How to Be­come a Ball Tur­ret Gun­ner

To learn to shoot from a bomber, World War II air­men went to the movies.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY DAVID SEARS

Ma­chines that gave bomber crews a hint of what they were in for.

Be­fore the Army be­gan prepa­ra­tions to en­ter World War II, aerial gun­nery had been taught in more gen­er­al­ized Air Corps schools. But in the fall of 1941, the ser­vice opened a sec­ond school, near Har­lin­gen, Texas. In the next two years, five more—an­other in Texas, two in Ari­zona, and two on Florida’s Gulf coast—fol­lowed. At full speed, the seven schools churned out 3,500 grad­u­ates a week, and nearly 300,000 by war’s end.

The six-week train­ing course com­bined class­work in bal­lis­tics, range es­ti­ma­tion, air­craft recog­ni­tion, and Morse code with shoot­ing prac­tice. Fir­ing at mov­ing tar­gets pro­gressed from in­door pel­let-gun gal­leries to out­door skeet shoot­ing with shot­guns to, when they were avail­able, .30- and .50-cal­iber ma­chine gun ranges. The Army Air Forces com­mit­ted vir­tu­ally all of its bombers to com­bat, so stu­dents got air­borne in the back seats of AT-6 Texan train­ers and blasted away at tar­gets towed by other air­craft.

Few AT-6 pi­lots en­joyed chauf­feur­ing the novice gun­ners. When guns jammed, in­stead of land­ing to swap out the weapon, some pi­lots or­dered their back-seaters to sim­ply jet­ti­son am­mu­ni­tion to avoid a pro­longed flight, while still giv­ing the stu­dent credit for fir­ing the rounds. Once, re­calls Dale Van­blair, a for­mer Har­lin­gen stu­dent, some­one from his bar­racks ex­pe­ri­enced an air­borne gun jam. “‘Throw it over the side,’ or­dered his pi­lot, mean­ing just the am­mu­ni­tion. But the knuck­le­head heaved both,” he says.

Aerial gun­nery train­ing had a make-do, try-any­thing qual­ity, re­sult­ing in the de­sign of 16 types of out­door ranges. The gun­nery schools also ex­per­i­mented with syn­thetic train­ers to sim­u­late aerial gun­nery. Bri­tain’s Royal Air Force pioneered the con­cept, but it was two State­side en­trepreneurs—

GUN­NERS ON WORLD WAR II BOMBERS had only a mi­crosec­ond to es­ti­mate an at­tack­ing fighter’s range, speed, path of at­tack, and bul­let bal­lis­tics. Dur­ing at­tacks that them­selves lasted merely sec­onds, the gun­ner had to make those men­tal cal­cu­la­tions, then align his weapons and sights, pray­ing that the guns wouldn’t jam or the bar­rels melt. To teach bomber crews how to sur­vive these aerial at­tacks, the Army Air Forces opened schools in iso­lated lo­cales with fa­vor­able fly­ing con­di­tions. The first opened in mid1941—de­spite, in the words of an Army re­port, the “un­sat­is­fac­tory moral con­di­tions” of the lo­ca­tion: Las Ve­gas.

Fred Waller and Henry Jamieson “Jam” Handy—who gave it an Amer­i­can twist: tak­ing gun­nery stu­dents to the movies.

A long­time Para­mount Pic­tures spe­cial ef­fects pro­ducer, Waller had also patented wa­ter skis and a re­mote-con­trol wind di­rec­tion and ve­loc­ity in­di­ca­tor. Handy, a for­mer Olympic swim­mer, had op­er­ated an in­dus­trial film busi­ness.

Waller was an in­vet­er­ate ex­per­i­menter in vis­ual per­cep­tion and be­lieved that judg­ing dis­tance de­pended on pe­riph­eral vi­sion. He hoped to test his the­ory with an ex­hibit he helped plan for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was to have used 11 syn­chro­nized 16-mm pro­jec­tors to pro­ject a film by the oil in­dus­try on an im­mense spher­i­cal wall. The pro­ject never came to fruition, but John Caron, Waller’s step­son, re­calls be­ing awestruck as an ado­les­cent by the “11-eyed mon­ster” tak­ing form in a Long Is­land ware­house. A friend of Waller’s who was a se­nior naval of­fi­cer also took note, imag­in­ing how it could be used to train Navy gun­ners. (The Army Air Forces even­tu­ally bought its Waller train­ers through the Navy.)

Made of ply­wood pan­els, the Waller gun­nery equip­ment screen was a quar­ter dome mounted on an I-beam frame. There were just five 35-mm pro­jec­tors, but gun sim­u­la­tion and scor­ing fea­tures added bulk, as did a bunch of scan­ners, pho­to­cells, am­pli­fiers, levers, and ca­bles.

