Died April 06,1983
Lieutenant General William H. Tunner, commander of the Military Air Transport Service, is considered the outstanding authority on airlift in the U.S. Air Force. His background in air transportation and accomplishments as an airlift commander well qualify this distinction. Starting as a staff officer on the original Ferrying Command staff, General Tunner has emerged as one of the architects of U.S. Air Force air transport agencies, the first of which was the Ferrying Command which was enlarged into the Air Transport Command which, in turn, was merged with the Naval Air Transport Service to form MATS. He has commanded such well known airlifts as the World War II "Hump" operation, the Berlin Airlift and the Korean Airlift.
General Tunner was born in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1906. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in June 1928 and from the Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field, Texas a year later.
During the 1930s, he served with various tactical and training units of the Army Air Corps. 1939 found him assigned to the Military Personnel Division, Chief of the Air Corps. When General Robert Olds was given the job of organizing the Ferrying Command, General Tunner, then a major, joined the staff as personnel officer.
When the Ferrying Command became the Air Transport Command, General Tunner became commander of the Ferrying Division. At that time the division was ferrying from factory to user, 10,000 aircraft monthly, including over-ocean deliveries. Oliver La Fargo, Air Transport Command historian during the war, in his book, "The Eagle in the Egg" described General Tunner's job as, "complex, incessant, vital" and General Tunner as "brilliant, competent."
Later the general commanded the India-China Division of the Air Transport Command which had the responsibility of supplying China by air across the Himalayas from India. This operation is more commonly called the "Hump" Airlift. The operation got its name from the l6,000 foot gap in the Himalayas through which all traffic had to be channeled. Under the working conditions, equipment available, and commitments imposed by the tactical situations, it was an operation that, at times, defied reason, common sense and everything except the determination of commanders and men that the job would be done.
Upon assuming command of the operation, General Tunner immediately began to stress safe flying techniques and to demand better aircraft for the job. Again quoting La Fargo: "... he (General Tunner) increased tonnage beyond any quantity ever carried by air before or since, with a steady increase in safety and efficiency, and at the same time achieved the greatest air troop movements in history." (This was written prior to the end of the Berlin Airlift.)
After the war, the Air Transport Command and the Naval Air Transport Service merged and became the Military Air Transport Service. General Tunner was named commander of the Atlantic Division with headquarters at Westover Air Force Base, Mass. The new organization was launched officially on June 1, 1948. Three weeks later, on June 21, the Russians blockaded Berlin and the Berlin Airlift was under way.
At first, General Tunner directed the "back up" of the lift from Westover. Later he received orders to go to Wiesbaden, Germany to take over the entire airlift operation. Immediately upon arrival, he initiated a new "straight-in approach" technique that enabled 16 aircraft to be brought in over a period of one and one-half hours instead of the nine under the old system.
An excerpt from Clayton Knight's book, "Lifeline in the Sky" gives an idea of the precise organization of the airlift. "Spaced three minutes apart, at two hundred miles en hour, the loaded planes left Frankfurt for Berlin, and the pattern of their return was as exact. There were, most of the time, 26 planes in the corridor simultaneously. With such a multitude of ships following on one another's heels, landing techniques had to be faultless; each point must be passed at a precise height, at an exact time, at a predetermined speed. There could be no variations, no displays of individual temperament. There were casualties, but the deliveries went on."
On May 22, 1949 the Russians lifted the blockade after more than two million tons of food and coal had been delivered by the airlift and after General Tunner had firmly announced, "We can keep pouring it in for 20 years if we have to."
The airlift continued at a steadily dwindling rate as the squadrons were broken up and reassigned. Just as things began to revert to a semblance of peacetime operations, the Korean War broke out and General Tunner went directly from Wiesbaden to Tokyo to command a new airlift.
The general's new command, the Combat Cargo Command, had the initial job of providing the airlift for the Inchon invasion and subsequent paratroop operations. General Tunner's success in meeting the commitments is attested to by the Distinguished Service Cross awarded him on the spot by General Douglas MacArthur.
After Korea General Tunner was assigned to the Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, as deputy commander. In 1953, he was back in Wiesbaden, Germany, this time as commander in chief of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, a post he held four years during the buildup of the Air Forces of NATO.
In 1957, he was reassigned to Headquarters U.S. Air Force as deputy chief of staff for operations. On July 1, 1958, concurrently with the assumption by the Military Air Transport Service of the "Single Managership for Airlift", he returned to the air transport field as commander, MATS, with headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., the position he holds today.