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The life of a ball turret gunner

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      Its hands have been permanently fixed at 10 minutes to 6 o'clock ever since July 12, 1944 -- when the then B-17 ball turret gunner and his crew wound up drenched in the North Sea after ditching their bomber, badly damaged during a dangerous mission over Munich.
      "It was supposed to be water-proof," the 78-year-old East Meadow native joked during a recent interview before Veterans Day.
      Yet it's doubtful that the situation seemed funny at the time. In fact, Buczak is fortunate the only casualty was his watch.
      "You usually never finish your tour after you ditch, because you either get killed or you become a prisoner of war," he said.
      As a ball turret gunner aboard the "Duchess," a B-17 bomber in the 8th Air Force's 457th Bombardment Group, death was something Buczak faced constantly.
      "Our losses were greater than the Marines were in the South Pacific. Percentage wise, we lost more men," he said, recalling one mission where 52 bombers were shot out of the sky. "That's over 500 guys that went down. Every time a plane went down, you lost nine or 10 men."
      While anyone who flew on a B-17 bomber during World War II had a pretty dangerous job, the ball turret gunner was undoubtedly put in the most-precarious position.
      "You literally had your knees up to your chest and in between you had the machine guns," said Gary Lewi, spokesman for the American Airpower Museum based at Republic Airport. "You really had to have pretty tough nerves to be in there."
      Made of Plexiglas and about four feet in diameter, the ball turret was a sphere attached to the bottom of B-17s. Armed with two 50-caliber machine guns and capable of rotating 360 degrees, the ball turret gunner was responsible for protecting the otherwise-exposed underbelly of the flying fortress.
      "The good news was you had the best view of any other crew member; the bad news was that if the plane took a hit and there was damage to the mechanism that raised and lowered the ball turret, you were on your own," Lewi said.
      "There were many instances, and they are pretty horrific, where the ball turret was stuck and the bombers have had to make crash landings. Everybody else in the plane understood that the [ball turret gunner] was a dead man. He'd be crushed."
      For those manning that station death was indeed a particularly gruesome affair, as detailed by poet Randall Jarrell in his famous verse "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner."
      "I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream life," the poem reads. "I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose."
      Drafted on Nov. 19, 1943, Buczak was just 18 the first time he crawled into a ball turret. His diminutive 5-foot-5-inch frame made him a lock for the job.
      "I was the smallest, so I was elected," he said. "It was like suicide going in there."
      Aside from being in an extremely vulnerable position, the ball turret gunner could only see under the bomber. With a limited line of vision, enemy fighters attacking from 12 o'clock would often seem to come out of nowhere.
      "You couldn't see above the plane, so the [other crew members] would have to let you know if something was coming," Buczak said.
      Since space was limited, most ball turret gunners only wore flak jackets to protect themselves against anti-aircraft fire, but no parachutes. Not Buczak, though.
      "I trained myself to get a parachute in the turret with me. So in case we got hit, I could roll right out of the turret," he said. "Every time we'd go through flak, I'd shut the turret off and I'd have my hand on the release door. Anything to stay alive."
       Stationed at an airbase about 90 miles northwest of London, Buczak flew in 33 successful missions over Holland, Denmark, France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Germany. The targets often varied, ranging from oil refineries and factories to railroad yards and submarine pens.
       "You didn't know where you were going until you went to the briefing," he said. "The only time we knew we were going on a bad mission was when the [commanding officer] would say 'the chaplains of your faith are at the back of the room.' I wanted to go back there and ask them if they would fly my mission for me."
      Still, getting shot down was a possibility on every bombing run. Crews carried escape kits during all flights, which included a silk map, some foreign currency and a few snapshots of themselves in civilian clothes that could be used to forge passports.
      "The first mission we flew was easy; we thought that this was not war," Buczak said. "The second mission we flew over Paris, we caught hell."
      All four of the plane's engines were hit and leaking oil. Overall, the bomber had sustained 135 flak holes.
      In many ways, it was a portent of things to come. During his 2 1/2 years of service, Buczak was involved in three crash landings.
      "It's very hairy when you crash land because you don't know what's going to happen to you. You expect the worst, and you hope nothing happens," he said.
      Yet, it was on his 11th or 12th mission, Buczak can't exactly recall which, that he and his crew wound up in the waters of the North Sea.
      While bombing over Munich, they took heavy fire from both anti-aircraft guns on the ground and fighters in the air.
      "Flak and fighters was all we got," he said. "We got hit with flak, and we couldn't feather the propeller. When you can't feather the propeller, it shakes the whole plane and can shake it to pieces.
      "We had to dive at 300 miles per hour, drop the landing gear and shake the propeller off."
      When the propeller came flying off, however, it hit directly into the plane's controls, destroying most of them. This time, they weren't going to be able to make it back to their airbase for a crash landing. They had to ditch.
      Not to be confused with parachuting out, ditching entails the pilot landing the bomber on the surface of the water.
      Once over the North Sea, the crew radioed the air-sea rescue to let them know their position.
      "It was quite a thing when we ditched, we made a perfect ditch. Usually the plane breaks up and sinks, but it didn't."
      While in their life raft the crew could only wait to be found, either by ally or enemy. A German patrol boat happened to arrive first, but allied P-51 fighters were keeping a watchful eye from the sky.
      "They tried to pick us up, but the P-51s chased them away with their 50-caliber machine guns," said Buczak, who was in the water for about an hour before being rescued.
      "You're busy all the time and you're doing things. As long as you keep busy, you don't have time to think."
      After 33 missions, Buczak got a ticket home and rode out the rest of his service at nearby Mitchel Field.
      "It was hard to adjust. You were so used to going out every morning to kill, drop bombs," he said. "It's hard. You get used to it quick, though, when you don't have to put your life on the line."
      He left the Air Force as a staff sergeant with the Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as several air medals and major campaign stars. He would also receive the New York State Cross and a Presidential Unit Citation.
      Buczak married girlfriend Dorothy, and they raised four children. The couple still lives together in North Bellmore.