General Curtis E. LeMay: Father of the Strategic Air Command

Curtis LeMay, USAF
General Curtis LeMay. US Air Force

Born to Erving and Arizona LeMay on Nov. 15, 1906, Curtis Emerson LeMay was raised in Columbus, Ohio. Raised in his hometown, LeMay later attended Ohio State University where he studied civil engineering and was a member of the National Society of Pershing Rifles. In 1928, after graduating, he joined the US Army Air Corps as a flying cadet and was sent to Kelly Field, TX for flight training. The following year, received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve after passing through an ROTC program. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the regular army in 1930.

Early Career

First assigned to the 27th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Mich., LeMay spent the next seven years in fighter assignments until he was transferred to bombers in 1937. While serving with the 2nd Bomb Group, LeMay participated in the first mass flight of B-17s to South America which won the group the Mackay Trophy for outstanding aerial achievement. He also worked to pioneer air routes to Africa and Europe. A relentless trainer, LeMay subjected his aircrews to constant drills, believing it to be the best way to save lives in the air. Respected by his men, his approach earned him the nickname, the "Iron Ass."

World War II

Following the outbreak of World War II, LeMay, then a lieutenant colonel, set about training the 305th Bombardment Group and led them as they deployed to England in October 1942, as part of the Eighth Air Force. While leading the 305th in battle, LeMay aided in developing key defensive formations, such as the combat box, used by B-17s during missions over occupied Europe. Given command of the 4th Bombardment Wing, he was promoted to brigadier general in September 1943 and oversaw the unit's transformation into the 3rd Bomb Division.

Known for his bravery in combat, LeMay personally led several missions including the Regensburg section of the August 17, 1943, Schweinfurt-Regensburg raid. A B-17 shuttle mission, LeMay led 146 B-17s from England to their target in Germany and then onto bases in Africa. As the bombers were operating beyond the range of escorts, the formation suffered heavy casualties with 24 aircraft lost. Due to his success in Europe, LeMay was transferred to the China-Burma-India Theater in August 1944, to command the new XX Bomber Command. Based in China, the XX Bomber Command oversaw B-29 raids on the home islands of Japan.

With the capture of the Marianas Islands, LeMay was transferred to the XXI Bomber Command in January 1945. Operating from bases on Guam, Tinian, and Saipan, LeMay's B-29s routinely struck targets in Japanese cities. After assessing the results of his early raids from China and the Marianas, LeMay found that high-altitude bombing was proving ineffective over Japan largely due to consistently poor weather. As Japanese air defenses precluded low- and medium-altitude daylight bombing, LeMay ordered his bombers to strike at night using incendiary bombs.

Following tactics pioneered by the British over Germany, LeMay's bombers began firebombing Japanese cities. As the predominant building material in Japan was wood, the incendiary weapons proved very effective, frequently creating firestorms that reduced entire neighborhoods. Striking sixty-four cities between March and August 1945, the raids killed around 330,000 Japanese. Referred to as "Demon LeMay" by the Japanese, his tactics were endorsed by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman as a method for destroying war industry and preventing the need to invade Japan.

Postwar & Berlin Airlift

After the war, LeMay was served in administrative positions before being assigned to command US Air Forces in Europe in October 1947. The following June, LeMay organized air operations for the Berlin Airlift after the Soviets blocked all ground access to the city. With the airlift up and running, LeMay was brought back to the US to head up the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Upon taking command, LeMay found SAC in poor condition and consisting of only a few undermanned B-29 groups. Establishing his headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, NE, LeMay set about transforming SAC into the USAF's premier offensive weapon.

Strategic Air Command

Over the next nine years, LeMay oversaw the acquisition of a fleet of all-jet bombers and the creation of a new command and control system that allowed for an unprecedented level of readiness. Promoted to full general in 1951, he was the youngest to attain the rank since Ulysses S. Grant. As the United States' principal means of delivering nuclear weapons, SAC built numerous new airfields and developed an elaborate system of midair refueling to enable their aircraft to strike at the Soviet Union. While leading SAC, LeMay began the process of adding intercontinental ballistic missiles to SAC's inventory and incorporating them as a vital element of the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Chief of Staff for the US Air Force

Leaving SAC in 1957, LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff for the US Air Force. Four years later he was promoted to chief of staff. While in this role, LeMay made policy his belief that strategic air campaigns should take precedence over tactic strikes and ground support. As a result, the Air Force began procuring aircraft suited this type of approach. During his tenure, LeMay repeatedly clashed with his superiors including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of the Air Force Eugene Zuckert, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Maxwell Taylor.

In the early 1960s, LeMay successfully defended the Air Force's budgets and began to utilize satellite technology. Sometimes a controversial figure, LeMay was seen as a warmonger during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when he loudly argued with President John F. Kennedy and Secretary McNamara regarding air strikes against Soviet positions on the island. An opponent of Kennedy's naval blockade, LeMay favored invading Cuba even after the Soviets withdrew.

In the years after Kennedy's death, LeMay began to voice his displeasure with President Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam. In the early days of the Vietnam War, LeMay called for a widespread strategic bombing campaign directed against North Vietnam's industrial plants and infrastructure. Unwilling to expand the conflict, Johnson limited American air strikes to interdictive and tactical missions for which current US aircraft were ill-suited. In February 1965, after dealing with intense criticism, Johnson and McNamara forced LeMay into retirement.

Later Life

After moving to California, LeMay was approached to challenge incumbent Senator Thomas Kuchel in the 1968 Republican primary. Declining, he elected instead to run for the vice presidency under George Wallace on the American Independent Party ticket. Though he had originally supported Richard Nixon, LeMay had become concerned that he would accept nuclear parity with the Soviets and would take a conciliatory approach to Vietnam. During the campaign, LeMay was inaccurately painted as a bigot due to his association with Wallace, despite the fact that he had lobbied to desegregate the armed forces. Following their defeat at the polls, LeMay retired from public life and declined further calls to run for office. He died on October 1, 1990, and was buried at the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs.