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The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner -- Randall Jarrell

(Poem #707) The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
 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.
-- Randall Jarrell
[Jarrell's note to the poem]

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.

[My own commentary]

A rather 'obvious' poem, but one that's no less powerful for that: the image
of 'the nightmare fighters' [1] attacking the cold, miserable gunner as he
crouches upside-down in his lonely turret awakens a very primal response in
the reader. The extended foetal metaphor [2] adds to the visceral effect...


[1] brilliant phrase, that - I can picture swastikaed BF-109s and FW-190s
screaming in to attack the lumbering Fortresses and Liberators... scary.

[2] "my mother's sleep", "wet fur", "dream of life"... need I say more?

[Minstrels Links]

War Poems:
Poem #132, "Dulce Et Decorum Est", Wilfred Owen
Poem #232, "Insensibility", Wilfred Owen
Poem #288, "Futility", Wilfred Owen
Poem #321, "Strange Meeting", Wilfred Owen
Poem #385, "Base Details", Siegfried Sassoon
Poem #535, "The Working Party", Siegfried Sassoon
Poem #28, "To Whom It May Concern",     Adrian Mitchell
(Actually, 'anti-war poems' is probably a better description of most of the

Sort of War Poems:
Poem #43, "Tommy", Rudyard Kipling
Poem #276, "High Flight", John Gillespie Magee
Poem #32, "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death", William Butler Yeats
Poem #395, "Naming of Parts", Henry Reed

[Random Association]

Poem #707, Boeing 707, Boeing B-17... nah, I guess I'm just sleepy.

73 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

William Doyle Jr said...

When I first read this poem I was a college sophomore taking an English Lit course (part 2 Poetry) in Spring 1969. I thought it was about WWII. My English prof said no, it was about abortion. Then I had just finished four years in the Air Force and was smitten with the literal apsects of the poem. But the womb is shaped like a ball turret and are not abortions oft done with a hose?
Bill Doyle, LaSalle University 1972, Philadelphia, PA

Jillena Rose said...

The speaker's sentiments of life before the war, his "mother's sleep", are diminished by the horror and lonliness of his death. "Loosed" from dream, awakening to "nightmare", reality is disoriented, as a combatant ball turret gunner would feel. And, like the lives of so many young airmen, this poem is over suddenly, as it begins.

To me, the poem is haunting.


Nick Carter said...

I hope Doyle and Cash realize by now that 1) Doyle's prof was a fool if he thought this poem was about abortion. With luck he didn't get tenure; and 2) that Cash goes back to the site he cites (sorry) and understands that a ball turret is exactly what the web page says it is: it REVOLVES, and in certain circumstances - probably MOST circumstances - the gunner would indeed be upside down. Did he not even read Jarrell's own note? "When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below..."

I know my comments sound snide... they are meant to be. Let us eschew obfuscation wherever we find it.


Jim Rodgers said...

Check out the movies, Twelve O'clock High and Memphis Bell. They didn't spend the entire trip in the turret.

They would enter right side up then spin upside down to be in firing position.

They couldn't wear their parachutes in there because they wouldn't fit.



Very moving poem with an accurate description of the feeling felt in a ball turret. However you were not upside-down in the ball turret. At max guns up position you were sort of in a laid back hard easy chair. It was cold and lonely. No parachute .... Put in 37 sorties ( 50 mission credit ) 15th Air Force, 301st Bomb Group, 32nd sqdn.
I must confess I made a covenant with God each mission asking to be spared . He kept his end .... I may have slipped a little on mine. Joe M.

Pam Schumacher said...

My father was one of those short small men and only eighteen on his first
mission. Nobody fought over the ball turret he said. If you were short,
small and a decent gunner it was yours. I don't know if he has ever read
this poem but from his stories, it sounds on the mark.

Kerry Cornell said...

I think Bill Doyle and his Lit professor are right. There is an extended
metaphor in this poem which refers to an abortion. I am a Junior in high
school and i was asked by my teacher what i thought the "extended metaphor"
was in this poem and i wholeheartedly agree with Bill.


Greg Cole said...

Greg's note

Hi. I am junior in high school analyzing this poem
for a report. I believe all of the posts are correct
in their own way. That is the interesting thing about
poetry. However, I fail to see what comment Jarrell is
making about abortion. I believe that he is comparing
war to abortion. He is saying that the leaders of this
nation knowingly send thousands of youth into war
where many of them will die. I believe that Jarrell is
focusing more on this comparison rather than making a
statement about the evilness of abortion. If you try
to hard to analyze this poem than you will see things
that arent really there.


Nelson Erik Thomas said...

To Nick Carter:

This poem is about abortion and I find it amazing that you can
absolutely disagree with everyone else. You told us to pay attention to
"Jarrell's own note. 'When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a

fighter attacking his bomber from below...' " My question for you is:
What is your point and how can you ignore this quote of Jarrell's -
"[...] hunched upside-down in his

little sphere, he looked like the fetus in the womb." Since Jarrell
says this himself, that is what he wants people to begin to think. I
just thought that I would let you think about Jarrell's last half of his
quote that you failed to mention in your commentary.

-Erik Nelson

EnBuSo said...


In 1963 I was a 17 year old high school junior. In our English Lit final, we
were asked to interpet this poem.........I got it wrong.......but never
forgot it.

Pretty powerful

Why are you looking for comments?

Bettye Johnston said...

Today I went to an air show with my four year old grandson in whom I am trying to instill a sense of the history of his country and the contributions to his country that its miltary has made and is making. We met a very old gentleman at an exhibit commemorating the Memphis Belle (on which i played as a pre-teen in Memphis, Tennessee, as it was deteriotating on Central Avenue) The gentleman has served as a ball turret gunner in WW2. I had my grandson shake the elderly gentleman's hand explaining that the man was a real hero and had seen things that he, my grandson, and I never wanted to see. The fomer gunner was kind enough to pose with my grandson for several pictures which I am going to have farmed along with this poem for presentation to my grandson at a future Christmas when he is old enough to understand. Robert G. Johnston, Captain, JAGC, USNR (Ret.)

McArthur GS04 Douglas J said...

Mothers sleep is the life he leads while in England. Warm, safe, etc.
Falling into the State is the descent from the high altitude transit to the
lower bombing run level. The hunching in it's belly and the freezing wet fur
are what a ball turret gunner endures as he hangs in the high altitude
freezing temperatures and the sweat inside his sheep-skin lined flight suit
freezes. The flak, nightmare, rude awakening, and assault by german fighters
is a reality check of a major magnitude. Being hosed out of his ball turret
is exactly what happened when B-17's came back to base carrying dead and
woundede. There is no other way than using a hose to clean out a dead ball
gunner from his turret.

Chapel Events Coordinator
Midway Park Chapel

Randy & Laurie Williamson said...

I too am in Junior High and studying this poem.

I hardly think that Jarrell had any thougts of abortion when he wrote this.

It was about the cold realities of war. In the end, the ball was simply
hosed out, waiting for the the next man - cold and callous.

The metaphor about the womb is obvious. The ball gunner in the belly of the
plane - the baby in the "belly" of the mother. Both just as relying on the
"mother" for safety.

It makes sense that in the era of 1969, professors would try to strike some
prohetic statement on abortion with this.

Often I too think that some "literary genious's" just try to find things
that aren't there, and mark you wrong if you disagree.

Did anyone ever ask Jarrell if he had any thoghts about abortion when he
wrote it?

James Williamson

Warriorsstory said...

to joe mangano,
i salute your combat service as a b-17 ball turret gunner. last month a b-17
came to visit the lawrence airport, massachusetts, and was open to public. i
took some pics of the ball turret and it sure looked cramped in there. were
you stuck in there the whole time in flight or could you exit into the main
cabin? did guys ever get claustaphobia? did you get cramps or muscle pain? you
guys sure were brave. thank you for your servive.------mike

Andrus Burr said...

I have heard that a far too common death for a ball turret gunner resulted when an aircraft was damaged and lost its hydraulics. The wheels could not be lowered, and the turret could not be rotated to the position which allowed the gunner to get back up into the fuselage. The plane had to land on its belly, and the first thing to hit the ground was the ball turret. Think of having to say goodbye to the poor little guy in the ball.

Todd Keller said...

While I can see some similarities of a ball turret gunner's death and
abortion, I feel that bringing
those that fought in that God-awful position versus those aborting an
unborn fetus is rather a bad
approach to those that this poem is meant for.

Ball turret gunners in the B17/24 had almost no hope of returning back
to base if they were given
the assignment to man that position. For one, you had to be shorter than
most of the crew, you had
no parachute not because it wouldn't really fit (which in reality, it
wouldn't fit...they weren't small like
the base-jumping parachutes are now) but because if the turret didn't
line up perfectly due to hydraulics,
he wasn't getting out anyways and because hydraulics failed a lot for
those planes, it didn't line up,
they had to manually jack down the landing gear, and if that didn't
work...well...there wasn't anything
to wash out with a hose on a belly-flopped landing.

One thing my dad told me about ball turret gunners...they're like the
"tunnel rats" in Vietnam; that man
could be the most errant of soldiers in the army at that time, they
could be hated and despised, but once
they went into those positions, they were vaunted and gallant heroes.

mb633 said...

I am also doing a paper on this poem for English Lit. I am an older
returning student with a professor the same age as my oldest
grandchild. She also thinks that this poem is a metaphor for
abortion. Now let's get serious, the poem was written in 1945 when
abortion was not a hot topic. The war was a hot topic and anyone that
thinks this poem is about abortion needs to reread the poem and
possibly consider taking it as it was meant to be taken. Sometimes I
think that poems are analyzed too much.

STHatch1960 said...

Hunching upside down is exactly what a ball turret gunner did. The gunner is
"hunching up" feet forward on his backside, while most soldiers, even other
crew on the bomber, had the privilege of hunching up by bending forward --
i.e., head down and back to the sun (how else would anyone move across field and
forrest while fired upon?). Among all the warriors that Jarrell wrote about,
surely it is this very unnatural position of the gunner, one that placed the
family jewels first in the path of incoming gunfire, and the claustraphobic
space juxtaposed with the wide open sky that fired his imagination.

Read Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), for context and
it is easy to see antiabortionists above are finding what they want in the
poem, which I guess is their privilege, but rather irking that they have to
pervert a fine memorial to a group of brave men. I wonder what they are reading into
the black flack...

Eric N Chilada said...

It's silly to project 21st century politics onto a poem that was written
halfway through the 20th century. This poem has nothing to do with
abortion -- it's about a ball turret gunner.


"When I first read this poem I was a college sophomore taking an English
Lit course (part 2 Poetry) in Spring 1969. I thought it was about WWII.
My English prof said no, it was about abortion. Then I had just finished
four years in the Air Force and was smitten with the literal apsects of
the poem. But the womb is shaped like a ball turret and are not
abortions oft done with a hose?
Bill Doyle, LaSalle University 1972, Philadelphia, PA"

You had quite an English Prof. There are probably few if any like him around anymore.

Yours truly,
Phil Spomer


The professor who said that this was about abortion was a very wise and crafty teacher. To liberate the student from what may have been his prejudices, the teacher takes a work that the student a) has developed an affection for, and b) believes supports his already existing position i.e. common liberal antiwar default mode. By saying that the poem directs its sensitivity in directions unanticipated by the student, the teacher achieves a productive realignment in the student's thoughts.

Baier Joseph said...

Doyle - Your lit professor was an idiot pushing a personal agenda on a bunch of young impressionable students. Jarrell's only intention was to relate the terror of manning the ball turret during a mission. Reading anything else into this poem dishonors all the brave men who gave fully of themselves for our freedom.

James Goodson said...

The ball turret was more than a Plexiglas sphere it had more metal
and armor plate than any other position on the plane.
At five feet eleven inches and one-hundred fifty pounds plus I have
been in a ball turret with a parachute and all the winter flying suit.
We had a navigator six foot two that would rid in the ball for a thrill.
I was in a ball turret and had three twenty MM cannon shells hit the
armor plate seat and received only a small cut on my left ring finger.
Jim Goodson, XPOW, Ball Turret Gunner.

Lauren R Baum said...

Anyone who has ever been in the situation of "going in harm's way" will know what the guy is speaking of. But it may take some thought.
First of all, the plane is going into battle, he tries to escape from reality and fear for awhile and dozes off, during which time he dreams of Mother and home, then it's only natural to drift from the dream into a deeper sleep, which is disturbed by the cold.
Then he is jerked suddenly awake by the sounds of attack, by shouting men and the indescribable noise of battle. There he finds the reality more of a nightmare than any dream could be. The final line is the wake up call.

