Tuesday, September 7, 2021

WWII B-17 Ball Turrets and the Gunners That Manned Them

By Michelle Shocklee

Albert Chaparro, US Army Air Corp, 1942
I'm currently in the middle of researching a new time-slip novel that will, in part, involve WWII. That means I'm immersing myself in the 1940s by watching movies and reading non-fiction as well as fiction about the war. And anytime I think about WWII, I think about my daddy.

I'm the proud daughter of a World War II veteran. Dad was a 20-year old young man when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Answering the call to arms, Dad joined the US Army Air Corp and became a Ball Turret Gunner on a B-17 bomber. He flew 50 missions over Europe, was awarded several medals, and taught gunnery instruction after returning to the states. Dad didn't talk much about the war, but I think he'd be tickled that I'm writing a blog about Ball Turret Gunners. =) 

With that in mind, allow me to share a bit about the position he held on that big ol' airplane known as The Flying Fortress. 

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Wikipedia, Martin Cizek

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was a 4-engined heavy bomber developed in the 1930s for the United States Army Air Corp. Our country wasn't at war at the time, but bitter memories of WWI were still fresh in the hearts and minds of our military leaders. The first flight of a B-17 took place on July 28, 1935. 

One of the unique features of the B-17 bomber was the ball turret. Made of Plexiglas and about four feet in diameter, the ball turret was a sphere attached to the bottom of the airplane. Armed with two .50-caliber machine guns and capable of rotating 360 degrees, the ball turret's gunner was responsible for protecting the otherwise-exposed underbelly of the flying fortress. By all accounts, the ball was very small and very cramped. Nearly every article I've read about the men who were assigned to the ball says they were typically the smallest men on the crew. While that may be true of most crews, my dad defied this description. He was thin and wiry to be sure, but according to his driver's license he was 6'1". Perhaps the other crew members were bigger men, but Dad wasn't small.

When it came time to climb into the ball, the gunner opened the turret door on the floor of the airplane and positioned the ball with guns pointing straight down toward land. He then placed his feet into the heel rests and lowered himself into what can only be described as a fetal position--laying on his back with his knees bent up near his ears. Strapped in, the gunner would close and lock the door, leaving him completely alone and utterly vulnerable to enemy fire. Because the ball was such a tight space, most gunners chose not to wear a parachute. 

Gunner climbs into B-17 Sperry ball turret 8th AF

Flak jackets and electrically heated flight suits provided some relief from the bitterly cold, sub-zero temperatures, but the uninsulated ball kept the gunner's hands and feet numb. Which was not ideal, considering all four extremities had jobs to do. 

Two joysticks pivoted the ball around and around, up and down. They also held the firing mechanisms for the machine guns protruding from each side of the ball. On the floor of the ball, one foot rested on a pedal that controlled the gun sight, which hung suspended between his legs, and the other foot’s pedal ran his intercom – the only communication he had with the rest of his crew back inside the fortress.

              B-17 bombers flying in formation (U.S. Air Force photo)

The one thing that made the gunner feel less lonely in these long missions was the view. He had only to look side to side to remind himself he wasn’t alone. The skies were filled with fellow allied planes, bombers, and escorts, all accompanying each other to their destination. There's no question the position of ball turret gunner was a dangerous one, but there's debate on whether or not it was the most dangerous. A casualty survey for the 8th Air Force reports that the ball turret had the lowest fatality rate of any gunner, but other statistics insist the ball turret had double the mortality rate of the rest of the B-17 crew.

Needless to say, my Dad made it through the war. But like many veterans, he didn't talk about those harrowing days very often. I remember my mom once telling me that Dad felt burdened by the number of men he no doubt killed during combat. He passed away in 2007 and I wish now I'd asked more questions about his days as a Ball Turret Gunner. Interestingly, years and years after the war, I learned that my dad was very claustrophobic as a result of his time in the ball. Somewhere in my boxes of family photos I have a picture of Dad standing next to a B-17 and the ball turret at an air show in the 1990s, but of course I couldn't find it for this blog. 

Your turn. Did anyone in your family serve in WWII? Tell me about it!

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels and is a Selah Awards finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at http://www.MichelleShocklee.com/


Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena. Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions
about slavery, but it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. Will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?



  1. Thank you for sharing. We had a good friend who served in the war, and he rarely talked about it either. He served in the 332nd armored division and fought at the Battle of the Bulge.

  2. Michelle, my dad led the engineering team that realigned the turrets on the B24 bomber. He had to get into one to see why it wasn't working, then redesign them and get the back in the war all within a 6-week period.

  3. So very interesting, Michelle.My uncle became a field Captain during WWII. He was the highest ranking NCO at Sargent. By the end of a battle (which he never spoke of) he was promoted to captain. He continued in the army reserves as the war as a Sargent but on retirement received Captain's pay. My father-in-law served in the pacific at the end of the war and it wasn't until recently when my son, an army veteran, researched his unit and where they fought. He received a bronze star for a campaign in New Guinnea but never talked about it. That trauma changed him and the course of his life.
    Thanks for sharing a bit of your family history.

  4. Michelle!! I had no idea of your dad's experience in a B-17. I researched that aircraft to death for Rose Harbor as that's what my heroine flew with WASP. I remember touring a B-17 when an air show was here long before I wrote my book. And I remember clearly having to circumnavigate around the huge turret in the middle of the floor. I had no idea how cramped it was for the men to go in that thing. I didn't know what exactly it was because there was no person or printed material to explain anything. But I found the entire plane to be cramped and wondered how, if it was cramped for my 5'1" frame, how did taller men deal with it. I figured they must have assigned only short men to the craft. I guess that didn't matter since your dad was over six feet. My dad was never in the war because of his health history and being 4F.

  5. Wow! Thanks for the post, and the personal info. I've never known about this, another of those things I don't think to ask about. Our servicemen, past and present, are amazing people!!!

  6. Michelle, In 1942 my father was classified as 4F due to a heart defect. My British father-in-law served in the 8th Army under Montgomery and saw action at Dunkirk, Normandy and throughout Europe. My hubby says his father rarely spoke of those long 6 yrs. separation from his new bride back home in England.

  7. Thank you, ladies, for sharing your thoughts and tidbits about your family members and friends who served in the military as well as those who couldn't. So many interesting stories!

  8. My father was a co-pilot for B-17s. He did not endure the cramped cold that your father did. He talked about the terrible flak that ripped holes in the plane. He had to sit on his flak jacket. I can't imagine dealing with flak in a ball turret. -S. McColl

    1. Thank you for sharing your dad's story. Those brave guys endured things we can't imagine.

  9. Daddy and his brother fought in WWll. He drove a half-track in 1st Cav but I'm not sure about Uncle T. I bought a ticket to ride on Texas Raiders B-17 in June, in honor of my Daddy. 💚

  10. My uncle, Frederick Raymond Restle Jr., was a ball turret gunner o
    n a B-24 Liberator, who served in the 13th Army Air Force in the Pacific.His death is probably due to the design flaw, and inexperience of pilots with the B24.