Famed pioneer balloonist: born Miami, Ind., in 1893. William Kepner's leadership of the 8th Fighter Command was a key factor in the World War II destruction of the German Air Force.
He served from 1909 to 1913 in the Marine Corps and by 1916 was a second lieutenant in the Indiana National Guard. He served with the 28th Infantry on the Mexican Border and in 1917 was commissioned in the Cavalry. He transferred to the Infantry, with rank of captain in August 1917, and in World War I commanded a company at Chateau-Thiery. He lead the 4th Infantry's 3rd Battalion in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and also participated in the Aisne, Champagne, Marne, and St. Mihel combat actions. After the war he stayed in Germany for Infantry assignments at Plaidt and Coblenz.
Kepner was a 27-year-old captain when he entered the Air Service in October 1920 and he was not promoted to major until 10 years later. By then he had become outstanding in balloons, qualifying as balloon observer and dirigible pilot after attending many service schools including those at Ross Field, Calif., and Langley Field, Va., as well as the Naval Ground Course at Lakehurst, N.J., which he completed in 1925. He commanded several airship school detachments and from 1927 to 1929 flew in four national and international balloon races.
He placed first in both the National Elimination Balloon Race and the International Gordon Nennett Race. He finished third and second in similar faces at Akron, Ohio, and St. Louis. Mo. Promoted to major in October 1930, he went to Wright Field as chief of the Materiel Division's Lighter-than-Air Branch. He learned to fly conventional aircraft at March Field, Calif., and Kelly Field, Texas, in 1931-32; went back to Wright Field as chief of the Purchase Branch, and entered more balloon races.
In the summer of 1934 Kepner was at Rapid City, S.D., as pilot and commander of the National Geographic Society - Army Air Corps Stratosphere Flight. He took the course at Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Ala., and then escorted Major Ira C. Eaker in an experimental all-instrument flight of 2,600 miles across the United States. In June 1937 he graduated from the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and went to Langley Field as commanding officer of the 8th Pursuit Group.
He commanded all defense aviation during the Fort Bragg Maneuvers in 1938 and was advanced to lieutenant colonel in June 1939. In February 1940, he went to Mitchell Field, N.Y., as executive officer of the Air Defense Command and promotion to colonel. He organized and commanded the 1st Air Support Command and during the Carolina Maneuvers in the fall of 1941 he commanded all aviation under the First Army.
In February 1942, he was promoted to brigadier general, and became commanding general of the 4th Fighter Command and then the 4th Air Force in the San Francisco area. He was promoted to major general in April 1943, and in September took over the 8th Fighter Command in the European Theater. As escorts for the strategic bombers, the fighter planes under him provided protection and also bombed and strafed the enemy, equipment and communications. During and following the Normandy Invasion, the 8th Fighters established a circular protective screen around the beachhead to prevent German counterattack.
In August 1944, Kepner became commanding general of the 8th Air Force's 2nd Bomb Division and a year later headed the 9th Air Force. He personally flew 24 combat missions in fighter and bomber planes and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal and decorations from Great Britain, Belgium, France, Poland and China.
After the war he took over the 12th Tactical Air Command. In January 1946 he returned to Headquarters Army Air Force, Washington for duty with Joint Task Force 1 as deputy commander for Army and Navy Aviation with Operation Crossroads in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Six months later he became commanding general of Air Technical Training Command at Scott Field, Ill., and went back to Headquarters U.S. Air Force as chief of its Atomic Energy Division. He also served as chief of the Special Weapons Group and in July 1948 was named assistant deputy chief of staff, operations for Atomic Energy. Next month he became commanding general of the Air Force Proving Ground at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
On June 14, 1950, Kepner was promoted to lieutenant general and named commander in chief of the Alaska Command, with headquarters at Fort Richardson. The holder of six ratings - command pilot, combat observer, senior balloon pilot, zeppelin pilot, semirigid pilot, and metal-clad airship pilot - he retired from active duty Feb. 28, 1953.