I don't see anything about abortion here, unless you speak desparigingly of the man himself, who has died. After all he is the only one in the turret "womb"

John Cooke said...

This is one of the most powerful---
if not the most powerful---poems I have
ever experienced.

John Cooke
Vietnam Vet, and
Huey Pilot.

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Milly said...

I think when he says "fell into the state" he's aligning the womb of the mother to the mechanical womb of the war machine. The metaphors in this poem are absolutely soaked in the fluids of birth and death, the greatest mysteries of life. It's also a very disorienting poem because the rhythm of those first lines are so slow and metaphysical it's concluding line is so short and matter of fact, mimicking the rude awakening to the reality and horror of war that many young men would have experienced coming from childhoods where they were taught about things like morals and right and wrong. This poem rejects the notion that anything good can come from war, it reminds us that in the end there may be nations and states and armies with big powerful tanks and aeroplanes but in the end we are too vulnerable flesh, each of us just as vulnerable as a baby.

anyway those are just some thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Most commentators on Randall Jarrell’s "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" have identified the poem’s theme as a condemnation of the insensitive dehumanizing power of the "State," exhibited most graphically by the violence of war. Most have also agreed that the poem’s effectiveness is due in large measure to its telescoping of time (only three moments in the gunner’s existence—his physical birth, his awakening years later in the plane, and the aftermath of his death—are presented) and the paradoxical use of birth imagery, especially of the womb and the foetus, to describe death. In commenting on the poem’s final line, however, critics have usually stressed the ironic use of water, with its traditional associations of rebirth, in these mechanized burial rites and praised the emotional power of the understated, matter-of-fact tone, while overlooking the continuing impact of the telescoping of time and the birth imagery.

The lapse of time between the last two lines produces two important effects. (1) Between the gunner's physical birth and his awakening in the plane's belly a number of years pass (the exact figure would depend on the age of eligibility for the draft). During that period the gunner exists simply as a part of the State's "dream of life." On the other hand, between his awakening and his burial (his only period of conscious life) perhaps minutes or, at most, hours elapse. (2) The telescoping of time also omits the actual moment of the gunner's death. Just as the moment of physical birth became merely an anticlimactic transferral of the foetus from the mother's womb to the State's, so the finality of death is reduced to one more stage in the cycle of filling, emptying, and refilling the turret. The manipulation of time reveals the stunning brevity of the gunner's waking life and the State's total disregard for that phenomenon.

The birth imagery also emphasizes the State's uncaring efficiency. For example, using a hose (a steam hose; according to Jarrell's note) to remove the corpse indicates the body's badly mutilated condition. But since metaphorically the gunner is a foetus in a womb, the washing out of his remains by introducing a fluid under pressure clearly suggests one of the common procedures for ejecting a foetus after abortion. By implication then, the gunner, like an aborted foetus, was never allowed to achieve independent human life. Because of the telescoping of time and the imagery of birth the gunner's understated account of his life and death resonates with powerful feeling.

from The Explicator 36.4 (Summer 1978), pp. 9-10.

Anonymous said...

Jarrell served in the US Army Air Force during WW2. The poem was written in 1945, during a time Jarrell's poetry focused on his war experiences. While it sounds like it could be a commentary on abortion, I suggest that it is purely coincedental.

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Anonymous said...

Go to Graham Hancock's TED talk on "The War On Consciousness," and consider the first line of the poem.

"From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,"

This is truly one of the greatest first lines in American poetry.

The author is capturing an experience, succinctly, that his audience can immediately relate to.

Like Dylan famously says later, "...twenty years of schoolin' an' they put ya on the dayshift."

Dog tag or social security, you're just a number. The State owns you. You're a commodity, traded on Wall Street.

It's a heavy first line

Hancock says in his talk, "If we don't have sovereignty over our own consciousness, we don't have sovereignty."

Jarrell concurs. The first line is a slap in our collective faces. Wake the fuck up. If you don't resist the State's claim, then, indeed, the validity of that claim will be accepted by consensus.

Implied in the line is the awareness, arrived at too late, that "I" am a spiritual being having a physical experience, and the State, an artificial construct, has taken control, for its materialistic agenda.

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State

Free, I slid into 3-D, and was constrained. Don't follow me.

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