The un­wieldy con­trap­tion de­fies easy de­scrip­tion, but East­man en­gi­neer James Red­dig tried, and Waller quoted him in a tech­ni­cal pa­per he wrote for a 1945 con­fer­ence in New York City: “Take the end off the Tri­bor­ough Bridge. Put four men on it with their feet dan­gling in the air. [Add] a con­sole like a church or­gan…. Then, take the Peri­sphere from the World’s Fair, cut it into 4 pieces, push the end of the Tri­bor­ough Bridge into one of the pieces and you have a Waller Gun­nery Trainer.”

Each of the four stu­dents (with “feet dan­gling”) sat be­hind a dummy gun con­sist­ing of a pair of han­dles— the right one equipped with a trig­ger that ac­ti­vated mo­tor-driven vi­bra­tions to sim­u­late re­coil. The trig­ger pulls also recorded a burst on a “burst counter”

dis­play on the in­struc­tor’s con­sole. The du­ra­tion of the burst de­ter­mined the num­ber of fired rounds dis­played on a sep­a­rate bul­let counter. A gun­ner’s “hits” were tracked on a syn­chro­nized scor­ing de­vice linked to the gun. Scores were cal­cu­lated from the num­ber of rounds a stu­dent fired while on tar­get. Real-time feed­back came via a high-pitched tone in the stu­dents’ ear­phones, which com­mu­ni­cated a hit.

The much sim­pler “Jam-handy” trainer was de­signed orig­i­nally for the Navy as a por­ta­ble ship­board de­vice. It used a more con­ven­tional screen and just two syn­chro­nized pro­jec­tors, one dis­play­ing an at­tack­ing air­craft, the other a spot of light rep­re­sent­ing the ideal tar­get­ing point. The stu­dent wore po­lar­ized glasses to pre­vent him from see­ing the spot, while an in­struc­tor coached him to im­prove his ac­cu­racy and scored the re­sults.

For his more so­phis­ti­cated (and ex­pen­sive) equip­ment, Waller made grand claims, writ­ing in his tech­ni­cal pa­per: “Each trainer…saved many mil­lions of dol­lars in war cost, plus the more im­por­tant sav­ing in men and planes, which never can be prop­erly es­ti­mated.” The United States and Bri­tain bought a to­tal of 75 Wallers for $5 mil­lion. (The cost of the Jam-handys could not be de­ter­mined.)

Young John Caron, who would serve in the Marines dur­ing the Korean War, was among the first to try out an op­er­a­tional Waller dur­ing its in­stal­la­tion at Buck­ing­ham Army Air­field near Fort My­ers, Florida. “I felt like a lit­tle prince play­ing the most in­cred­i­ble game ever,” he says.

The Waller went on to im­press many gun­nery stu­dents, in­clud­ing Bill Mar­tinez, a gun­ner in­ter­viewed for the 2002 documentary Cin­erama Adventure. “You started fir­ing the guns and they’re go­ing bluh, bluh, bluh, bluh…. Planes come in from here and here and

here,” he told the in­ter­viewer. “I mean, you’re fly­ing, you’re fight­ing…. You’re there.”

Jack Rotzien, a gun­nery in­struc­tor at Eng­land’s Wendling Field, says that com­bat crews were en­thu­si­as­tic about the de­vice: “It was real fun for them—a change of pace, not the usual pain-in-the-butt train­ing. They got re­ally com­pet­i­tive with it.”

Other veter­ans I spoke with, though, have more mea­sured mem­o­ries of the Waller and Jam-handy. Bob Davis trained at Buck­ing­ham Field in the sum­mer of 1943 be­fore fly­ing 23 Euro­pean mis­sions as a B-24 ra­dio-gun­ner (and en­dur­ing a year as a Ger­man POW). He had a hand­ful of Waller ses­sions in­ter­spersed with his AT-6 flights. Although his ear­phones streamed flight and bat­tle back­ground sounds, he didn’t re­call hear­ing au­dio feed­back. “But maybe I wasn’t hit­ting any­thing,” he says. “I didn’t fire a real ma­chine gun un­til I flew in the AT-6.”

Mar­ion Hoff­man, a B-17G tail gun­ner with 25 mis­sions and six months as a POW, trained at King­man in early 1944. While Hoff­man had a dozen half-hour Jam-handy ses­sions, more mean­ing­ful for him was fir­ing from the waist of older B-17s as they soared over Ne­vada’s Yucca Flat. “We knew we’d be fly­ing the new B-17GS,” he re­calls, “so fir­ing from an ac­tual air­borne B-17 made me feel good—bet­ter pre­pared.” Hoff­man and Davis both say that what made them feel ready for com­bat was the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of many types of train­ing.

