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The Life and Wars of General Curtis Lemay


War Hero

Quite and interesting bio on USAF General Lemay that some might like to read. Written by a guy called Byron W. King and been serialised on the free newsletter but will copy it here. Link above though obviously. Fought in WW2 and Korea, quite a guy:


“He never fit the image of the American flyboy – dashing, handsome and suave,” writes author Warren Kozak in the prologue to his remarkable new biography of General Curtis Lemay (1906–1990). “He was, instead, dark, brooding, and forbidding. He rarely smiled, he spoke even less, and when he did, his few words seemed to come out in a snarl.”

When even the biographer begins on such a disparaging note, it’s not hard to understand why Lemay has been the subject of so few worthy accounts. One that comes to mind is Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of Gen. Curtis Lemay, by Thomas Coffey, 1987. But there are few others. So after 22 years we now have a new effort to tell the tale of one of America’s greatest warriors. Better late than never, I suppose.

The Neglected Military and Strategic Genius

Again and again, fine writers have told the stories of almost all U.S. military leaders of World War II and the Cold War. Library shelves strain beneath books detailing the military accomplishments of George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Omar Bradley, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz and others of that mid-century era.

But Curtis Lemay? He’s a neglected captain, if not forgotten. Today, many Americans under age 50 scarcely know his name. To those with only a casual acquaintance of Lemay’s story, his life is summed-up in the disdainful quip – an irreverent dismissal, really — that he was “George Wallace’s running mate in the 1968 presidential election.” Oh, you don’t say. Well, yes he was. And that’s a nugget of truth that explains precisely nothing in the saga of war and peace in our time.

To those with more knowledge, Lemay supposedly said of North Vietnam that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” Actually, Lemay denied saying that. The words are those of a ghost-writer who took too much literary license.

Then there’s the insult of artful insults. It was Lemay who was caricatured as the loony Gen. Buck Turgidson (played by the actor George C. Scott) in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

No, Stanley. Not at all. Not even close. When it comes to portraying Lemay, Dr. Strangelove is literary license on steroids. Here’s the rebuttal. Dr. Strangelove is only a movie. As to Lemay, it’s neither accurate nor fair. Lemay was Lemay, of course, sui generis. But Lemay was no Buck Turgidson.

A Man of Many Great Battles and Campaigns

What a shame, then, that two (going on three) generations of Americans know so little about Curtis Lemay. He was more than just an effective wartime commander. He was one of the most brilliant military leaders and strategists that the U.S. has produced in its entire national existence. Thus it’s about time that the man receives the recognition he deserves in this new volume of straightforward biography.

First, some perspective. How many great battles and campaigns did George Washington plan or fight? Less than ten. For how many great battles did Ulysses Grant or Robert E. Lee set the stage? Under twenty. How about John J. Pershing, or Douglas MacArthur or George Patton? A couple of dozen, perhaps.

What about Curtis Lemay? As commander of the Eighth Air Force in Europe, and later the 20th Air Force in the Pacific, Lemay set the stage for literally hundreds of great aerial battles.

During those battles, Lemay flew many a combat mission. But he was no mere knight of the air. Lemay was directly responsible for inventing and refining many key concepts of aerial warfare, from heavy bombardment to precision strike. Lemay took the abstract ideas of airpower thinkers from Giulio Douhet to Billy Mitchell, and turned them into the steel rain of bomb-dropping reality.

By one macabre statistic, Lemay ordered and commanded actions that led to the deaths of more enemy combatants and civilians than any other military leader in U.S. history. So Gen. Sherman burned Atlanta? Well, Lemay out-Sherman’ed Gen. Sherman. Indeed, Lemay put the torch to Japan, as we’ll discuss below.

Cometh the Hour…

Burn Japan? Yes indeed. Lemay burned many cities — to the ground. That’s what Lemay did AFTER his bombers pounded large swaths of Germany into rubble. Lemay’s record for death and destruction is a strange honor, to be sure. It’s probably a dubious distinction these days, in the hindsight of contemporary morality and the trend towards judgmental, 20-20 hindsight.

But then again, recall the old saying that “cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Lemay lived and served in a time of many desperate hours. His hour came. In the context of his time, the dirtiest of dirty jobs fell to Lemay. He worked with exactly the tools that his nation handed him. It was left to Lemay to act.

Thus in both World War II and the following Cold War, Lemay accomplished what necessity demanded. By all accounts Lemay performed his work out of a sense of duty. History, if not the fates, offered him his hour and assigned him his mission. By all accounts Lemay didn’t relish the death and destruction he rained upon the enemy. But he accomplished what his nation asked him to do, and under the hardest circumstances.

For a while, Lemay even received high praise for his grisly work. Until, of course, some people forgot why they needed Lemay. Until, of course, a new generation came along that knew not of the desperation of those previous hours. But this gets ahead of the story.

