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An Ode To The Ball Turret Gunner

May 2024
14min read

At a time when interest in their war just keeps on rising, why aren’t America’s World War II poets better remembered? Harvey Shapiro, himself one of our most distinguished poets, examines a powerful and undervalued legacy.

...Clear, sudden miracle: cloud breaks, Tatter of cloud passes, there ahead, Beside, above, friends in the desperate sky; And below burns like all fire the target town, A delicate red chart of squares, abstract And jewelled, from which rise lazy tracers, And the searchlights through smoke tumble up To a lovely apex on some undone friend;... —William Meredith, “1942”

We were victorious, but the sight of dead bodies is scattered among the poems about World War II the way bodies were washed up on the invasion beaches or left as markers along the trail to show the new infantrymen moving forward the lace of death. And then subliminally present are those killed in the clean war, the new war in the air, “who,” as Howard Nemerov writes, “rarely bothered coming home to die.”

Poems about any war share a subject that Simone Weil identified, in an essay about the Iliad that she wrote during World War II, as “force”: “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing . Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense; it makes a corpse nut of him.” Or as Kenneth Koch puts it in his ode “In World War Two”:

As machines make ice We made dead enemies soldiers,...

Four hundred thousand Americans died in World War II. The anthology of poetry from the conflict that I have assembled for the Library of America is not a book of celebration, unless it is to celebrate man’s ability, indeed his compulsion, to turn terror into art. It is, however, a book with a purpose: to demonstrate that the American poets of this war produced a body of work that has not yet been recognized for its clean and powerful eloquence. Common wisdom has it that the poets of World War I—Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg—left us a monument and the poets of World War II did not. My hope is that readers of this book will come away convinced that is not the case.

There are continuities but mostly strong discontinuities between the British poets of that war and the American poets of this one. In his classic anthology Up the Line In Death: The War Poets, 1914-18 , the British historian Brian Gardner singled out as a defining characteristic the poets’ sense of themselves as a brotherhood. I find no evidence of a similar feeling among the American poets of the second war. But of course the British poets, officers all, belonged in a sense to the same gentlemen’s club, Rosenberg the sole exception. The American poets, many of them enlisted men, did not.

There is sometimes a deliberate reaching back, an attempt to stand side by side with the poets of that first great war, as in Howard Nemerov’s “A Fable of the War,” a visionary poem that differs sharply from his poems about his experiences in aerial warfare. He sees himself in an unknown railroad station, with other soldiers who have recently disembarked.

…Suddenly, passing the known and unknown Bowed faces of my company, the sad And potent outfit of the armed, I see That we are dead. By stormless Acheron We stand easy, and the occasional moon Strikes terribly from steel and bone alike....

The poem concludes:

So, gentlemen—by greatcoat, cartridge belt And helmet held together for the time— In honorably enduring here we seek The second death. Until the worm shall bite To betray us, lean each man on his gun That the great work not falter but go on.

(The “So, gentlemen” gives it away.) Similarly in the infantry poems by Louis Simpson—the tight quatrains and the faux-naïf tone—I sense a linkage that goes back to Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing,” written on the eve of battle in 1914.

...Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill, Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall But they are gone to early death, who late in school Distinguished the belt feed lever from the holding pawl. —Richard Eberhart, “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment”

For the most part, though, the Americans write in quite a different tone. Their poems are often bawdy, bitchy, irreverent. They do not glory in brotherhood, and they do not, as a rule, find nobility in one another. Quite the contrary, they often dislike one another or dislike being put cheek by jowl alongside one another. If they are in the infantry, they bear no love for their officers.

The American poets of World War II do not sound the kind of sonorous note exemplified by John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” the single poem from the First World War that everyone involved in the Second had grown up with (“To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high”), or by Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”: “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.”

Rather, they wrote poems that are neither pious nor patriotic. This is as close as John Ciardi, one of the strongest of these poets, gets to patriotism:

I remember the United States of America As a flag-draped box with Arthur in it And six marines to bear it on their shoulders....

They viewed themselves as individuals caught in a giant machine that was so complex and far-flung the mind could not encompass it. They were astonished at the way their lives had been altered. As George Oppen writes in “Survival: Infantry”: “And the world changed / There had been trees and people, / Sidewalks and roads.” They had a job to do, or a debt to pay to society, as one of them put it, and they went about doing it as best they could.

