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War and Poetry

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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"
Randall Jarrell

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.

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  • http://woodnotwood.blogspot.com A Geek Girl

    A very moving article. In college a young man who sat near me in Lit class was asked to stand up and read his response to a similar poem and in the middle of reading he broke down sobbing. He was writing about his father.

    Sometimes we don’t even realize how much we have revealed of ourselves emotionally in writing. I feel that revelation in your words. Beautiful. Your ability to weave dark and light with words is as amazing as the way you do it in your photographs.

  • Reese McKay

    The B-17 bombardier in the article is my father. He just made it through one more Christmas today. He used to tell me his story of what happened that day, August 17, 1943 in the cold skies at 40,000 feet over Germany. More than half his crew had been killed. It was a rare that he actually felt like talking about it, but he did talk about it every once in a while. I remember watching weekly episodes of “Twelve O’clock High” for as long as the series ran on TV. The title comes from the blood chilling warning over the bomber’s intercom –“fighters at 12 o’clock, high” (bearing down from straight ahead and above). It was a weekly family ritual, and we were all riveted to the TV screen each week, including my father. The TV series is among the best ever made on any subject. The movie is one of the best war movies ever made.

    I just received a letter about a week ago from Mr. Bennie Hixon, my father’s high school classmate, about how he found my father (in surprisingly good condition) among the other prisoners liberated by one of General Patton’s tank units at Stalag Luft 3. Mr. Hixon lost his younger brother in the war in Europe and my father lost his best friend and first cousin, James Reese Boies, in the Pacific. Ensign Boies, a Navy fighter pilot, had been shot down and lost at sea near Wake Island on October 7, 1943. Hearing these stories when I was still a boy left a deep and powerful impact on me. I have been working at understanding the meaning of it all for my whole life, as is true even more so for the people who actually fought and lived through the war. Not many of them are left. It is very important that we never forget their sacrifices and heroism and what they did for all of us.

  • Reese McKay

    In World War II my father, Lt. Dan B. McKay, was in the 100th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, flying extremely dangerous daylight bombing missions from England in B-17 “Flying Fortresses” over the heart of Germany. Until late in the war these amazingly sturdy four engined turbo-prop bombers had to fly the most dangerous part of each mission without fighter escort. By 1944 the US had fighters that could fly farther on a tank of fuel, all the way into the heart of Germany. On an earlier mission to Lebourget, my father’s aircraft and much of his crew had been badly shot up. Most of them had survived, but had been sent back to the states with severe injuries.

    My father and his pilot, Lt. Curtis Biddick were reassigned to another aircraft and another crew on the fateful August day in 1943 — the Regensburg Mission, an especially long and dangerous one. This one was so long that the bombers would have to turn south after dropping their bombs, fly over the Alps and land in North Africa. Hit by intense machine gun fire from German fighters Lt. Biddick, along with the co-pilot, the radio operator, and the top turret gunner were all killed, engulfed in a raging fire in the cockpit area. The oxygen system had been hit. My father was burned but he and the five surviving crew members managed to bail out before “Escape Kit” exploded in mid-air while still flying steadily straight ahead in the inferno.

    Losses were extremely heavy that day and many other days for the “Bloody 100th.” There are still a good number of surviving airmen from the 100th. They have a website and they still have reunions every two years at different cities in the US. I met some of them at their reunion in Houston in 2003. Next fall it will be in Albuquerque. I hope to go again.

  • STM

    My father in law, who died last year, was a tail gunner in a Royal Australian Air Force Squadron attached to the Royal Air Force. He made the full complement of trips over Europe (30 I believe) on the huge British night raids in one of the RAF’s big four-engine Lancaster bombers – at a time when the life expectancy of a bomber crew was a couple of missions.

    Getting him to talk about it was like getting blood out of a stone.

    Something we forget about all those men who did this: they were probably scared witless, knowing that there was every chance they would be killed given the huge losses of the American and British bomber fleets, every time they took off … but they did it anyway.

    In my book, that is unbelievable courage.

    None of us should forget the sacrifices made by that generation for our freedoms. I realise this can be a controversial viewpoint given the civilian casualties, but in flying those missions, they were fighting a total war (started by Germany) that really began with the Nazi bombing raids on towns and cities all over Europe.

    Sowing the wind, reaping the whirlwind, to paraphrase one of the men who headed up that Allied effort. At the time, the crews believed they were doing their duty to destroy a murderous and hateful regime and ultimately, given the huge contribution they made to that end, history should look at it that way.

  • STM

    And addressing the subject, some of the best-known poets of the 20th century were the so-called “Great War poets” of WWI … including Wilfred Owen (killed in 1918, one week before the armistice); Rupert Brooke; Robert Graves; Isaac Rosenberg (also killed in 1918) and Siegfried Sassoon, among others.

    They are certainly recommended reading.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Don’t forget Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front.

  • STM

    True Roger. No poems from Remarque but a huge body of work, some of which – including the above mentioned novel – should be recommended reading for every student of both history and literature.

  • FitzBoodle

    Wilfred Owen is simply the best.

  • STM

    A bit of a cult sprang up around Owen’s works, but I like Rosenberg too.

    His “Break Of Day In The Trenches” is rather poignant, to say the least. He was killed on the Somme in April 1918 after a night patrol of the German lines, perhaps by a German sniper.

    All the war poets – 16 I think including Owen and Rosenberg – are remembered on a memorial slate in Westminster Abbey.

    Paul Fussell’s book “The Great War And Modern Memory” is an excellent work devoted to the writings of these men and others like them.

    Randall Jarrell, who wrote the poem above, was pretty damn good too in the latter era and has been described as the best English-language poet of WWII. He was later made the Poet Laureate consultant to the library of Congress. Not sure if the title is exactly correct but I believe that is the name of the poet-laureate’s post in the US.

  • stalag.luft.3 [AT] gmail dot com

    Reese McKay, 2nd Article comments above wrote ” … prisoners liberated by one of General Patton’s tank units at Stalag Luft 3″.

    The Americans in the southern compound were marched out of Stalag Luft 3 in January 1945 ahead of the Russians who overran the camp.

    Henry.

  • Reese McKay

    To Henry:

    Yes, you are correct. I was summarizing a long and complex story. As the Russians were moving toward Sagen the men in Stalag Luft 3 were put on a 100-mile forced march from Sagen and merged with the prisoners at Stalag 7A at Moosburg, near the confluence of the Amper and Isar Rivers. It was here that the men of Stalag Luft 3, along with tens of thousands more Stalag 7A POW’s were liberated by the 14th Armored Division. You can find more details at the websites of the 14th Armored Division, Stalag 7A, and the 100th Bomb Group and in a long list of books.

    I learned most of what I know in bits and pieces over the past 50 years from two of the men who were there.

  • http://www.forumeerstewereldoorlog.nl/wiki/index.php/Yperite-Jan_Theuninck Gray Moon Gallery

    “Stalag Zehn B”

    the feldwebel became a general
    the campdoctor , a professor
    and we the jews – it’s banal
    we stayed jewish – no error .

    © by Jan Theuninck