Leading from the Front – from Inside a Plexiglas Dome

Unlike many generals – before his time, then or since — Lemay shared the risk. Many times he led his troops into battle over Germany, directing the fight from a cramped perch inside a Plexiglas dome atop a B-17. Lemay was often in the lead aircraft, at which German guns poured heavy volumes of fire.

Later, Lemay flew against Japan as well. He only flew a few missions and wouldd have flown more, except that eventually his knowledge of the Manhattan Project kept him out of the action. Under direct orders from Washington, Lemay could not risk getting shot down and captured.

Later, in 1948 Lemay organized the Berlin Airlift, and not long afterwards orchestrated the 1950 – 1953 air campaign against North Korea during the Korean War.

Throughout the 1950s Lemay built the Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the U.S. Air Force, and set it on a near-constant, wartime footing.

In 1962, as Air Force Chief of Staff, Lemay counseled Pres. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis while SAC and other Air Force capabilities gave Kennedy military options to play out against the moves of his Soviet counterparts.

A Story of a General, and of America at Mid-Century

In the life of any nation, it is for the fates to decide when the hard hours shall come. But whence cometh those men to meet those hours?

The question brings us to Kozak’s new biography of Lemay. It’s not just another book about another military man. Oh, Kozak tells that tale of course. But another theme that permeates the discussion is the story of the U.S. at war in the mid-20th Century.

Lemay’s early life sets the stage. Lemay was a child of an unsuccessful father. Most of the time, his family was destitute. And from such humble roots, Lemay rose to command great air armies, to control god-like nuclear powers, and to advise U.S. presidents – several of them, in fact.

Yet despite his early hardships, Lemay revered the Wright Brothers. He wanted to fly. Eventually it dawned on Lemay that he needed to pursue an education. Thus did Lemay work his way through college. And while in school, Lemay joined the Army Reserve because he figured it was about the only way he’d ever get off the ground.

At first, Lemay didn’t know where the Army would take him. But flying airplanes seemed like a good skill on which to build some sort of career. It’s not unlike the story of another college-man of his era, Ronald Reagan, who joined an Army unit to learn how to ride horses. You just never know where some skills will take you.

Work Hard, and the Army Will Buy the Gas

After college, Lemay passed flight school and took to the air, with the U.S. Army buying the gas. He achieved his success without the advantages of family, politics, good looks, charm or even all that much luck. It’s fairer to say that Lemay succeeded by dint of a phenomenal work ethic. He had guts, street-smarts and the uncanny ability to make good decisions. Later, he maintained his success by selecting other good people who could interpret his ideas and help him accomplish things.

Lemay started as an Army pilot in the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression. Funding was tight, although it also was a time of great advances in aviation. Lemay mastered the technical intricacies of every aircraft he flew. He was, in particular, a superb navigator – perhaps the best in the Army; perhaps the best in the country; perhaps one of the best in the world. It would come to matter, eventually.

And Lemay knew his aircraft weapons, too, from guns to arming wires to tail fins. In the process of mastering these systems, he developed a sense of the training and supervision he needed to impart to his subordinates.

Thus Lemay understood the “envelope” of performance in many different respects. That is, he understood what he could demand from both people and machines. Lemay also understood how the Army system worked, and he could out-bureaucrat even the best of bureaucrats.

Finally, Lemay thought broadly about big ideas, of how to employ technology and people within the system, to accomplish the job at hand. People, ideas, machines, systems. That’s what all the great ones understand. They can tie it all together and make something work.

Lemay Rewrites the Book of Bombing in Europe

So there was Lemay, working in the wings of the U.S. Army (pardon the pun) as World War II began in Europe in 1939. Initially, Lemay rose to squadron-level command posts during the U.S. aerial supply effort towards Britain. He learned a lot, and it would prove to be useful knowledge after the U.S. entered the war with Germany.

By 1942, and the early days of U.S. bombing effort against Germany, things were not going well. Targeting was poor. Accuracy was terrible. Losses were high. Into this mix, Lemay was assigned to command one of the first B-17 bomber groups in England.

Lemay immediately focused on crew-training and aircraft-maintenance. He flew with his crews, developing the “box formation” in which the defensive guns of each bomber provided protection not only to themselves, but to others in the group as well.

As the bombers approached the target, Lemay insisted on steady, accurate run-ins despite the murderous German antiaircraft fire. Lemay believed that there was no use taking the risks and losses of air assaults, if the bombs could not be placed accurately on targets.

Lemay’s tactics were successful. Bombing accuracy increased, and his units’ losses went down. Over time, the B-17 even became a fearsome killer of enemy aircraft, shooting down more German fighter airplanes than any other type of aircraft in World War II. Lemay was promoted, and his tactics became operational doctrine. Lemay’s concepts began to have a strategic impact on the war effort.