...Inspecting cots of amputees, unshaken obviously, Approves the stitch above the wrist, the slice below the knee; Hides in th’enlisted men’s latrine so he can quietly Have one good hearty cry. This soldier has to take a leak, finds someone sobbing there. To my horror it’s an officer; his stars make this quite clear. I gasp: “Oh, sir; are you all right?” Patton grumbles: “Fair: Something’s in my eye.“ —Lincoln Kirstein, “Patton”

On the horizon in many of their poems, and sometimes much closer, is what changed everything—the airplane. The way trench warfare dominates the imagery of World War I, the fleets of bombers and the smoking cities dominate the imagery of World War II.

Out of that new war in the air came the most anthologized poem of the war, the only World War II poem most readers know, “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell. Already a well-known poet and professor, Jarrell had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 but washed out of the flight part of his pilot’s training program. Eventually, through further schooling, he became an instructor-trainer for navigators (part of a bomber crew) at Davis-Monthan Field, in Tucson, Arizona. So this most famous poet of the war was an enlisted man in the 2d Air Force, the training air force, and spent the war on the ground, stateside. Some of his war poems are stateside poems and come out of direct observation. He must have picked up the details for his poems of aerial combat over Europe and the Pacific by listening to the veterans who had returned from those theaters to instruct the young.

When I first read the concluding line of his famous five-line poem—“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose”—ï was reminded abruptly of an incident from my aerial-gunnery-school training in Yuma, Arizona. We were outside, it was a bright, sunny day, and an instructor, a sergeant returned from flying his missions over Germany with the English-based 8th Air Force, was standing before a mockup of a B-17, explaining the different positions a gunner might take in that bomber (waist gun, tail gun, et cetera). Then he came to the ball turret, which protrudes from the plane’s underbelly, and said offhandedly, “Sometimes when they return from a mission, they have to wash him out of the turret with a hose.” I made a note to myself to try hard to avoid that position. Jarrell may well have heard that line delivered just the way I did.

The war in the air is also covered vividly by poets who took part in it: Howard Nemerov, John Ciardi, William Meredith, Richard Hugo, James Dickey, and Edward Field. Hugo and Field let you know what it is like to crash in combat, Ciardi the many ways you can anticipate leaving this world on a mission. (Ciardi, now known chiefly for his Dante translation, should be better known for his war poems. They seem to have been written on the spot. I remember him in Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York, in 1949—a big, swaggering man, he was called “the roller of big cigars”—improvising sonnets on the portraits that hung in the vestibule as we waited for the dining room doors to open.) But the virtuoso performance, for my money, is James Dickey’s “The Firebombing.” Written 20 years after the event, this 317-line poem takes you on a night solo mission, an “antimorale” raid on Beppo, a small resort town in Japan. It’s a wild ride, and every detail is lovingly recalled: “The ‘tear-drop-shaped’ 300-gallon drop-tanks / Filled with napalm and gasoline” “Combat booze by my side in a cratered canteen, / Bourbon frighteningly mixed / With GI pineapple juice...”

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. —Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

The heart of the poem is Dickey’s imaginative re-creation of what probably happened when those silvery tear-drop-shaped tanks were released.

... All leashes of dogs Break under the first bomb, around those In bed, or late in the public baths: around those Who inch forward on their hands Into medicinal waters. Their heads come up with a roar Of Chicago fire: Come up with the carp pond showing The bathhouse upside down, Standing stiller to show it more As I sail artistically over The resort town followed by farms, Singing and twisting All the handles in heaven kicking The small cattle off their feet In a red coastly blast Flinging jelly over the walls As in a chemical warfare field demonstration....

How do you take responsibility for that kind of damage? Jarrell absolves his 8th Air Force crew members of the guilt that Dickey grabs for himself and revels in: “My hat should crawl on my head / In streetcars, thinking of it, / The fat on my body should pale.” The other poets who saw aerial combat (including me) show no such concerns. William Stafford, a conscientious objector during the war, takes notice of this in his poem “Some Remarks When Richard Hugo Came.” Hugo was
a bombardier in Europe who wrote later about the experience, and Stafford’s poem begins:

Some war, I bomb their towns from five miles high, the flower of smoke and fire so far there is no sound. No cry disturbs the calm through which we fly....

It concludes: “The bodies I had killed began to scream.”

I, now at Carthage. He, shot dead at Rome. Shipmates last May. “And what if one of us,” I asked last May, in fun, in gentleness, “Wears doom, like daungarees, and doesn’t know?” He laughed, “Not see Times Square again?” The foam, Feathering across that deck a year ago, Swept those five words like seeds beyond the seas Into his future. There they grew like trees; And as he passed them there next spring, they laid Upon his road of fire their sudden shade.... —Peter Viereck, “ Vale from Carthage”

The face of war seen by the poets who served in the infantry is very different. It’s close up, in the mud, in front of you. The language tends to be grittier, maybe because the life was grittier. The subject of rank often comes up: In the infantry the Army caste system was more sharply defined than in the Air Force. Lincoln Kirstein, one of the best reporters of the war seen at eye level, discusses this in “Rank”:

Differences between rich and poor, king and queen, Cat and dog, hot and cold, day and night, now and then, Are less clearly distinct than all those between Officers and us: enlisted men....

