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Curtiss LeMay and SACs
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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 belt.

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 bombing. 

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 prolonged bombing." 

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."#