“A Lot to Learn in Combat”

But Lemay knew – and never forgot — that bombing was a brutal, unforgiving business. The Germans put up one hell of a fight, every time. “We had a lot to learn in combat,” Lemay wrote later. “Many people didn’t last long enough to learn much.”

On a typical mission, flak exploded all around, tossing thousands of pieces of supersonic shrapnel in every direction. Or the German Messerschmitt-109s fired cannon shells the size of milk bottles, filled with high explosive.

Blue Battlefields, Orange Balls

In 10,000 years of human history, there had never been a conflict like this. Up in the blue battlefield, massive airplanes were ripped to pieces in just fractions of a second. Death was random and made no distinction between good men or bad. Aircraft collided. Aircraft maneuvered so violently that their wings ripped off. Aircraft were hit, and exploded into orange balls that vaporized every soul. The lucky ones, at least, died before tumbling 26,000 feet to earth amidst a rain of scorched metal and parts.

In World War II, the Army Air Corps suffered more combat deaths than did the ground-pounding, beach-hitting Marines. Almost every day, for over three years, hundreds of aircraft full of young men took off from bases in England. Later in the day, chaplains stood by the end of the runways, counting the returning aircraft and checking off their tail numbers as they landed. Lemay, too – when he was not up-front and flying — was in the control towers or operations rooms, keeping vigil.

And of those aircraft that never returned? There were just so many, something like 5,000, filled with American aircrew. Later, as time permitted, the chaplains went through the personal effects of the missing. Then the Army sent a footlocker home to a grieving family. Lemay went through many a service record, personally writing thousands of condolence letters.

The Highest Praise Comes from the Opponent

After the war, the Strategic Bombing Survey second-guessed the results of Lemay’s efforts. Targeting was never all that good, the survey pointed out. Indeed, most bombs missed the targets entirely. Bombing did not truly cripple German industry, noted the survey. One key conclusion was that bombing used vast resources for limited results.

Then again, not everything is subject to “survey.” Indeed, Lemay’s European bombing campaign received high praise from the highest of all sources. It came from no less an expert than Albert Speer, the German Minister of Armaments. Speer would know, of course, because it was his industries on the receiving end of Lemay’s bombs.

In memoirs published in the 1970s, Speer noted that the increasingly effective U.S. bombardment required Germany to redeploy over 2.5 million troops, 150,000 high-velocity guns and 20,000 fighters and pilots across Western Europe to cover the “aerial front.” Speer commented wryly on the effect these troops and munitions could have had, if only they had been available to fight the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

Cometh Another Hour…

Thus did one man meet the call of a dark hour in Europe. But Mars, god of war, was not finished with Lemay. There was another trumpet blowing. There was another dark hour for the nation, and Lemay was summoned to Asia.


War Hero


By the summer of 1944 the air war was taking shape in Europe. Gen. Curtis Lemay had turned a problematic bombing operation against Germany into a strategic success. No less than the German Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, would eventually come to credit Lemay’s bombers for speeding along the defeat of Germany in Europe.

China, the Pacific, and Building a New Air Force

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And Lemay’s hour had come, but it was not over. Lemay’s clock was still ticking.

Thus in July 1944 Lemay was posted to China to run air operations against Japan using the newly-developed B-29. Lemay called the China effort, “the tiny B-29 war that was being waged.”

It may have been a “tiny B-29 war,” but it posed big problems. Lemay’s first problem was that the B-29 was going through severe birthing pains. Despite its immense cost (more than the U.S. spent on the Manhattan Project that built the atom bomb) the B-29 program was plagued with serious mechanical and material defects. Its four giant engines, particularly, had the nasty tendency to swallow valves and explode and burn uncontrollably in flight. Plus, the B-29 had myriad of other advanced systems that tended to break or fail at the worst possible moment.

So the aircraft didn’t work very well. Now add the stress of flying this giant bird in combat. And do it from austere fields at the far end of logistics lines that snaked from primitive India to the undeveloped innards of China. Thus were both the flyers and fixers challenged all day, every day. Someone had to come in and figure out how to make this expensive program work.

Lemay took control of a flailing operation, attempting to bomb Japanese targets from isolated bases in China. “Everything had to be flown in,” wrote Lemay. “Every single item.” It was a 1,500 mile trek over the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas.

Lemay started with his innate ability to put the right people into the right jobs. He made the Chinese operation work better, and soon increased combat effectiveness. In the process, Lemay developed a working relationship with the Communist leader Mao Zedong. Mao started by agreeing to return downed U.S. aircrews in return for medical supplies. As the relationship evolved, Mao’s troops were scrupulous about protecting and returning downed U.S. aircrews. Mao and Lemay worked well together.

