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William H. Tunner: Berlin Airlift Commander

July 2024
13min read

During World War II, Tunner led the effort to fly supplies from India “over the Hump” of the Himalayas to supply nineteen Chinese divisions, and later commanded the Berlin Airlift operation.


The division of Germany after World War II into four occupation zones, with Berlin buried deep within the Russian sector, was not a happy one. The Soviets harassed the supply routes to Berlin at every opportunity, and it became painfully obvious that they intended to do everything they could to bring the capital under their full control. By the spring of 1948 the situation had reached the showdown point: on March 20 the Russians stalked out of a meeting of the Allied Control Authority and subsequently demanded the immediate removal of the troops of Britain, France, and the United States from the city. On June 25 it was announced that “the Soviet administration is compelled to halt all passenger and freight traffic to and from Berlin tomorrow at 0600 because of technical difficulties.”

West Berliners watch as a Douglas C-54 Skymaster delivers supplies to Tempelhof Airport. (1948)

There was only one way in or out of the city now, and that was by air. After the war the four powers had agreed to set up six air corridors into Berlin. Three of them went eastward. The other three connected Berlin with Hamburg and Hanover in the British Zone and with Frankfurt in the American Zone. Could the American garrison in Berlin be kept supplied by air? General Lucius D. Clay, the United States military governor, sent for General Curtis LeMay, commander of the air forces in Europe, to find out.

What happened next is told in the words of William H. Tunner, then an Air Force major general and veteran air transport commander, whose men and planes had helped keep nineteen Chinese divisions and the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force fighting in China by flying supplies from India “over the Hump” of the Himalayas during the war. He was interviewed recently at his home in Virginia.


Within a few hours General LeMay ordered a number of C-47 cargo planes, the Old Faithfuls of World War II, to Wiesbaden Air Base, near Frankfurt. They were loaded with medical supplies, milk, and flour and sent to Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. On the first day eighty tons were delivered. No one knew what the minimum daily tonnage for the American garrison would be, and no one dreamed at first that the U.S. Air Force would be expected to keep the whole city of two and a half million people alive.

The daily tonnage increased; within the first ten days over one thousand tons of cargo had been carried to Berlin, including the first shipment of coal, loaded in G.I. duffel bags. By then it was understood that the Americans were to supply the needs of all Berliners and not just the American troops there.

About this time General Albert C. Wedemeyer, Director of Plans and Operations of the Army General Staff, had been sent to Germany to observe what was happening. He had commanded the China theatre and knew what it was like to be cut off from sources of supply on the ground and have to depend on airplanes flown over the Hump for the necessities of life. He recommended that the Air Force send me to Europe to take over the operation.


By mid-July 1,500 tons a day were being flown into Berlin by American planes, and the British were flying in 500 tons. The free world press was having a field day describing how former desk jockeys were flying around the clock “to keep a city alive” in an effort now known as Operation Vittles.

General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the Air Force Chief of Staff, called me to the Pentagon and asked when I could leave for Berlin. I told him that all I needed was a clean shirt but asked if I could take some of the professional staff men of the Hump days with me. I was told I could, but to “be reasonable” and not disrupt the organizations these men were assigned to.

The principal airplane used by MATS [the newly organised Military Air Transport Service] in those days was the Douglas C-54, a four-engine transport that had proved as reliable as the venerable C-47. The C-47 had to be replaced on the Berlin run because it would hold only three tons, while the C-54’s could carry ten.


I left for Europe, taking along a hand-picked staff of men who had served with me on the Hump operation. They started to function en route, as if they had never been separated. I outlined the basic duties of each man and told them to review the problems we had met and solved on the Hump and to expect most of the same problems in Germany. But there were differences, too. The total tonnage requirement was much greater for Berlin; the “enemy” had freedom of the skies and could shoot our planes down at will if he chose to do so. In addition, there would be many more planes in the sky, which meant that the flying by all crews had to be the most precise ever required of pilots anywhere.

I stepped back and watched this group work. By the time we reached Wiesbaden, we not only had plans and check lists of things to do but even had airlift directives written and neatly typed by my secretary, Miss Katie Gibson, who had volunteered to go with us for the duration.

As soon as we landed, I called on General LeMay, who was comfortably ensconced in the former home of Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister. I had expected that LeMay would be miffed at my being sent over to run the lift and that he might take it as an insult to his competence as an air commander. He didn’t. I had been ordered by higher authority to run the show, and he accepted the order without question.