Hal Bolce, who orig­i­nally trained for B-17 ball tur­rets at King­man in mid-1944, first ex­pe­ri­enced the Waller in early 1945 while be­ing schooled as a B-29 tail gun­ner at Har­lin­gen. “It was very re­al­is­tic,” he says. “You could even see the fighter planes tak­ing off from their run­way and climb to your alti­tude.”

For Bolce, how­ever, the real ex­cite­ment came from fir­ing bul­lets that were fran­gi­ble—de­signed to break apart on im­pact—from a B-24 at a spe­cially ar­mored P-63 King­co­bra, called the Pin­ball Ma­chine (see “Just Shoot Me,” Oct./nov. 2010). The B-24 had been retro­fit­ted with B-29 tur­rets, which had the most

so­phis­ti­cated gun con­trol sys­tem of the war. “The B-29 gun­nery sys­tem was quite ac­cu­rate…. Bul­lets were hit­ting home,” he says. “The P-63 broke off after one pass and de­scended rapidly.” The fran­gi­ble bul­lets may have en­tered screens placed in the wing root to keep the am­mu­ni­tion from crip­pling the engine. “We picked up a ‘May Day’ and learned that the Pin­ball made a forced belly land­ing—the only plane I shot down in the war,” says Bolce.

Just how did other Waller and Handy “gamers” do in shoot­ing down the ac­tual en­emy? The De­cem­ber 2002 is­sue of Cin­ema Tech­nol­ogy magazine pub­lished one es­ti­mate, very ques­tion­able and un­sub­stan­ti­ated, stat­ing that the first Waller trainees “hit 80 per­cent of their com­bat tar­gets and suf­fered no losses.” The real an­swer seems to be: No­body knows. Army psy­chol­o­gists tasked with mea­sur­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of gun­nery train­ing ar­gued that scores in real com­bat could not be used be­cause of too many ex­tra­ne­ous fac­tors and too lit­tle avail­able data. (Records for Pa­cific-based B-29 bomb­ing groups in 1945, for ex­am­ple, show that roughly 14 per­cent of aerial skir­mishes re­sulted in the B-29 gun­ner de­stroy­ing or dam­ag­ing his op­po­nent, with an av­er­age ex­pen­di­ture of about 1,500 rounds per skir­mish.)

The best any­one could do was de­ter­mine in­creased pro­fi­ciency within the bounds of train­ing it­self. And de­spite Waller’s ex­trav­a­gant claims, Army psy­chol­o­gists were un­der­whelmed. While one 1943 study found that Waller prac­tice in­creased trainee fir­ing pro­fi­ciency sig­nif­i­cantly, the equip­ment was judged to lack re­al­ism and to cre­ate too much un­con­trolled scor­ing vari­a­tion among its gun sta­tions. The JamHandy fared just as poorly: The pro­jected im­ages were model air­planes “fly­ing” against a painted back­ground, and the psy­chol­o­gists con­cluded that the trainer’s scor­ing was highly sub­jec­tive.

Hal Bolce be­lieves the Waller on which he trained was Har­lin­gen’s first, but at the time he trained, an­other was un­der con­struc­tion. Sens­ing war’s end, Bolce asked the Waller work­ers why they were still in­stalling the equip­ment. “They had two con­tracts: one to put it to­gether, the other to take it apart,” he says. “They had to fin­ish in­stalling be­fore dis­man­tling.”

Ap­par­ently not a scrap of the Jam-handy or Waller train­ers sur­vived de­mo­bi­liza­tion, but the two en­trepreneurs’ ca­reers did. Handy, who is es­ti­mated to have pro­duced more than 7,000 films for the armed ser­vices dur­ing World War II, con­tin­ued mak­ing in­dus­trial films (many of them for Gen­eral Mo­tors) show­ing sales­men how to push prod­ucts, and con­sumers how to use what they’d bought. Waller, mean­while, par­layed his gun­nery trainer into a three-pro­jec­tor sys­tem with vastly en­hanced sound and a wrap­around screen and called it Cin­erama—the 1950s pre­cur­sor of to­day’s IMAX.

The Waller trainer’s pro­jec­tor han­dled nine rolls of film at a time; five were 35-mm mo­tion pic­ture film, and four were reg­is­ter bands that told stu­dents and their in­struc­tors when a “shot” hit its mark.

Gun­nery schools made air­plane recog­ni­tion classes part of the course­work. In Bov­ing­ton, Eng­land, in 1943, U.S. pi­lots learned from their Bri­tish coun­ter­parts how to tell friend from foe.

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