The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Background
  • 0:55 Poem
  • 1:20 Summary & Analysis
  • 2:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

There have been many anti-war poems, and one of the most widely anthologized is Randall Jarrell's 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.' In this lesson, you'll learn more about the poem and have a chance to test your understanding with a quiz.


Randall Jarrell joined the military during the Second World War as part of the Army Air Corps. He finished the war as a control tower operator, so he saw the aftereffects of air combat on a regular basis. In a note, Jarrell explained that a ball turret is, '. . . a plexiglass sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24 and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine-guns and one man, a short small man.' This man, the gunner, crouches in this tight, freezing-cold space and engages enemy planes in combat.

These machine gunners were particularly exposed to the exploding shells fired at planes by anti-aircraft guns. Jarrell wrote the poem 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner' as five lines, but in that short space, it presents a shocking vision of World War II air combat.


Here is the entirety of Jarrell's poem:

'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.'

Summary and Analysis

Jarrell paints a particularly uncomfortable picture for the reader in order to gain his sympathy. His language makes the gunner seem like a child who has lost his biological mother and has instead found a substitute mother in the form of the bomber. He has fallen 'into the State,' meaning he has been adopted by the government.

Jarrell himself, when explaining the poem, described the positioning of the gunner as like a fetus in a womb. Only, instead of being born into loving arms, the gunner is brought into 'black flak and the nightmare fighters.' This harsh awakening doesn't end well, either. When the plane lands, the ground crew washes the remains of the gunner out of the ball turret 'with a hose.'

Like many great poems, the way the poem is set up has a strong connection to its meaning. Jarrell only gives the reader five lines. Just as you're starting to connect with the poem's speaker, it's suddenly over. The ending jerks you to a halt, and that's a parallel to what happens to the gunner as his life comes to a sudden, violent end.

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