From China to the South Pacific

By the end of 1944 the Chinese operation was beginning to click. Lemay had worked his magic and set things up for success. So sure enough, at the end of the year Lemay was transferred out. He was ordered to the South Pacific to perform another of his leadership miracles with what came to be called the 20th Air Force. This was the island-based air campaign and against Japan.

Again, there were the same problems of B-29 maintenance and training in the South Pacific, as well as near-impossible logistics and primitive living conditions. Leading by example, Lemay lived out of a tent and ate basic field rations, the same as the men under his command.

Lemay quickly learned that high altitude operations against Japan were problematic on the best of days. The U.S. had almost no accurate military maps of Japan. The best that the intelligence system could do was to supply pre-war maps from the National Geographic Society.

For the B-29s that made the flight to the Japanese islands, powerful, easterly-blowing jet streams out of Northeast Asia made flying and bombing a navigational and targeting nightmare. The obvious solution was to obtain weather information from the Soviets about atmospheric conditions forming in Siberia.

Yet the Soviets stonewalled. They lived up to their reputation for secrecy. The Soviets absolutely refused to provide Lemay with any weather information. Lack of this basic information, of course, confounded aerial mission planning. Even worse, the Soviets confiscated all B-29s that made emergency landings on their territory, and interned the crews.

Lemay understood that his options for high-level bombing were constrained. So he quickly adapted his tactics and revised the operational concept.

Burning an Empire

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. a group called the “Joint Incendiary Committee” had come up with industrial requirements for firebombs. Weapon developers tested the bombs on a mockup of a Japanese town, erected in the desert of Utah. In short order the U.S. supply system procured vast numbers of incendiary bombs, and deployed them to the South Pacific munitions depots. What was going on?

Indeed, what WAS going on? Lemay never received specific orders to use incendiary bombs in one way or another. Political leaders and senior generals on the home front seldom dirty their hands or sully their reputations with such distasteful matters. (Not until the Johnson administration would a U.S. President actually select bombing targets.) But the intent and purpose of these firebombs was clear. Lemay had ‘em in order that he could use ‘em.

So he used ‘em. “No matter how you slice it, you’re going to kill an awful lot of civilians,” Lemay later wrote. “Thousands and thousands. But (otherwise) we’re going to have to invade Japan. And how many Americans will be killed in an invasion? … Five hundred thousand seems to be the lowest estimate. Some say a million. … Crank her up. Let’s go.”

Thus on March 9, 1945, Lemay sent 325 B-29s flying towards Japan at astonishingly low altitudes, between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. “Throw your mask away, you fly with Curt Lemay,” was one bit of graffiti that appeared soon after.

Under two miles altitude, there was no issue of a jet stream. The aim point was Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. The B-29s thundered in, and were unexpected. The Japanese scrambled almost no fighters. Lemay’s planes dropped incendiary bombs that leveled a dozen square miles of one of the most densely-populated cities in the world.

The heat from the burning fires of Tokyo was so intense that U.S. aircraft returned to their bases covered with thick layers of carbon, and even blistered paint on their underside. Updrafts from the Tokyo fires tossed some B-29s up to 15,000 feet in the air. Powerful vortexes tore the wings off at least one B-29, and flipped other aircraft upside down, causing them to crash.

This one air raid on Tokyo killed over 100,000 people on the ground. (There’s no exact number.) The Japanese were utterly stunned at the ferocity of the U.S. attack. If the common folk of Japan had not questioned their government before, many had their doubts now. It was raining fire. Soon after the Tokyo raid, the Japanese Army sent troops into the capital to prevent rioting by civilians.

Victim Populations

Few in the West shed tears for the civilians on the ground. Some Roosevelt-era policy makers referred to Japanese noncombatants as “victim populations.” At the highest levels, Allied powers around the world were elated at the Tokyo attack.

Even Joseph Stalin was impressed. In a high form of flattery, Stalin ordered Soviet aircraft designers to build exact copies of seized American B-29s. This they did, down to the last rivet hole and shade of green anti-corrosion paint. The Soviet copy of the B-29 aircraft, built by the Tupolev Bureau, eventually flew with Soviet forces as the Tu-4. (It even had the word “Boeing” written on the pilot’s and copilot’s yoke.)

Breaking the Will to Resist

Up until the Tokyo attack, nothing seemed to break the Japanese will to fight and resist. Across the arc of the Pacific theater, and throughout Asia, the Japanese just killed, and killed, and killed. Now the war was striking home, at the heart of the Japanese Empire. So the Japanese could burn, for all anyone cared.

In the editorial salons of America, even the New York Times gave high praise to Lemay and his bombers for taking the war to the heart of the enemy. Nearer to the face of battle, U.S. troops cheered from trenches in Europe to foxholes on Pacific islands when they heard the news of the Tokyo raid. There was a better chance that they might survive the war. Japan was burning, and Lemay was lionized for his role.

