This thirty-four minute film describes the training and experiences of the ball turret gunner on the B-17s that flew bombing missions from England over Europe. Dangerous work -- a third of all B-17s built were destroyed by enemy fire. And especially dangerous for the ball turret gunner. The poor guy was all alone, for one thing, suspended beneath the belly of the airplane in a steel and plexiglass bubble with two .50 caliber machine guns. In the B-24, the turret could be retracted into the fuselage but it was fixed in the B-17. The turret had to be entered from a hatch at the top, reached by the fuselage. But the bubble had to be in a perfect position for the gunner to climb out, and if the hydraulics were compromised, he was stuck where he was. There was at least one incident, witnessed by Andy Rooney, one of the talking heads, in which a damaged bomber was forced to make a belly landing with the gunner still trapped in the turret.
It's a kind of wide-ranging episode, giving us a glimpse of the history and context of the air war over Europe, the development of the several variations of the B-17, and the training program for aerial gunners. Besides Rooney, there are four or five articulate guys who manned that position. There are also film clips interpolated, some combat footage, and some excerpts from William Wyler's "Memphis Belle," q.v.
Overall, despite the description of the danger and losses, it still presents a little rosier a picture of the situation than it deserves. "There was talk of halting the missions," the narrator tells us after a particularly costly series of raids into Germany. There was more than talk. The campaign was suspended for a while. And we're told that the daylight raids made precision bombing possible, while in fact the post-war Strategic Bombing Survey showed that the majority of bombs fell scattered all over the area and few were close to the designated target.
It's not entirely without a little humor. Rooney is a practiced raconteur and his description of Clark Gable's perfectly tailored uniforms is amusing.
Nobody quotes Randall Jarell's poem, "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.
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