He goes on to relate the story of a drunken, loutish officer who barges into an enlisted men’s bar in France, stupidly shoots the patron’s wife by mistake, and is brought before a military tribunal:

... The charge was not murder, mayhem, mischief malicious, Yet something worse, and this they brought out time and again: Clearly criminal and caddishly vicious Was his: Drinking with Enlisted Men....

Kirstein, who in France got to drive General Patton around in his jeep, gives you Patton’s talk, his character, his failings, his exploits in a four-page poem that is more satisfying than the movie.

The most down-and-dirty of the poets writing about the war on the ground is Alan Dugan, though he served as an airplane mechanic in the Pacific. His “Memorial Service for the Invasion Beach Where the Vacation of the Flesh Is Over” is a horrific treatment of a subject that comes up often: finding the bodies after a battle.

I see that there it is on the beach. It is
ahead of me and I walk toward
it: its following vultures and contemptible dogs are with it, and I walk toward it. If, in the approach to it, I turn my back to it, then I walk backwards: I approach it as a limit. Even if I fall to hands and knees, I crawl to it. Backwards or forwards I approach it....

Even at their most quiet his poems are full of rage at the miseries of war:

Sunday was calm and airy but artillery over the hill made us too nervous to like it. Some private tacked his tin mirror to a palm tree and shaved, using his helmet for a bowl that would not hold much water Monday night....

That rage is also directed at authority ("the captain’s football voice, / bully as acne and athlete’s foot") and the United States’ power to send men “to an approved early death / under the national aegis.” Studding Dugan’s colloquial but formal diatribes are references to Homer and other Greeks. Fair enough: No poet took more pains to describe the many ways death is dealt out in war than Homer. The Iliad is a series of scenes of carnage linked by narrative.

Able Baker Charlie Dog Gents I spent some months among Bless the hollow of this log This is where my frame was flung.... —John Pauker, “:Jethro Somes’ Apostrophe to His Former Comrades”

An infantry poet who likewise makes use of the classics, Peter Viereck in his “ Vale from Carthage” describes how as a soldier fighting in the North African campaign in the ruins of Carthage, he hears of his brother’s death during fighting near Rome. They had last met at Times Square. He borrows his vale from an elegy Catullus wrote for his brother killed fighting for Rome and ends his poem: “Roman, you’ll see your Forum Square no more; / What’s left but this to say of any war?”

The most traditional and perhaps most powerful of the infantry poets is Louis Simpson. His balladlike descriptive poems move with ironic lightness over the carnage he witnessed:

Arm and arm in the Dutch dyke Were piled both friend and foe With rifle, helmet, motor-bike: Step over as you go....

He uses the same tone elsewhere to describe how he came to be wounded in battle: “I must lie down at once, there is / A hammer at my knee. / And call it death or cowardice, / Don’t count again on me.” The force of these seemingly simple poems comes from lucid narration, sharp, compressed detail, the use of balladlike questions and answers, but also from an underlying sense that this is what battle on the ground was always like (there are clear references to the imagery of World War I), so that his infantryman is archetypal and looms large against the sky.

...I chose to live rather than be a hero, as I still do today, although at this time I believed in being heroic, in saving the world,
even if, when opportunity knocked,
I instinctively chose survival.... —Edward Field, “World War II”

Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, who both served in the infantry in Europe, are sometimes criticized (wrongly, I think) as decorative formalists. Their war poems belie this. Particularly impressive, Wilbur’s “Mined Country” not only tells you what the French countryside was like when land mines were laid—“Cows in mid-munch go splattered over the sky”—but explains how this subversion of the pastoral disinherits the child in us and alters completely our attitude toward the world. It’s a poem that becomes much larger than its subject.

Anthony Hecht, in his Holocaust poem “Rites and Ceremonies,” written 20 years after his return from Germany where as an infantryman he had seen the death camps, begins with a passage whose rhythm and language inevitably invoke the famous opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland ”:

... Furnisher, hinger of heaven, who bound the lovely Pleaides, entered the perfect treasuries of the snow, established the round course of the world, birth, death and disease and caused to grow veins, brains, bones in me, to breathe and sing fashioned me air,...

