They Washed Me Out with a Hose

Published:September 17, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On Friday we posted a (probably staged) photograph of a B-17 bomber crew in Virginia during World War II. The historian Henry Wiencek commented that his father flew on such bombers and then sent the above photograph: “Here’s how my dad fought the war.”

He fought, in other words, inside what was called a Sperry ball turret, which hung—in an agonizingly vulnerable position—from the underbelly of those big, long-range bombers. Here’s a good description of how the thing worked:

The Sperry ball turret was very small in order to reduce drag, and was typically operated by the shortest man of the crew. To enter the turret, the turret was moved until the guns were pointed straight down. The gunner placed his feet in the heel rests and then crouched down into a fetal position. He would then put on a safety strap, close and lock the turret door. The gunner sat in the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall. This left him positioned with his eyes roughly level with the pair of light-barrel Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber machine guns which extended through the entire turret, and located to either side of the gunner. The cocking handles were located too close to the gunner to be operated easily, so a cable was attached to the handle through pulleys to a handle near the front of the turret. Small ammo boxes rested on the top of the turret and the remaining ammo belts were stowed in the already cramped turret by means of an elaborate feed chute system. A reflector sight was hung from the top of the turret, positioned roughly between the gunners feet.

The turret was directed by two hand control grips with firing buttons similar to a one-button joy stick. Hydraulics normally powered elevation and azimuth. Hand cranks were available for backup. The left foot was used to control the reflector sight range reticle. The right foot operated a push to talk intercom switch.

The poet Randall Jarrell, who served in the Army Air Force during the war, later wrote the poem “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.

That last line is more powerful, certainly, than anything in Memphis Belle (1990), but still, if you want to see something of what it might have been like in there:

In the meantime, you might check out the recent-ish play, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Anna Moench, in which “bombs shudder the plane, reality bleeds into nightmares … and an ensemble cast take a magical realist journey into one of WWII’s most unforgettable battles.” Or, at the 1:10 mark of this video, you can watch Matthew from the band Robots and Racecars sing an acoustic version of his original composition “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”

IMAGES: Diagram of a ball turret gunner; the Sperry Ball; the nose of a B-17 bomber (Flickr user ckpicker via