Lemay kept up the aerial bombardment of Japan. He would burn them into submission. The military justification was that U.S. intelligence believed (correctly, as it turned out) that much Japanese industry was dispersed throughout urban areas in small machine shops and assembly centers. Thus there were legitimate military reasons for burning the cities. As for the “victim populations?” Well, total war was total war.

Leaflets, Mines and Overwhelming Aerial Power

Still, to spare the civilian population Lemay ordered his B-29s to drop leaflets warning people to leave areas that the planes were going to return and bomb. Indeed, Lemay personally wrote the warning message, which was then translated into Japanese.

“I’ll tell them I’m coming,” he said. Then Lemay sent the bombers, which dropped incendiaries on a long target list of Japanese cities.

Lemay’s B-29s dropped so much ordnance that the 20th Air Force literally ran out of bombs in early-spring 1945. The Navy had to divert convoys to haul more munitions to Lemay.

While he waited for more incendiary bombs to arrive, Lemay’s B-29s laid underwater naval mines along the Japanese coastline. This virtually strangled coastal shipping. Between these mines, and the deadly U.S. submarine campaign against Japanese shipping in the Sea of Japan, much of Japan’s economy ground to a halt. For example, not a single oil tanker landed at any Japanese port between March 1945 and the end of the war.

Six Months of Fire

The last six months of the war were a time of fire for Japan. Back in February 1945, the island-fighting in the South Pacific was hard and Japan was intransigent. In February it looked like this was going to be a long war.

In fact at the Yalta Conference in February, the U.S. practically begged the Soviets to enter the fight against Japan. Stalin promised Pres. Roosevelt that the Soviets would attack Japan “within three months” of the defeat of Germany.

What a difference six months makes. By mid-summer of 1945, Lemay told a reporter that he expected Japan to capitulate by October 1. Soon after, Lemay received a note from the U.S. War Department, cautioning him against making public speculations. Then again, Lemay would know because it was his bombers that were burning out Japan’s cities. Meanwhile, more and more members of the leadership circles of U.S., Britain, China and other nations started to hope that Stalin might break yet another of his promises.

The Buildup to the Last Attacks

Lemay’s campaign of great fires served as a buildup for the two atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan in August 1945. Throughout the spring and summer of 1945, when the Japanese heard B-29s flying overhead they knew that another city was doomed. In fact, when Japanese spotters noted three aircraft approaching Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, they were at first relieved that it was not one of Lemay’s incendiary air armadas.

The Hiroshima attack certainly shocked Japan, in so many ways. At the highest levels of leadership, the decision makers were utterly confused about what happened. Another city was destroyed? Hiroshima? At first they didn’t know what hit them. Where was Lemay’s air army? It took several days for Japanese physicists to confirm that Hiroshima was destroyed by a uranium-based nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, on August 9 the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki. The Japanese government was still slow in understanding the mechanism of destruction. They took their time to gather basic information. Japanese physicists were shocked to discover that the second bomb was of a completely different mechanism, plutonium. The Americans had not just one, but TWO different nuclear weapon programs at work.

To the peril of their nation, Japanese leadership dallied instead of discussing surrender with the U.S. In turn, Lemay received approval to stage one final firebombing raid on an already devastated Tokyo. After this final attack the Japanese quickly signaled that they were ready to end the war.

Ending a War

In September 1945 Lemay stood on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, while representatives of the Empire of Japan signed an instrument of surrender. In the distance, the horizon began to rumble. Then came a sound of thunder, as 462 of Lemay’s B-29s flew in perfect formation across a clear sky. The Japanese watched. The world watched. The point was made.

Later, Lemay noted his thoughts as he observed the surrender ceremony. Lemay went over in his mind the course and cost of the war. He’d spent his early career flying Army planes, in something like a “flying club” atmosphere. Now he commanded the largest, most destructive assemblage of air power on earth.

Lemay had written an entirely new operational doctrine for waging conventional war. In the end, he had helped usher in the nuclear age. And through it all, ever the great captain, he asked himself what else he could have done to save the lives of more of his troops who died in the terrible fighting.

Salute the Conqueror

Not long after the surrender at Tokyo Bay, Lemay piloted a B-29 to the northern reaches of Japan. He was preparing to return to the U.S., and this was the closest large airfield from which Lemay – a great aerial navigator in his own right – could fly a non-stop, “great circle” Polar route to North America. Lemay landed at a Japanese training base, and spent the night in a barracks with 3,000 Japanese naval cadets.

A month before, Lemay was burning Japanese cities. Now the Japanese cadets guarded Lemay and his crew while they slept. The next day the Japanese sailors lined the roads, saluted and offered military honors to Lemay. Then the cadets watched and waved as Lemay took to the skies and headed north across the vast, dark Pacific Ocean.

