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The Life and Death of a Ball Turret Gunner

When the Boeing B-17 was first unveiled to the press, one reporter noted all the guns sticking out of the plane and said it looked like a flying fortress. The name stuck. Over time, more guns were added and, with the definitive G model, the Flying Fort sported thirteen .50 caliber defensive machine guns. Two of those were in a powered ball turret that protruded from the belly of the bomber. William Cart completed 35 missions as a ball turret gunner, and he tells his story in this short video.

The Eighth Air Force arrived in England in the spring of 1942 and began operations against Nazi-occupied Europe on August 17 of that year. Putting hundreds of bombers in the air over a target required detailed planning and training, which is documented in this movie about bomber operations in 1943. It covers everything from strategic bomber doctrine to formations to fighting, and has footage of the various defensive gunners fending off Luftwaffe fighters. As the bombers approach the target, guns are loaded and the waist gunners don their heavy lead flak vests, which the ball turret gunner would not have been able to wear in the cramped confines of his turret. You can also hear B-17 waist gunners talking enviously of the ball turret. Perhaps this was intended to get recruits to volunteer for the position.

Another tale told by a B-17 ball turret gunner describes how the turret was not only a cramped and dangerous place, it was also a challenge to get off a good shot at the fighters knifing through the bomber formation. It’s likely that the top gunners saw more action because the fighters tended to attack from above. Before the twin .50s were added to the chin of the B-17G, head-on was the preferred attacking point.

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Illustration for article titled The Life and Death of a Ball Turret Gunner
Photo: US Air Force

“The good news was you had the best view of any other crew member; the bad news was that if the plane took a hit and there was damage to the mechanism that raised and lowered the ball turret, you were on your own,” Lewi said.

“There were many instances, and they are pretty horrific, where the ball turret was stuck and the bombers have had to make crash landings. Everybody else in the plane understood that the [ball turret gunner] was a dead man. He’d be crushed.”

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A ball turret,  likely belonging to a B-24 Liberator, that was struck by flak
A ball turret, likely belonging to a B-24 Liberator, that was struck by flak

It’s difficult to find data about which gunner was the most vulnerable, or suffered the most casualties. Some say the tail gunner, since many attacks were made from behind. But all bomber crew members suffered mightily in the nightmare of flak and fighters over occupied Europe. Randall Jarrell, who served in the US Army Air Forces during WWII, though he did not fly, wrote this poignant short poem about the fate of one particular gunner, but it was likely an end experienced by many bomber crewmen.


The 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.

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If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. You can find more posts about aviation history, aviators, and aviation oddities at Wingspan.

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