Master of the Air: William Turner and the Success of Military Airlift

Master of the Air: William Turner and the Success of Military Airlift

by Robert A. Slayton


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In 1948, just as the Cold War was settling into the form it would maintain for nearly half a century, major antagonists the US and the USSR began maneuvering into a series of dangerously hostile encounters. Trouble had broken out in Poland and Czechoslovakia, but it was in Germany, which had been at the heart of World Wars One and Two, that the first potentially explosive confrontation developed. The USSR, which had suffered more at Germany’s hands than the rest of the Allies combined, may have viewed developments there with heightened fear and irritability. When the western Allies moved to consolidate their areas of control in occupied Germany, the USSR responded by cutting off land access to West Berlin, holding over two million residents of that city hostage in an aggressive act of brinkmanship.

Into this difficult situation the US placed General William Henry Tunner. He was given a task that seemed doomed to failure—to supply a major city by air with everything it needed to survive from food to a winter’s supply of coal—and made it a brilliant success, astonishing the world in a major public relations defeat for the Soviets, and demonstrating the unexpected capacity of air fleets in a postwar world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817316921
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 03/18/2010
Pages: 291
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Robert A. Slayton is Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions at Chapman University and author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, a History Book Club Alternate Selection.

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William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift


Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1692-1

Chapter One

Getting a Mission

The introduction gives no hint of what was to come, no indication of the prodigy. William Henry Tunner, an American military innovator, was born on Bastille Day, July 14, 1906, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The fourth of five children of Austrian immigrants, Tunner was, according to his mother, "a completely average boy" as he grew up in the neighboring town of Roselle.

The first note of excitement came via education. William's father had studied engineering in his homeland and believed all his offspring should attend college. A noble idea, but it cost money. One sister had just finished at teachers' college, and another two brothers were enrolled in a local academy. The idea of sending a fourth child to school meant considerable financial strain on the family.

Then, one day in civics class, Tunner learned that he could get a free college education at West Point-if he qualified. Thanks to local congressman Ernest Ackerman, William discovered that all nominations to military academies were based on competitive examinations. The good news was that politics, status, and money would play no part. The bad news was that itwould not be easy.

In fact, that was no hardship. Tunner perked up, or as one reporter put it, "he got steamed up over the idea of going to West Point." The future pilot/general later wrote, in appropriate language, "I looked up from the page with a new hope. It was like coming out of the clouds to find a landing field right ahead." After that, "I crammed. I studied at home and used my scheduled study periods to attend extra classes." William actually took the test-a standard civil service exam-on two occasions, first in Elizabeth and then later in New Brunswick. On his first attempt he scored the highest among all testers in the state and came in second on his next try. In 1924, at the age of seventeen, Tunner graduated high school in Roselle and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Tunner's life at the academy seemed reasonably pleasant, and he got good grades. He did not recall hazing as being particularly onerous, in later years remembering, "I felt it was just part of the game," adding, "A plebe doesn't have time to think, and so I was either too tired or too busy to consider the changes going on in my life."

Records indicate, however, that at least by the time he became an upperclassman, William had become a most pleasant fellow, and often a ringleader in hijinks. Tunner remained, according to his brother-in-law, "the world's worst poker player and crap shooter," but had other sterling attributes, such as the time he befriended four of the ladies performing in George White's Scandals, and persuaded them to visit him and his classmates at West Point. Yearbook editors for Tunner's graduating class wrote in his entry, "Little did we think, back in the dim dark days of the summer of 1924 ... that we had on our roster a man of so many diverse accomplishments and possibilities. He was playful, active, and an altogether normal plebe those days, but three years at the Academy have changed Will into an ardent promoter of all the new activities and devotee to all new sports." They cited him as "a loyal and generous friend ... a man with an interest in everything from snaring mice to procuring delicious apples from unauthorized orchards." As a result of such escapades, "Even after three years with him, we never knew what to expect next. One week-end he brought into the barracks the full equipment for the production of fudge, and the next, he turned up with a huge and deadly double-barreled shotgun and calmly announced that he was going hunting." They also added, "Will's passions are golf, tennis, riding, fishing, cards-and his passions will not be denied."

But more serious matters were also taking place, quietly in private conversations and more demonstratively in public acts. Like all students approaching graduation, William pondered his future. Before him lay the usual array of possibilities: infantry, cavalry, engineers, coast artillery, and others. Endless conversations ensued in the barracks as young men pondered their fate.

