Thursday, 16 July 2015

THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE

Sperry ball turret on  RAF B-24 Liberator in Burma (Imperial War Museum)

One often overlooked job during World War II was that of a ball turret gunner: an airman stuck inside a small, round chunk of metal and glass attached to the belly of an American heavy bomber, either a B-17 Flying Fortress or a B-24 Liberator. Basically, the ball gunner was in a world by himself. Was he prone to attacks, more so than nose, tail, or side turrets?

Actually, according to World War II United States Army Air Force combat statistics, the ball turret was the safest part of the bomber for a number of reasons. One: The gunner presented a smaller target because he was in a fetal position. Two: The gunner was backed into an armor-plated door. And three: For an enemy fighter to get a good shot at the ball, he had to attack from underneath, much more difficult than attacking from the nose, top, or side. What kind of men braved the ball? Back in the 1990’s, three former B-17 ball gunners with the American Eighth Air Force based in England related some of their experiences to me which I had recorded.

Charles Teagle of Miami, Florida, who later became a Baptist minister, finished a tour of 35 missions as a ball gunner in 1944 with the 325th Squadron, 92nd Bomb Group out of Podington, England. “I could turn 360 degrees,” he explained. “I could see everywhere, including up. There was very little that went on that I didn’t catch. The ball wasn’t any more vulnerable than other turrets during attacks. I’m 5-foot-6. Yes, I was cramped then. But I liked the ball and got used to the discomfort. During head-on attacks, the persons I felt sorry for were the pilot and co-pilot. They had to just sit there and fly, and not fight back.”

“Visibility was good,” said Alvin Anderson of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, assigned to the 34th Bomb Group, 391st Squadron, at Mendlesham, Suffolk, 60 miles north of London. “I enjoyed looking at the vast expanse that I could cover. However, it was drafty and bitter cold in spite of all the clothing. Wearing an oxygen mask hour after hour was very cumbersome. I was 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, an exception to the rule. I was considered too big for the ball, but I loved it nonetheless. I went on to spend 435 hours in B-17’s, combat and training, including 30 missions.”

“I used to say it was the best seat in the house,” recalled Bill Sullivan from Readville, Massachusetts, a veteran of 30 missions with the 379th Bomb Group. “I know I was lower than the rest of the crew and more exposed,” he added, “but the ball was safe, with the safety glass and metal armor.”

At combat crew training in Ardmore, Oklahoma, before heading overseas, Alvin Anderson described his frustrations. “I found out quickly enough that it was as difficult for me--as it was for the other gunners--to grasp the difference between firing at a moving object from a fixed base and firing at the same object from another moving platform. That was brought home to us by having us fire at clay pigeons on a skeet range. Of course, it was necessary to lead the target. That was hard enough. Next, they put us on the back of a moving truck and further proved their point. I didn’t hit a thing the first few times I tried.”

In combat conditions, the ball gunner didn’t enter his turret--which was done from inside the bomber--until the aircraft reached an altitude of at least 8,000 feet, approximately the same time the crew donned their oxygen masks. This was usually done somewhere over southern England on way to Nazi-held territory. Climbing inside the tight compartment, the gunner sat in a crunched fetal position for hours at a time with two Browning .50-caliber machine guns at his disposal, 500 rounds for each gun, while peering through a 13-inch diameter viewing glass. By using two joysticks in front of him, the gunner controlled the maneuvering of the powered turret, moving the entire turret upright, then around, then back and forth to check the field of fire, as the turret mechanism whined and whirred in his ears. All the time the bomber’s four engines droned on, and the freezing slipstream thundered around him.

The outside temperature often plummeted to 65 degrees below zero. Inside the ball, the gunner wore numerous articles of clothing, including long underwear, wool trousers, shirt, sweater, scarf and two pairs of socks in addition to silk gloves. These were all worn under fleece-lined boots, pants, jacket, and gloves that were heated electrically, plus a helmet and set of goggles.

Alvin Anderson carried an extra piece of equipment in his ball turret. “One of the biggest problems was urinating,” he said. “So, I kept a can with me, just in case I had to let go. It was no easy task to use it. When I did, the urine froze instantly and wouldn’t thaw until we were back at the base.”


B-17 Flying Fortress showing Sperry ball turret underneath (US Public Domain)

The gun sight was a remote-controlled, computerized gun mechanism controlled by a foot pedal. The gunner had to preset the wingspan of the enemy fighter, such as 32 feet for the Me-109 and 34 feet for the Fw-190. During fighter attacks, his left heel operated a set of marks (called rads) on the gun sight. The idea was to frame the fighter with the rads. Press up and the marks would appear in the gun sight. The gunner centered these marks on the enemy aircraft coming in. Then he let up on the pedal as the fighter came closer. The computer figured the distance while the gunner controlled the pedal.