“I expect you to produce,” he said, cigar firmly clenched in his unsmiling face.

“I intend to, sir,” I replied.

Our headquarters were in a partially bombed apartment house. Debris and wreckage were everywhere. There were no desks, chairs, telephones, or office supplies; but my staff were all expert scroungers, fixers, and arrangers, and it was only a few hours before debris was shovelled and swept out, office furniture began co appear in G.I. trucks, and installers were asking where we wanted our phones placed. I never asked how these things were acquired, but I suspect a few regulations were badly bent and a few of the occupation-force personnel who had chosen to be absent from their offices that day were minus some of their equipment.

While the offices were being set up, my key people and I went on a tour of the Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main air bases. We were genuinely shocked at what we found. Understandably, everything was being done on a temporary basis. Mechanics and flight personnel could not tell us how long they had worked, what their schedules were for the next day, or even when they were supposed to eat. They were sleeping in airplanes, in the mess hall, and anywhere else they could stretch out.

In Berlin the situation was just as bad on the ground, and the air traffic, compounded by the lift, was horrendous; near-misses were an everyday occurrence. The Soviets were deliberately increasing their fighter operations in and near the corridors. They were putting up barrage balloons and towing gunnery targets in front of our planes. I told my pilois 10 “y on. They did, refusing to be intimidated.

After looking the whole situation over, I laid down the concept that had to be the basis for all our planning. “We’ve got to plan our whole operation as if we’re going to be here a long time,” the staff was told. “The sooner we all think that way, the sooner we’ll get the operation going as we know it can and should.”

The first concern was aircraft maintenance. All planes had to be inspected after every twenty-five hours of flight. At two hundred hours they had to be taken out of service and given a thorough check. Every thousand hours a complete overhaul from nose to tail was required. Facilities and schedules had to be set up; minor inspections would be accomplished at Wiesbaden and Rhein Main. The two-hundred-hour checks would be done at Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich, and when the base could be made ready, at Burtonwood, England. The thousand-hour overhauls could be done only back in the States. Tools, spare parts, and qualified mechanics were in short supply. Arrangements to get such essentials were quickly made.

Those of us who had visited Tempelhof Airport knew that something had to be done about the field itself. It was a sod strip, and landings were made on steel mats that would be unsafe for extensive C-54 usage.

“We’ve not only got to get that runway repaired,” Lieutenant Colonel Kenny Swallwell, the air installations officer, said, “but we’ve got to get two others built to handle the traffic.” He had already set the wheels in motion to get them. In addition, he started us all thinking about the possibility of using the two British corridors, which were shorter; their bases were located at Celle and Fassfaerg. I quickly started negotiations to get them.

It should be emphasized at this point that there was no longer any question about the fact that our job was to keep the people of Berlin alive. The tonnage requirements were at first anyone’s guess but began to get realistic as deep thought was given to what two and a half million people really needed to sustain life. It was found that 1,500 tons of food were needed daily and 3,000 tons of other items including coal, medicines, and emergency supplies.

It was now clear that what was badly needed besides crews, airplanes, maintenance, and organization was timing. Valuable time was wasted as crews landed, parked, shut off engines, and debarked for a snack and then strolled to Operations for their return clearances. Henceforth no crew member was to leave the site of his aircraft while the Germans unloaded it. Each plane would be met by an operations officer who would hand the pilot his return clearance all filled in and a weather officer who would give him the latest conditions at his home base. Mobile snack bars tended by some of the most beautiful girls in Berlin would move to the side of the plane. Turn-around time at Berlin was halved—to thirty minutes.

Although Frankfurt and Wiesbaden were only one and a half hours from Berlin, the weather could be absolutely clear at one end and absolutely miserable at the other. I found out about this the hard way on Black Friday, the thirteenth of August, 1948. The weather wasn’t too bad as we took off from Wiesbaden, but we soon hit heavy, thick clouds.

We were not alone in the sky. As the pilot followed the prescribed flight path to Tempelhof, radioing the exact second he passed over the Fulda beacon and swinging the nose of the plane to the exact heading of 057 degrees, we knew that there were C-54’s behind and ahead of us, each precisely three minutes apart, each proceeding at 180 miles per hour. The airlift was now seven weeks old. I had been its commander just fifteen days and felt it was beginning to shape up.

