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When we got off the ground, the turret was locked into place...

 

with the guns pointed towards the tail. As soon as possible I entered the turret through the door, put the safety belt on my back, and locked the door from the inside with two handles. I decided to wear a chest-type parachute. It made for close quarters, but I felt more comfortable with it. If something happened I could just roll back, unfasten the safety belt, open the door, and roll out. I put the power on, and was free to move the turret all around to protect the bottom on the plane…

…The gunsight was a frame which had two lines, with one on each end of a box. You turned handles to "frame" an enemy fighter between the lines as it came in. When you had the fighter framed, you shot at him by pushing the firing buttons, which were on top of the handles. I searched mostly to the sides and the tail because there was a lot of blocked-out area up front from the body of the plane and the propellers. The turret had stops that wouldn't let you fire there. Also, the head-on attacks came too fast for the sight.

From “Half a Wing, Three Engines and a Prayer, B-17s over Germany” by Brian D. O'neill.



The sperry ball turret. As you can see from this picture, the ball did not sit very far off the ground when the plane was on the ground. A trapped ball turret gunner would was always taken seriously aboard the Flying Fortresses as a bad bounce on landing could be the end of the trapped gunner.

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable and lonely positions on the Flying Fortress was the Sperry Ball Turret located on the underside of the aircraft (though some may argue that the Tail Gunner position was a very close second). Usually the ball gunner was one of the shortest men on the crew because of the cramped quarters of the ball turret. The gunner would wait in the radio room until after the aircraft had left the ground. The turret would then be rotated so that the guns were pointing straight down. The access panel for the turret could then be opened from the forward waist compartment where the turret was mounted and be entered. The gunner would place his feet in the steps located just inboard of the turret's .50 cal. machine guns. He would then kneel down and ball up into a fetal-like position and the door would be closed behind him. He could wear a safety strap for protection against falling out of the turret but very few ball gunners found they had room for a parachute.

The reflector sight would be between the gunners knees and the handles would be at eye level to each side. On the handles were located the firing buttons for the machine guns. The two handles that also the triggers for the turret's twin .50 caliber machine guns also controlled the vertical position and azimuth (Rotaion) of the turret. The foot pedals were used as a range pedal for the Sperry sight and the right pedal was the "Push to talk swich" for the intercom. As an added note, the controls for the gunner's heated suit were located under the seat in the turret and, because of the cramped confindes of the turret, it was difficult to control the heat. Many of the gunners used to plug and unplug the power cord to try and control the heat. When one adds up the amount of equipment in the turret, combine that with the clothes, heated suit, oxygen mask and sometimes parachute worn by the gunner, it is apparent that the ball turret was not for those who easily felt claustrophobic.

The ball turret was perhaps the most intimidating position on the Flying Fortress. First, enemy fighters liked attacking from low positions because very few positions could fire on them from below. Second, the ball turret was a very visible feature of the aircraft and could be easily targeted. Third, because of the turret's very construction, it offered little to no protection in the form of armor plating against flak and gunfire. Lastly, if something were to happen to the aircraft, the ball turret gunner had the hardest time trying to escape the doomed aircraft. But it didn't take a catastrophic event to take the gunner's life in a locked turret. Even if the plane could make it back to base the landing itself could be disastrous. The turret sat just a few inches off the ground with the aircraft at rest and the tires fully inflated. If a tire had gone flat because of battle damage, the landing gear couldn't be lowered, or even if the pilot came in too hard and the plane bounced heavily, chances are the trapped gunner would be squashed under the aircraft. It was for this reason that air crews would do everything in their power to extract a ball gunner in a stuck ball turret.

The ball turret from inside the waist section of the B-17. The gunner would enter the turret from this position when the turret was pointed straight down.

Above all these problems, the gunner had to do a number of different jobs while in his turret. First and foremost was to defend the aircraft. His position was responsible for covering the whole bottom section of the aircraft. To prevent the gunner from shooting off parts of his own airplane, the turret was equipped with stops that would keep the guns from firing when aimed at the aircraft. Because of this, it was very hard for the ball gunner to shoot at fighters attacking from the front half of the aircraft. But the gunners could, and did, fire at fighters making head on attacks on lower formations as they flew below the higher flying bombers. Also, the ball gunner would assist the navigator and radio operator with their mission notes by notifying them of other bombers falling out of formation or the number of chutes seen from bombers falling towards earth. They would also assist the various members of the crew by checking for damage or problems with the underside of the aircraft since the ball gunner was the only one who could see that side of the plane. They usually would also report if the bomb bay doors came open before the target and if they closed after. They could also help asses the effectiveness of a bomb run if they were not busy warding off fighters.

Like his fellow gunners, the ball turret gunner was an enlisted man with a rank, generally, of Sergeant or higher.


 

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