Curtiss LeMay and SACs
Destined to retire as the
Air Force Chief of Staff more than 35 years later, Lt. Curtis E. Lemay
appeared on the aviation scene in 1929 -- a young airpower enthusiast,
fresh from pilot training, proudly wearing his wings and his Sam Browne
Curtis E. LeMay is often
portrayed as the ultimate Cold War warrior. Not one but two of the
trigger-happy generals in the satirical film Dr. Strangelove were based on
his image--a face frozen into a frown by Bell’s palsy, chewing on a cigar
and spewing colorful epithets. Lost in this caricature is the fact that
his organizational skills saved millions of lives during World War II and
the Cold War. His theories of inflicting massive military damage at the
beginning of a conflict in order to save lives were long vilified, but
recent military operations have resembled them increasingly. As the world
moves further away from the Cold War, a continuing reassessment of LeMay’s
leadership and theories, helped by the declassification of top secret
documents, is leading to a very different picture.
When Curtis LeMay saw his
first airplane at the age of five, he felt it was "unique and in a way
Divine." He wanted to become a pilot. After receiving a civil engineering
degree from Ohio State University on an ROTC scholarship, he had his
chance. Knowing the military was the most affordable way to learn to fly,
he joined the Air Corps. Although initially assigned to pursuit squadrons,
in 1937 he transferred to the 2nd Bomb Group, which had just received the
first Boeing B-17s. LeMay flew with them on their B-17 goodwill flights to
South America, which won the Mackay Trophy.
Colonel LeMay was given
command of the 305th Bombardment Group, Eighth Air Force in 1942, soon
after the United States entered World War II. He was the only pilot in the
group to ever have flown the B-17, but in looking back years later, his
greatest worry was that he "didn’t have any confidence in their
commander--me!" He quickly developed his natural leadership skills and an
ability to find lifesaving solutions. Realizing that bombers taking
evasive actions were decreasing target hits, requiring repeat missions and
resulting in high losses, he ordered his pilots not to take any more
evasive actions. Despite their protests, the new system resulted in more
targets hit on the first mission, requiring fewer repeats, and an overall
reduction of losses. Soon, "no evasive action" became the rule for the
entire Eighth Air Force. Given the lack of adequate fighter escorts early
in the campaign, LeMay also ordered his bomber pilots to practice and
perform tight-formation flying on combat missions as a means of defense
against enemy fighters. Within 18 months of arriving in England, LeMay had
been promoted to major general, one of the youngest in the army.
In 1944, LeMay was
transferred to the XX Bomber Command in India where he was charged with
getting the new Boeing B-29 into combat against Japan. When the Mariana
Islands were captured that winter, he was transferred to the XXI Bomber
Command. LeMay’s predecessor had lost his command because his superiors in
Washington were not seeing the results they had expected. LeMay observed
operations and learned that the unit was only landing bombs near the
target five percent of the time. Airplane losses were also extremely high.
LeMay knew that if these numbers continued, he, too, would be relieved of
command. He understood, too, that with the weather conditions in Japan,
precision bombing would continue to fail. Ignoring all previous U.S.
policy, LeMay decided to try something completely different--incendiary
Although there had been
only limited demonstrations of the tactic, LeMay thought changing from
high-altitude daylight precision bombing to low-altitude nighttime
incendiary bombing was the answer. He did not inform Henry "Hap" Arnold,
USAAF chief of staff, of the change, reasoning that if it failed, Arnold
could always fire him. He also ignored the opposition of his crews, who
felt that they were being sent on suicide missions.
The first massive
incendiary raid was on March 9, 1945 when 334 B-29s bombed Tokyo.
(Incendiary raids on a smaller scale had been carried out beginning in
February.) Aided by a strong ground wind, the fire in the city burned for
four days, sometimes reaching temperatures of 1800 degrees F (982 degrees
Celsius). In the end, 83,793 people died and another 40,918 injured. A
16-square-mile (41-square-kilometer) section of Tokyo was burned to the
ground, including 26,171 buildings. Fourteen B-29s were lost.
