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

Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift by Robert A. Slayton. University of Alabama Press, 2010, 304 pp.

Given the tremendous impact of strong personalities on shaping the United States Air Force, biographies are a useful venue for studying Air Force history. Leaders such as Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, and Curtis LeMay developed the service’s roles and missions, defining national strategy as well as operational and tactical doctrine. The relative importance of strategic bombardment, air superiority, interdiction, and ground support missions is still hotly debated by airpower advocates. Robert A. Slayton’s Master of the Air successfully argues the case for the inclusion of military airlift as an indispensable element of American airpower and clearly establishes Lt Gen William Tunner’s place on the short list of innovative Air Force leaders.

Slayton observes that of the four great military airlifts of the twentieth century (Stalingrad, the Burma Hump, Berlin, and Korea), Tunner was in charge of the three that succeeded. The author characterizes his subject as an innovator, entrepreneur, and organizer par excellence. His greatest achievement, the Berlin airlift, defied contemporary military logic: the Soviets saw the failure of German efforts to resupply the encircled Sixth Army at Stalingrad and expected the same result in Berlin. Tunner’s determination, skill, and driving leadership beat the odds in spectacular fashion: his Airmen delivered vast amounts of food and fuel to an encircled city in the dead of winter with clockwork precision, forcing Stalin to back down in this decisive early Cold War contest.

The general was not afraid to tackle the establishment when it impeded mission accomplishment, a trait that earned him several highly placed enemies. Slayton describes in detail Tunner’s adversarial relationship with Gen John Cannon, commander of US Air Forces in Europe. According to Tunner, “General Cannon came over, apparently, with the idea that he was going to run the Berlin Airlift and I was determined he wasn’t” (p. 193). As the author explains,

On the one hand, Tunner clearly had the expertise to run the show, and he was right on how to go about it. But in the air force, on the other hand, just like in any other service, rank commands. Cannon was the boss, and Tunner had an obligation to get along with him. There would be precious little evidence that Tunner did much to accomplish that goal, resenting any kind of direct supervision of the type that Cannon was far too willing to apply. (p. 193)

Slayton then quotes Air Force historian Daniel Harrington: “ ‘Reform and innovation don’t occur in the abstract; they occur in institutions, and being right is just the start of the process’ ” (p. 193). The author concludes that “Tunner’s methods and personality were not always appreciated in the air force, and this affected his career in substantial ways” (p. 202).

Despite his character flaws, Tunner gained strong political allies, especially Cong. L. Mendel Rivers (D-SC), who sat on the House Armed Services Committee. A strong advocate of the importance of military airlift, Rivers relied on Tunner (then head of the Military Air Transport Service [MATS]) as a witness in hearings conducted by his Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift in April 1960. Among the committee’s recommendations were the redesignation of MATS as Military Airlift Command (MAC), giving it parity with Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command. A record appropriation of $370 million (with $250 million allocated toward jet transports) made possible the introduction of the first jet-powered long-range transport, the C-141 Starlifter, which entered service in 1965. MATS became MAC the following year, playing a significant role in transporting troops, supplies, and equipment to the conflict in Vietnam. Although Tunner had retired six years previously, his advocacy of military airlift made these historic milestones possible.

Robert Slayton’s Master of the Air has much to recommend it. The author’s writing style is engaging, his research thorough, and his analysis worth consideration by airpower historians and theorists. William Tunner constantly strove to expand the capabilities of military airlift. Although he often aggravated his superiors, he got results. On 7 December 1950, his Airmen dropped bridge sections from C-119 aircraft to Marines fighting their way out of encirclement by Chinese Communist forces in Korea, enabling them to make their way across the Funchilin Pass without abandoning their tanks and other heavy equipment. On 18 December, Time magazine featured Tunner on its cover with the caption “ ‘GENERAL WILLIAM TUNNER, AIRLIFTER. In the midst of the enemy, a bridge from the sky’ ” (p. 229). He truly believed that, given the right aircraft and proper planning, anything was possible—and he had the determination and ablity to prove it.

Frank Kalesnik, PhD

Air Force Research Laboratory History Office

Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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