Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ball Turret Gunners---- A Breed Apart




This is from my personal collection. It's an ad from a magazine during World War Two advertising Nash-Kelvinator and their role in the manufacturing of ball turrets. This is my favorite shot of the ball turret.

The ball turret gunners were a breed apart. Suspended in their pot-metal cacoon on the underside of the B-17 and B-24 bomber, these men had to deal with three of man's main fears---heights, enclosed spaces, and death---while at the same time defending their ship from intense enemy attack.


An Army Air Corps schematic of the Sperry Ball Turret.


I have been impressed by these men since I first interviewed two of them for my book. Frank Coleman and Bob Capen were both ball turret gunners in the 95th Bomb Group. I spent hours interviewing Frank and Bob sent me several hours of taped memories. These became the basis of my chapter 'Ball Turret Gunner' in my book, Untold Valor.


The caption on this photo says this is a gunner from the 95th. However, he looks a lot like Clifford Puckett, the ball turret gunner on 390th Bomb Group's 'Betty Boop/Pistol Packin' Mama' and I'm willing to bet it is.


By necessity small in stature, these men were long on courage. When I met Frank and his wife in Salt Lake some years back, I was impressed with how much his experience had impacted him as a human being. He still suffered from hours at fifty below zero, curled up in the ball turret of a B-17, often unable even to relieve himself for hours at a time. Frank anguished about the people the bombers killed on the ground in Germany. A strong Mormon, he came home from every mission, and the first thing he did was go to a nearby farm where he could be alone and pray. He would ask God's forgiveness for what he'd had to do, knowing at the same time that somebody had to do it to keep facism at bay.



The American poet Randall Jarrell wrote a sobering poem about ball turret gunners. Here it is:



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.


No glamor here, just sudden death and the end of dreams for one young gunner.



The following is from the Commemorative Air Force website:


"Flying Fortress crew members considered the ball turret the worst crew position on the aircraft. The confining sphere fastened to the underside of the aircraft required an agile occupant immune to claustrophobia and brave enough to be without a parachute close by.
The turret revolved a full 360 degrees, providing an extraordinary vantage point and covering the aircraft against attackers from below. Ironically, thought of as being the most dangerous position in a B-17, it turned out to be one of the safest-as far as suffering battle wounds. The gunner, curled up in the ball in a fetal position with his back against the armor plated door, had less of his body exposed to enemy fire than the other crew members.

The turret was stowed with the guns facing rearward for takeoff and landing. Once the aircraft was airborne, the turret would have to be cranked by hand to position the guns straight down, revolving the hatch inside the airplane. The ball gunner would then enter the turret, fasten his safety strap, turn on the power and operate the turret from inside.
The ball turret gunner would be hunched, legs bent, with his feet in stirrups on each side of the 13 inch diameter armored glass panel. His face was about 30 inches from this panel, and suspended in between was the optical display of the computing gunsight. A pedal under his left foot adjusted the red sight on this display and when a target framed within, the range was correct. While sighting, he would be looking directly between his knees. Two handles projected rearward above the sight and controlled movement of the turret. At the end of each handle was the firing button for both guns."


Finally, I salute my friend Les Poitras's grandpa, Leslie Moore, who also served as a ball turret gunner in the 100th Bomb Group.


Lest we ever forget the sacrifices of these brave men.


If you'd like to read a website by one of these true heroes, I recommend Andy Anzanos' website at this location: http://www.andyanzanos.com/. And while you're at it, order Andy's SIGNED biography about his experiences as a ball turret gunner in the 390th Bomb Group. Check it out. You will not be disappointed!

390th Ball Turret gunner Andy Anzanos holds a copy of his book about his experiences. You can order it, signed and inscribed by this living legend, at the address above.

11 comments:

Les said...

Hi Rob. Thank you for the mention of Grampa.

Next Thursday is the start of the 100th BG reunion in Nashville. I'm hoping to meet a ball-turret gunner or two there and ask them about their experience.

Anonymous said...

We say good-bye with sadness in our hearts to John Lawton, belly gunner of the 457th. He passed away on February 14, 2008. God bless you, Uncle John.
-Ed and Anne Lawton, Eddie, Andy and John

john speasmaker said...

My father, S/Sgt Philip W. Speasmaker, was a Ball Turret Gunner with the 379th out of Kimbolton, UK. He started out as a technical specialist in turrets and the Sperry gunsite. My father volunteered for aircrew duty when he saw there was a need. He flew 12 combat missions in the BT (uncredited) before he was officially transferred to aircrew and then flew 31 missions before he went home in March of 1945. Dad was shot out of the sky twice. Once was a wheels down forced landing and the other was just a crash. He was a very brave man and even after the terror he experienced in WWII as aircrew on a bomber he served again as combat aircrew on a B-29 in Korea. We all owe such a debt to these brave men. Thanks so much for this memorial.

