Curtis LeMay

Bash and notoriously intolerant of those who did not see matters his way, Curtis Emerson LeMay was one of the key architects of precision bombing and the air war over Japan. He is best known, of course, as the commanding officer of the 20th U.S. Army Air Force, two of whose B-29s and crews dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. LeMay’s influence over the conduct and course of World War II, however, began when he arrived in Britain and set about perfecting the precision bombing tactics that distinguished the American strategic daylight bombing mission from the nighttime carpet-bombing approach of the British. He greatly increased the effectiveness of strategic air raids in Europe by adopting what, on the face of it, seemed the extremely risky tactic of abandoning evasive maneuvering over targets and by also introducing meticulous target studies prior to missions. By these means, LeMay doubled the number of bombs placed on target. In addition to being the first (and so far only) commander to direct a strategic nuclear mission, LeMay deserves to be regarded as the father of precision strategic bombing in World War II and, indeed, in modern warfare.

He was Born in Columbus, Ohio, on November 15, 1906, into a struggling working-class family. LeMay came to grips with disappointment early in his life when, hoping that a military career would lift him out of poverty, he sought an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Failing to obtain the appointment, he enrolled in Ohio State University and began working his way through college. After completing the university’s ROTC program, LeMay entered the U.S. Army in September 1928 as a cadet in the Air Corps Flying School. He earned his wings on October 12, 1929 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve at that time, receiving a regular commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps in January 1930. He took advanced flight training at Norton Field in Columbus, Ohio, during 1931-1932 while he completed his civil engineering degree at OSU. Although he was on active duty with the 27th Pursuit Squadron, LeMay was seconded to the Depression-era CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), a vast public works relief program, where his civil engineering expertise would be of value. After this, he was assigned to fly as part of a program instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 by which Army Air Corps pilots were assigned to carry airmail. This was demanding, notoriously hazardous flying, and the program was soon discontinued because of a combination of a political patronage scandal and a high rate of accidents; nevertheless, flying the mail in all weather conditions allowed LeMay to hone his skills and his nerve as a pilot.

Promoted to first lieutenant in June 1935, LeMay attended an over-water navigation school in Hawaii Territory before transitioning in 1937 from flying pursuit (fighter) aircraft in the 27th Pursuit Squadron to flying bombers in the 305th Bombardment Group stationed at Langley Field, Virginia. Here LeMay put his over-water training to use by conducting exercises designed to demonstrate the ability of aircraft to find—and attack—ships at sea. During this period, LeMay also became one of the very first army pilots to fly the new Boeing B-17 bombers, the Flying Fortress, which, with the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and (later in the war) the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, would become one of the three great U.S. heavy bombers of World War II. LeMay was chosen to lead a flight of B-17s on a goodwill tour to Latin America during 1937-1938, when President Roosevelt was promoting his “Good Neighbor Policy” with the nations south of the border in a bid to improve hemispheric solidarity as a new European war loomed. When LeMay returned from the tour, he attended the Air Corps Tactical School (1938-1939) and, in January 1940, was promoted to captain and given command of a squadron in 34th Bomb group.

As war approached, Curtis LeMay was clearly on a fast track. He combined great natural and acquired skills as an aviator and was equally at home in fighter aircraft as in heavy bombers. His engineering background gave him a strong grounding in aeronautical theory, and he proved to be a highly effective commander as well as manager of resources. While he encouraged innovative thinking among those he commanded, he also enforced fierce discipline, which did not sit well with all fliers. He earned the distinctly unflattering nickname of “Ironpants.”

Promoted early in 1941 to major, he was a lieutenant colonel by January 1942 and, three months later, a full colonel. At this time, in April 1942, he assumed command of the 305th Bombardment Group in California and brought that unit to Britain as part of the Eighth U.S. Air Force. Once his unit was in place overseas, LeMay went to work perfecting precision bombing tactics. He proposed testing a highly controversial theory that the accuracy and effectiveness of bombing would be improved by ceasing to employ evasive maneuvers over targets. While everyone agreed that flying straight and level during a bombing run would certainly result in more accurate bombing, the objection was that far more aircraft would be shot down, especially by ground-based antiaircraft fire. LeMay argued that most bombers were intercepted by enemy fighters long before they even arrived over their targets, within range of ground-based antiaircraft artillery. He pointed out that all daylight strategic bombing missions were inherently high risk and high cost and that flying straight and level over targets would make the missions more effective and therefore better justify those inherent risks. Indeed, by reducing mission effectiveness, evasive maneuvers over targets reduced ratio of reward to risk. LeMay proposed to further add to mission effectiveness by introducing the practice of conducting careful target studies prior to each bombing sortie. It is a measure of LeMay’s leadership that he prevailed in gaining adoption of his controversial tactics. The gamble paid off, since LeMay’s approach more than doubled the on-target rate of the bombers under his command.

In June 1943, LeMay was assigned command of the 3rd Bombardment Division, which he led on the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission of August 17, 1943. This was another big, bold experiment, called a “shuttle raid” because it required flying from the airbase to bomb a distant target, continuing to a remote location for refueling and rearming, and then bombing a second target on the way back to the home airbase. LeMay led 376 bombers in sixteen bomb groups against German heavy manufacturing plants, including the plants at Schweinfurt that produced most of the ball bearings for the German war effort. While the Regensburg target was very heavily damaged, the Schweinfurt raid was largely a failure and, because the targets were so far from the bombers’ home base, the absence of fighter escort protection meant very heavy casualties. Sixty bombers were lost. Many of the others that returned had been damaged beyond cost-effective repair.

