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  LeMay, Curtis E.
AffiliationAmerican Independent  
NameCurtis E. LeMay
, California , United States
Born November 15, 1906
DiedOctober 01, 1990 (83 years)
ContributorThomas Walker
Last ModifedChronicler
Jan 23, 2023 06:09am
Tags Air Force -
InfoCurtis 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. 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. LeMay was one of the military leaders who attended the autopsy of assassinated President John F. Kennedy at Bethesda Naval Hospital on 11/22/1963, sitting on the bleachers along the wall and calling out orders to the autopsy staff members. 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.



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