He does this presumably because Hopkins was a Jesuit priest and the Church at the time of the Holocaust did little more than deplore the slaughter (this is said explicitly in the poem). Hopkins was writing about the wreck of a ship; Hecht is writing about the spiritual death of a nation. It’s a brilliant “literary” poem in which a very civilized poet describes unspeakable crimes.

...But for years the screaming continued, night and day, And the little children were suffered to come along to, too. At night, Father, in the dark, when I pray, I am there, I am there, I am pushed through With the others to the strange room Without windows; whitewashed walls, cement floor. Millions, Father, millions have come to this pass, Which a great church has voted to “deplore.”... —Anthony Hecht, “Rites and Ceremonies”

Of course many poets who took the war as a subject were too old to serve in it. That these older poets—Robinson Jeffers, Allen Tate, Yvor Winters—greet the war without enthusiasm is a reflection of the climate of opinion that preceded our entry into it. Most Americans were wary of getting involved in what they perceived to be a power struggle among Europeans. As a kid in public school and then as an adolescent reading journals on the political left, like the tabloid PM and the magazine Ken , I was taught that wars were instigated by Big Money and fought for hidden commercial reasons. The exception was the Spanish Civil War; to defend the republic was to fight for a just cause. Those who in the parlance of the time were called “fellow travelers,” following Moscow’s lead during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, adamantly argued against America’s involvement; they reversed themselves when Germany invaded Russia in June 1941. For most of America, the climate changed with Pearl Harbor, but it did not change overnight.

Among these older poets is one who did participate vociferously in the politics of his time, but on the Fascist side: Ezra Pound. I included him in the anthology—lines from The Pisan Cantos , written during his imprisonment by the American Army in Italy for treasonous broadcasts during the war—because the lines are an indelible part of the landscape of that war.

But most of the book consists of work by writers who saw service. Of the 62 poets included, 40 served in the Army, Navy, Air Force, or merchant marine; about three-quarters of the book is theirs. The point was not to set up a caste system among the poets but to present as many poems as possible that were written directly out of the experience of war, that contain the sights, sounds, and emotions of the war.

The civilian poets were chosen because they had significant things to say about the war and how it appeared to those at home, or because they wrote about important war-related issues not covered by the war poets themselves. Segregation, for example, is addressed in poems by Witter Bynner, Woody Guthrie, and Gwendolyn Brooks. The American Army during World War II was completely segregated in a system that was as rigid and bizarre as segregation in the American South. One example: I was a gunner in an all-white B-17 crew flying out of southern Italy. All the combat crewmen in my bomb group, officers and enlisted men alike, were white. Yet frequently over our targets in Germany, we were covered by pilots from the all-black P-51 fighter group also stationed in southern Italy, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. We met only in the air.

Readers will not find these poems antique. Not that much has changed stylistically since the time they were written. There are various identifiable influences at work: Auden, for one, whose traces I see in Karl Shapiro’s “Scyros,” for example. Some poets are affected by the populist rhetoric of the thirties or by their political allegiances. George Oppen, who had been in the Communist party, wrote no poetry while he was a member, a period that lasted for more than 20 years, because, as he said to me more than once, he did not want to be told what to write by the party. But in his poem “Of Being Numerous,” one can see the political rhetoric he is jumping off from.

There are objectivists in the anthology, imagists, followers of the Southern school of formal verse and dense rhetoric exemplified by two early poems of Robert Lowell, written when (to quote a later poem of Lowell’s) he was a “fire-breathing Catholic C.O.” Comparing this body of poetry with the poetry of World War I, you can see how movies have altered the poet’s vision. There are direct references to film, similes using film. Maybe as a way of distancing themselves from the perilous action or from their own actions, many poets seem to be viewing a movie in which their lives are played out.

...Then we were troubled by our second coming: The thing that takes our hand and leads us home— Where we must clothe ourselves in the lives of strangers Whose names we carry but can no longer know— Is a new fear born between the doorstep and the door Far from the night patrol, the terror, the long sweat. And far from the dead boy who left so long ago. —Thomas McGrath, “Homecoming”

World War II marked the beginning of what Henry Luce called the American Century. Toward the end of the war, Walter Lippmann wrote: “What Rome was to the ancient world, what Great Britain has been to the modern world, America is to be to the world of tomorrow.” Whatever the calendar shows, we seem at this writing to be strenuously caught in the drama of that American Century now. Never since World War II, not even in the Vietnam period, have so many individual American lives been affected by our national role. Because of this—quite aside from their own virtues—the poems of a war fought more than 50 years ago continue to speak to the present moment.

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