It was in a freshman English class that I first became aware of, and read, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." The professor had assigned the class the task of writing an essay on a poem of each persons' choosing.
My best friend's father had served as a bombardier on a B-17 in World War II. He had been shot down behind enemy lines, captured, and spent some time in a prison camp. In a strange twist of fate, Mr. McKay had been rescued by a friend of his from their small hometown in Louisiana.
The B-17 aircraft was one of several equipped with a ball turret machine gun. Twelve O'Clock High had been one of my favorite television programs so I was familiar with the weapon. When the assignment was made, it didn't take me long to decide on the poem I wanted to write about. Both my essay then and this article now far exceed the length of the poem. Perhaps more verbiage is required to discuss what was said than to just say it.
This poem means a lot to me because my college career kept me in the States and out of the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. Pharmacy school was possible because of a college deferment, and the fear of dying in Vietnam was motivation enough to keep me studying. Flunking out and getting drafted would have been my experience of "falling into the state." In my senior year of high school, '69-'70, a lottery system had been added to the selective service (draft) system based on date of birth. My birthday was picked at number sixty out of 365. (Coincidentally, my birthday fell on the same day of the month as my father's discharge from the Army several years before.) Confident in my academic ability, I had no fear of failing, but studied hard anyway.
I can only imagine the fear one might have felt upon the realization that enemy fighters were trying to kill you. (Yossarian took it personally in Catch-22.) How lonely it must have been, detached from the other crew members who were themselves fighting the temperatures at an altitude of six miles, along with a determined enemy. Statistics show that the most dangerous place to have been in WWII was in a bomber over Germany.
This poem played upon my fear of dying. Dying cold and alone in a place not of my choosing. It still rattles my psyche to the bones and makes me appreciate even more that famous quote: "Only the dead have seen the end of war."
"The Death of the 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 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.