In his senior year, however, something intervened in the normal decision-making process. The army, making sure that cadets were exposed to all aspects of the service, sent all academy students for a week to Mitchel Field to learn about the U.S. Army Air Corps. Tunner rode in five different planes and was hooked. He never touched any controls, and the trips were pure vanilla-straight flying, no dips or turns, no stunts. But he had discovered the awesome truth, as he later wrote in italics, "Man could fly."

The army agreed, with a caveat: the washout rate for officers choosing this path was extraordinary-70 percent. As a result, candidates usually chose another specialty and graduated with that on their record, the affiliation they would revert back to if they failed to make it through flight training. Accordingly, William Tunner graduated West Point on June 9, 1928, with a commission as second lieutenant in the Field Artillery.

Tunner was part of a distinguished group of military flyers. Beating the odds, fifty-five of the seventy-five West Pointers who picked the Air Corps that year earned their wings. Tunner received his at Kelly Field, Texas, in 1929; the officer conducting his final check ride was a senior man by the name of Claire Chennault. The roster of his graduating class also included a flyer named Curtis LeMay.

Tunner had learned much from his training; most important of all, as he put it, "I just plain loved flying." The young officer now worked through the usual appointments and promotions of a peacetime army. He started out at Rockwell Field, California, and soon served at Randolph Field, Texas; the Canal Zone in Panama; Fort Benning, Georgia; and Memphis, Tennessee, where he headed up a reserve detachment and worked to recruit young pilots into the military. In July 1934 he received promotion to first lieutenant, and in September 1935 he made captain.

William Tunner never had a moment of destiny; his life changed because of a rather casual command and a downright unglamorous one to boot. In 1939 Tunner was running the Memphis operation when the chief of personnel came through for a routine visit. He liked what he saw and told the young officer to pack for Washington and the Military Personnel Division of the chief of the Air Corps. Neither the location nor the task interested Tunner. In later years he came down hard on the capitol, remarking, "I have always dreaded working in Washington," calling it "confining and frustrating." The work, furthermore, could not have been any less onerous: officers pursuing combat careers do not seek sidepaths into the field of personnel matters. This move, however, would have powerful consequences for the young man.

While Tunner languished in Washington, the world burned. In September 1939, World War II officially began with the German invasion of Poland. A year later France, possessed of one of the world's preeminent land forces, had surrendered, and England stood alone, with the Battle of Britain filling its skies. The leading democracy still in the war needed equipment, and needed it fast, on an emergency basis. That meant massive orders placed in the United States, for every commodity from canned beef to large bombers.

When it came to the latter item, the British faced a problem: how to get the bombers to the battle front. Orders for planes made headlines, but without the logistical background these machines were worthless hulks sitting on the ground, awaiting transport over thousands of miles before they could confront the enemy. These were big weapons, furthermore; not many could fit in a freighter. In addition, the sea route was long and fraught with danger; in those days the U-boats were coming close to winning the war. Desperate, the British began flying bombers across the Atlantic, as the fastest means of delivery possible.

This was no mean feat. In 1940 Lindbergh's historic flight had occurred only thirteen years prior, and regular trans-Atlantic traffic was still a rare, elite event, flown only by four-engine flying boats, and only during the summer months. Pan-American, for example, assigned only eight planes to this task, each flying at the slow speed of 130 miles per hour, while TWA had five aircraft, albeit ones capable of 170 miles per hour. As the author of the leading book on Britain's Ferry Command put it, "on the eve of the Second World War the air connection between North America and Europe was on a very small scale." But war makes difficult choices possible, and a ferrying service began to bring multi-engined planes across the ocean.

Pressed by necessity, the operation grew, but new challenges appeared. Before a plane could even attempt the Atlantic crossing, it had to be flown from the factory-often on the West Coast-to a departure point on the Atlantic seaboard, in either the United States or Canada. At first, Britain contracted with the companies to have civilian pilots handle this task as independent operators, but this proved to be a logistics and planning nightmare. There were relatively few pilots capable of flying multiengined craft, and the lack of organizational structure produced chaos, with pilots flying any route they chose, on any schedule, stopping overnight in any city they found friendly or intriguing. One alternative was to use British military pilots, but this was a rarity, or else the program would drain trained flyers from the Royal Air Force (RAF) at a time when it could hardly spare them.

In an attempt to impose order on this situation, in late 1940 the British organized the Atlantic Ferrying Organization, or Atfero, and offered pilots the enormous sum of $1,500 a month. The American military, bound by several different Neutrality Acts, could do little to affect this situation.

That changed completely on March 11, 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act into law. Under its provisions, any country whose defense the president considered a vital interest of the United States could receive arms and equipment by sale, transfer, exchange, or lease. Industrial America, and the U.S. military establishment, could now begin to aid countries fighting the Nazi regime and its allies.

