The Arrowhead Club

The B-17 Ball Turret Gunner

My dad, George Edwin Farrar, was a waist/flexible gunner with the John Oliver Buslee crew of the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Army Air Forces in World War II. On 28 September 1944, the Buslee crew and the James Joseph Brodie crew of the same group became forever connected when the B-17’s they were aboard on a combat mission over Germany suffered a mid-air collision.

I am currently updating the biographical information of the men of these two crews, and I thought it would be a good time to explain the duties involved in each position of the airmen aboard the aircraft, the B-17. I have recently updated the information of the three 384th Bomb Group Ball Turret Gunners who flew with the John Oliver Buslee crew of the 544th Bomb Squadron and the James Joseph Brodie crew of the 545th Bomb Squadron.

Erwin Vernon Foster, assigned Buslee crew ball turret gunner

George Francis McMann, Jr., Gilbert crew ball turret gunner, but ball turret gunner of the Buslee crew on 28 September 1944

Gordon Eugene Hetu, assigned Brodie crew ball turret gunner

For a list of all of the airmen of the Buslee and Brodie crews, see permanent page The Buslee and Brodie Crews, which is maintained with new information/posts.

Duties and Responsibilities of the B-17 Ball Turret Gunner

According to the 303rd Bomb Group’s website,

Training in the various phases of the heavy bomber program is designed to fit each member of the crew for the handling of his jobs. The ball turret gunner:

  • Requires many mental and physical qualities similar to what we know as inherent flying ability, since the operation of the power turret and gunsight are much like that of airplane flight operation.
  • Should be familiar with the coverage area of all gun positions, and be prepared to bring the proper gun to bear as the conditions may warrant.
  • Should be experts in aircraft identification. Where the Sperry turret is used, failure to set the target dimension dial properly on the K-type sight will result in miscalculation of range.
  • Must be thoroughly familiar with the Browning aircraft machine gun. They should know how to maintain the guns, how to clear jams and stoppages, and how to harmonize the sights with the guns.
  • Should fire the guns at each station to familiarize himself with the other man’s position and to insure knowledge of operation in the event of an emergency.

Location of the Ball Turret in a B-17

The ball turret of a B-17 is suspended below the fuselage of the aircraft, between the radio room and the waist. Should the ball turret gunner have to bail out of the aircraft, he would likely bail out through the waist door. The ball turret gunner first had to exit the ball turret and hook up his chute as he did not have room in the ball turret to wear it (although there are stories of ball turret gunners who saved their lives by wearing their chutes in the ball and exiting the aircraft by rotating the ball and bailing out directly from it).

In the following diagram, George McMann is noted in the ball turret of the aircraft along with the other Buslee crew members in their positions on September 28, 1944.

Buslee Crew in Position on September 28, 1944
Diagram courtesy of 91st Bomb Group and modified by Cindy Farrar Bryan in 2014

B-17 Ball Turret Photos

I took the following photos of the Collings Foundation’s B-17 Nine-O-Nine a few years before its tragic crash.

The exterior of the B-17 ball turret.

Ball turret of the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

For a little perspective of the size of the B-17’s ball turret, 384th Bomb Group pilot John DeFrancesco stands beside the Collings Foundation’s aircraft.

John DeFrancesco, WWII B-17 pilot in front of the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

A view of the ball turret from inside the aircraft, the top hatch of the ball can be seen in the foreground of this photo near the bottom of the image, with a view to the rear of the aircraft and the waist area.

Ball turret and waist area of the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

Stories of 384th Bomb Group Ball Turret Gunners

I thought it might also be interesting to read stories, diaries, and journals written by or view video interviews of some of the 384th’s own ball turret gunners. You’ll find a chart of several ball turret gunners of the 384th Bomb Group below with links to their personnel records and their written and oral histories as are provided on the Stories page of 384thBombGroup.com.

Airman Personnel Record Stories, Diaries, Journals, and Interviews
Burns, Robert (NMI)⇗ My Bit For Victory⇓ (2.721 MB)
Estrin, Leonard (NMI), “Len”⇗ Len Estrin’s Combat Diary⇓ (6.029 MB)
Lavoie, Ralph Edmund⇗ Near-Escape From Infamous Stalag 17⇓ (0.971 MB)
Werbanec, George Frank⇗ Our Fatal Day, June 22,1943⇓ (8.075 MB)
Jaworski, Frank (NMI)⇗ Oral History Interview⇗
Jones, Lynn Tilton⇗ Oral History Interview⇗
Smith, Luther Earl, “Smitty”⇗ 2011 Veteran’s History Project Oral History Interview⇗

Sources and Further Reading

303rd Bomb Group:  Duties and Responsibilities of the Engineer and the Gunners

303rd Bomb Group:  Military Occupational Specialty

TM 12-427 Military Occupational Classification of Enlisted Personnel

The Military Yearbook Project – Army Air Force WWII Codes

The Army Air Forces in World War II: VI, Men and Planes, Edited by W.F. Craven and J.L. Cate, Chapter 19: Training of Ground Technicians and Service Personnel

Training to Fly:  Military Flight Training 1907 – 1945 by Rebecca Hancock Cameron

Thank you to the 91st Bomb Group for granting me permission in 2014 to use and modify their B-17 diagram for use on The Arrowhead Club.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2021


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