“It worked pretty good if you could keep the sight on the enemy aircraft and controlled the pedal properly,” Charles Teagle said. “Still, air-to-air firing was never that easy or accurate. You missed most of the time. The fighters always came in too fast.”

Deflection shots were another matter, demanding a certain rule. Sullivan said, “In order to hit a moving aircraft from a bomber, you had to aim behind the fighter, between it and the tail of your bomber. Not that easy to do, really.”

“Actually,” Anderson remembered, “our group didn’t face a great deal of fighter opposition. Flak was our biggest problem, and accounted for most of our casualties. The fighters were always hanging around, waiting for stragglers, but rarely attacked a good formation.”

All three gunners agreed that the letdown after a mission was grueling. “The whole thing could last as long as 17 hours from takeoff until you returned to base,” Anderson said. “Tension was the killer. Staying alert and constantly searching the sky was difficult for me. After every mission I felt emotionally drained.”

Teagle added: “The long missions were the worst. The stress could get to you after a while. Breaking the ice off your oxygen mask got to be annoying. The cold at high altitude was awful. A long time on oxygen could tire you. I was exhausted and dehydrated by the time I returned from each mission. I would never want to go through the experience again, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, even with the stress and, of course, the excitement. None of our crew so much as suffered any injuries in flight for our 35 missions. We were one of the lucky ones.”

Sullivan left a lasting impression on many ball turret gunners he later trained. “After my missions were completed, I was assigned to Killkeel, Northern Ireland, as a ball turret instructor. I told my students that during my missions, I didn’t leave my chute inside the aircraft like most other ball gunners did, and which was how all of us were taught in training. Too much time was wasted. I had my own way. I wore mine in the turret with me--a chest chute.

“Hooking the left snap, the chute made a great arm rest, leaving the right side to dangle. In an emergency, all I had to do was release the two turret door hinges, which were located at shoulder height when the turret was level. Then I could snap on the other chute fastener and fall free. Many of the gunners thanked me for the info as they never had any instructions for that type of ejection.”

Sullivan spoke for all ball turret gunners when he concluded: “I was glad I could contribute to our cause. It is something I still feel good about today.”  

Friday, 3 July 2015

THE GREATEST INFIELD EVER?

When it comes to baseball nostalgia, the mere mention of one team--the Brooklyn Dodgers--stands out 60 years after they had vacated the east in 1957 for the palm trees and the sunny west coast of Los Angeles, California.

While in Brooklyn, the Dodgers played in the iconic Ebbets Field: a cozy bandbox of a ball park that seated only 30,000 patrons, where the foul lines were so close to the playing field that you could almost hear the ball players breathing. The Brooklyn fans loved their team and treated the players like kings. The names are legendary: Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Ralph Branca, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, and Don Newcombe. 

1947-1956 inclusive was the Jackie Robinson era, when the Dodgers were at their glorious peak: six National League championships, one World Series win, and two very close second-place finishes. The pitching was their biggest drawback, however, often suspect in crucial games, preventing them from winning more than their one World Championship of 1955. But, they could run, they could field, they could hit, and with power. Looking closer into it, the main reason for the Dodgers’ success may well have been that they had one of the best—or quite possibly the best ever—infields in major league history during a portion of their exceptional ten-year National League dynasty.

Which four infielders are we talking about?


1952 Bowman card of Gil Hodges
(US Public Domain)
First base: GIL HODGES…

A catcher early in his pro career, the six-foot-plus Hodges was asked to try first base out in 1948 to make room for the talented Negro Leaguer Roy Campanella behind the plate. As a result, for the next decade, Hodges was the best fielding first baseman in the majors. He was one of the strongest players, and had the biggest hands in baseball. Someone once made the joke that Hodges could play first without a glove. An eight-time All Star, he won three Gold Gloves. In a game in 1949, he hit for the cycle. The following year, he hit four home runs in a nine-inning game, the first time that had happened since Lou Gehrig in 1932.
Six times Hodges connected for over 30 homers in a season, and was the first Dodger to reach 40, which he did twice. For seven straight years, he produced 100 RBI’s. He was probably the only Dodger who the hometown fans never booed. In fact, he was so well liked that when he went into a bad hitting slump beginning at the end of the 1952 season that continued into the World Series (0-for-21 against the New York Yankees) and eventually to a few games into 1953, a Brooklyn priest asked his parishioners to say a prayer for brother Gil. In seven different Fall Classics, Hodges still managed a decent .267 batting average with seven homers against some excellent pitching, six times against the Yankees, and once against the Chicago White Sox.

Upon his retirement, Hodges held the National League record for 14 grand slam homers and the most homers by a National League right-handed batter at 370.