Shortly after the passage of Lend-Lease, Major General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps, journeyed to England to discuss issues of mutual interest with the British, and the matter came up again. Arnold liked the idea of using American airmen to ferry planes, not only because it would help an ally, but because it would provide flying experience for his own pilots. This time, upon his return, the general pressed the issue with President Roosevelt himself.

The result was a letter from the president to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, asking him to "take the full responsibility for delivering planes ... that are to be flown to England." Roosevelt emphasized the point: "I am convinced that we can speed up the process of getting these bombers to England and I am anxious to cut through all of the formalities that are not legally prohibitive and help the British get this job done with dispatch." The date on that letter was May 28, 1941. It went from the White House to Stimson's office, was passed from there to the Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, and from there to Arnold. This process-the formal chain of command-seems long and bureaucratic, but this was almost wartime, so at 3 p.m. on May 29, only a day later, Arnold called in Major Robert Olds, an officer who would soon be serving in the Plans Division of the air staff. Hap Arnold informed him that the Air Corps had established a Ferry Command, that Olds was its commanding officer, and that he had better get about his business in a hurry.

Olds was a tough guy and a character. A World War I fighter pilot, he had become an aide and disciple of Billy Mitchell, and later headed the Second Bombardment Group, which received the first B-17s to come off the production line. Olds promptly took his unit on a transcontinental flight and then broke the rules with another demonstration of air power. The army was under orders that they could not fly more than fifty miles off the coast; the sea space beyond that zone was the responsibility of the navy. Instead, Olds and his B-17s, with Curtis LeMay as his lead navigator and one plane filled with reporters, intercepted the liner Rex seven hundred miles offshore and buzzed the ship. Tunner remembered him as "a forceful and independent man; he'd speak up to officers of highest rank almost as quickly as he'd blister a subordinate.... He wanted action at all times." Despite the fact that he suffered from severe arthritis, Olds "had energy to burn, both on and off the job. He loved high living, and he loved women, too, for that matter; he'd been married four times" by the time he was given Ferrying Command. When he left Arnold's office, he turned to his secretary, Mrs. Jennie Smith, and announced, "Jennie, we've got a job to do." By the time the adjutant general actually posted the official order creating Ferrying Command on July 5, Olds had had the outfit up and running for some time, and the authorization had to be made retroactive.

The first thing Olds had to do was assemble a staff. That afternoon, within hours, he brought in Major Edward Alexander as his executive officer. After that he needed a personnel officer, someone who could help him build the organization. Accordingly, the second man he picked for the team was a newly minted major by the name of William Tunner; Tunner's role would soon go way beyond that initial responsibility for staffing.

The setting was not grand: Ferrying Command began in a large room in the basement of the Munitions Building, which featured bad ventilation and meager lighting; its one window opened over the space where the building's cafeteria left its garbage cans. Officers like Tunner, with no enlisted men available, manhandled file cabinets out of the way, got some lights and desks, and arranged at least for a glass partition to give their commanding officer some private space. This new outfit had two missions. First, to deliver planes-hundreds of planes, maybe even thousands of planes-from American factories to ports of embarkation in Canada, Bermuda, and other spots where pilots from Britain and other allies could take over; there was a general sense that the United States should completely take over this mission from the British and handle all deliveries within the United States. The other was to create an airline-type service for critical personnel and to meet any other needs as designated by the army. And although they had scant resources, their authority was potent: Olds had carte blanche-a letter from the president and a directive from the chief of Army Air Forces. On top of that, Olds had a memo from Major General E. S. Adams, the adjutant general of the entire U.S. Army (and not just the Air Corps) addressed to all flag rank officers, reading, "The chiefs of arms and services, commanding officers of posts, camps and stations and other agencies ... are directed to give first priority to the activities of the Air Corps Ferrying Command when the assistance or cooperation is required." As Tunner noted, this meant-at least theoretically, that "if anybody was ferrying an aircraft across country and stopped in at an Army Air Corps base, all he had to do was wave this directive around and everybody on the base had to stop work and take care of that airplane."


Excerpted from MASTER OF THE AIR by ROBERT A. SLAYTON Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
1. Getting a Mission....................4
2. Tunner's Women Pilots....................25
3. The Hump....................43
4. Tunner's Men....................67
5. Buildup to Destiny....................79
6. Blockade....................97
7. A Cowboy Operation....................108
8. Black Friday....................130
9. Solving Problems....................141
10. Finding Solutions....................159
11. Rebellion....................186
12. The Test....................203
13. Korea....................221
14. Final Battles....................233

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