Death of a Ball Turret Gunner – Randall Jarrell.


A Ball Turret, the home to many young men.1

There have been many poems written around the theme of death and dying in the line of duty. Some have become ‘classics’ known and used world-wide. Others have remained unknown but to those who wrote them.

Often written by young men, they reflect the horror of war , the conditions in which they served and lived , the sense of hopelessness and never-ending feeling of not knowing if today would be your last. Written in the latter stages of the Second World War and published in 1945, ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner‘ is a short poem by Randall Jarrell. Jarrell, too old to serve as a Combat Pilot himself, served as an instructor and wrote many works around the theme of war. He reflects in this piece about the ‘matter-of-factness’ of war and death and how men (or boys) are slaughtered with little thought or remorse.

‘Death of a Ball Turret Gunner’ is about the death of a gunner in the underbelly of an American bomber.

“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.”

Jarrell, added his own explanation, describing how the ball turret resembled a mother’s womb and the “short small man”, the gunner within, a foetus.

As a ball gunner, you were exposed to exploding cannon shells. Spinning round and round contoured into all sorts of positions. Your only companion being the two .50 calibre machine guns that rattled their violent disgust. Many have analysed the work, it has been the inspiration for a play, published with illustrations and referred to in many literature works.

To me. It’s more simple. The work of a young man whose life was turned upside down, taken from the safety of his home, put into a killing machine and then discarded with little thought when life is extinguished.

The poem appears in many publications and websites, I found this copy on Wikipedia at:

A biographical account of Jarrell can be found here.

1 Photo courtesy of Marcella.

Other poems can be found here.

15 thoughts on “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner – Randall Jarrell.

  1. I cannot imagine being cooped up in that ball for all that time. Not fun seeing things coming up at you or bursting flak. But if I had a choice of where I’d be, I’d pick the ball turret. Safest place on that B-17. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In ‘A Higher Call’, Adam Makos reports that many B17 crews nicknamed the ball turret ‘the morgue’, but goes on to say “time would prove it was actually the safest gun position”. (No source is given.) I guess “safest” is a relevant term…

    Liked by 1 person

      • Steven Spielberg used to produce a TV show called Amazing Tales and in one of the episodes a B-17 has lost all its hydraulics leaving the ball turret jammed with only a small hole left big enough to reach a hand through. When the crew realize they cant get the landing gear down either and that the belly landing will see the poor guy in the turret scrapped along the runway the crew draw lots to decide who is going to shoot him and spare him from the death. Apparently it was based on a true story.

        Where that ends however is that the guy in the turret is a cartoonist and draws wheels under a B-17. This causes cartoon wheels to appear under the aircraft thus saving his life. It is Amazing Tales after all.

        The point remains though. How would crews have felt knowing he was in there alive and what would happen. Thank God they developed remote turrets for aircraft like the B-29

        Liked by 1 person

      • I remember that short film.

        It would have been an awful ordeal and to be the one who would have to do the terrible deed must have been even worse. Remote turrets would have been seen as a real god send and to the relief of many a young man.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is frighteningly matter-of-fact. No wonder so many came home from the war and would say nothing about it. It was hard enough to drive the horrors from the mind–to revisit them intentionally would have been too much. I am thankful that some veterans did eventually open up, so that we know their stories, which otherwise would perish with the men.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think many got to that point sadly and life was almost meaningless. There’s a line from ‘Band of brothers’ he says something like “the sooner you accept you’re already dead the sooner you’ll function as a soldier”. Said it all. Thanks for the comment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.