Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Randall Jarrell: The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner


Production of B-17F heavy bombers. The belly turret of the B-17F heavy bomber has stopped many Axis pilots. A gunner on this rotating cage controls the fire of two heavy caliber machine guns. This new ship is ready for delivery from the Long Beach, California, plant of Douglas Aircraft Company. Better known as the "Flying Fortress," the B-17F is a later model B-17, which distinguished itself in action in the South Pacific, over Germany and elsewhere. It is a long range, high altitude, heavy bomber with a crew of seven to nine men and with armament sufficient to defend itself on daylight missions: photo by Alfred T, Palmer, October 1942 (Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

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.

Boeing Flying Fortresses. Guns bristling from turrets, these huge Boeing B-17Es are seen cruising high above the clouds. Described by the War Department as "bigger and more deadly" than any previous Flying Fortress, this plane marks the seventh Boeing B-17 type built for the Army since 1935. Armament includes heavy caliber power turrets on top and bottom of the all-metal fuselage, a deadly tail "stinger" turret, and side-mounted guns. These airplanes have been active in the Far East since Pearl Harbor, and are now serving the cause of the United Nations in every part of the world: photographer unknown, between 1941 and 1945 (Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

View of the ball turret of a B-17 from inside the waist section of the aircraft: photo by Mark Wagner, 3 June 2006

The inside of the ball turret underneath a B-17 Flying Fortress (Yankee Lady): photo by Mr. Z-man, 30 August 2008

Close-up of the belly turret of the B-17 Liberty Belle on display at the 2005 Lumberton Celebration of Flight: photo by Danleo, 5 April 2006

Randall Jarrell: The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, from Little Friend, Little Friend, 1945

"A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine-guns and one man, a short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose."

-- Randall Jarrell's note


TC said...

from Paul Fussell: Wartime, 1989:

[Randall] Jarrell's wartime identity as a teacher of celestial navigation in the Air Corps was superimposed on his identity as a teacher of English...

In his poem "Losses" the airmen are depicted specifically as high-school students wholly unprepared for the tasks now laid upon them.

"When we left high school," they say, "nothing else had died / For us to figure we had died like."

Regardless, "In bombers named for girls, we burned / The cities we had learned about in school...."

Jarrell's ball-turret gunner is pointedly not a grown-up: his life explodes in a flak-burst before it's really begun.

Hazen said...

This is a poem that always brings home for me the horrors of war. The utter vulnerability of the gunner trapped in a plastic and metal bubble—suffering not so much a death as a lonely obliteration. There can’t be too many poems like this one. And you reveal that Jarrell found his young charges “wholly unprepared” to make war. That’s all for the good, isn’t it? When the day comes that we are prepared, then we’ve crossed over, become some other kind of animal. Thanks, Tom.



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.

What a great poem (what a last line (what a way to go) made even more so w/ these photos. . .


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, white circle of moon in branches
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

“being and time” means here,
say how it must sound

here, hemmed in by greenery,
push the note too far

lines of waves breaking across channel,
shadowed green slope of ridge above it

ACravan said...

Amazing to encounter this on a very small screen (iPhone) during a continuing legal education seminar in Philadelphia this morning. I remember being "taught" this poem when I was a freshman in high school and the effect it had and still has on me. It's almost something too fundamental (as a sort of "flash" realization) to be expressed. I remember finding out more about the poem, the poet and other things later, but also how they really hardly mattered next to the original thing and feeling. That is amazing. I'm home now and re-reading this in larger type on a larger screen but it's still exactly the same. Curtis

TC said...

"The utter vulnerability of the gunner trapped in a plastic and metal bubble—suffering not so much a death as a lonely obliteration."

Oh yes, the uncanny representation of the "primal scene" -- the fetal curl there in the bubble... claustrophobia collides with fear of flying. A visceral/psychic fission reaction.

There is no steam-hose to wash this poem from the mind.

Or, for that matter, this passage of prose.

TC said...

And thinking, too, in mere physical terms, about the particular loneliness of the obliteration, for the unwilling warrior far from home -- in this case 30,000 feet in space, where untutored primates dare to tread.

In terms of the sheer physics of the imagination of the thing, that's even further away from whatever heartland home -- Oregon? Ohio? Minnesota? for the Jarrell boy -- than it had been, under the alien Southern stars, for Hardy's poor sad exoterically interred yet at least still Earth-borne Drummer Hodge.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff; I seem to recall that Jarrell never was a flyer, and yet. And yet.

Elmo St. Rose said...

Paul Fussell tells the truth
about's a serious and
ugly business...I was talking the
other day to soldier whose
family had a lot of whoes post
3 suggestion
for the country, and the gliterati,
whose freedoms unconsciously rest
on soldiers, that there be a USO
for military families...he thought
it was a good idea

Then there was uncle Bob who was
dean of a medical school for 25
years...after graduating Harvard
med and Bellvue internship he
enlisted after Pearl Harbor in the
navy was a Physician for the 1st
Marines during the height of battle
for Guadalcanal....he never spoke
of it and when asked about it he
stared off in the distance and tears welled up in his eyes...he and
his wife(who ran Henry Wallace's
campaign in Massachusetts) were
life long liberals.
The Irish apparently had a tradition in their history that a
war would only be just if the poets
approved of it...and I'm sure TC
would philosophically agree with
the concept
The Wounded Warriors
a good charity...the ball-turret
gunner is one of them with better
front line medicine, air evac etc..
formerly the dead are now heavily
maimed....I wonder how many poets
have visited Walter Reed. Whitman
would have.

TC said...

Well, wars, whatever else they do or don't do, change lives. "A serious and ugly business", to be sure, Elmo.

Not long after WW II I spent a summer among family in Santa Monica. My grandmother's sister's son, a strapping, handsome, cheerful (once upon a time) and extremely physically-capable fellow who had been a motorcycle cop for the LAPD, had gone off to war, been through combat, and came back another person entirely. Anxious, jumpy, unsettled. Lost job and marriage, holed up in a room in his mother's house.

He did not care to talk about or for that matter acknowledge in any way the experiences he had been through, the things he had seen.

My own innocent heroizing of battle figures had been incessant up till then; doubts and questions then arose.

Came Korea, another cousin returned with a broken back, having been made to jump off the side of an LST. He regarded the injury as fortunate, because it removed him from the action.

Then came Vietnam, and I'm sure, Elmo, you lost as many high school mates to that one as I did.

Happened to be in Colorado Springs airport (strapped in a cast!) during the massive troop deployments after Tet, early '68, will never forget the deer-in-headlights expressions on faces of outbound draftees, fresh meat heading for the jungles.

On Tuesday night (Valentines) I encountered in the street a broken, weeping veteran of Iraq I (Desert Storm), spilling a disjointed tale of how two of his buddies had died while he huddled in a shelter to save his own skin -- "not even two clicks away". A horrible, classic case of "survivor's guilt". He then described his own subsequent broken marriage and fractured life.

And it was hard at that point not to wonder -- "making the world safe for... what was it, again?"

Elmo St. Rose said...

sorry for misspelling woes...
my uncle did have advice which
is still pertinent to today
about a medically desperate sunk by the
Japanese navy...we did what we
could...and re Whitman, who dressed
wounded soldiers during the Civil
War,? Did he take sides or did he
just do what he could

TC said...


Like your predecessors in the offering of succour, Walt, Bill Williams, I've always figured you don't take sides, do what you can.

This stands as exemplar.