D-Day Anniversary and U.S. Memorial Day:
Little compares to encountering this poem for the first time,
the most famous U.S. poem of the Second World War,
unassuming, and unforgettable.
-The Voice before the Void
“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 Forces, provided the following explanatory note:
“A ball turret was a Plexiglas 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 upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the fetus in the womb. 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.
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” has been widely anthologized. In fact, Jarrell came to fear that his reputation would come to rest on it alone.