Trapped in the ball turret of his B-17 bomber over Germany he almost died

Staff  Sgt. Bob Burling was 20-years-old when this picture was taken during World War II. He flew 31 combat  missions as a ball turret gunner in a B-17 “Flying Fortress” over Nazi-occupied Europe. He now lives in Lazy River Mobile Home Park in North Port, Fla. Photo provided

A family tradition

Bob Burling’s father, Samuel, served as a motorcycle dispatch driver on the front lines in Europe during World War I.  Bob served two years, four months and 10 days as part of a B-17 bomber crew in World War II, and his son, Robert, served with the 1st Cavalry in Vietnam.

Ball turret gunner’s tale

It was their second mission in “Berlin Special,” a B-17 “Flying Fortress.” Their four-engine bomber was part of the 92nd Bomb Group, 407th Squadron of the 8th Air Force flying out of an airbase near Podington, a tiny farm village some 40-miles northwest of London during World War II.

The date was April 20, 1944. Their mission: Bomb Oberphoffen-Hoffen, a suburb of Munich.

“What happened that day, a (Junker) JU-88, German twin-engine attack bomber, flew into our formation of B-17s and tore into us. Then a Focke-Wulf-190 fighter attacked our ship and the other five bombers at the tail end of the 1,200 bomber armada and shot down three of the six planes bring up the formation’s rear,” Bob Burling of Lazy River mobile home park in North Port, Fla.  recalled 65 years later.

He was a staff sergeant and ball turret gunner who contorted himself to squeeze into the clear, plastic bubble on the underbelly of the massive aluminum bird.

“When we got over the target the flak was so heavy you could almost land on it. Our bomb bay doors were open and we were on our final approach. I could see our bombs fall away,” the 87-year-old local resident recalled.

Former Staff Sgt. Bob Burling holds up his leather flying jacket with the bombs on the back representing 31 combat missions he flew over Nazi-occupied Europe in a B-17 bomber during  World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore

“Normally, German fighters didn’t attack during final approach because of the flak, but this time they did. We lost our number three engine and were forced to drop out of the formation because we couldn’t keep up.

“Two enemy fighters stayed right with us. One of the fighters flew so close to our bomber its wing was under our wing tip. I could see the whites of the German pilot’s eyes,” Burling said. “He was flying a Messerschmitt-109 (fighter). It had black and yellow check designs on its engine cowling and tail. The nose cone was painted yellow.

“Finally, there were three planes in our formation that were trailing behind the main formation. The B-17 to our left went down with one engine on fire. I don’t know what happened to the one on our right,” he said.

“It was at this point my ball turret got knocked out. I lost everything but my oxygen. I got one round out of each of my .50-caliber machine guns and that was it. I couldn’t open my hatch and escape into the plane and I could swivel my turret around. I was stuck,” Burling said with a tremor in his voice and tears in his eyes more than half a century after the incident.

“I knew we had lost an engine and I thought we were going down. I didn’t want to go down in flames so I tried everything to escape,” he said. “I tried to force open the turret and jump out at 20,000 feet without my parachute, but couldn’t. They say your life flashes in front of you when you’re about to die. Well I couldn’t move so I just sat there.

“Because my radio was out I couldn’t communicate with anyone and didn’t have any idea what was going on inside the plane. Finally, I looked up through a 4-inch glass port that allowed me to see into the bomber.

“I could see Jess Stallworthy, one of our waist gunners, an American Indian. He saw me and he gave me the OK sign,” Burling remembered. “Once we were out of the target area the crew got the track of my ball turret unjammed, cranked it around by hand until my trap door could be opened and pulled me out.”

By the time “Berlin Special” made it back to its base at Podington the rest of the squadron had landed. Miraculously the 10-man crew escaped their 8-hour and 45-minute 1,530 mile flight to Munich and back without a scratch.

Lt. Bill Ennis, pilot of their B-17, picks up the story from there. In an account of the 31 missions he wrote years later, Ennis, Burling and the rest of the crew flew from April 20, 1944 until their last mission on July 17, 1944:

“We later learned from our crew chief (after the Munich flight) there were more than 200 holes in the wings, fuselage and tail of our plane. I looked it over and noticed a puncture in the left wing behind #2 engine. The edge of the puncture hole had jagged, upturned wing skin. That meant a bullet or piece of flak had entered the leading edge of the wing, exploded and torn apart the top of the wing where one of our gas tanks was located. We should have been blown to bits. Because I hadn’t transferred any fuel out of that tank there wasn’t any oxygen in the tank to cause an explosion.

“Every time we flew above Nazi-occupied Europe and survived it was a miracle. Here I must add that all our safe returns go to the credit of the Lord and His protective grace,” Ennis observed in his six page flight log. After the war he became a Baptist missionary. He is retired and lives in Grantville, MD.

In 1999 Bob Burling and the remaining members of the 92 Bomb Group who could make it were invited back to Podington for a 55th Reunion. The 10 day affair wrapped up in the village church. Sitting beside Bob was an English couple who walked out of the services with the old aviator.

“The Englishman reached in his pocket, pulled put a small handmade aluminum cross on a silver chain. He handed it to me,” Bob said. “’When I was young I took a piece of aluminum from a damaged B-17 and fashioned it into this cross and wore it for years. I want you to have it.’”

On the flip side of the cross molded into the aluminum is one word and a number: “Boeing 1-18630.”

Burling’s File

Name: Robert Burling
D.O.B: 3 February 1922
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio
Currently: North Port, Fla
Entered Service: 21 November 1942
Discharged: October 1944
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Unit: 92nd Bomb Group, 407th Squadron of the 8th Air Force
Commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, campaign ribbons with three battle stars representing the Normandy Invasion, Northern France, European, African and Middle Eastern Theatre and the Air Offensive in Europe.
Spouse: Frances
Children: Robert

This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, January 4, 2010 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

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  1. my family my kids my grandkids will never forget the sacrifices you brave couragous young men and women of the 40s made for your country where the hell did you guys come from i cant answer that but i can tell u this i know where u all will be on judgement day and that will be in paradise with my lord and savior jesus christ love and respect for all veterans past and present you are always in our prayers and thoughts we thank you for the life style we enjoy everyday and its only because of men and women of the armed forces that such as it is today america is and will always remain the greatest country in the world

  2. I just came across this article. My late father Thomas Witt was the radio operator on this crew. I have spoken to Bob in the past. I hope he is well and I want to let him know how much I enjoyed reading his story..


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