Major Gen. William Kepner

Major Gen. William Kepner

He ran away from home to become one of America’s most-decorated soldiers and one of the world’s most accomplished and versatile pilots.

William Kepner fought in two world wars, serving in the Marines, Army and Air Force. He was an infantryman, cavalryman, record-setting balloon pilot, and record-setting fighter plane pilot. In the First World War, he was bayoneted and shot. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for single-handedly taking out an enemy machine-gun emplacement, along with the Purple Heart, the French Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre. In the Second World War, he was decorated six more times, rising through the ranks to become commander of all air forces in Europe and the man tasked with the destruction of the Luftwaffe.

Kepner’s remarkable military career started inauspiciously: he ran away from home and Kokomo High School to join the Marines. After four years, he returned to Indiana and enlisted in the National Guard. Guard activation sent his unit to the Mexican border, where he served as a second lieutenant. With the start of WWI, he enlisted in the Army, served in France as a Captain of the Fourth Regiment, and was seriously injured. During that time, he became fascinated with the balloons that were used for troop support and reconnaissance, eventually requesting transfer to the Army Air Corps. Kepner became one of the world’s most accomplished pilots of lighter-than-air craft, flying both balloons and dirigibles, and was assigned to Wright Field in Dayton as head of the experimental and development branch of the lighter-than-air division.

In 1934, then-Major Kepner was named commander of a National Geographic – Army Air Corps project to reach the stratosphere in a balloon. He and his two co-pilots had surpassed 60,000 feet when their balloon ripped open and began to fall. At about 6000 feet, Kepner gave the order to bail out and stood on the top of the gondola as the others exited. The second man out got hung up in the gondola hatch. He broke free when Kepner climbed down the rigging and kicked him loose. Kepner himself jumped at the last moment, 500 feet from disaster, and survived. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism and immortalized on the cover of National Geographic Magazine. Along with valuable scientific data, the expedition returned with what were then the highest altitude photos taken of Earth.

By the time the Army abandoned balloons and dirigibles in favor of heavier-than-air craft, Kepner had learned to fly airplanes and gliders. At Langley field in Virginia during the late 30’s, he commanded the interceptor and pursuit forces and played a significant role in the development of fighter aircraft and tactics. When WWII arrived, he served in several capacities in the states, the Pacific and Europe. As commander of the 8th Fighter Command, he organized air support for bombing raids over Europe and providing ground-attack support for D-Day. He personally flew ten missions in the P-51 Mustang. Later, as commander of the 8th AF Bomb Division, he piloted 14 bomber raids over Germany. In 1945, Kepner was named Jimmy Doolittle’s successor as overall commander of the 8th Air Force.

In 1946, General Kepner received his diploma from Kokomo High School, personally presented to him by C.V. Haworth. Photographs of the graduation were published in Life Magazine.

Kepner held a number of leadership posts after the war, including command of the Atomic Energy Division of the Air Force. As such, he led Army and Navy operations in the famous 1947 atomic bomb tests over Bikini Atoll. He boarded the experimental X-59 and became the first Army Air corps General to fly a jet aircraft.

During the Cold War, he was selected to command all Army, Navy and Air forces of the US Alaska Command. In announcing the appointment, TIME magazine called him a “soldier’s soldier” and an “airman’s airman.”

Kepner’s unmatched, and possibly unmatchable, military career ended after 35 years when he retired from the Alaska command in 1952.

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