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Master of the Air

William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift

Written by Robert A. Slayton

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

TItle Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi

Any scholar—anyone who does serious work of any kind—knows how much one must depend on others, for assistance of all kinds, for help, for support. Friends count in this business. So does money, and much of that came from my home institution, Chapman...

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pp. 1-3

In a new millennium, America stands alone as the preeminent military power on this planet. Across the globe, nations and individuals perceive the United States as a monolith of martial strength; no nation can realistically hope to cause much diffi culty for its forces on a conventional battlefield....

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1 / Getting a Mission

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pp. 4-24

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...

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2 / Tunner’s Women Pilots

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pp. 25-42

The standard account of the United States in World War II is one of glorious triumph, an unimpeded march to victory; it was no accident that Studs Terkel, one of the most sensitive chroniclers of American life, titled his volume on that era, The Good War. Reality, however, is...

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3 / The Hump

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pp. 43-66

To understand the Burma Hump, one must fi rst recognize the role China played in World War II. When most Americans think of the Pacific theater, they remember great island campaigns like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, or magnificent naval battles like Midway or the Philippine Sea. For the Japanese, however...

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4 / Tunner’s Men

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pp. 67-78

By the time he had fi nished in Burma, Tunner had developed one other asset that would help him exercise leadership, a strong and loyal staff. Tunner’s team was noteworthy, not only for the quality of the men, but even more, for their relationship with the boss. Tunner had been assembling this crew even before his days in....

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5 / Buildup to Destiny

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pp. 79-96

William Tunner had helped make the Hump Airlift a success, setting many precedents that he would later put to use in a far more dramatic venue. First, however, after the war ended in 1945, he flirted with new career options but quickly became enmeshed in efforts to defend and then extend his vision of...

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6 / Blockade

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pp. 97-107

The Soviet response to currency reform was drastic, as real and severe as their fears of a new Germany. Not surprisingly, the Russians had been expecting such a move, and decided early on where to strike. As early as December 1947, the CIA had told President Truman “there was a possibility of steps being...

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7 / A Cowboy Operation

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pp. 108-129

The offi cers running the airlift had their work cut out for them in those early days; the need was enormous, and without Tunner’s experienced team, they had to start from scratch. The most comprehensive analysis of Berlin’s daily food needs was a tough order to fill. Each and every day, planes would have to deliver, not just meat...

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8 / Black Friday

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pp. 130-140

William Tunner and his men thought they were prepared for the Berlin Airlift, but it took a quirky event to get them fully mobilized. It was just one of those moments, a compound of strange weather and the previous chaos. August 13, 1948, was a Friday, although it is doubtful anyone in the airlift worried much about that. Tunner’s duty that day was the kind of event commanders...

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9 / Solving Problems

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pp. 141-158

Now it had sunk in; the sea of problems before Tunner was enormous. Berlin was not Burma; the need was far greater, and there was no time to gradually build up a successful operation. Everything had to be working, immediately, since canceled fl ights just meant hunger for millions of civilians...

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10 / Finding Solutions

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pp. 159-185

Tunner saw immediately, knew on an intuitive level, that in order to make the Berlin Airlift work—to make airlift work—he could not just improve the system. Instead, he had to totally remake military air transportation, make it different from what anyone else had ever conceived, along lines he had pioneered...

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11 / Rebellion

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pp. 186-202

Maintenance seems prosaic; everyone changes the oil in their car. But it is also a necessity, since without it, machines stop running. Because of its critical role in keeping the airlift efficient, it caused Tunner to take dramatic steps, sparking a rebellion that revealed just how single- minded a leader he really was, regardless...

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12 / The Test

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pp. 203-220

Now, however, as the weather darkened, any difficulties with Cannon, any concern for career, were overshadowed by the supreme test. Germany in the winter becomes a nightmare; it lies on roughly the same latitude as Labrador, but serves as the meeting ground for cold North Sea gusts blowing south, which...

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13 / Korea

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pp. 221-232

After the Berlin Airlift, Tunner returned to his post as deputy commander of operations at MATS, with authority over all air transport divisions. He and his boss, General Laurence Kuter, made up, according to one account, a “good cop, bad cop” team, with Kuter playing the softer role. One writer said he “ran...

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14 / Final Battles

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pp. 233-245

After Korea, the logical next step for General Tunner should have been back to MATS, in a position to head the organization as soon as Laurence Kuter stepped down. It was not to be. Tunner came back from Korea and was at MATS only briefl y when Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg called him in. In spite of all he had done with airlift...

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Epilogue: Starlifter

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pp. 246-252

In 1958 William Tunner suffered a heart attack. By then he was thick in battle to save MATS, and later wrote an acquaintance, “to be perfectly frank, it has been a very tough year for me.” Tunner wanted to retire as soon as possible for health reasons, but MATS was moving from Andrews Air Force Base outside...


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pp. 253-286


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pp. 287-291

E-ISBN-13: 9780817383541
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817316921

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • Tunner, William H. -- Military leadership.
  • United States. Air Force -- Transport service -- History -- 20th century.
  • Airlift, Military -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Women Airforce Service Pilots (U.S.) -- History.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Burma.
  • Berlin (Germany) -- History -- Blockade, 1948-1949.
  • United States -- History, Military -- 20th century.
  • Generals -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States. Air Force -- Officers -- Biography.
  • Tunner, William H.
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