The General was in for a rude shock. In Berlin at that very moment a full-blown crisis was in the making. At Tempelhof a cloudburst reduced visibility practically to zero, and the rain hampered the efficiency of the radar. When two incoming C-54’s were wrecked on landing, the air traffic controllers were forced to stack up the other planes, which were following at three-minute intervals. Tunnel’s was among the stacked-up planes: he was flying to Berlin for a public ceremony honoring Lieutenant Paul O. Lykins, the airlift pilot who had flown the most missions. “And here I was” the General recalled in his memoirs , Over the Hump, “ flying around in circles over their heads. It was damned embarrassing. The commander of the Berlin Airlift couldn’t even get himself into Berlin .”

I grabbed the mike and called the Tempelhof tower. “This is 5549,” I said. “Tunner talking, and you listen. Send every plane in the stack back to its base.”

The tower was silent for a moment. Then a disbelieving voice said, “Please repeat.”

“I said: Send everybody in the stack below and above me home. Then tell me when it’s O.K. to come down.”

He got the message that time.

“Roger, sir.”

In my opinion the real success of the Berlin Airlift stems from that day—Friday, the thirteenth of August, 1948. It was that day that the rule book for instrument flying was rewritten.

“All flights in good weather or bad, day or night, will be by instrument flight rules,” I announced. “And any pilot who misses an approach at Berlin will bring his load back home. He will not be given another chance to try an approach and foul up the traffic!”

Once this basic operational rule was in effect, the number of planes that could be injected into the system increased. A pilot would be assigned a precise take-off time. When the second hand on his watch crept to that moment, he would push the throttles forward and climb out on a prescribed course to the Darmstadt radio beacon, level off at his assigned altitude, and when his radio compass needle reversed to show that he was over that beacon, he would tune in another and then others until he arrived at the radio range station located a few miles south of Tempelhof. At that point he would be placed under control of a G.C.A. [Ground Controlled Approach] crew who would guide him by radar to touchdown.

The interval between aircraft, three minutes, was extremely important. Since there are 1,440 minutes in a day, it meant that the maximum number of landings at Tempelhof would be 480 each twenty-four hours. This also meant a maximum of 480 departures per day, so that it was theoretically possible to have an airplane either landing or taking off every ninety seconds. To maintain that rhythm requires discipline and regimentation from everyone concerned—and this precise cadence determines the success of an airlift.

Once all this was hammered out, my staff and I took on the all-important “people” problems. I invited a group of pilots for some beer and snacks at my hotel and asked them for their gripes. After things loosened up a bit, I got them. They all boiled down to food and living conditions.

Solving these problems was tough. Housing was short, but eventually tents were provided and some old quonsets were unboarded and furnished with the bare essentials. I got after the mess officers to extend the serving hours and improve the food.

Most of the men assigned to the lift were on temporary duty, and when their orders were extended and it seemed certain the Russians were not going to lift the blockade all winter, morale began to sag. Little things began to take on huge proportions—things like poor mail service, no curtains on the windows to keep the sun out when crews slept in the daytime, and dirty sheets. There had to be developed a spirit of competition and a sense of accomplishment in each unit and in each man. And thus was born the Task Force Times , with its daily tonnage column for all to see, compare, and try to beat.

The competition for tonnage spawned the kind of motivation that I wanted. The rivalry spread to the ground crews, and even the German civilians loading and unloading the planes caught the fever. The loading record was twenty thousand pounds of coal stowed aboard two C-54’s by one twelve-man crew in five minutes and forty-five seconds.

The Germans were good workers, but there were regulations forbidding fraternization, and we could give them only the most menial of jobs. But we needed mechanics badly.

With General Clay’s backing I had Personnel find a former Luftwaffe aircraft maintenance officer. They turned up Major General Hans Detlev von Rohden, a German air-transport expert who spoke excellent English. Within a few days he had found top-flight mechanics and had a school going using technical manuals he had translated from English. We got our mechanics, eventually eighty-five to each squadron.

As my staff met and solved the big problems, smaller ones began to nag us. The number of flights per day increased, so that by the beginning of September traffic through the corridors had gotten to the point where our two fields in Berlin were saturated.

Since Gatow Airport, in the British sector, and Tempelhof could not be expanded further, we decided that a third field should be built where none existed. The best site was a tract of land formerly used to train Hermann Goering’s antiaircraft divisions; it was called Tegel and was in the French sector. The first plane actually landed on the Tegel strip on November 5—exactly two months to the day after the first spade of earth was turned.

