I was startled one morning by the rumble of a large, four-propeller plane overhead. That afternoon, I went to Truax Field to see the display of World War II aircraft that had been advertised on the radio. It was a chilly day for summer, a fall jacket kind of day, yet a large crowd turned out for the event.
The centerpiece of the show was a B-17 Flying Fortress. The tour guide explained that the huge bomber was essential to the Allied war effort. We visitors were invited to climb up a narrow metal ladder into the plane’s flight deck where the pilot and co-pilot would have been seated.
Next, moving aft through the fuselage, we maneuvered our way along a narrow catwalk in the bomb bay. Even smaller than average people like me had trouble moving through those cramped spaces.
Then came the radio compartment and the waist-gunners’ stations. Looking down, I could see the metal dome that served as an entrance to the ball-turret suspended beneath the plane. The airman at that station could swivel the turret around and fire machine guns at enemy fighters, while he must have been especially vulnerable himself.
Exiting by another metal ladder at the tail end of the plane, I was greeted by a small, white-haired man standing on the tarmac. He directed me to the underside of the plane where the ball-turret was attached like a metal scrotum. The space inside was so minimal it was hard to imagine anyone squeezing in. I recalled Randall Jarrell’s vivid description of an unlucky gunner being “washed….out of the turret with a hose.”
I turned back to the white-haired usher, and commented that only a small crewman could fit in that turret. The usher, who stood about the same 5’ 4” as me, nodded.
“You and I would have worked that position.”
Revised version copyright 2021 by Brian Dean Powers
Photos by Greg M.