1950 Bowman card of Jackie Robinson
(US Public Domain)
Second base: JACKIE ROBINSON…

He was the fireplug of the Dodgers who got under the skin of opponents. In the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, he was a shortstop, although it wasn’t his best position: he had good range, but no arm from the “hole.”  His natural place was second base. When Robinson broke the MLB color line in 1947, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey inserted him at first base, a position Robinson had never played before, and that was because they already had Eddie Stanky at second base. The next year, with Stanky gone to the Boston Braves, Robinson took over at second and remained there for the next five years.

Robinson got the job done on offense, as well as defense. As the premier National League second baseman, he won the National League batting crown in 1949 by hitting .342, followed up with over .300 for the next five years. He could take the extra base and he could steal. He could bunt and while on base he would aggravate pitchers until they balked.

His great catch of a line drive in the last game of 1951 regular season helped to preserve a Dodgers victory and take the Dodgers into a three-game playoff against the New York Giants who eventually won on the famous Bobby Thomson walk-off homer. Robinson’s only weakness in the field: he had trouble moving to his right. With that in mind, he played a step or two closer to Hodges at first, allowing shortstop Pee Wee Reese to cover more of the area up the middle.


1954 Bowman card of Billy Cox
(US Public Domain)
Third base: BILLY COX…

Who? Not a big name today, but in his time everybody in baseball knew who Billy Cox was. His nickname was “Horseface” because… well…he looked like a horse with large nostrils. Not the biggest infielder around at five-ten and 150 pounds, he could move like lightning, though.

He had the range and a rifle for an arm. He’d run out pop-ups, dive into the dirt, and throw across the diamond in a blink. Without a doubt, he was the best fielding third baseman in the game from 1949-1953. Yankees Casey Stengel said it best when the two met in three different World Series: “That’s not a third baseman out there. That’s a f---ing acrobat!” The only knock against Cox was his hitting, if there was one. Not that great at the plate, but not that bad either: a lifetime .262 hitter with little power. On base, he could run like a deer. Then, to prove everybody wrong, he hit .302 in 15 lifetime World Series games.

Cox began life in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a shortstop, playing there briefly in 1941, then again after returning from World War II. He was traded to the Dodgers with pitcher Preacher Roe in December, 1947, in a six-player deal, a lopsided transaction in Brooklyn’s favor.


1952 Bowman card of Pee Wee Reese
(US Public Domain)
Shortstop: HAROLD “PEE WEE” REESE…

While Robinson was the fireplug, Reese was the leader. This Kentucky gentleman was the Dodgers captain and everybody on the team knew it and respected him. He had a strong throwing arm; and he and Robinson could turn the double play with their eyes closed. Reese was the perfect lead-off man in the mighty Dodgers batting order. He knew how to get on base, whether be it a walk or hit, and he knew how to steal bases once he was on. In seven World Series post seasons, he hit .272 lifetime, all seven times against the New York Yankees.

The Dodgers were very fortunate to get Reese in the first place. As a minor leaguer with the American Association Louisville Colonels in 1939, he was property of Boston Red Sox, and one of the hottest minor league prospects in the country. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey sent his player-manager Joe Cronin, the aging shortstop on the team, on a scouting trip to take a good look at the 20-year-old Reese and evaluate him. The 36-year-old Cronin, still thinking he could play for a few more years and extremely jealous of Reese, suggested to Yawkey that Reese sucked and the team should trade him away. Yawkey did: to the Dodgers for $35,000 and four players to be named later, another deal the Dodgers took advantage of.

What broke this great foursome up?

In 1953, rookie sensation Jim Gilliam appeared at second base, forcing the 34-year-old Robinson to split his time between third base and left field, which turned Cox into the part-time third baseman. Cox was traded to the Baltimore Orioles after the 1954 season, then to the Cleveland Indians in mid-1955. Refusing to report to Cleveland, he retired. Robinson, in turn, called it quits after the 1956 season.

Pee Wee Reese hung on with the team and made the swing to Los Angeles, playing there only one year before retiring after the 1958 season. Meanwhile, the Red Sox were still looking for a quality long-term shortstop, twenty years after trading him away. They had Joe Cronin to thank for that.

Gil Hodges, with his steady play, helped the new LA Dodgers win the World Series in 1959. He went the longest of the four as a Dodger, until 1961. Hodges retired as a New York Met two seasons later. As their manager, he took the same Mets from a ninth-place finish in 1968 to an upset World Series win over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in 1969.

Both Robinson and Reese are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, 1962 and 1984, respectively. Cox is not. And won’t ever be because he doesn’t have the numbers. Hodges, despite all his accomplishments, is not so honored either. And that’s one of baseball’s travesties.