Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Commentary>>Our airlift heritage

By Christopher Rumley
314th Airlift Wing historian

William H. Tunner is not a name many people outside the airlift world would know. This American hero remained largely obscure even during the pinnacle of his career. As a young officer in the Air Corps, Tunner realized early on he was more adept at doing the Air Force’s paperwork than flying its airplanes. As a lieutenant in 1935, while stationed in Panama, he learned that he loved the attention to detail required to manage the men and planes of an airlift. The knowledge gained would serve him well in the years to come.

When World War II broke out he had climbed to the rank of major. By the spring of 1942 he was promoted to colonel. His reputation for order and detail helped land him a position in Air Transport Command’s Ferrying Division. Leading the division, he was responsible for finding, organizing and training pilots to deliver the aircraft coming out of America’s assembly lines. Finding himself short on pilots, he established the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women Airforce Service Pilots – giving American women pilots their first chance to participate in the war effort. He encouraged his staff to take initiative and act, “If you get a job to do, do it”, he would tell them. He asked to have decisions made at the lowest possible level and to only be kept informed. Under his command the division grew to 45,000 people all working together to deliver more than 120,000 aircraft in 1944 alone.

In 1942, the Japanese advanced on mainland China, and cut off the re-supply routes for US and Chinese troops over the Burma Road. The only means to provide for the Army was through an airlift from India over the 16,000 foot high Himalayan Mountains. This airlift, nicknamed “The Hump” because of its flight path over the mountains, had horrendous safety records and low morale when Tunner took command. In the last half of 1943 alone, there were 153 major accidents and 168 fatalities. Tunner turned the operation around in a hurry and earned the nickname “Willy the Whip,” for his insistence on order, discipline, and mission. Initially, he was resented and despised by the pilots and crews, but a sense of pride and teamwork quickly dispelled any doubts that he was the right man for the job. Before Tunner arrived, the record for supplies delivered in one day was 2 million pounds.

By the time the airlift was over, crews were delivering 10 million pounds a day and the accident rate diminished exponentially. “I wanted to know what every airplane was doing on every base every day,” he said, “Our operating procedure policy was that each plane must be flying, undergoing maintenance, or be in the process of loading or unloading every second of every day…this is how you build up tonnage, by the constant utilization of equipment.” After the war, Tunner went back to Washington DC and spent the next three years caring for his wife, who died of cancer in 1947, and caring for the two young sons he had seen so very little of since their birth.

In 1948, while reading the newspaper at his breakfast table, now Major General Bill Tunner learned there was an airlift in Berlin. The Russians had blockaded the city and its 2.25 million citizens were cut off from the rest of the world. Their only means for food and coal to get through the long winter was the American airlift. The United States, unwilling to give Stalin a free hand in Germany and Western Europe stood on the precipice of yet another world war. If the airlift could not provide for the people of Berlin, war seemed the only alternative. With the peace of the world hanging in the balance of a successful airlift, Tunner asked to take command. Thirty days into the airlift, he got his wish. When he showed up at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, Tunner noticed a lot of confusion on the ground. Pilots were inside waiting for flight paperwork or eating by the snack bar while their planes sat waiting on the air field. Tunner restricted pilots and crews to the airfield and brought everything needed out to them, including the prettiest women of Berlin working in the snack trucks. In three days of command, Tunner reduced the turnaround time at Tempelhof from 1.5 hours to 30 minutes. “The actual operation of a successful airlift,” he would say, “is about as glamorous as drops of water on stone…the real excitement from running a successful airlift comes from seeing a dozen lines climb steadily on a dozen charts.” Tunner may have been the only man in the world who actually believed this airlift could succeed.

Ever the innovator, Tunner would try just about anything to improve the airlift. One day he invited a group of pilots over to his office and simply listened as they ate and finished off a keg of beer. That day he began implementing changes based on what he had heard. At other times he would wear a jacket and hat without rank or insignia and wander around an airbase to see how things were running. He would pick the most obscure hours of the night and walk into the control tower and observe for awhile. He wanted to remind people that the airlift was a 24 hour operation every day. When he took command, the airlift was delivering just under 500,000 pounds a day. Ten months later, the daily average had climbed to more than 16 million pounds a day. By spring of 1949, the city was being completely supplied by the airlift and the Russian blockade was an embarrassment to Stalin. On May 12, 1949, after it was proven pointless by the airlift, the Russians lifted the blockade.

General Lucious D. Clay, the U.S. European Commander in Berlin, returned home to a ticker tape parade in New York City. General Curtis LeMay, commander of the US Air Forces in Europe, went on to become one of the most beloved generals of the twentieth century. Credit for the airlift was routinely credited to LeMay, and he claimed responsibility for many of Tunner’s innovations. There were no bands playing when Tunner left Berlin and there was no hero’s welcome back home. “Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this airlift,” one reporter would write, “was how unremarkable the whole thing seemed to be” – and that is just the way Bill Tunner wanted it. He had quietly architected an airlift others deemed impossible, and in so doing, helped save the city of Berlin and stopped the spread of communism across Europe.


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