War is a grim business. It asks much of people. From some, it takes everything. And war is personal to every participant. But past some point, nations and militaries and people have to let it go.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man? For Curtis Lemay, his hour was over – or so it seemed. Now the man was returning home. But Lemay’s clock still was running.


War Hero


Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The Second World War had many dark hours. And in the crucible of desperation, the U.S. found its man to wage war from the air, Gen. Curtis Lemay.

Who Was This Man?

The hour. The man. But let’s pause, and ask again who was this man? Keep in mind that Lemay was a field general, or perhaps we should call him an “air” general. Lemay devised doctrine, training and tactics for bombers. He planned and commanded air operations. His operations in many ways affected strategy.

But Lemay was always a subordinate, a general officer carrying out the greater aims and subject to the authority of others. That is, Lemay was not a politician, a theater commander or an industrialist. These latter players gave Lemay his orders and his tools. For all his efforts, Lemay was an instrument of the national will and productivity.

A Returning American Hero

Still, Lemay became the face of winged victory. He was the triumphant air marshal. When the war with Japan ended, Lemay flew home in a B-29 and landed to become an American hero. He toured the country, speaking to appreciative audiences, and received honorary degrees. Lemay was on the cover of Time Magazine.

The governor of his native Ohio considered appointing Lemay to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. Lemay declined the offer, preferring to remain on active duty in what was to become the newly-established U.S. Air Force.

Demobilization Fever

Lemay traveled, shook a lot of hands, testified before Congress. He was a walking testimonial to the idea of establishing an independent Air Force. By 1948, Lemay was assigned to build a new organization called the Strategic Air Command (SAC) out of the remnants of the U.S. Army airpower arm. And what a job that would turn out to be.

Building SAC was a Herculean task because the U.S. had demobilized so quickly after the war. It astonished many people – including Lemay — to learn that a mere 30 months after the war ended, U.S. forces operated almost no serviceable, long-range combat bomber aircraft. Nor were there sufficient trained crews or maintenance personnel. What happened? It was a classic case of demobilization fever.

Building Strategic Air Command

Yet Lemay set about accomplishing exactly what he was ordered to do. The World War was over, but the nation soon realized that its dark hours had not passed. Joseph Stalin had his own ideas about the fate of Europe.

On the other side of the world, there was a civil war raging in China. It highlighted the point that there was a world to police, or so went the bipartisan consensus. And someone had to do it, or so went the bipartisan consensus. The U.S. was the only free and great power left — with an intact economy — after the fighting.

So the late 1940s provided other of the nation’s hard hours, and these hours required a certain kind of man, Lemay — again.

Build SAC? Lemay requisitioned aircraft and spare parts from storage sites in the deserts of Arizona and California. He recruited the best pilots and maintenance personnel he could find. He scrounged for funds to build barracks and hangars and command centers. In essence, Lemay had to recreate an entire new bombing air force because the old one was gone.

Berlin Blockade

Lemay’s efforts were soon interrupted when the Soviets placed a blockade around Berlin in 1948. The U.S. turned to its great air general, Curtis Lemay, to organize an airlift of supplies to the beleaguered city. More than a few Germans changed their minds about the American occupation when they learned that Lemay, who used to bomb them, was now delivering coal and food to Berlin.

In the process of relieving Berlin, Lemay suggested making a highly visible geopolitical point. Eventually Lemay ordered B-29 “atomic bombers” to fly to England. The Soviets knew that there was a message in the action, and that message was crystal clear.

“We believe that Lemay would drop atom bombs on us,” said one Soviet diplomat to an American counterpart. The American diplomat smiled, as diplomats do, and concurred with the Russian.

Stalin was many things. But he was no fool. After a period of time, the Soviets wound down the Berlin blockade.

Korean War

Not long after, and again at the behest of that Soviet troublemaker Stalin, in June 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. Lemay had B-29 bombers ready to roll, and quickly sent his birds to Japan and Okinawa. From bases there, Lemay’s B-29s could hit targets in North Korea.

Lemay’s view was that early, massive, visible blows would help bring the war to a swift conclusion. Thus, early-on in Korea, Lemay urged intense bombing to shatter the economy and military forces of the North Koreans. Lemay wanted to do to North Korea what he had previously done to Germany and Japan. And this time, he had the bombers with which to do it from the start.

But at the beginning of the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was in command. MacArthur was an old-school soldier who did not want to see a reprieve of Lemay’s aerial campaign such as had burnt out Japan in World War II. Also, MacArthur had plans to fight and defeat the North Koreans on the ground. So MacArthur blocked Lemay’s idea of early and powerful bombardment.

