Thursday, 16 July 2015

THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE

Sperry ball turret on  RAF B-24 Liberator in Burma (Imperial War Museum)

One often overlooked job during World War II was that of a ball turret gunner: an airman stuck inside a small, round chunk of metal and glass attached to the belly of an American heavy bomber, either a B-17 Flying Fortress or a B-24 Liberator. Basically, the ball gunner was in a world by himself. Was he prone to attacks, more so than nose, tail, or side turrets?

Actually, according to World War II United States Army Air Force combat statistics, the ball turret was the safest part of the bomber for a number of reasons. One: The gunner presented a smaller target because he was in a fetal position. Two: The gunner was backed into an armor-plated door. And three: For an enemy fighter to get a good shot at the ball, he had to attack from underneath, much more difficult than attacking from the nose, top, or side. What kind of men braved the ball? Back in the 1990’s, three former B-17 ball gunners with the American Eighth Air Force based in England related some of their experiences to me which I had recorded.

Charles Teagle of Miami, Florida, who later became a Baptist minister, finished a tour of 35 missions as a ball gunner in 1944 with the 325th Squadron, 92nd Bomb Group out of Podington, England. “I could turn 360 degrees,” he explained. “I could see everywhere, including up. There was very little that went on that I didn’t catch. The ball wasn’t any more vulnerable than other turrets during attacks. I’m 5-foot-6. Yes, I was cramped then. But I liked the ball and got used to the discomfort. During head-on attacks, the persons I felt sorry for were the pilot and co-pilot. They had to just sit there and fly, and not fight back.”

“Visibility was good,” said Alvin Anderson of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, assigned to the 34th Bomb Group, 391st Squadron, at Mendlesham, Suffolk, 60 miles north of London. “I enjoyed looking at the vast expanse that I could cover. However, it was drafty and bitter cold in spite of all the clothing. Wearing an oxygen mask hour after hour was very cumbersome. I was 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, an exception to the rule. I was considered too big for the ball, but I loved it nonetheless. I went on to spend 435 hours in B-17’s, combat and training, including 30 missions.”

“I used to say it was the best seat in the house,” recalled Bill Sullivan from Readville, Massachusetts, a veteran of 30 missions with the 379th Bomb Group. “I know I was lower than the rest of the crew and more exposed,” he added, “but the ball was safe, with the safety glass and metal armor.”

At combat crew training in Ardmore, Oklahoma, before heading overseas, Alvin Anderson described his frustrations. “I found out quickly enough that it was as difficult for me--as it was for the other gunners--to grasp the difference between firing at a moving object from a fixed base and firing at the same object from another moving platform. That was brought home to us by having us fire at clay pigeons on a skeet range. Of course, it was necessary to lead the target. That was hard enough. Next, they put us on the back of a moving truck and further proved their point. I didn’t hit a thing the first few times I tried.”

In combat conditions, the ball gunner didn’t enter his turret--which was done from inside the bomber--until the aircraft reached an altitude of at least 8,000 feet, approximately the same time the crew donned their oxygen masks. This was usually done somewhere over southern England on way to Nazi-held territory. Climbing inside the tight compartment, the gunner sat in a crunched fetal position for hours at a time with two Browning .50-caliber machine guns at his disposal, 500 rounds for each gun, while peering through a 13-inch diameter viewing glass. By using two joysticks in front of him, the gunner controlled the maneuvering of the powered turret, moving the entire turret upright, then around, then back and forth to check the field of fire, as the turret mechanism whined and whirred in his ears. All the time the bomber’s four engines droned on, and the freezing slipstream thundered around him.

The outside temperature often plummeted to 65 degrees below zero. Inside the ball, the gunner wore numerous articles of clothing, including long underwear, wool trousers, shirt, sweater, scarf and two pairs of socks in addition to silk gloves. These were all worn under fleece-lined boots, pants, jacket, and gloves that were heated electrically, plus a helmet and set of goggles.

Alvin Anderson carried an extra piece of equipment in his ball turret. “One of the biggest problems was urinating,” he said. “So, I kept a can with me, just in case I had to let go. It was no easy task to use it. When I did, the urine froze instantly and wouldn’t thaw until we were back at the base.”


B-17 Flying Fortress showing Sperry ball turret underneath (US Public Domain)

The gun sight was a remote-controlled, computerized gun mechanism controlled by a foot pedal. The gunner had to preset the wingspan of the enemy fighter, such as 32 feet for the Me-109 and 34 feet for the Fw-190. During fighter attacks, his left heel operated a set of marks (called rads) on the gun sight. The idea was to frame the fighter with the rads. Press up and the marks would appear in the gun sight. The gunner centered these marks on the enemy aircraft coming in. Then he let up on the pedal as the fighter came closer. The computer figured the distance while the gunner controlled the pedal.

“It worked pretty good if you could keep the sight on the enemy aircraft and controlled the pedal properly,” Charles Teagle said. “Still, air-to-air firing was never that easy or accurate. You missed most of the time. The fighters always came in too fast.”

Deflection shots were another matter, demanding a certain rule. Sullivan said, “In order to hit a moving aircraft from a bomber, you had to aim behind the fighter, between it and the tail of your bomber. Not that easy to do, really.”

“Actually,” Anderson remembered, “our group didn’t face a great deal of fighter opposition. Flak was our biggest problem, and accounted for most of our casualties. The fighters were always hanging around, waiting for stragglers, but rarely attacked a good formation.”

All three gunners agreed that the letdown after a mission was grueling. “The whole thing could last as long as 17 hours from takeoff until you returned to base,” Anderson said. “Tension was the killer. Staying alert and constantly searching the sky was difficult for me. After every mission I felt emotionally drained.”

Teagle added: “The long missions were the worst. The stress could get to you after a while. Breaking the ice off your oxygen mask got to be annoying. The cold at high altitude was awful. A long time on oxygen could tire you. I was exhausted and dehydrated by the time I returned from each mission. I would never want to go through the experience again, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, even with the stress and, of course, the excitement. None of our crew so much as suffered any injuries in flight for our 35 missions. We were one of the lucky ones.”

Sullivan left a lasting impression on many ball turret gunners he later trained. “After my missions were completed, I was assigned to Killkeel, Northern Ireland, as a ball turret instructor. I told my students that during my missions, I didn’t leave my chute inside the aircraft like most other ball gunners did, and which was how all of us were taught in training. Too much time was wasted. I had my own way. I wore mine in the turret with me--a chest chute.

“Hooking the left snap, the chute made a great arm rest, leaving the right side to dangle. In an emergency, all I had to do was release the two turret door hinges, which were located at shoulder height when the turret was level. Then I could snap on the other chute fastener and fall free. Many of the gunners thanked me for the info as they never had any instructions for that type of ejection.”

Sullivan spoke for all ball turret gunners when he concluded: “I was glad I could contribute to our cause. It is something I still feel good about today.”  

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