Click on Picture to enlarge


General Curtis E. LeMay

+ Larger Font | - Smaller Font


Click on Picture to enlarge

Curtis E. LeMay

General Curtis E. LeMay

Curtis E. LeMay is one of the icons of American military history who rivals Mitchell in his importance and controversial career. From middling origins, LeMay did not attend West Point, earning his commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps in 1928 at The Ohio State University. Over the next decade he became widely known as one of the best navigators and pilots in the Air Corps. In 1937 he located the battleship Utah in exercises off California and "bombed" it with water bombs, despite being given the wrong coordinates by Navy personnel; the following year he navigated B17s nearly 800 miles over the Atlantic Ocean to intercept the Italian liner Rex to illustrate the ability of airpower to defend the American coasts; and in 1938 he led flights of B17s to South America to display airpower's range and its role in hemisphere defense. War brought rapid promotion and increased responsibility. LeMay began as a group commander in the Eighth Air Force, but within 18 months had gone from lieutenant colonel to major general and an air division commander. He had earned a reputation as an unusually innovative tactician and problem solver, so when Hap Arnold had difficulty bringing the new B29 into combat service, he chose LeMay to spur the program and then take over B29 operations in China. His ability led Arnold to name him commander of the B29s in the Marianas where the main air effort against Japan was centered. Always a tactical innovator, LeMay took the risky and controversial step of abandoning the longheld American doctrine of highaltitude, daylight, precision bombing, and instead stripped his B29s of guns, loaded them with incendiaries, and sent them against Japanese cities at night and at low level. The new strategy was remarkably successful; Japan was devastated, and the dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945 brought the Pacific war to an end without an invasion of the Japanese home islands and the hundreds of thousands of casualties that would have entailed.

Returning to the States, LeMay served briefly as the head of the AAF research and development effort, then was sent to Germany as commander of the air forces in Europe arrayed against the Soviets. In this position he was responsible for getting the Berlin airlift started in mid1948 after the Soviets had instituted a ground blockade of the city. This crisis precipitated a major reshuffling in Washington. A war with the Soviets appeared increasingly possible, and the Strategic Air Command, which would bear the brunt of such a war, was seen as deficient. As a result, Hoyt Vandenberg relieved George Kenney from command at SAC and named LeMay his successor. The building of SAC into an effective and efficient warfighting arm was LeMay's greatest accomplishment. The story of how he demonstrated his command's poor state of readiness by a "bombing raid" on Dayton, Ohio, in which not a single SAC aircraft carried out the mission as planned, is well known. He then set about the difficult but essential task of retraining SAC. Using the authority delegated him by Vandenberg, LeMay built new bases, facilities, and training programs; began a "spot promotion" system for rewarding his best aircrews; and, through his legendary use of iron discipline, soon transformed his command into one of the most effective military units in the world.

In 1957 LeMay was named vicechief of staff, and when Thomas White retired in 1961, he was elevated to the position of chief. LeMay was one of the coldest of America's cold warriors, and partly for this reason his tenure as chief was neither successful nor happy. Under the new management policies of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the "flexible response" military strategy of Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Maxwell D. Taylor, LeMay found himself at constant odds. In his four years as chief, LeMay argued strenuously for new air weapons like the Skybolt missile and B70 bomber, and against the swingwing "fighter" plane, the General Dynamics TFX (later named the F111). He lost all these battles. Moreover, LeMay had strong feelings regarding American involvement in Vietnam, arguing against the gradual response advocated by the administration. Once again he was ignored. When he retired in 1965, LeMay was widely regarded, and probably rightly so, as a great commander of SAC but as a poor chief. His abortive political "career" as George Wallace's running mate in the 1968 presidential election only further tarnished the reputation he had built as a war commander and leader of SAC.

LeMay's only biographer to date is Thomas M. Coffey, Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay (New York: Crown Publishers, 1986). Like Coffey's work on Arnold discussed above, this book is based too much on interviews, newspaper reports, and published memoirs. The result is an entertaining account of a great man's life and career, but with little detail and serious analysis. Coffey is at his best in describing LeMay's personality: he was unsophisticated, taciturn, dedicated, tactless to the point of rudeness, more ambitious than he cared to admit, extremely hard working, and he possessed unquestioned physical courage. In addition, Coffey shows that LeMay was also a good family man and sincerely concerned (sensitive would be too strong a term) about the welfare of his troops-although the author implies this was more because happy subordinates were productive ones rather than through any feeling of innate humanitarianism.

This book fails, however, in revealing the details surrounding the events in which LeMay participated. The decision to reverse three decades of American airpower doctrine with incendiary attacks against Japanese cities raises profound questions of morality and legality. Coffey simply restates LeMay's rationale that all war is awful, and it was better to kill the Japanese than it was to kill Americans. There is something to be said for that point of view, but it is entirely too facile. Are there no limits whatever in warfare? Coffey would seem to imply so. More serious, there is no discussion of LeMay's role in the military strategy-or nonstrategy-of the Vietnam War. Unquestionably, the classification of sources was a problem here, but other than arguing that LeMay never said he wanted to "bomb Vietnam back into the stone age," Coffey does not take on this crucial but thorny subject. LeMay later stated vehemently that he disagreed with administration policy during the war, but we are given no details on an alternative. How precisely would LeMay have fought the war? What targets did he intend to strike with airpower, and what effect did he expect those strikes to have? Did he think the Vietcong insur gency in the south would collapse if the leaders in the north were coerced into withdrawing their support? These are fundamental questions regarding the role of airpower in a "minor" war that are of great importance but which are not explored.