Meanwhile, the Chinese and Soviets had plans of their own. And those plans involved NOT permitting their North Korean ally to be defeated by a Western army, particularly not by any army mostly American, commanded by a certain Douglas MacArthur.

Macarthur scored successes at Inchon and afterwards. His troops rolled up the invading North Koreans. Then MacArthur made a fateful decision and ordered U.S. and United Nations troops to cross the 38th Parallel. MacArthur’s soldiers spent the late summer and early fall overrunning most of northern Korea.

China would nave none of this. The Chinese had just kicked out the Japanese five years earlier. They wanted nothing of a Western army on their border. So in October 1950 China entered the war, sending vast numbers of troops south across the Yalu River. U.S. and U.N. forces were quickly overrun and pushed back, south of Seoul. It was a humiliating defeat. For this, and a list of other reasons, MacArthur was relieved of command.

After MacArthur departed, Lemay tried once more to move the idea of a massive Korean bombing campaign. But Lemay was overruled by the policymakers in Washington. No massive bombing.

In Korea Lemay encountered the beginnings of the modern American political phenomenon of committing troops to wage war, without the political will to deliver crippling military blows against the enemy. The expression of the soldiers was, “We die for a tie.”

The Worst of All Worlds

The fighting in Korea strung out over the next three years. The bitter combat, and overall air war, eventually pulverized most significant targets in the North. The end-result was the same as Lemay had first proposed. But it played out slowly, not quickly. The fighting and destruction occurred gradually, piecemeal, and at great human and material expense.

Compounding the problem, the war commanders used Lemay’s B-29s inappropriately. Air tasking orders had B-29s performing missions like ground-interdiction and close-air-support. Really, you just don’t use big bombers down low for things like that.

“I have heard of military campaigns that were clumsy but swift,” wrote Sun Tzu. “But I have never seen military campaigns that were skilled but protracted.” That is, time is precious during a war. And over time the North Koreans, and their Chinese allies on the ground, learned how to dig in and take hits from the big American bombers.

The North Koreans and Chinese also figured out how to fight back against the B-29s. It helped that they had at their disposal several hundred veteran Soviet pilots flying MiG-15s. These MiGs were nimble jet-powered fighters, flying from airfields in Manchuria that were off-limits to U.S. attack. By the end of the Korean conflict, 107 of 150 B-29s in theater had been lost to enemy action or in-flight accidents.

“No nation has ever benefited from protracted warfare,” wrote Sun Tzu. And of course, Sun Tzu was correct. For American air power, Korea demonstrated the point. It was the worst of all worlds.

{Of interest, the Korean War gave rise to the military requirement for a day-night, all-weather, radar-mapping, low-level attack aircraft with a heavy bomb load. The result was the venerable and incomparable Grumman A-6 Intruder. Intruders Forever!}

Evolving SAC

While Lemay ran SAC, 1948 – 1957, he finally was in a position to drive policy. And he presided over transformations that were astounding. For example, Lemay commanded four different generations of advancing aircraft, and a host of evolving munitions. The logistics requirements, basing requirements, personnel and training requirements and operational planning were a continuous whirlwind.

Think about the complexity. Starting with the World War II-era B-29, Lemay transitioned SAC to the improved, but gigantic and costly B-36. Then came the sleek, jet-powered B-47. The B-47 was followed by the mighty B-52 – which is still part of the backbone of U.S. security, 50 years later. As Air Force Chief of Staff in the early 1960s, Lemay pushed hard for the supersonic B-70 (which never made it past two prototype examples).

Keep in mind, though, that Lemay was always subject to the push and pull of the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). Sometimes the pork-hawks in Congress gave Lemay what he wanted. Often not.

Evolving Weapons

Still, it’s fair to say that Lemay also had a powerful hand in defining the requirements for several early generations of nuclear weapons, as well as aircraft and missile systems, electronic warfare systems, and precision weapon developments.

When it came to the early nuclear weapons, Lemay needed bombs that could fit inside his bombers (and later his missiles). He needed bombers and missiles that could carry the big-yielding boomers that the weapons designers were dreaming up. Thus for more than a decade Lemay played a key role in aircraft and missile design requirements, as well as in setting the requirements for missions, targets and payload.

Basically, Lemay wanted faster, more potent aircraft, and smaller, more secure, more accurate weapons. Thus did the U.S. aircraft industry, electronics industry, and nuclear weapons complex – among numerous defense sectors — shape itself to the will of one senior officer and his immensely capable staff of aerial war-fighters. Lemay issued requirements that drove technology, shaped industry, and even reached down into the research and teaching levels of academia.

Among other things, Lemay soon realized that most of the new nuclear weapons could be armed and triggered by just one person. So he insisted that the designers build safeguards into the weapons. And Lemay inaugurated the idea of two-person control, with arming keys, and airtight security systems during storage and transport.

