B-17 Ball Turret Gunner

At 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing just 110 pounds, Bob Harper was below the minimum size requirements for US military service. As the demand for manpower increased, rules were bent, Harper’s deferment was retracted, and he was drafted into the Army. Harper was deployed to the European front and survived 35 combat missions as a B-17 ball turret gunner. Based at airfields in England, Bob and the 381st Bomb Group flew brutal missions over heavily defended industrial centers in Germany. Harper was shot down twice and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Through his letters home, combat reports, and extensive interviews with author Bill Cullen, Harper describes his harrowing experiences on board the Flying Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force in the book Flying Fortress Gunner: B-17 Ball Turret Gunner Bob Harper’s 35 Combat Missions over Germany. Cullen’s interviews with Harper, who is still alive as of the completion of the manuscript, took place over a period of years, and it is the anecdotes from the interviews that drive the majority of the narrative. The ball turret was located underneath the aircraft and was a confined, intense, and unique environment from which to experience combat during the Second World War.

Ball Turret Gunner not wearing parachute

While working on his book Cullen took the opportunity to ask Bob the following question: ‘Bob, there was a lot of talk about belly-turret gunners not wearing their parachutes or not being able to fit them down there in the belly turret. Can you give some firsthand input on that?’:

B-17 Ball Turret Gunner explains why he didn’t wear parachute at first and recalls the mission that changed his mind about bringing one down into the belly turret with him
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress with 510 Bomber Squadron, 351st Bomber Group, equipped with a ball turret. 

‘It was tight in there, so I never brought my parachute in the turret during the training missions. Even when we started flying combat I didn`t at first. I kept it hanging up in the fuselage at the ready, but would have to be rotated up and get out of the turret, then put it on. And during combat, our B-17 could absorb so much damage so quickly that there might not be enough time or warning for me to get out of the turret, hook that parachute on, and then find my way to the waist door to jump.

Just a speck far below us

‘Then I had an experience that changed my mind about bringing my parachute down into the ball turret with me. I couldn’t tell you which exact mission this happened on. Somewhere a B-17 in a formation forward and high above our squadron got hit and exploded, and their ball turret detached and went flying right by us, along with other pieces of that B-17. Just for a split second, I thought I spotted that poor gunner still in there, but he wasn’t trying to get out of the turret. Then he was gone, just a speck far below us. I figured he probably didn’t have his chute with him.

‘When we got back to Ridgewell, I asked Joe Pearce, our pilot would it be okay if I took a parachute down in the turret with me? He said, “Sure, Shorty, just as long as it doesn’t interfere with your guns.” So, I got one of the smaller chest parachutes that hooked to two rings on the front of your chute harness, and then attached it to the right harness ring, and once I got into the turret, I would swing it over to the side. That made things even tighter down there, but I sure felt better. I had a hatch behind me, and now with my parachute, I might be able to get out if there wasn’t time to rotate the turret up, or if something went wrong with that.

B-17 Ball Turret Gunner explains why he didn’t wear parachute at first and recalls the mission that changed his mind about bringing one down into the belly turret with him
Illustration of a ball turret, 1943.

The first missions

‘Those first missions, we saw a few planes go down in the distance and their crews parachuting, so we began to prepare mentally for that possibility. You know, you counted the parachutes coming out of those damaged bombers if you could, but you had a lot of things on your mind and you had to keep on task. When you got debriefed after the mission, you were asked if you saw any parachutes, when and where and so it’s not like you could block it out… Afterwards, you tried not to dwell on it, the guys that didn’t make it out and went down with their planes…

‘You know, it didn’t have to be your own squadron or even bomber group; you could see a bomber explode miles away, and it was like it was happening right next to you. Or watch one slowly spin in the far distance, smoking, knowing they weren’t going to pull out. We didn’t talk about it, but it was there in the back of your mind. I think we all mentally rehearsed an escape plan if our plane was disabled. And hoped we could survive it … we just didn’t talk about it much.’

Flying Fortress Gunner: B-17 Ball Turret Gunner Bob Harper’s 35 Combat Missions over Germany is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

B-17G print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-17G Flying Fortress – 42-31076, LG-V “Chief Sly’s Son” 91st BG, 322nd BS – 1944

Photo credit: Alfred D. Crimi / U.S. Army and Royal Air Force Official Photographer / Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain via War History Online