Reflecting on Curtis E. LeMay

By Brown, John S. | Army, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Reflecting on Curtis E. LeMay


Brown, John S., Army


November 15 marks the 100th birthday of Gen. Curtis E. LeMay (1906-1990). It may strike some as strange that ARMY Magazine would give over commemorative space to a famous Air Force general who, having spent most of his career as an Army officer, is most singularly identified with Air Force precepts of strategic bombing that have caused problems for the Army for more than 50 years. Some of LeMay's legacy may lead Army officers to reflect more than to celebrate, and that reflection can be useful.

LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio, attended Ohio State University and went on active duty after receiving an ROTC commission in 1928. He became a cadet in the Army Air Corps flying school at March Field, Calif., and over time rose through the ranks and developed a reputation as an outstanding navigator and pilot. In 1938 he led a contingent of B-17 bombers to South America to demonstrate the range of American air power and its prospective role in hemispheric defense.

In April 1942, LeMay was a colonel and in command of the 305th Bombardment Group. He deployed this command to Europe and led B-17s with skill and courage through much of the strategic air campaign against Germany. As he assumed positions of increasing responsibility, he sustained a reputation for up-front leadership and technical skill. On August 17, 1943, he led 146 B-17s on a deep penetration mission beyond the range of escorting fighters to Regensburg, Germany, and then, rather than returning by the same route, flew on to air bases in North Africa.

In August 1944, LeMay, now a major general, assumed command of the operating forces of the Twentieth Air Force in the China-Burma-India Theater. For the rest of the war he was committed to the strategic bombardment of Japan, and personally supervised the introduction of the new B-29 bomber. Departing with precedent, he stepped away from the doctrine of daylight, high altitude and precision bombing and sent his B-29s, packed with incendiary explosives, over Japanese cities at low altitudes at night. The results were devastating. Strategic bombing gutted scores of Japanese cities and killed hundreds of thousands of people even before atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After World War II, Le May became the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. When the Soviets sought to strangle Berlin with a ground blockade, LeMay directed the famous Berlin Airlift to relieve the city. Over an 11-month period, Allied planes flew more than 213,000 missions and delivered more than 1,700,000 tons of fuel and food. At the height of the airlift LeMay's planes were delivering more than 5,000 tons a day, a striking testimony to America's strategic reach.

In October 1948, LeMay was designated to command the nascent Strategic Air Command, and almost immediately ordered his new command into a mock attack on Dayton, Ohio. The crews were undertrained, less than half of the aging aircraft were operational and most of the planes that did get aloft missed their targets by more than a mile. This malaise did not last. Passionate and relentless, LeMay built the Strategic Air Command (SAC) into a premier military force over the next eight years. He garnered the resources for a modern all-jet fleet of new bombers and dozens of new bases and units. He pioneered aerial refueling en masse and built up a tanker fleet capable of sustaining global operations. LeMay also introduced strict, comprehensive command and control and a state of constant alert, and he kept planes capable of strategic response aloft on a 24-hour basis. …

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