The Ball Turret Gunner on a B-24
For a comparatively short period in the long sweep of the nation's history, some American airmen served as ball turret gunners, a hazardous occupation that threatened a short life expectancy. There were no ball turret gunners in World War I, and there have been none since World War II. Ball turret gunners are therefore an exclusive group. Out of some 16 million U.S. service personnel during World War II, maybe 30,000 were so employed. I was one of them.
For those not familiar with the terminology, a turret in an aircraft was simply a movable gun position, and a ball turret was, as the name implies, a sphere or ball. It could swing a full circle, 360 degrees in azimuth, and raise or lower its guns from 0 to 90 degrees vertically. This deadly orb, sometimes called the belly turret, was used to protect two types of American heavy bombers, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, from enemy aircraft attacking from below. No other Allied or Axis aircraft employed ball turrets.
The turret carried two .50-caliber Browning machine guns, which, located alongside the gunner's head, were ear shattering when fired. The guns were triggered from thumb buttons on the turret's dual control levers (much like today's video games), and these buttons energized firing solenoids on each gun. The levers also controlled the movement of the turret. Since the B-24 was rather low slung, the turret was retractable; it was lowered for combat and raised for landing into the rear compartment by a hydraulic pump. A winch also allowed the waist gunners to raise the turret if the hydraulic system was shot out and the ball turret gunner was unable to extricate himself. If the turret could not be retracted, it would make a furrow down the runway when the plane landed, and the gunner, if still inside, would, we said, have to be "washed out with a hose."
Vision inside the turret was limited to an 18-inch round view plate between the gunner's feet. From 20,000 feet and at 175 mph, by the time the bombs reached the ground the plane had traveled far enough past the target that the bombardier could not see his bombs strike. The ball turret gunner, however, had a ringside seat to the explosions—cloud cover permitting— and one of his duties was to report on what he saw, unless he was busy firing at enemy fighters. He also had a ringside seat to see anti-aircraft guns firing up at his plane from far below and their shells bursting all around.
At 5 feet 10 inches, I found the turret quite cramped, and riding
on my back in a curled, almost fetal position for five or six hours was extremely
uncomfortable. The guns and ammunition cans took up most of the room. The can
for the left gun held 600 rounds, the right about 550—the difference caused
by the curvature of the turret. This load would last about 90 seconds if fired
in one long burst. Such a burst, however, would also burn out the barrels, so
gunners were careful to only fire in short bursts.
Although we carried extra ammunition, only the tail gunners and the waist gunners could reload in flight. The extra ammunition was sometimes useful because the shells were packed in a sealed, moisture-proof metal liner inside a wooden box. If on a long mission a man had diarrhea or just had to go and could not get to one of the two relief tubes on the plane, he could lift out and open up the metal liner, dump the ammunition on the floor, peel off several layers of clothing and straddle the liner—an indelicate and ludicrous procedure, but a necessary and effective one. He would then open the bomb bay doors and toss out the can, a strange sort of bomb for the people below.
The seat inside the turret was a small steel shelf, the only armor present. The turret was equipped with an oxygen regulator and outlet where the hose to the oxygen mask plugged in, and a 24-volt DC outlet where the heated suit plugged in, as well as a rheostat to control the suit's temperature. There was also an intercom box where the headset and microphone cords plugged in—the microphone being in the nose of the oxygen mask and the headphones in the gunner's helmet. Beneath the gunner's right toe was the intercom push-to-talk switch; beneath his left heel was the spring-loaded range pedal for the Sperry computing gunsight. Operating the turret often required the simultaneous use of both hands and both feet.
The gunsight, mounted in front of the gunner's face, was in fact a mechanical analog computer, a sophisticated device for the time. The gunner would set in the wingspan of the fighters he expected to encounter, and then track the attacker smoothly in azimuth and elevation and raise the range pedal as the fighter closed in. The gunsight would take care of bullet drop and lead, and also tell when the target was at 1,000 yards—firing range. All the gunner then needed to do was press either thumb button, watch the tracers and listen to the loud racket. In practice, however, enemy aircraft flew by so fast and wild that smooth tracking was impossible. We would just track incoming enemy fighters as best we could, bang out two or three quick bursts and then start looking for the next one.
Because the turret was so cramped, I could not wear a parachute or flak vest. Instead, I wrapped my parachute in the flak vest—flak holes in a parachute are not good—and placed them on the plane's floor near the turret where I could reach them easily. The door to the turret could be opened only when the guns were pointed straight down; when the guns were elevated into firing position, the door, which was also the backrest, was outside the aircraft. That was scary. If for any reason it came open, the gunner was gone—there was no seat belt. Because the turret created considerable drag, my pilot did not want it lowered until we neared enemy territory. When he gave me the go-ahead, I would use a hand crank to point the guns down, unlatch and open the door, and open the hydraulic valve, which lowered the turret. I would then disconnect my cords and hose from the nearby wall outlets, step down into the turret, reconnect my cords and hose, latch the door at my back, turn on the hydraulic and electric drive motors, and bring the guns up about halfway. The last step in this procedure was to "charge" the guns, that is, to pull the handles at my feet to bring the first round of ammunition into the chamber of each gun.
Once the turrets were ready, each gunner would fire a short test burst, being careful not to aim at other planes in the formation. From that time until we returned to friendly territory, I rotated the turret continually and raised and lowered the guns, scanning the skies for enemy fighters. As we approached the target, where the flak was heaviest, I would point the guns down, open the door, slue the turret around so the ammunition cans were facing the front, between the bursting flak and me, and sit erect with my head inside the plane. I would then sit there cringing and shaking, listening to the "wump-wump" of the explosions and the rattle of shrapnel on the aluminum siding, and wondering if the next one would be "the one." As we left the target I would swing the turret around so that the cans were facing the rear, trying to wring out the last ounce of protection. If someone reported a fighter, however, I would close and latch the door, bring up the guns and start looking for the target. I could not do anything about the flak, but I could do something about the fighters.
Although there are statistics that show the casualty rate for ball turret gunners was less than for other air crewmen, the position was still the most unpopular on a bomber. Sitting alone in the hardest-to-exit position, suspended in space below the plane, seemingly more exposed to flak and fighters, and having no visual contact with your comrades all combined to create a terrible sense of isolation and vulnerability. The science of warfare took a giant leap forward when the ball turret became obsolete.
World War II Magazine
Jesse N. Bradley
702nd Bomb Squadron
445th Bomb Group
8th Air Force