Stalag Luft 6 and 4 Notebook – “Gunner’s Wish”

(Posted: July 4, 2011)

 

My father, as the ball turret gunner, carried the responsibility of checking the armaments – bombs, guns, ammunition, etc. – prior to flight.  He would have been thorough and would have accepted this job willingly.  I’m also proud to note that he graduated at the top of his flight in gunnery school. 

I love this poem.  It shows me the pride that my father took in assuming a gunner’s position in his words “We’ll be the best damn gunners that have left the US yet.”  It appears that most airmen wished to fill the more prestigious position of “pilot” thus “Gunner’s Wish”.  He mentions that the pilot flies the plane and gets the credit but it’s the gunners who do the fighting.  He also talks about how it takes guts to sit in the lonely ball when being shot at by the German fighter planes, Messerschmitts and FW’s.  He obviously had “guts”.  It’s the only time he probably ever mentioned the fact that it did take courage to be a ball turret gunner.  In the years after the War he would never admit that he was brave or feel that he was a hero in the role that he assumed.  That’s why I think this is my favorite poem and sketch.  It is my father.  I know that he’s the author and artist and the person he’s drawn in the ball turret even looks like him to me.

 Obviously, the crew members were certainly dependent on one another to defend their assigned area of the plane.  It was important to feel confident in each other knowing that each of their crew mates was adequately or even more than adequately defending their area of responsibility.  Their lives depended on each other.  Their performance during their missions was critical.  They all needed to feel security with each other and particularly with their pilot.  And on the contrary the pilot needed to feel that his “Flying Fortress” was being effectively defended by the gunners.  Every man on that bomber was an integral component in the success of their missions.

 According to my friend, Joe O’Donnell, who was a former B-17 Ball Turret Gunner, it was said many times that the Ball Turret was the most dangerous position.  It was the most confined and anyone who was claustrophobic would never have made it. The danger was not because of combat but because there were so many things that could and did go wrong.  The thing that bothered him the most was that with every turn of the head or movement of the arms or legs something would come unplugged or detached, for example, the oxygen mask, throat mike or some part of the electric heated suit.  Every position in combat was dangerous.

 Another of who I call my “B-17” friends, Joe Leo, who was a former waist gunner, explained the normal entry into and exit out of the ball turret.  The Ball Turret Gunner did not enter the turret until after the aircraft was airborne.  Entry was accomplished from the waist gun position. The door of the turret would be on the outside of the aircraft while on the ground.  The turret was hand cranked from the waist gun position until the guns were vertical to the ground. Turret entrance was then accomplished from the inside of the aircraft.  The ball turret gunner, once inside the turret could operate the controls.  The ball turret operator would exit the turret using the controls, place the turret so the guns were vertical to the ground and the turret door was inside the aircraft as in entry.  He then exited the turret inside the aircraft and hand cranked the turret to its horizontal position.  It was possible to enter the ball turret from the outside while the plane was on the ground but it seems it is not probable that this happened very often as to do this meant that the gunner would have to stay inside the turret which was only 15 inches off of the ground during takeoff. 

 I’ve crawled inside the ball turret of a B-17 and having the door closed know how cramped it was inside.  It was not unusual for the gunner to be in this confined area for the entire mission which could be 10 or more hours.  The gunner sat curled up in the fetal position.  As he aimed the two guns he swiveled the entire turret.  The turret had a full 360 degrees of motion horizontally and 90 degrees of motion vertically. 

The gunner placed his feet in the stirrups located on either side of the front window and a gunsight hung in front of his face.  His knees were up around his ears.  I’ve read that his left foot adjusted a reticle on the gunsight glass and when the target was framed within the grid the gunner knew the range was correct.  The firing buttons were located at the end of two post handles above the sight which controlled the movement of the ball.  My father certainly was skilled to handle this position. 

This poem says it all about my father’s feelings as a proud gunner even though it was unspoken throughout his life.  Years ago he gave me a videotape that he taped off of the History Channel.  I watched the tape and there was a segment regarding the ball turret and the former B-17 crew member that was being interviewed stated that it took great courage to man this position.  I think that was my father’s way of telling me without saying it himself that the position he filled on the crew was one that did take “guts.”

After I watched the tape, I returned it to my father.  It would have been the perfect time to ask questions but I didn’t.  I have a feeling that he wanted me to; that’s why he gave me the tape to watch.  Looking back, it was a missed opportunity for me that I wish I could have back.  The tape is a treasure in spawning the memories of the day dad gave it to me to take home to watch.  It was indirectly about him and I think he knew, without saying and without me asking, that I did care about his wartime years.

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