Scott Air Force Base News

Meet an extraordinary Scott Airman from the Lighter-than-Air Era: Lt. Gen. William E. Kepner

In 1929, Lt. Gen William E. Kepner was commissioned as test pilot of the experimental Navy metal-clad airship, ZMC-2, the only successfully operated metal-skinned airship ever built. After a successful series of evaluation flights, in September he flew ZMC-2 flawlessly from the factory at Naval Air Station-Grosse Ile, Michigan, to its base at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey.
In 1929, Lt. Gen William E. Kepner was commissioned as test pilot of the experimental Navy metal-clad airship, ZMC-2, the only successfully operated metal-skinned airship ever built. After a successful series of evaluation flights, in September he flew ZMC-2 flawlessly from the factory at Naval Air Station-Grosse Ile, Michigan, to its base at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Hundreds of Army Air Service/Air Corps Airmen who served at Scott Field during the Lighter-than-Air Era (1921-1937) stood out, including Lt. Gen. William E. Kepner.

Born Jan. 6, 1893, in Miami County, Indiana, Kepner was a Scott Field pioneer Army balloonist and later an accomplished airship pilot. He served in the Marine Corps from 1909-13. By 1916, he was a second lieutenant in the Indiana National Guard.

From 1927-29, Kepner competed as a member of the Army balloon team in several national and international balloon races. In June 1928, he won the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup with co-pilot Lt. William Olmstead Eareckson. In May 1928, he also placed first in the in the National Elimination Balloon Race at Bettis Field, Pennsylvania. He finished third in the balloon race in Akron, Ohio, and placed second in the balloon race in St. Louis.

After being commissioned in the U.S. Cavalry, Kepner participated in the Mexican Punitive Expedition as a member of the 28th Infantry.

In August 1917, he transferred to the U.S. Infantry as a captain and commanded a company during the Battle of Chateau-Thierry. He later led the 3rd Battalion of the 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment during the Allied Meuse-Argonne Offensive and participated in the Aisne, Champagne, Marne, and St. Mihiel Offensives.

Kepner was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism near Cunel, France, on Oct. 5-6, 1918, after leading a three-man patrol to knock out a German machinegun in hand-to-hand combat.

In October 1920, at age 27, Kepner transferred from the Infantry to the Army Air Service and trained as a balloon pilot and later an airship pilot at Ross Field, California; Langley Field, Virginia; and at the Naval Ground Course at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

From 1927-29, Kepner competed as a member of the Army balloon team in several national and international balloon races. In June 1928, he won the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup with co-pilot Lt. William Olmstead Eareckson. In May 1928, he also placed first in the in the National Elimination Balloon Race at Bettis Field, Pennsylvania. He finished third in the balloon race in Akron, Ohio, and placed second in the balloon race in St. Louis.

Kepner commanded several airship detachments from 1927-29 and frequently commanded the Army’s largest semi-rigid airship, the RS-1, at Scott Field during this period.

In 1929, Kepner was commissioned as test pilot of the experimental Navy metal-clad airship, ZMC-2, the only successfully operated metal-skinned airship ever built. After a successful series of evaluation flights, in September he flew ZMC-2 flawlessly from the factory at Naval Air Station-Grosse Ile, Michigan, to its base at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The Army Air Service had plans to build a huge metal-clad, aircraft-carrying airship (larger than the Graf Zeppelin) based on the ZMC-2, but the austerity resulting from the Great Depression prevented the plan from becoming a reality.

Kepner personally flew 24 combat missions over Europe, earning a Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, and Air Medals—in addition to high decorations from Great Britain, France, Belgium, Poland, and China.

Kepner was promoted to major in October 1930 and was transferred to Wright Field, Ohio, as Chief of the Materiel Division’s LTA Branch. He soon learned to fly fixed-wing aircraft at March Field, California, and Kelly Field, Texas. In 1931-32, he returned to Wright Field as chief of the Purchase Branch and continued competing in balloon races.

In the summer of 1934, he was the pilot and commander of the National Geographic Society/Army Air Corps Stratosphere Flight launched near Rapid City, South Dakota, to study the upper atmosphere and break the official altitude record.

The balloon and pressurized gondola, Explorer I, was launched July 28 from the Stratobowl near Rapid City, South Dakota, and crash-landed in a cornfield near Holdrege, Nebraska, the following day. Kepner piloted the crew to an altitude of 60,613 feet (11.5 miles), making valuable scientific observations in the stratosphere. However, the balloon became disabled when the balloon envelope ruptured near maximum altitude and the gondola plummeted earthward.

Kepner (flight commander) and his Scott Field crew—Capt Albert W. Stevens-scientific observer and Capt Orvil A. Anderson-pilot—parachuted from the gondola to safety, saving their lives and preserving key scientific instruments. The metal gondola of Explorer I was nearly flattened when it fell 5,000 feet to the ground after the balloon exploded. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for exercising cool judgment and foresight under adverse conditions.

In the run-up to the World War II, he was promoted rapidly to lieutenant colonel in June 1939 and was promoted to colonel in February 1940.

In February 1942, he was promoted to brigadier general and became commanding general of the 4th Fighter Command and then the Fourth Air Force in the San Francisco area. He was promoted to major general in April 1943 and was given command of the 8th Fighter Command in the European Theater of Operations.

As escorts for the U.S. strategic bombers attacking Hitler’s “Fortress Europe,” his fighter planes protected the bombers, attacked enemy ground targets, protected the Normandy landing beaches, and inflicted unsustainable losses on the German Luftwaffe (Air Force).

In August 1944, Kepner became commanding general of the 8th Army Air Force’s 2nd Bombardment Division.

A year later, he became commander of the entire 8th Army Air Force in England.

Kepner personally flew 24 combat missions over Europe, earning a Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, and Air Medals—in addition to high decorations from Great Britain, France, Belgium, Poland, and China.

After the end of World War II, Kepner commanded the 12th Tactical Air Force.

In January 1946, he was assigned to Headquarters, Army Air Forces in Washington, D.C., as deputy commander for Army and Navy Aviation during the large nuclear weapons tests, Operation Crossroads, in the Pacific.

Kepner (flight commander) and his Scott Field crew—Capt Albert W. Stevens-scientific observer and Capt Orvil A. Anderson-pilot—parachuted from the gondola to safety, saving their lives and preserving key scientific instruments. The metal gondola of Explorer I was nearly flattened when it fell 5,000 feet to the ground after the balloon exploded. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for exercising cool judgment and foresight under adverse conditions.

Six months later, he returned to Scott Field to become the commander of the Air Technical Training Command (headquartered in Bldg. P-3—now the 375th Air Mobility Wing Headquarters).

Kepner returned to Washington, D.C., as the chief of the Atomic Energy Division at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, later serving as chief of the Special Weapons Group and chief of the Atomic Energy Division.

In July 1948, he was named assistant chief of staff-Operations and Atomic Energy. Shortly after, he became commanding general of the Air Force proving ground at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. On June 14, 1950, he was promoted to lieutenant general and named commander-in-chief of the Alaska Command.

Kepner retired from active duty in the Air Force Feb. 26 1953. During his distinguished and varied Air Force career, he held no less than six aeronautical ratings-Combat Observer, Senior Balloon Pilot, Zeppelin Pilot (rigid airships), Semi-Rigid Airship Pilot, Metal-Clad Airship Pilot, and Command Pilot. Kepner passed away July 3, 1982, in Orlando, Florida.

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