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.