Similarly, LeMay's advocated doctrine is identified as the epitome of strategic bombing, but once again the implications of such a statement are not examined. We are given no insights into LeMay's theories of warfare and the role of airpower in modern war other than his belief that strategic bombing, and lots of it, would be decisive. Was LeMay's thinking truly that simplistic? Perhaps so, because it is unquestionably the case that tactical airpower dangerously atrophied during LeMay's tenure and that the Air Force as a whole became seriously unbalanced. One could argue that because of this overemphasis on SAC, the Air Force was woefully unprepared for Vietnam. Airpower was consequently so discredited that one could ask if LeMay actually hurt the cause of American airpower.

One of the more interesting and potentially significant issues that Coffey touches upon is LeMay's strained relations with both Defense Secretary McNamara and Air Force Secretary Eugene Zuckert. Clearly, LeMay believed that his preroga tives as chief and as military advisor were being undermined by these men. In fact, the long tenure of McNamara at Defense serves as a watershed in American military history. Prior to that time, military leaders had some latitude in discussing military affairs with Congress and, to some extent, the public. McNamara saw such a tradition as chaotic and moved to change it by placing constraints on what the chiefs could say and to whom. This is an important story, and although Coffey introduces it, he does not seem to realize its implications. Overall, Coffey gives us a useful read, but a more serious study of one of America's most important airmen is needed.

LeMay's autobiography, written with the help of novelist MacKinlay Kantor, is titled Mission with LeMay: My Story (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965). This is an engaging and wellwritten story. LeMay's abrupt, nononsense personality comes through clearly, and the book also provides an excellent insight into air leadership. LeMay was intelligent and physically courageous-two qualities generally cited as crucial for successful leadership-but the real reason for his sustained, outstanding performance was his insistence on following through on a job until its completion. His emphasis on rigorous training was relentless, and it was this dogged and selfless determination to practice and work hard that were the real reasons for his success. There is certainly a lesson here: great commanders are often made and not born.


General Curtis E. LeMay


 Curtis Emerson LeMay was born at Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 15, 1906. He attended Columbus public schools and Ohio state University, graduating with a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree. In 1928 he entered the Armed Services as a flying cadet. He completed pilot training at Kelly Field, Tex., and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve in October 1929. He received a regular commission on Feb. 1, 1930.

The general's first tour of duty was with the 27th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Mich. He served in various assignments in fighter operations before transferring to bomber aircraft in 1937. General LeMay participated in the first mass flight of B-17 Flying Fortresses to South America in 1938. This won for the 2nd Bomb Group the Mackay Trophy for outstanding aerial achievement. Prior to our entry into World War II, he pioneered air routes over the South Atlantic to Africa and over the North Atlantic to England.




General Curtis E. LeMay


This early photo of then Lieutenant LeMay (center with helmet and goggles) was taken during the National Air Races at Chicago in 1930. The unidentified officers are also members of the 1st Pursuit Group.

Curtis Emerson LeMay was born at Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 15, 1906. He attended Columbus public schools and Ohio state University, graduating with a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree. In 1928 he entered the Armed Services as a flying cadet. He completed pilot training at Kelly Field, Tex., and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve in October 1929. He received a regular commission on Feb. 1, 1930.

The general's first tour of duty was with the 27th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Mich. He served in various assignments in fighter operations before transferring to bomber aircraft in 1937. General LeMay participated in the first mass flight of B-17 Flying Fortresses to South America in 1938. This won for the 2nd Bomb Group the Mackay Trophy for outstanding aerial achievement. Prior to our entry into World War II, he pioneered air routes over the South Atlantic to Africa and over the North Atlantic to England.

General LaMay organized and trained the 305th Bombardment Group in 1942 and led that organization to combat in the European theater. He developed formation procedures and bombing techniques that were used by B-17 bomber units throughout the European Theater of Operations. These fundamental procedures and techniques were later adapted to the B-29 Super Fortresses which fought the war to its conclusion in the Pacific.

As commanding general of the 3rd Bombardment Division (England), he led the famed Regensberg raid, a B-17 shuttle mission that originated in England, struck deep in Germany, and terminated in Africa. In July 1944 he was transferred to the Pacific to direct the B-29 heavy bombardment activities of the 20th Bomber Command in the China-India-Burma theater. He later commanded the 21st Bomber Command with headquarters on Guam, and still later became chief of staff of the Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific. At the conclusion of World War II, he returned to the United States piloting a Super Fortress (B-29), on a nonstop, record flight from Hokkaido Island, Japan, to Chicago, Ill. He was then transferred to the Pentagon at Washington, D.C., to be the first Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development.

