It was a manned turret, as distinct from remote-controlled turrets also in use. The turret held the gunner, two heavy machine guns, ammunition, and sights. The Sperry Corporation designed ventral versions that became the most common version, thus the term "ball turret" is most specific to these versions.
Sperry and Emerson Electric each developed a ball turret, and the designs were similar in the nose turret version. Development of the spherical Emerson was halted. The Sperry nose turret was tested and preferred, but its use was limited due to poor availability of suitable aircraft designs. The Sperry-designed ventral system saw widespread use and production, including much sub-contracting. The design was mainly deployed on the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator, as well as the United States Navy's Liberator, the PB4Y-1. The ventral turret was used in tandem in the Convair B-32, successor to the B-24. Ball turrets appeared in the nose and tail as well as the nose of the final series B-24.
The Sperry ball turret was very small in order to reduce drag, and was typically operated by the smallest man of the crew. To enter the turret, the turret was moved until the guns were pointed straight down. The gunner placed his feet in the heel rests and occupied his cramped station. He would put on a safety strap and close and lock the turret door. There was no room inside for a parachute, which was left in the cabin above the turret. A few gunners wore a chest parachute.
The gunner was forced to assume a fetal position within the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall. This left him positioned with his eyes roughly level with the pair of light-barrel Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber machine guns which extended through the entire turret, located to either side of the gunner. The cocking handles were located too close to the gunner to be operated easily, so a cable was attached to the handle through pulleys to a handle near the front of the turret. Another factor was that not all stoppages could be corrected by charging (cocking) the guns. In many cases, when a stoppage occurred, it was necessary for the gunner to "reload" the gun, which required access to the firing chamber of the guns. Access was severely restricted by the guns location in the small turret.
Normally, the gunner accessed the firing chamber by releasing a latch and raising the cover to a position perpendicular to the gun but this was not possible in the ball turret. To remedy that, the front end of the cover was "slotted". The gunner released the latch and removed the cover which allowed space to clear the action. Small ammunition boxes rested on the top of the turret and additional ammunition belts fed the turret by means of a chute system. A reflector sight was hung from the top of the turret, positioned roughly between the gunner's feet.
The directional control was by two hand control grips with firing buttons. The left foot controlled the reflector sight range reticule. The right foot operated a push-to-talk intercom switch. The turret was electrically powered in azimuth and altitude. An emergency hand crank could be attached to reposition the turret from inside the aircraft fuselage. In the event of a power failure another crewman would use this to crank the turret into the vertical position to allow the gunner to exit.
A B-24J's Sperry ventral ball turret in its retracted position for landing, as seen from inside the bomber
In the case of the B-24, the Liberator's tricycle landing gear design mandated that its A-13 model Sperry ball turret have a fully retractable mount, so that the ball turret would always be retracted upwards into the lower fuselage while the aircraft was on the ground, providing ground clearance with it in the stowed position.
Erco Ball turret, on display at National Museum of Naval Aviation, FL.
After testing in mid-1943, the ERCO ball turret became the preferred bow installation in the Navy's Consolidated PB4Y-1 Liberator and PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol bombers although other types continued to be installed. Earlier designs appeared in other patrol seaplanes. It served a double purpose, defense against bow attacks as well as fire suppression and offensive strafing in antisubmarine warfare. Since this turret is of the ball type, the gunner moves with his guns and sight in elevation and azimuth by means of control handles. Among the earlier designs was the Martin 250SH bow turret of the PBM-3 twin-engined patrol flying boat which had many points of similarity in design and action.
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is a five-line poem by Randall Jarrell published in 1945. It is about the death of a gunner in a Sperry ball turret on a World War II American bomber aircraft.
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.
Jarrell, who served in the Army Air Forces, provided the following explanatory note:
A ball turret was a Plexiglas 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. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the fetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.
Reviewer Leven M. Dawson says that "The theme of Randall Jarrell's 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner' is that institutionalized violence, or war, creates moral paradox, a condition in which acts repugnant to human nature become appropriate." Most commentators agree, calling the poem a condemnation of the dehumanizing powers of "the State", which are most graphically exhibited by the violence of war.
The poem inspired the play, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Anna Moench, which premiered in New York City at the New York International Fringe Festival in August 2008 and was extended to play at The Space in Long Island City. A nod to the poem can also be found in John Irving's 1978 novel The World According to Garp, in which the protagonist's father died from a "rather careless lobotomy" by enemy gunfire while serving as a ball-turret gunner in World War II.