The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is a five-line poem by Randall Jarrell published in 1945. It is about the death of a gunner in a Sperry ball turret on a World War II American bomber aircraft.
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.
Jarrell, who served in the Army Air Force, provided the following explanatory note:
“A ball turret was a plexiglass 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 upsidedown in his little sphere. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.”
Reviewer, Leven M. Dawson, says that “The theme of Randall Jarrell’s ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ is that institutionalized violence, or war, creates moral paradox, a condition in which acts repugnant to human nature become appropriate.” Most commentators agree, calling the poem a condemnation of the dehumanizing powers of “the State”, which are most graphically exhibited by the violence of war.