Through it all, in the 1950s, much of SAC’s development, acquisition and operating tempo occurred in an era of tight and balanced federal budgets.

The Battles of Washington

By the late 1950s Lemay was posted to Washington as Assistant Chief of Staff, and eventually Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Now he was ensconced within the highest reaches of the MICC.

Lemay got along well with Pres. Eisenhower and members of the Eisenhower administration. At many meetings with Ike, senior military brass and civilian staff sitting around the table, it was as if the old World War II boys were holding a reunion.

Eisenhower was an old soldier who had been the Supreme Commander in Europe. Ike implicitly understood the military and national security issues that confronted the U.S. in those days. Nobody had to explain basic defense and security concepts to Ike, let alone explain them twice. And then came a new presidential administration, in which many of the novices needed spoon-fed – twice and more.

Opposing Bay of Pigs

In the early days of the Kennedy administration, one of Lemay’s first big fights was an unsuccessful attempt to stop the Bay of Pigs operation. Lemay reviewed the plan to land a small number of mercenary troops in Cuba, with the idea of staging an overthrow of Fidel Castro.

Lemay was appalled at the shoddiness of the plan, and said so. But of course the CIA experts knew better how to stage an invasion than did Lemay, the crusty old bomber pilot. Thus despite his best efforts to prevent the operation, Lemay watched in April 1961 as the Bay of Pigs fiasco blew up in the face of Pres. Kennedy.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Bay of Pigs debacle emboldened Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to place missiles in Cuba. Again, this led to an international military standoff, the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962. The U.S. and Soviet Union were perhaps days, if not hours, from going to war.

Through it all, Lemay offered steady and consistent advice to Pres. Kennedy and his advisers. Backing up Kennedy was Lemay’s potent and powerful creation, SAC. This highly trained airborne battle-force, aimed at the heart of the Soviet Union, was critical. SAC – along with the battle forces of the U.S. Navy in blockade-mode — gave Kennedy the military flexibility and credibility he needed with which to negotiate and de-escalate the looming crisis.

Opposing Kennedy-Johnson Vietnam Strategy

Towards the end of the Kennedy administration, and in the early days of the Johnson administration after Kennedy was assassinated, Lemay argued strenuously against the U.S. strategy of gradual escalation that he saw occurring in Vietnam. Lemay’s principle nemesis throughout was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and what Lemay called “the Whiz kids.”

Lemay visited and toured South Vietnam. He saw that South Vietnam’s security was being undermined by Communist troops and guerilla cadre whose arms and training flowed down from the North. Thus, according to Lemay, if the security of South Vietnam was worth committing U.S. forces (a very big “if,” in Lemay’s view), then it was important to hit the North Vietnamese soon and hard.

At the outset, Lemay recommended destroying and mining North Vietnamese logistic centers such as the port facilities at Haiphong and other coastal areas. Lemay offered a plan to wreck the North Vietnamese supply lines at the source. The Kennedy-Johnson policymakers rejected Lemay’s advice — although this operational plan stayed near the top of the military shelf. The bomb-Haiphong operation is exactly what the Nixon administration eventually did in December 1972, about nine years after Lemay suggested it.

“Back Into the Stone Age”

This period is also the origin of that “bomb them back into the Stone Age” comment, attributed to Lemay about attacking North Vietnam. In 1963 Lemay was working with the author McKinlay Kantor to write an autobiography, entitled Mission with Lemay: My Story. Kantor spent many hours with Lemay. He took notes and apparently took a number of liberties in his writing. In short, Kantor simply made some things up.

According to Lemay, he read the galley proofs and never noticed Kantor’s version of Lemay saying he would bomb North Vietnam “back into the Stone Age.” Hence the made-up quote went to print in a book under Lemay’s name.

The Advice Not Taken

During his tenure in Washington, Lemay offered his fair share of military advice. It’s accurate to say that essentially all of it was based on Lemay’s experience, and it was sincerely presented. As with all advice, some was accepted. And some was rejected – some of the best, in fact, to the eventual regret of those who failed to listen hard enough.

By 1964 there was concern within the highest political circles of the Johnson White House that Lemay might go public with his criticism of defense policy. Pres. Johnson turned on the charm and sweet-talked Lemay into remaining on active duty through the 1964 election. This was to prevent Lemay from hanging up his uniform and campaigning on behalf of another old Army pilot named Barry Goldwater.

Ever the good soldier, Lemay stayed in the Air Force through the election of 1964. He kept his mouth shut, out of deference to his commander in chief. Shortly after Johnson’s inauguration in January 1965, the newly-sworn president asked Lemay to retire.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man? Well, by now Lemay’s clock had run out. It was time for the old warhorse to retire, kick back and think about the good old days. Then again, there were still some chapters yet to be written in a remarkable life.

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