The MegaMilitary Project | Online Edition #343
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General Curtis E. LeMay

LeMay is accredited with designing and implementing an effective and controversial strategic bombing tactic

TK Tim Kirsten Updated
General Curtis E. LeMay

When Curtis LeMay was four years old, he told himself that someday, when he was old and big enough, he would fly an airplane. And fly he did. Thirty-two years later, as Captain Curtis E. LeMay, he would lead a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortresses in the skies over Germany in some of the most vicious air battles in history.

He became a pioneer in the concept of strategic bombardment, devising some of the most innovative aerial strategies of World War II, including low-level B-29 bombings that devastated Japan. In Iron Eagle, Thomas Coffey said that “LeMay was to the bomber what General George S. Patton was to the tank.”

Curtis Emerson LeMay was born on November 15, 1906, in Columbus, Ohio, the son of a steelworker. Attending public schools there, he was a quiet, talented student. He sold newspapers after school and on weekends and spent his leisure time building crystal “wireless” radios or hunting with a gun and a bowie knife in the hills of southern Ohio. After high school, his ambition was to go to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but he could not get the appointment from his congressional representative. Instead, he enrolled in the School of Engineering at Ohio State University and joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. He paid his way through college working the overnight shift at an iron foundry and graduated in 1928.

The year before, a daring young American pilot named Charles A. Lindbergh had excited the world by being the first to fly a plane solo across the Atlantic from the United States to Paris, France. Curtis LeMay, like many other young men, became a pilot. He enlisted in the regular army and, after a year of flight training, was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Air Corps in 1930, assigned to the 27th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Michigan. Over the next few years, LeMay became an expert pilot, flying in planes with open cockpits and taking part in air shows that tested the capabilities and endurance of the latest planes.

After completing advanced flight training at the Aerial Navigator School at Langley Field, Virginia, in 1934, he became one of the Air Corps’s first aerial navigators. That same year, he married Helen Maitland, a registered nurse. They promoted LeMay to 1st lieutenant in 1935, and two years later served as operations and intelligence officer of the 49th Bombardment Squadron at Langley, becoming one of the first navigator-pilots to fly the new B-17 heavy bomber. The B-17s were nicknamed “Flying Fortresses” because they were so big, they looked like forts with wings. While he was on duty in Virginia, a daughter, Patricia June, was born to the LeMay’s. LeMay piloted one of a group of B-17s on a training test mission from Langley to the West Coast, then on a much longer test to South America early in 1938. On that mission, LeMay realized something that made a lasting impact on his life and work:

"It is sad that all people of the world cannot know all other people in the world. If they could, it would simplify a lot of things. Man’s affectionate sympathy ought to extend to all nationalities; but it doesn’t. It just extends to the ones he knows or feels that he understands—the ones which he can reconstruct in an image when they’re absent. That’s unless the man is a god. Few gods around."

LeMay didn’t look like a man with such a sensitive nature. He was broad chested and stocky, with a wide jaw and piercing eyes. He seldom smiled, looked fearsome, and was most always chewing or smoking cigars. Under his tough exterior was a warm, good man devoted to his family, friends, and the men who soon would fight under him.

LeMay then led three of the bombers on a “blind” navigational mission 700 miles (1,125km) out over the Atlantic Ocean in foggy weather, with a compass and little else to guide him, and found his target, the Rex, an Italian cruise ship. No one would say so, but LeMay and his fellow pilots knew that all the test flights were to prepare them and the B-17s for war. LeMay was promoted to captain in 1940 and was assigned to the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron at Langley Field as operations and intelligence officer. The following January, he became commander of the 7th Bombardment Squadron and then group operations officer at Westover Field in Massachusetts.

Early in the spring of 1941, LeMay’s expert navigational skills led to him being assigned to map aerial routes across the North Atlantic Ocean to England and over the South Atlantic to Africa, which soon would ferry planes to those destinations. LeMay loved the mission. Now he was flying B-17s all over the world. They promoted him to major that March, selected because of his extensive experience in long-range, over-water navigation and because of his pioneering work in establishing the ferrying routes.

When World War II began, LeMay was promoted to colonel, and in March 1942 was assigned to create and command the 305th Bombardment Group. To prepare for bombing missions over Europe, LeMay and his pilots flew their B-17s night and day on training flights at Muroc Dry Lake, California (later named Edwards Air Force Base). He didn’t have enough planes or men for the job given him, so he worked those he had very hard.

“At least I had my whip cracking about my own ears and ankles,” LeMay wrote later in his autobiography. “This was my outfit. This was what I would take to the war and fight with.”

It was around this time that LeMay picked up a nickname that is best described in his own words.

“It was in those days I won my vulgar nickname: Iron Ass. Newspapers and magazines would try to soften it up through the years; they called me Iron Pants. This was my natural reward for working everybody as hard as I did, all personnel included.”

That fall, while preparing to take his unit to England, he learned from a physical examination that he had Bell’s palsy, a paralysis in the nerves of the right side of his face. It had been caused by an infection from a virus he caught while run-down from working about 20 hours a day. The facial paralysis never left LeMay, and doubtless caused his stern look and resulted in the rumor that he never smiled. The right side of his face couldn’t. LeMay took his unit to England, where it became part of the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command and one of the first U.S. bombardment units to enter combat in World War II.

After a few bombing missions over Nazi-occupied France and Germany, LeMay realized that few American bombs were hitting their targets. While investigating the problem, he was told that penetrating the Luftwaffe’s fighter defenses was very difficult or that enemy aircraft fire was very heavy at the target sites. In order for the Allies’ planes to return safely in the daylight raids, they had to evade the enemy’s gunfire. LeMay knew what the solution was. He ordered that there would be “no more evasive action on the final bombing run,” even during the heaviest enemy gunfire. The planes would stay on course, bomb their targets, and take even the most severe flak. LeMay put his own life on the line by leading the first strike to use the new tactic.

On November 23, 1942, the 305th attacked Nazi submarine pens at the German-held French Atlantic port of St. Nazaire. The mission was a success, and all LeMay’s men flew an 18-plane “box” formation in a straight line over a target. When one plane was hit or had engine trouble and had to drop out or was shot down, another would move up to take its place. The unique formation gave the squadron the maximum concentration of firepower against enemy planes attacking from any angle. They put LeMay and his men to their most extreme test in August 1943 when the 8th Air Force began large-scale raids on targets deep in Germany’s industrial heartland.

Their first assignment: Bomb the factories at Regensburg where one-third of the infamous Messerschmitt fighter planes were produced. LeMay ordered his pilots again to stay on course, no matter what the level of enemy resistance. Coffey says in Iron Eagle, LeMay told them: “If some of us get killed, it’s too damned bad!” His men were all young, in their twenties, and he was 36, one of the youngest air commanders in the war. What followed was one of the greatest air battles of the war. LeMay lost 24 of his 127 planes, but the enemy’s aircraft factories were blown to bits. His gunners had shot down at least 60 enemy planes. It was a costly victory, but LeMay’s courage under fire was rewarded with America’s second highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Medal.

In August 1943, LeMay devised a new “shuttle” strategy for bombing missions that increased the survival rate of his pilots. On many long flights, his planes would run out of gas after hitting their targets and couldn’t get back to England. LeMay told his pilots to hit their targets, then fly on instead to North African airfields. Soon, his successful formation, bombing, and retreat tactics were adopted by air units throughout the entire European Allied command. They promoted LeMay to major general. At 37, he became one of the youngest officers in the U.S. Army to attain that rank.

Then he took part in the first big bombing raid against Berlin, in which 660 bombers struck Germany’s largest city. LeMay continued with the 8th Air Force in England as commanding general of the Third Bombardment Division through June 1944. They awarded him another Distinguished Service Medal for his work in England.

LeMay’s services were then needed in the Pacific. They reassigned him to China in August 1944 to take charge of the 20th Bomber Command fighting in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. Under LeMay, China-based B-29 Super-fortresses made three attacks on Japanese-held Manchurian industrial centers in July and August. LeMay also took leadership of the 21st Bomber Command to make air strikes on the Japanese mainland. In January 1945, he attempted low-level night attacks on Tokyo, dropping incendiary bombs that would set the city on fire. His planes would take off from Guam and other bases that had been regained. The night raids would make it a little easier to avoid Japanese antiaircraft batteries over the city, which could take down more of his planes if they flew in daylight.

Fire-bombing Tokyo had not been a straightforward decision for LeMay to make. Thousands of civilians would be killed, but Japanese industry had to be destroyed, and he hoped it would shorten the war. If they did not bomb Japan into sub-mission, an invasion would cost many American lives, per-haps a million. The Americans under LeMay’s command took the Japanese by surprise this time, in the Tokyo “fire raid” of March 9, 1945. The new B-29 Superfortress was used, and gunners and ammunition were not taken aboard, so the planes could carry more bombs. M-69 incendiary bombs were dropped. Each bomb exploded at 2,000 feet (600m), raining down 38 balls of liquid fire. At least 15 square miles of the industrial heart of the world’s largest city were destroyed.

The raid on Tokyo was called the greatest single disaster inflicted on an enemy in military history up to that time. LeMay and his airmen followed the Tokyo “fire-raid” with similar attacks on Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe, sometimes using 500 bombers. On August 1, 1945, LeMay ended his command of the B-29s in the Pacific to become chief of staff to General Carl Spaatz of the U.S. Strategic Air Force, becoming second in command and in charge of all other officers in the unit. Now he took a major part in planning the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese had been hit hard and often causing significant damage. But LeMay and other American military leaders had thought they could beat the enemy with major air strikes followed by a costly land invasion of Japan itself, even if this meant that thousands of American soldiers and Marines would die.

There was an alternative, though a drastic one. American scientists had tested an atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. The test was the culmination of a huge and secret program of U.S. scientific research and technological development, which had begun in 1940, to develop a weapon deriving its explosive force from the release of atomic energy through the fission (splitting) of heavy nuclei. American military leaders conferred in secret on whether to drop an atomic bomb on Japan and cause such substantial damage of life and property that the Japanese would surrender.

LeMay and other high-level officers preferred the atomic bomb not be used to end the war because they did not think it was necessary. On August 6, 1945, they dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with an estimated equivalent explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT. The blast was followed three days later by a second, more powerful bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Both caused widespread death, injury, and destruction. Japan announced its surrender on August the 14 and signed a treaty of peace aboard the battleship U.S.S. Missouri on September 2. In Iron Eagle President Harry S. Truman later wrote...

“The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me. Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and knew that we should use it. The top military advisers to the President recommended its use, and when I talked to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he told me he favored the use of the atomic bomb if it might aid to end the war.”

In 1947, the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of military service. They appointed LeMay its European commander, with headquarters at Wiesbaden, West Germany. The following June, the Soviets cut off Allied access to West Berlin, and they put LeMay in charge of the “Berlin Airlift,” flying food and other essential supplies to the blockaded city. It became one of the most dramatic events of the Cold War.

In October 1948, LeMay became commanding general of the Strategic Air Command, which coordinated U.S. air defenses for alerts anywhere in the world. They promoted him to vice chief of staff of the air force in 1957 and served as chief of staff from 1961 until his retirement in 1965. LeMay won many American and foreign awards for his leadership and heroism, including the Medal for Humane Action for flying many of the Berlin Airlift missions. He ran unsuccessfully for Vice President of the United States with independent presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968. He advocated all means to end the war in Vietnam, even the use of nuclear weapons. But he did not say what they mistakenly attributed to him about the war, and which turned many people against him. He never suggested that Vietnam be bombed back into the Stone Age.

LeMay is remembered today as one of the most important and celebrated heroes of World War II.

“In World War II he was so daring, ingenious, and effective, first against the Germans and then the Japanese, that he became America’s most famous air commander—in the minds of most experts the greatest this country has ever produced.”

A few hours before LeMay’s retirement on February 1, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with his fourth Distinguished Service Medal. In retirement, LeMay resumed his interest in hunting, took up the amateur radio broadcasting, and added a new hobby, building sports cars. Curtis LeMay died October 1, 1990, in the hospital at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California.

General Curtis E. LeMay - Quick Facts

Country:
United States
Nickname/s:
Iron Ass, Old Iron Pants, The Demon, Bombs Away LeMay, The Big Cigar
Service Unit/s:
  • 20th Air Force (United States)
  • Chief of Staff (United States Air Force)
  • Strategic Air Command
Born:
1906
Died:
1990
Military Rank/s:
General
Period/s:
  • WWII (1939-1945)
  • Pacific War (1941-1945)
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