Cold War: General Curtis LeMay, Father of the Strategic Air Command

Air Force General Curtis LeMay

U.S. Air Force

Curtis LeMay (November 15, 1906NOctober 1, 1990) was a U.S. Air Force general who became famous for leading a bombing campaign in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he served as the leader of the Strategic Air Command, the U.S. military division responsible for most of the country's nuclear weapons. LeMay later ran as George Wallace's running mate in the 1968 presidential election.

Fast Facts: Curtis LeMay

  • Known For: LeMay was an important U.S. Army Air Corps leader during World War II and led the Strategic Air Command during the early years of the Cold War.
  • Born: November 15, 1906 in Columbus, Ohio
  • Parents: Erving and Arizona LeMay
  • Died: October 1, 1990 at March Air Force Base, California
  • Education: Ohio State University (B.S. in Civil Engineering)
  • Awards and Honors: U.S. Distinguished Service Cross, French Legion of Honour, British Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Spouse: Helen Estelle Maitland (m. 1934–1992)
  • Children: Patricia Jane LeMay Lodge

Early Life

Curtis Emerson LeMay was born on November 15, 1906, in Colombus, Ohio, to Erving and Arizona LeMay. 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 U.S. Army Air Corps as a flying cadet and was sent to Kelly Field, Texas, for flight training. The following year, LeMay received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the regular army in 1930.

Military Career

First assigned to the 27th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Michigan, 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 this was the best way to save lives in the air. His approach earned him the nickname "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 helped develop key defensive formations such as the combat box, which was 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. 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 Japan.

After 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 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. The raids struck 64 cities between March and August 1945 and killed around 330,000 people. Although they were brutal, LeMay's tactics were endorsed by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman as a method for destroying the war industry and preventing the need to invade Japan.

Berlin Airlift

After the war, LeMay served in administrative positions before being assigned to command U.S. 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 U.S. 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. 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. When he was promoted to full general in 1951, LeMay became 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

After leaving SAC in 1957, LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff for the U.S. Air Force. Four years later, he was promoted to chief of staff. In this role, LeMay made policy his belief that strategic air campaigns should take precedence over tactical strikes and ground support. As a result, the Air Force began procuring aircraft suited for 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. LeMay opposed Kennedy's naval blockade and 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 had 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 U.S. aircraft were poorly 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. He declined and 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 Nixon would accept nuclear parity with the Soviets and would take a conciliatory approach to Vietnam. LeMay's association with Wallace was controversial, as the latter was known for his strong support of segregation. After the two were defeated at the polls, LeMay retired from public life and declined further calls to run for office.


LeMay died on October 1, 1990, after a long retirement. He was buried at the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado.


LeMay is best remembered as a military hero who played a major role in the modernization of the U.S. Air Force. For his service and achievements he was awarded numerous medals by the U.S. and other governments, including those of Britain, France, Belgium, and Sweden. LeMay was also inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: General Curtis LeMay, Father of the Strategic Air Command." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Cold War: General Curtis LeMay, Father of the Strategic Air Command. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: General Curtis LeMay, Father of the Strategic Air Command." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).