In October 1947 General LeMay was selected to command the U.S. Air Forces in Europe with headquarters at Wiesbaden, Germany. He organized air operations for the Berlin Airlift. A year later he returned to the United States, assumed command of the newly formed Strategic Air Command, and established its headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebr. This central location was to become the nerve center of a worldwide bomber-missile force.

Commanding SAC for nearly nine years, he built, from the remnants of World War II, an all-jet bomber force, manned and supported by professional airmen dedicated to the preservation of peace. Under his leadership and supervision, plans were laid for the development and integration of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.

In July 1957 the general was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and served in that capacity until July 1961, at which time he was appointed Chief of Staff.

General LeMay holds Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from John Carroll University, Kenyon College, the University of Southern California, Creighton University, and the University of Akron; Honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Tufts University, Ohio State University, and the University of Virginia; and an Honorary Doctor of Engineering degree from Case Institute of Technology. His fraternal organizations include Sigma Tau, Tau Beta Pi and Theta Tau.

General LeMay's distinguished service has won him many awards and decorations from his government, as well as from foreign governments.

General LeMay is rated a command pilot and is qualified to fly jet aircraft. During his career he held aircraft observer, combat observer and technical observer aeronautical ratings which were later replaced by the current navigator or aircraft observer rating.



General LeMay


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.

General LeMay accepts a Boy Scout badge from a 10-year-old scout during a Pentagon ceremony in January 1963 to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of scouting. Always interested in the youth of America, and once a Boy Scout himself, General LeMay credited scouting with helping him wear the stars of a general.




An avid hobbyist in the field of amateur radio, General LeMay shares a tense moment with his guest, fellow "ham" Thomas Brushart, as they search for a signal from the OSCAR, Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio. The tiny transmitter made numerous passes over Washington, D.C. in 1961.

A distinguished looking General LeMay announces his retirement plans following two tours as Air Force Chief of Staff. Now in the twilight of a brillant military career, General LeMay retires on February 1 1965 after 35 years' service in the U.S. Air Force.

After completing a nonstop flight from Hokkaido, Japan, to Chicago, Ill., in a Boeing B-29 Super Fortress in 1945, a tired General LeMay was greeted in Washington, D.C., by fellow Air Force Generals Emmett O'Donnell, Henry H. Arnold and Barney M. Giles.

As organizer of the famed Berlin Airlift, General LeMay was visited frequently by top Air Force leaders. General LeMay is shown here, shortly after the airlift began, leaving the Operations building at Rhein-Main AB, Germany, with Air Force Secretary W. Stuart Symington and the Air Force Chief of Staff, the late General Hoyt S. Vandenberg.

General LeMay is congratulated by Chairman-designate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Nathan F. Twining after being sworn in as the new Air Force Vice Chief of Staff on July 1, 1957. General Thomas D. White, sworn in as Chief of Staff at the same time, and Air Force Secretary James Douglas join in the Pentagon ceremony.

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.

General LeMay, while commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, is shown in unfamiliar surrounding aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway. In 1956 the general joined 50 high-ranking NATO officials for a one-day indoctrination cruise with a US Sixth Fleet carrier task force.

During the war in the Pacific General LeMay commanded the B-29s which dealt the decisive blow against the Japanese homeland. General LeMay is pictured during a 1945 visit to Mizutani airstrip, Japan, following the end of hostilities.

General LeMay, an avid sportsman, display his prowess with a shotgun in this 1961 photograph. His other hobbies include such diverse activities as rifle and pistol shooting, Go-kart and sports car racing, and "ham" radio operation.





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.




Colonel LeMay, commander of the 305th Bomb Group in England is pictured early in World War II with Brig. Gen. Haywood S. Hansell. The Boeing B-17 in the background is one of the many quaintly named American aircraft which carried the air war to Germany.

Pinpointing ground zero on a scale model of Bikini Atoll, Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay reviews U.S. Air Force participation in Pacific atom bomb tests. Looking on are Brig. Gen. William F. McKee and Maj. Gen. Earle E. Partridge.



For a decade the names of General LeMay and the mighty Consolidated B-36 were synomymous with the deterrent power of the Startegic Air Command. The B-36 reached the peak of its development with the 10-engine model shown above. General LeMay served as commander in chief of SAC from 1948 to 1957 -- the longest tour as a major air commander in Air Force History.

During a ceremony at the White House on 12 November 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented the Harmon International Trophy to Gen. Curtis E. LaMay, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff for his record-setting non-stop flight between the United States and Buenos Aires, Argentina, 11-13 November 1957. Gen. LeMay flew a Boeing KC-135 tanker from the U.S. to Argentina in thirteen hours and two minutes, covering 6,350 miles and setting a new world record for non-stop, non-refueled jet flight. On the return flight, the KC-135 reached Washington in eleven hours and five minutes, setting another record for the 5,204 miles from Buenos Aires.

Pictures and Text Courtesy of The US Air Force Museum


More On General Curtis E. LaMay



Last Updated