The Air Corps made him a ball turret gunner because he was big enough.

That’s right. Big enough.

Slim and a shade under 5-foot-7, 18-year-old David Calvert was the perfect size to fit in a round metal ball turret.

He wanted to be a pilot. But when he joined, instead of going to pilot training, the Air Corps sent him to gunnery school.

Despite other aspirations, Calvert wasn’t disappointed with his assignment or even shocked that he would spend hours curled in a metal ball hung with a 5-inch bolt from the belly of a B-17.

There wasn’t much wiggle room in those ball turrets. One door let gunners in and out, and it rotated so they could step in from the inside of a plane and out from the outside if need be.

Because the bottom of the ball was so close to the ground, gunners were never inside during takeoff or landing. Once the plane was at altitude, they would rotate the ball down, face the guns down, open the door and the gunner would drop in, feet first.

There he would sit, feet up in front of his face, arms and hands in between his feet on the gun controls. The ball spun 360 degrees, letting the gunner see from any angle.

“You had controls so you didn’t shoot your propellers off as you went around,” Calvert said.

By the time he went to England in early 1945 most of the hairy stuff was over. He said the men before him had it harder, yet his squadron still lost at least one plane on every mission.

Flak exploded around Calvert’s B-17 on many of his 23 missions.

“You could see the bombs come by and hope they didn’t stop on the way,” he said.

Plenty of times his plane landed with pieces of shrapnel lodged in its sides. He still has shards he took from its metal body.

None of the shrapnel hit his ball, or if it did it didn’t stick. Military officials told him the window on the front of the ball turret was made of bullet-proof glass. He’s glad it wasn’t tested because he’s not sure how it would have held up.

Some of his missions would take up to 10 hours. There was no repositioning, or scooting to relieve pressure. Once a gunner was inside, he only had one position.

Adding to the cramped space, when the plane flew over 10,000 feet, the gunner needed to wear an oxygen mask. He also had a heated suit on at all times, but Calvert welcomed the warmth. On some missions the temperatures would drop to 70 below zero in his metal ball.

“It was pretty tight, but we fit.”

Once coming back over the English Channel, the squadron hit fog. A plane lost the formation and came up under Calvert’s plane, nearly slicing through the ball turret with its tail.

On all the missions he took pictures, trading some of them for others photos from the war. His showed planes going down or German targets exploding. Some pictures he received showed burned bodies from concentration camps and other war atrocities.

Calvert made his last missions to Germany to bring American prisoners of war to safety. There’s one former prisoner of war in Casper whom Calvert thinks he flew out, but neither know for sure.

By June 1945 many of the English bases were closing. Calvert stayed on his base in Bassingbourne, England, until the end. He and eight others closed down the field when they flew the famous B-17 “909” back to the U.S.

The 909 finished 140 missions without turning around or losing a crewman, one of the best records of a World War II B-17.

When Calvert landed in it in Boston and the war ended, the Army Air Corps asked Calvert if he and the other crew members would travel around the country asking people to buy bonds.

He was a rancher and wanted to go home.

The 909 ended up as scrap, but its legacy lasted. The Collings Foundation, a nonprofit living history education foundation, bought a similar B-17 and named it the “Nine-O-Nine” in honor of the famous plane.

Now it travels around the country offering rides to anyone interested.

It came to Casper a couple of years ago, and Calvert drove in from his ranch near the Pedro Mountains. He wanted to see the plane again, and people wanted to hear stories from the man who flew in one.

Someone took a picture of him near that tiny ball turret. He figured he could still fit inside. After all, at just a shade under 5-foot-7, he’s still big enough to wear his uniform.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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A Casper native, Christine Peterson started as a Star-Tribune intern in 2002. She has covered outdoor recreation, the environment and wildlife since 2010, and became managing editor in 2015. If not tracking bears or elk on assignment, she's chasing trout.

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