The success of the raid
made incendiary bombing a standard practice, with precision bombing added
when weather permitted. The crews were flying 120 hours a month, a 400
percent increase from the 8th Air Force during its busiest period.
Supplies were low and bombs were carried straight from the supply ships to
the airplanes. By the summer of 1945, flying bomber missions over Japan
was the safest air mission of the war.
After the war, LeMay
observed that "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as
a war criminal." He felt, though, that the intense bombings were actually
saving lives on both sides, especially if they encouraged surrender
without an invasion. Even without the nuclear bomb, LeMay felt his bombers
could win the war by October. His view was supported by Japan’s Prince
Fumimaro Konoe, who said that "the determination to make peace was the
When the war ended, LeMay
was named deputy chief of staff for research and development until he took
command of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe in 1947. There he oversaw the
organization of the Berlin Airlift, originally called the LeMay Coal and
Feed Delivery Service. The airlift also announced to the world that the
Soviet Union was an important threat and that nuclear war was a
possibility. But the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the air force command
charged with delivering nuclear weapons, was suffering from a lack of
training and mission. LeMay was given command of SAC to use his
organizational skills to whip them into shape.
As soon as he arrived,
LeMay had the entire command perform a practice mission. Not a single crew
finished it correctly. LeMay realized bleakly that the United States was
ill prepared to fight a nuclear war. He informed the men that "we are at
war now" and increased training. He developed a reconnaissance program,
made a list of targets, and pushed for a jet bomber. He even redesigned
the barracks to accommodate the 24-hour a day schedule his personnel kept.
SAC quickly became a war-ready unit, prepared to launch a nuclear strike
with short warning.
Among General LeMay's many
achievements is a record-setting 13 hour, 2 minute, 51 second
6,322.85-mile flight in a Boeing KC-135 tanker from Westover AFB, Mass.,
to Argentina. The general is shown here during ceremonies at Ezeiza
Airport, Buenos Aires, after his arrival on Nov. 12, 1957.
While politicians and
diplomats were careful of appearing too threatening to the Soviets, LeMay
was openly belligerent and rarely edited himself. Both as commander of SAC
and later as air force vice-chief and chief of staff (1961-1965), he made
frequent pronouncements about the need to bomb first. He spoke often of a
"Sunday Punch," an all-out atomic attack that would bring victory before
the Soviets knew the war had begun. He felt that the United States backed
away from conflict too much, weakening its position and reputation. This
was especially true during the Cuban Missile Crisis. LeMay lobbied to send
the navy and SAC to surround the island and if need be, "fry it." If the
Russians attempted to fight back, he was confident SAC could protect the
country. When the crisis ended peacefully, LeMay called it "the greatest
defeat in our history."
General LeMay reached the summit
of his Air Force career on June 30, 1961, when he was sworn in as Chief of
Staff by Secretary of the Air Force Eugene M. Zuckert. Observing the
ceremony in the rose garden of the White House are the late President John
F. Kennedy and then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
During the Korean and
Vietnam Wars, LeMay scoffed at the restrictions placed on bombing
missions. He felt that bombing’s potential ability to win a war was being
ignored, costing American and enemy lives. As the United States slowly
tested the waters of Vietnam, LeMay rallied for the military to go in with
all its power and end the war quickly: "My solution to the problem would
be to tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop
their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age."
LeMay retired from the Air
Force in 1965. After writing his autobiography, he ran as the
vice-presidential candidate on the right-wing American Independent party
ticket with George Wallace in 1968, where he was smeared by the press.
After the election, LeMay retreated from public view, spending the rest of
his life as a bitter recluse.
Perhaps LeMay was the
general the United States needed to make it strong enough to fight the
Cold War. Sometimes his words went too far, but never his actions. He
always tried to do what was best for America. In his autobiography, he
defended his life:
"I had blood upon my hands
as I did this, but not because I preferred to bathe in blood. It was
because I was part of a primitive world where men still had to kill in
order to avoid being killed, or in order to avoid having their beloved
Nation stricken and emasculated."#