There was a two-hundred-foot radio tower sticking up off the end of the runway, however. “That thing will have to come down,” I told my staff. But that got no action. The tower was actually owned by the Russians, although it was located in the French sector. General Jean Ganeval, the French commandant, solved the problem very neatly. A “mysterious” explosion occurred and the tower was no more.


General LeMay left Europe in October, 1948. His last official act was to sign a directive together with his British counterpart, Sir Arthur P. M. Sounders, which set up the Combined Airlift Task Force (C.A.L.T.F.). Its primary mission was “to deliver to Berlin, in a safe and efficient manner, the maximum tonnage possible, consistent with the combined resources of equipment and personnel made available.” This placed the whole British-American effort under Tunner.

Tonnage increased as the weather got colder, but the daily requirements increased also. Instead of 4,500 tons a day, it was determined that 5,620 were needed as more coal was added to the total. Loads were boosted to 7,000 tons a day in October and November; then the miserable European December weather set in.

By now we had all the planes we needed—three hundred C-54’s with two hundred of them in daily service and the others in the maintenance pipeline. The only factor we could not beat was the weather.

By February and March, though, it improved, and my concern turned in a new direction. I began to feel that things were going too well, and I decided that the command needed a shaking up. They needed an all-out effort of some kind—a goal that was attainable yet would require the utmost of every man.

We decided that we would shoot for a one-day figure of 10,000 tons—3,000 more than we had ever hauled before. The cargo would be coal, and we would have it stockpiled for the big day. Maintenance schedules were checked carefully; the maximum number of planes would be on hand.

But what date should we choose? We decided on Easter Sunday, 1949—a day that we hoped would go down in aviation history.

I flew back and forth to Berlin several times that day, so that I was able to touch down at all of our bases to see what was going on. The spirit of competition between the bases was running high, but I thought it could go higher. At Fassberg, Colonel Jack Coulter, the commander there, bragged to me that he was ten per cent ahead of his quota.

“That’s nice,” I said, “but the guys at Celle are running twelve per cent over theirs.” Coulter vanished to spread the word to his squadrons.

At dawn on Easter morning we had reached the ten thousand mark. Every squadron was running ahead of its quotas; as the last plane was being unloaded, the statisticians added up their tallies and released them to the press: flights—1,398; tons—12,941.

This was the equivalent of six hundred cars of coal, and we had averaged almost one round trip for each of the 1,440 minutes in the twenty-four-hour period. And the record had been set without a single accident or incident. The worldwide headlines next day made me the happiest commander that ever wore a uniform.

I don’t know what the Russians thought about our Easter parade of airplanes that had hopped over their land blockade. But I will always believe that what my men did that day convinced the Russians that there was no point to be gained by continuing it. Just a month later—on May is, 1949—the barricades were lifted, and land traffic began to flow again.

The Berlin Airlift continued for three more months, stockpiling 300,000 tons of essentials just in case the Russians should start the blockade again. By September 1, 1949, the operation was over. Airlift statisticians showed that over 2,300,000 tons had been hauled into Berlin in 276,926 flights.

Since the Communists could invoke a blockade of Berlin again should they be so inclined, I am often asked what differences there would be in a lift today. Instead of three hundred airplanes, the same job could be done now with a single squadron of about twenty. Instead of eleven airports, only two would be needed—one at each end. No landings would be needed at the destination because of new air-delivery techniques. Freight would be loaded on pallets in a very few minutes. Today’s much bigger planes would make a pass about ten feet above the destination runway, a chute would be popped, and the cargo would be yanked out the rear end and would skid along the runway without damage, thanks to modern packaging.

General Tunner eventually became the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and subsequently commander of the Military Air Transport Service, now the Military Airlift Command (MAC). He retired from active duty in 1960. Now a member of the board of directors of Seaboard World Airlines, he also serves from time to time as an air-transport consultant. In October of 1968 UNICEF sent him to Biafra to observe airlift operations there. Immediately afterward he went to Vietnam, Okinawa, and Korea on a similar mission for MAC. His home base is a farm in Ware Neck, Virginia, where, he says, “I raise a few sheep myself and grow soybeans by virtue of the work of a farmer who shares the crops.” He is also at work on a novel, “half finished, I hope,” on pilots—transport and military.

Mot Juste, with Blarney

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