Monday, May 23, 2011

Every year on this weekend, the military hosts a joint service air show at Andrews Air Force Base, near where I live. We've gone the past few years to enjoy the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels and other show and stunt planes and jets, but this year, there was an even bigger draw. The Memphis Belle was there.

I was in college in the Navy ROTC when the movie Memphis Belle came out. In case you don't know the story, it's based on the true story about a young crew's - kids, really - last bombing mission in World War II on the B-17 bomber, Memphis Belle. They received fame by being the first crew to complete 25 missions intact - before the 25th mission was flown.

That movie came out the same year we went to Iraq for the Gulf War. It brought war to life for me.

One thing I'll never forget in it is the ball turret gunner - a guy who sits in a small plexigalss bubble that hangs below the plane and rotates for better aim of the guns.

Here is the real one:

In the movie, the airman who sits here is well aware that he is encapsulated in a space that might as well have a target on him. He is young and fearful, and rightfully so.

I don't remember if it's in the movie or not, but I know this movie in some way introduced me to the Randall Jarrell poem, Death of a 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 the 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.
I don't always understand poetry, but I love the feel of it in my heart, and when it resonates by making some personal connection, even more so. Seeing the plane firsthand makes it all the more real.

The ball turret is very much like a womb in the belly of the bomber; the only way in to drop into it through a hole. No way to move, no way to communicate on the long flight to the mission. How easy it must be to fall asleep there, lulled by the hum of the engines and the vibration of the movement. 
And then to awaken, in the middle of the war, the opposing guns aimed at you.

Sometimes we write to help others understand. And sometimes, it's the real things that make the writing come to life. 


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  2. I loved that movie and I'm pretty sure that would be the scariest place to be on a plane like that.

  3. My father in law was the ball turret gunner. He has an experience JUST like in Memphis Belle when he's pulled to safety. The crew adopted a german shepherd who used to do bomb runs over berlin.

    His stories are FASCINATING! Just this past year I got the stack of tags he kept from the bombs that were dropped. They have the date and the target. They were taken off the bombs just before dropping them and kept for records. I don't know how he ended up with a handful of them, but now I have the handful :D

    Also - seen Memphis Belle MANY times! Glad you had so much fun!

  4. The Memphis Belle movie is what sparked my interest in World War II. :-) How fortunate you were able to see the original plane! Wow. I was able to see another B-17 bomber a few years ago and crawl around inside it. That was an amazing experience.