At the height of World War II, Allied bombing missions often include hundreds of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses that strike deep behind enemy lines. Gunner Mason Howe survives these harrowing missions while operating one of the plane's most innovative defenses: the ball turret gun. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- B-17 and the Ball Turret
KATE SNOW, reporting:
It is the height of World War II, and Germany holds most of Europe in its clutches. In a desperate battle to slow the Nazi war machine, the Allies begin targeting enemy factories with a series of air raids. The clear, cold skies over Germany erupt in a storm of exploding shrapnel. Flying directly into this field of lethal anti-aircraft fire, called flak, are more than 200 American B-17 bombers on their way to their targets. The crewmen from missions like this one still remember the horrors of flying through enemy flak.
MASON HOWE (Ball Turret Gunner): Now that's when you get scared, because you’re just hearing boom, boom, boom, boom. Now, that flak would scare the heck out of you.
SNOW: Despite the threat of flak, the bombers clutter the German skies and relentlessly drop over 640,000 tons of bombs determined to destroy Hitler's regime. These aerial assaults owe their success to one of the toughest bomber aircraft of the war, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
CORY GRAFF (Curator, Flying Heritage Collection): These bombing missions that took place over occupied Europe involved at first hundreds of planes and then thousands of planes by the end of the war.
SNOW: With more than 12,000 mass-produced, each B-17 houses four 1,200 horsepower Wright Cyclone engines and has room for up to 10 crewmen. It can carry a bomb load of over 4,000 pounds to deep inside enemy territory, withstand intensive flak, and ward off enemy fighter aircraft with its arsenal of weapons. To defend itself, the B-17 is equipped with twelve .50-caliber machine guns. Gunner Mason Howe operates two of them in one of the B-17's most innovative features, the ball turret.
HOWE: The ball turret is kind of like this, in between the tail position and the top turret position. All you can just see is that little ball.
GRAFF: The ball turret on a B-17 was a small metal and glass sphere that hung down under the airplane. It protected the belly of the airplane. A man rode in this little bubble.
SNOW: The gunner enters the ball turret through a hatch from inside the plane. Because of the cramped space, he is usually the smallest person in the crew.
HOWE: You open the hatch door and then you crawl down in there. And I was small in those days, 128 pounds.
SNOW: Sitting in a near-fetal position, Howe takes aim with the two .50-caliber machine guns by looking down between his feet while remaining vulnerable to flak and machine gun fire from enemy fighters.
HOWE: You lay down on the floor and you're like this and your guns and everything is right in between your legs. You're kind of in a position like this. You don't move much.
SNOW: The ball turret is driven by hydraulic motors operated by controls near the gunner's head, and it’s able to rotate in almost any direction below the plane, something referred to in engineering as the "Degrees of Freedom." This allows the turret to change its yaw and pitch.
HOWE: You can go all the way around and this way and this way, which was real comfortable.
GRAFF: The ball turret gunner could actually spin his turret that whole 180 degrees under the airplane. He had cutoff points so he didn't shoot through his own propeller of the airplane, but otherwise he had free motion to guide his guns and his little ball turret in any direction he wanted.
SNOW: The turret's degrees of freedom help protect the bottom of the airplane from enemy aircraft that may approach from lower altitudes. Together with its other machine guns, the B-17's ball turret helps to create a nearly impenetrable defense from attacking German fighter pilots.
HOWE: You've got to be on the ball. And just as soon as you see him, boy, you gotta hit him.
SNOW: Although the Flying Fortress lives up to its nickname, for Howe and the other members of the crew, the threat posed by flak and enemy fighters is ever present.
HOWE: Man, I felt kind of scared down in that thing, but I just didn't really show it. I was proud to be down in there, really. I was proud to be down in there for my country.
SNOW: With its innovative ball turret, the B-17 gains fame during its massive bombing raids, helping the Allies ultimately win victory in Europe and hasten an end to World War II.
The tanks, artillery, ships and trucks churned out by the arsenal of democracy would be useful only if brave men could be found to take them into harm’s way. In this respect, the United States proved to be exceptionally fruitful.
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