Kathleen M Herbert said...

Your right Rob, that is my father Clifford Puckett, Ball Turret gunner of the 390th Betty Boop/Pistal Pakin Mama. His 5 children live here in Tempe Az. We miss him so much. He passed away April 14th, 2003. We are so very proud of him!

Cifford Jr., Pam, Cindy, Anne, and Kathy. (Proud Children)

Brangus Weir said...

I made reference to this fine article in my blog branguswier.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

With sadness we are searching for informtion about a belly gunner that recently passed. Vergil Calahan from the 490th Bomb Group! calahanb@yahoo.com

Tom said...

My Uncle, SSgt. Irwin A. Grygienc, was a ball turret gunner in the 459th BG, 759th Squadron based at Guilia Airfield in Cerignalo, Italy. He was killed in action on April 13, 1944 over Yugoslavia. They were returning from a bombing run over Budapest, Hungary. It was to be their last mission before going home. Rest in Peace Uncle Irwin. tgrygienc@yahoo.com

mauikid said...

My father was a ball turret gunner on a B-24 "Herk Jerks" 454th Bomb Group 738th bomb squadron.They were shot down on Oct.7 1944 bombing the Marshalling Yards Vienna Austria.He was in prison camp and made a 600 mile forced march in the dead of winter with just what he had on with temperatures 20-30 below zero.He was liberated April 26th 1945.He is still alive today and was finally awarded disability from the VA that he has been trying to get since 1945 for multiple injuries from bailing out including a broken back.

mauikid said...

My father was a ball turret gunner on a B-24 "Herk Jerks" 454th Bomb Group 738th bomb squadron.They were shot down on Oct.7 1944 bombing the Marshalling Yards Vienna Austria.He was in prison camp and made a 600 mile forced march in the dead of winter with just what he had on with temperatures 20-30 below zero.He was liberated April 26th 1945.He is still alive today and was finally awarded disability from the VA that he has been trying to get since 1945 for multiple injuries from bailing out including a broken back.

MHutcherson said...

My cousin Sgt Whalen Hutcherson Jr was a nose gunner in the 454th Bombing Group 738th Squadron located at San Giovanni Field, Italy (B24G Serial number 42-76210) Their plane lost turbos and had to turn back over Austria, they were flying to Linz, Austria on 20 Jan, 1945 to bomb the south marshalling yards. They crashed landed in northwestern Yugoslavia. All return safe except Sgt Hutcherson and Sgt Robert Provensal, two different reports stated that their chutes did not open or were shot by the Germans. They came down between partisans and German firefight. 1st Lt Paul Cash was pilot. If anyone has information about themission or pitures of the crew I wouldlove to here from you. Mhutche229@aol.com Michael Hutcherson. Thank you or your loved ones who served or are serving.

MHutcherson said...

My cousin Sgt Whalen Hutcherson Jr was a nose gunner in the 454th Bombing Group 738th Squadron located at San Giovanni Field, Italy (B24G Serial number 42-76210) Their plane lost turbos and had to turn back over Austria, they were flying to Linz, Austria on 20 Jan, 1945 to bomb the south marshalling yards. They crashed landed in northwestern Yugoslavia. All return safe except Sgt Hutcherson and Sgt Robert Provensal, two different reports stated that their chutes did not open or were shot by the Germans. They came down between partisans and a German firefight. 1st Lt Paul Cash was pilot, they had planned to jump, but the Navigator's chute spilled out in the plane and the pilol, co-pilot (2nd Lt Jas Claude), navigator (F/O Saml Rosenberg) and bombardier 2nd Lt Perry Hackett) decided tostay with the plane and crash land,which they did in enemy territory. Other crew that bailed out were: SSgt Bennie L DiPetra Top T Gunner), SSgt Raymond Smith Radio & Waist), Sgt Edward Strohecker (Waist), Jr., Sgt Paul Houghton Tail Gunner), Sgt Whalen Hutcherson, Jr (Nose Gunner-KIA) and Sgt Robert Provensal (Ball Turret-KIA), If anyone has information about the mission(s) or pitures of the crew I would love to here from you. Mhutche229@aol.com Michael Hutcherson. Thank you or your loved ones who have served or are serving. God Bless