William H. Tunner – Lieutenant General, United States Air Force

In the seventy-seven years of his life, Lieutenant General William H. Tunner was the most outstanding authority on airlift operations of the United States Air Force.

He was born on July 14, 1906 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and died on April 6, 1983 in Ware Neck, Virginia.  Tunner was buried with high honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

He was married twice, first to Sarah Margaret Sams of Meridian, Mississippi.  They had two sons, William S. And Joseph C. Tunner.  After his first wife died, he married Ann Hamilton of Enid, Oklahoma, who gave birth to his daughter, Suzanne.

After completing High School, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in June 1928 with a commission as a second lieutenant.  In 1929 he graduated from the Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field in
Texas.  Between 1929 and 1960, when he retired, he not only earned several medals, but was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General.

In the 1930’s and early 1940’s he served various tactical and training units, and in 1941 he was assigned to help General Robert Olds organize the Ferrying  Command.  By now, war was raging in Europe and the Pacific.  As a result, the Air Corps began reorganizing the Ferrying Command to reflect the ever increasing role it would play.  In July 1942, the name “Ferrying Command” was changed to Air Transport Command.  General Tunner, by now a Colonel, was made Commanding Officer of the Ferrying Division.  At that time, this division was ferrying 10,000 aircraft monthly to the Allied Forces, which was of vital importance in the early days of World War II.

In September 1944 he was called to the China-Burma-India Theater to command the India-China division of the Air Transport Command.  There he supervised the airlift of supplies and people to China, and it was in China that he showed his
exceptional organizational ability to direct a successful airlift with efficiency and safety.  This was the legendary “Hump” airlift, so named because the airplanes had to clear the 16,000 foot high Himalaya Mountains.  And even though all air traffic had to be channeled over this enormously high range, Tunner and his crews delivered 71,000 tons of material to China, far beyond what had ever been carried by air before.  In OVER THE HUMP, published in 1964, he told of his experiences in this operation.

The Hump airlift was the first large strategic airlift, it would be the foundation for future airlifts, like the immensely successful, almost unbelievable, Berlin Airlift.

On June 21, 1948, the Soviet Union blockaded all approaches by land and sea to Berlin.  The Russians had tried to call the shots in Berlin, but the Americans fought back with a miracle, the supplying of the world’s fifth largest city, 2.5 million people (plus 6000 occupation troops), by air alone.  General Tunner became the obvious choice to direct such a large scale operation. Sheer insanity on the face of it, one would think.  From all over the world, veteran Air Force personnel had been jerked from their peacetime homes and were now flying endlessly through three 20-mile-wide air corridors, which were the only means of access.  The immensity and the danger of the mission should never be forgotten.  In the heavy-laden and slow cargo planes, the pilots would have been clay pigeons for Russian fighter aircraft if Moscow had chosen to block the air lanes, too.  Day after day the planes kept coming.  The runways were repaired.  A third airport (Tegel) was built.  The crews were rotated.  The planes refurbished and augmented.  And the tonnage crept upward and upward, reaching the 4,000 daily minimum, then exceeding it, and eventually, in the spring of 1949, reaching the old pre-blockade level.  There were bad weather periods, and hard weeks, and frightening moments, but the personnel and General Tunner continued to perform and enlarge upon the miracle, which was lovingly known as “Operation Vittles”.  Because of the masterful direction by General Tunner and his crews, the airlift was succeeding far beyond all calculations.  By May 1949 the battle was finally over and won.  Once again General Tunner had set new records for tons of food, material and coal into Berlin, and flying a total of 124.5 million miles.  He had also proven that great bodies of troops, or great numbers of civilians, could be sustained by air transport alone.

General Tunner repeated this performance during the Korean War as wll.  For that airlift operation, he recieved on the spot Distinguished Service Cross from General Douglas MacArthur.

On July 27, 1953, by now Major General Tunner returned to Wiesbaden, Germany, as commander in chief of United States Air Forces in Europe, and received a promotion to Lieutenant General.

When Lieutenant General Tunner retired from the Service May 31, 1960, he had successfully organized and commanded the three largest airlift operations up to that time.

In his distinguished career he recieved the following medals and awards: Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Service Medal, four times
Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Medal
Grand Knight Order of Merit of Italian Republic
Military Merit Taekuk Medal with Silver Star ( Korea )
Honorary Companion of Military division of Order of the Bath (Britain)
Chinese Order of Pao Ting (Tripod) (Special Cravat),
Young Fui and Honorary wings of Chinese Air Force
Honorary Doctor of Military Sciences Degree, University of Maryland

In addition he received:

Knight-Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany Signed by the president of the Federal Republic of German: Karl Carstens, above medal and award was presented to him in Washington D.C. at the German Embassy by the German Ambassador to the United States on January 5, 1982. He also recieved the Americanism Award from the China-Burma-India Veterans Association on January 22, 1982.

Lieutenant General William H. Tunner – indeed an illustrious life!


Courtesy of the United States Air Force:

Retired May 1960, Died April 6, 1983


Lieutenant General William H. Tunner who was Commander of the Military Air Transport Service, was 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 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, New Jersey, 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, Massachusetts. 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, Illinois.


  • DATE OF DEATH: 04/08/1947
  • DATE OF INTERMENT: 04/11/1947

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