“It was every ball turret gunner’s 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.”
The Forgotten 500 by Gregory Freeman
United States Army Air Forces
North American P-51 Mustang
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
B-17 Mission Video
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
BOEING B-17 FLYING FORTRESS
Eighth Air Force Combat Losses (more than 26,000 dead)
United States Marine Corps Deaths WW II (nearly 20,000 killed)
Images Sperry Ball Turret
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell
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.
Those are just a few of the stories I remember among so many others I could tell or have forgotten.
The poet Randall Jarrell served in the USAAF as a combat air crewman in the war. This poem was suggested to him by several incidents in the skies over western Europe. I believe Jarrell died by his own hand in the mid 1960’s.
I SPOKE TO YOU IN WHISPERS
By Neil Andrew
I spoke to you in whispers
As shells made the ground beneath us quake
We both trembled in that crater
A toxic muddy bloody lake
I spoke to you and pulled your ears
To try and quell your fearful eye
As bullets whizzed through the raindrops
And we watched the men around us die
I spoke to you in stable tones
A quiet tranquil voice
At least I volunteered to fight
You didn’t get to make the choice
I spoke to you of old times
Perhaps you went before the plough
And pulled the haycart from the meadow
Far from where we’re dying now
I spoke to you of grooming
Of when the ploughman made you shine
Not the shrapnel wounds and bleeding flanks
Mane filled with mud and wire and grime
I spoke to you of courage
As gas filled the Flanders air
Watched you struggle in the mud
Harness acting like a snare
I spoke to you of peaceful fields
Grazing beneath a setting sun
Time to rest your torn and tired body
Your working day is done
I spoke to you of promises
If from this maelstrom I survive
By pen and prose and poetry
I’ll keep your sacrifice alive
I spoke to you of legacy
For when this hellish time is through
All those who hauled or charged or carried
Will be regarded heroes too
I spoke to you in dulcet tones
Your eye told me you understood
As I squeezed my trigger to bring you peace
The only way I could
And I spoke to you in whispers......
There’s a chance your Economics professor might have known a guy I worked with in the Forest Service back in the 70s, who was also UDT in the Pacific.
When I was young, many WWII veterans were still around, teaching school or working at other jobs, or running businesses. One of the neighborhood dads was a Bataan survivor, my high school chemistry teacher served on destroyers in the Pacific, and I’ll never know how many stories I never heard.
I was born in 1951, so grew up with many vets of WW II, but I don’t have a single story to relate because none of them would talk about what they did.
My knowledge of what my family did was sparse. I know my uncle flew bombers over Germany. My dad was a Marine and trained as a radio operator on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. He was on a an invasion fleet troop ship headed to Japan when the A-Bombs were dropped ending the war, so he became part of the occupation force. He brought home a silk parachute that my mom used to make her wedding dress in 1947. My grandfather (dad’s side) fought in WW I for the Germans on the eastern from and was a Russian POW.
I worked overseas for a few years in the mid ‘70s and there was one guy on the work crew on a job in China who served in WW II. It was the high point of his life and it was literally all he could talk about. Every single conversation with him quickly turned to his war experiences. The poor guy so alienated everybody with his stories that he couldn’t make any friends. Whenever a new person arrived on the job site, he would glom onto them to tell his stories. Then they learned and stopped talking to him. At the time it was really annoying, but I came to feel real sorry for that guy and feel a bit ashamed I didn’t pay more attention to him.
I forget what grade but the English teacher said we would do a segment on poetry. We are thinking roses are red, violets are blue.
Instead he leads with death of a 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.
The whole class was mortified when we realized what this was about. The teacher had a big grin on his face.
Thank you Vets
Wow, that must have been something. What a moment. It clearly made a deep impression on you.
Just imagining those young men trapped is heartbreaking. I grew up around WWII vets, too, within my family and in the neighborhood. Just as you wrote, they were young in that war, in their teens and early twenties. Though they survived, they always remembered their friends who did not.
THANKS to All who Served.
ping for later.
So many men gave their youth and the a part of their spirit in that cause. God bless them all.
I am secretary/treasurer of my ship association, so have access to a complete roster of shipmates, but I don’t like to make phone calls. As a result, I have missed opportunities to talk with shipmates who have now passed away.
I know what you mean. I was too young to take much interesting in talking to “live history” and I knew that those men didn’t want to discuss their war experiences, so I didn’t pry or bring it up. But they are all gone now. So sad.
Everyone should watch “They Shall Not Grow Old”
About 8 - 10 years back myself and a buddy visited the Chino CA Planes of Fame. They have a parked B-17 which is part of their self-guided Tour. On this weekend day there was an old timer sitting next to the Plane who was a belly gunner on B-17 during the war. He was telling stories and helping to bring in donations for the restoration of the plane. What a hero...period end of story.
I saw it in the theater with my son during the limited theater run. It was astonishing.
The new “All Quiet on the Western Front” is really good, too.
While I liked the new AQOTWF, it is not a substitute for the novel or the original 1930 movie.
My awareness of them first occurred when my dad took me golfing with him in junior high. I would be playing in his foursome when they talked to each other. That is where I learned that service in the military was just a regular rite of passage into adulthood. I really didn’t want to volunteer for Vietnam, but it was my turn.
Great poem. thanks.
Not all heroes walk on two legs.
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