The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell
This is a poem about war and more specifically about the airmen who manned the ball turrets during World War II. Thematically, this is also a poem about loss, fear, death and maternal love.
When I read this poem, I was immediately taken back to an episode from the 80s TV series Amazing Stories, in which a young soldier (who was also an artist) was a ball turret gunner and his plane got hit by enemy fire and he got trapped inside the ball. Worse yet, the landing gear on the plane malfunctioned, meaning that if the plane were to land he’d be crushed to death. In the story, the soldier, who was just a teenager, had to quickly draw a cartoon of his plane with landing gear intact and believe that it could come to life and save him which it inevitably did.
I loved that story and it was so powerful that it stayed with me all these years, but it was just a story. In reality, this was a hellish position to be in. The soldier given the responsibility of ball turret gunner had to be physically small enough to fit into such a cramped, confined space so typically they were the smallest and often the youngest soldiers. According to Wikipedia, “The Sperry ball turret was very small in order to reduce drag, and was typically operated by the shortest man of the crew. To enter the turret, the turret was moved until the guns were pointed straight down. The gunner placed his feet in the heel rests and then crouched down into a fetal position.” If that wasn’t bad enough, the gunner had to do this alone and with his eyes open.
In The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, poet Randall Jarrell helps us imagine what it must have been like for these soldiers and their mothers, as well.
First off Jarrell tells this in first person and that offers an unparalleled personal perspective, one which brings the reader as close as possible to the POV of the gunner himself. Next, he uses imagery to show what these men might have been thinking and feeling.
“From my Mother’s sleep I fell into the State” is such a powerful opening line. From the POV of the soldier, we learn what a nightmare, too, this must have been for his mother to have had to send her boy to war, knowing she may never see him again. Then, we picture the soldier inside the ball of the plane “hunched in its belly” in the fetal position, much like a fetus in a mother’s womb. This image makes us think of a baby and reinforces our connection to his mother and how she must feel and how he feels as he thinks of her.
As we move through the poem, Jarrell offers another image, that of “wet froze fur.” While some readers may picture tortured animals, like kittens or puppies suffering outside during winter, this image, I believe, is meant to signify the physical conditions and the fear and panic of the young airman as he both sweats and freezes in his military issued B-1 bomber jacket. These jackets were leather and fur lined. At altitude, the soldier would have been freezing inside this unheated compartment but the fear of death and the anxiety over what he must do was also making him sweat. Finally, and perhaps the most gruesome image is that of the soldier dying and having to be “washed out of the turret with a hose.” The idea of this young man dying in battle and having his body power washed away is tragic and horrifying. The idea that he is well aware of this possible fate but cannot escape it is even harder to swallow. With the image of a fetus in its mother’s belly, the poet may or may not have been also making a statement about abortion here.
The poem itself uses a combination of poetic devices successfully. Through partial and full rhyme (froze/hose, black/flak) along with alliteration, consonance and assonance the poet is able to create a natural cadence for his poem. The poet also uses cacophony, or the repetition of unpleasant sounds, to tell the story. By repeating the “fr” and “er” sounds (fur, froze, fighters, nightmare, earth, turret) the poet reminds us of the feelings of being cold and scared—the sound of the combined letters even makes a sort of trembling, shivering sound that successfully reinforces the poet’s message and the overall feeling of the poem itself and, in some readers, may even cause a physical reaction. The poem itself is an example of allusion since it tells the first person story of a soldier who died in WWII and in an exceptionally creative way the poet uses personification by having a dead man tell his own story. Perhaps the most spectacular part of this poem though is its voice.
I really enjoyed this poem. Though brief, it was quite powerful and it really got me thinking of the horrors and tragedies of war. It’s so hard to imagine the many fears and struggles of a soldier but this poem helped put all of that into perspective by offering a personal first person account of one airman, a ball turret gunner, who experienced war and didn’t survive, as well as the added perspective of his mother. It’s amazing to me how much thought and feeling this poet was able to inspire in me through such a brief poem.
McClatchy, J. D. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. New York. Vintage. 2003.
Wikipedia. Web. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball_turret 2013.