US Army Air Forces gunners defended B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers against fighter attacks with machine guns aimed by hand (“flexible guns”) and electrically-powered gun turrets. Typically, gunners made up half of a bomber crew, manning a top turret, ball turret, two waist guns, and a tail turret. Some other crewmembers also operated defensive guns as a secondary duty.
Early heavy bombers only had hand-operated flexible guns in the nose, leaving them vulnerable to frontal attack from enemy fighters. Later versions of the B-17 (top photo) and B-24 (left) had more effective, powered, twin-gun nose turrets like those pictured here.
The B-17 (left) had hand-operated tail guns with a limited field of fire while the B-24 (right) had a powered tail turret that covered a wide area.
SSgt Maynard “Snuffy” Smith--Medal of Honor
In May 1943, enemy flak and fighters set ball turret gunner SSgt Maynard Smith’s B-17 afire over Brest, France. For more than an hour, Smith alternated between tending to a wounded crewman, battling flames, and firing the waist guns against enemy fighters. He finally extinguished the fire by hand after throwing exploding ammunition overboard, saving the aircraft.
SSgt Smith at a B-17 waist gun position.
SSgt Smith receiving the Medal of Honor.
SSgt Archibald Mathies--Medal of Honor
In February 1944, SSgt Archibald Mathies, along with navigator 2nd Lt Walter Truemper, nursed their heavily-damaged B-17 back to England after the copilot was killed and the pilot badly wounded. The crew was ordered to bail out, but Mathies and Truemper refused to leave the pilot. They attempted to land the damaged plane, but it crashed, killing all three. Mathies and Truemper received the Medal of Honor for their selfless act.
SSgt Archibald Mathies (standing, far left) and his B-17 crewmates.
A-2 jacket and trousers worn by Eighth Air Force ball turret gunner Sgt Richard Benson. The front of his jacket displays the 18th Bomb Squadron emblem, while the trousers list his combat missions.
Field jacket and bag owned by Sgt Larry Gardner, a Fifteenth Air Force tail gunner. During his tour, he had a finger shot off, and his B-24 was shot down over enemy territory. Fortunately, Gardner was rescued by Italian partisans.
A-2 jacket worn by Fifteenth Air Force ball turret gunner SSgt Emil Barney. In November 1944, his B-17 fell out of control over the Adriatic Sea after being attacked by Bf 109s. Barney bailed out and was rescued two days later.
These linked 50-cal. rounds represent the 35 combat missions flown by B-17 top turret gunner TSgt Marion “Mickey” Popivchak, 306th Bomb Group. Popivchak put Stars and Stripes newspaper clippings related to each mission inside the cartridge cases. The red-tipped tracer round represented the January 10, 1945 mission, when his B-17 crash-landed in Belgium after heavy damage knocked out the oxygen system and two engines.
B-17 Sperry Top Turret
The top turret on display is one of the first American fully-powered machine gun turret designs. An electro-hydraulic system powered both the elevation and traverse of the turret's two .50-cal. M2 Browning machine guns. The two guns have a combined rate of fire of 1,400-1,600 rounds per minute.
The top turret gunner was also the bomber’s flight engineer. In addition to protecting against attack from above, he had to know all the systems on the aircraft and monitor the engines and fuel in flight.
This turret was manufactured by the Emerson Manufacturing Co. from a Sperry Gyroscope Co. design. It was donated to the Museum by the Hobart Corp. of Troy, Ohio.
B-24 Sperry Ball Turret
This B-24 ball turret was located on the underside of the aircraft. It is essentially the same type as the one used in B-17s. An electro-hydraulic system moved the turret, and ammunition was stored in the turret above the .50-cal. Browning M2 machine guns. Later models stored ammunition in drums inside the aircraft.
Ball turret gunners squeezed into the fetal position to man their turret and protect the bomber against attack from below. The ball turret gunner was usually the shortest crewmember.
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.
The poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” was written by Randall Jarrell and published in 1945. Jarrell served in the USAAF as a navigation trainer.
Duty Above All: TSgt Sator “Sandy” Sanchez
TSgt Sator "Sandy" Sanchez was an aerial gunner who was killed on his 66th mission, during his third heavy bomber combat tour. At the end of his second tour, a B-17 was painted with his caricature and called "Smilin' Sandy Sanchez" in his honor—it is the only known B-17 ever named for an enlisted man.
After completing his 25th combat mission in the Eighth Air Force’s 95th Bomb Group, Sanchez volunteered to stay on for a second tour, flying a total of 44 missions. Though sent back to the US to rest in the summer of 1944, the 23-year-old volunteered for a third combat tour. Sanchez was assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force’s 301st Bomb Group in Italy.
On March 15, 1945, less than two months before the war in Europe ended, Sanchez volunteered for a mission to bomb an oil plant at Ruhrland, Germany. During the bomb run, the aircraft was severely damaged by flak. All the crew members, except Sanchez, bailed out, and the aircraft exploded. Sanchez's body was never recovered.
The left side of the vertical tail section from B-17G (S/N 42-97683), the aircraft in which Sanchez perished during his 66th mission. This tail section was discovered in 1993, being used as part of a farmer's shed near the crash site in Germany. The 52nd Equipment Maintenance Squadron recovered the artifact for the museum in 1996.
Friend or Foe?
Gunners made split-second decisions whether or not to fire. At longer distances and at some angles, it became very difficult to know for sure if a fighter was hostile. Aircraft recognition training helped gunners make the right choice in a life-or-death situation.
Aircraft Recognition Models
1/72nd scale plastic aircraft recognition models were manufactured on a large scale and supplemented with hundreds of thousands of wood models made by civilian volunteers.
Eighth Air Force enlisted aircrew receive recognition training from Royal Air Force instructors. Here they are learning to identify aircraft by touch.
Playing cards with aircraft recognition drawings—known as “spotter cards”—could be found everywhere on bomber bases.
View-Master Recognition Kit
Formed just before the war started, View-Master produced about 100,000 stereo viewers and millions of discs for recognition and range estimation training. After the war, View-Master made viewers with whimsical images that became very popular children’s toys.
Related Fact Sheets
The Memphis Belle: American Icon and 25th Mission
Memphis Belle Crew
The “Memphis Belle” and Nose Art
26th Mission: War Bond Tour
“Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress”
Heavy Bomber “Firsts”
Combat Aircraft to Museum Artifact
Crippling the Nazi War Machine: USAAF Strategic Bombing in Europe
Early Operations (1942 to mid-1943) - Eighth Air Force in England
Ninth/Twelfth Air Forces in the Mediterranean
Combat Box/Communication and Life at 25K
Keeping them Flying: Mechanics and Armorers
Combined Bomber Offensive: Summer 1943 to Victory
Bigger Raids, Bigger Losses, and Crisis
Deadly Skies over Europe (Luftwaffe defense)
Bomber Crew Protection
Operation Tidalwave (Ploesti, 1 Aug 43)
Regensburg/Schweinfurt (17 Aug 43)
Black Thursday/Schweinfurt (14 Oct 43)
Fifteenth Air Force (created Sep 43)
Women’s Army Corps
Fighter Escort: Little Friends
Big Week (20-25 Feb 44)
Operation Frantic: Shuttle Raids to the Soviet Union
Strategic Bombing Victorious
Return to the B-17F Memphis Belle Fact Sheet
Return to the WWII Gallery list