LeMay was less chagrined by the losses than by the fact that Eighth Air Force command vetoed his bid to follow up immediately with a second attack. He argued that the follow-on attack could finish the job on Schweinfurt but was overruled by higher authority, which countered that the Eighth had simply taken too many losses to fly out again so soon.

Despite the failure of the Schweinfurt raid, LeMay was promoted the following month to temporary brigadier general and then, in March 1944, to temporary major general. Holding this rank, he was transferred from the European theater to China to lead the 20th Bomber Command against the Japanese. In January 1945, he was transferred to the 21st Bomber Command, based on Guam. The great problem that confronted him here was the disappointing results of bombing missions executed by the new B-29 Superfortress high-altitude bombers. As usual, LeMay’s solution, based on careful study, was unconventional and controversial. The B-29s were designed to fly at very high altitudes—they were the Army Air Forces’ first pressurized bomber aircraft—and they featured four remotely controlled turrets, each with twin .50-caliber machine guns. LeMay modified the aircraft by ditching most of these defensive guns. This saved weight by eliminating the heavy weapons and their ammunition and by leaving gun crews behind. The weight savings allowed the aircraft to carry much heavier bomb loads.

Even more controversial were LeMay’s orders to fly against targets singly, rather than in formation. It was a strict article of strategic bombing to maintain tight formations to better defend against attack by enemy fighters. That LeMay abandoned this time-tested approach was bad enough, but he also ordered his crews to fly in and bomb at low level—a mere five thousand feet instead of the thirty thousand-foot altitude for which it was designed. The risk of falling prey to ground-based antiaircraft was thus apparently multiplied. LeMay countered that the heavier bomb loads would make each mission far more effective; that Japanese fighter defenses were rapidly dwindling, so that defensive guns were no longer worth their weight as an asset; and that flying low would increase the on-target rate tremendously while decreasing time over targets.

It is a testament to his command presence and his power to persuade that his crews swallowed their skepticism. After the very first mission, it became apparent that LeMay was correct. In the end, the greater apparent risk yielded a dramatic improvement in effectiveness—without (as LeMay had predicted) significantly increasing casualties among air crews.

Curtis LeMay soon earned an unparalleled reputation for performance. His 21st Bomber Command annihilated four major Japanese cities with incendiary bombs in a campaign of destruction that was, in fact, far more devastating than the subsequent atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like General Patton in the European ground campaign, LeMay, in the air, earned a reputation as an uncompromising leader who demanded maximum effort from his men but who produced outstanding results. Far from feeling exploited or demoralized, the members of his command were proud of their achievements.

As the war in the Pacific theater entered its late phase, LeMay was named to command the entire Twentieth Air Force (consisting of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands) in July 1945. He was also made the army’s deputy chief of staff for research and development—a post he would hold through 1947. The assignment to drop the world’s first two atomic weapons was entrusted to him, partly because of his record as a combat commander, but also because of his sophistication in engineering and science. Pilots and crews under his command dropped “Little Boy,” a fifteen-kiloton nuclear weapon, over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and, three days later, “Fat Man,” a twenty-one-kiloton device, over Nagasaki. These two missions were war-winning and war-ending. Asked about any moral qualms he might have had concerning the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions, LeMay was coolly unsentimental:

As far as casualties were concerned I think there were more casualties in the first attack on Tokyo with [conventional] incendiaries than there were with the first use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The fact that it’s done instantaneously, maybe that’s more humane than incendiary attacks, if you can call any war act humane. I don’t, particularly, so to me there wasn’t much difference. A weapon is a weapon and it really doesn’t make much difference how you kill a man. If you have to kill him, well, that’s the evil to start with and how you do it becomes pretty secondary. I think your choice should be which weapon is the most efficient and most likely to get the whole mess over with as early as possible.


Curtis LeMay’s influence on U.S. military affairs, earned by his performance in World War II, made him the most powerful man in the Cold War U.S. air arm. In 1947, he was promoted to temporary lieutenant general in an air force just made independent from the army by the Defense Act of 1947. He was assigned to command U.S. Air Forces in Europe on October 1, 1947 and, in this capacity, was a key planner of the spectacular Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949, the archetypal Cold War air mission. It was yet another high-risk, highly demanding mission of monumental proportions. In an effort to block the creation of an independent, democratic West Germany with a capital, West Berlin, deep within Soviet-controlled East Germany, the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin. Fearing that the loss of West Berlin would ultimately mean the loss of all Germany to the Soviets, President Harry S. Truman ordered the new USAF to overfly the blockade by supplying the people of West Berlin by air. No city had ever been supplied exclusively from the air before, but over the course of 321 days, LeMay directed more than 272,000 flights over Soviet-occupied territory to provide West Berlin with thousands of tons of supplies each day. Failure would have meant a Soviet triumph—and failure always loomed as a real possibility. LeMay’s aircraft were flying round the clock in all weather, over potentially hostile territory. Nevertheless, on May 12, 1949, the Soviets were forced to concede that the blockade had failed, and they reopened West Berlin to Western traffic. East and West Germany were formally created as separate nations later in the month.

The Air Force recognized LeMay as a leader who achieved both the difficult and the nearly impossible and always on a grand scale. Accordingly, in October 1948, he was recalled to the United States as head of the newly created Strategic Air Command (SAC), which, until the development of land-based and submarine-based ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) systems, functioned as the United States’ sole delivery system for nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. Always an innovator, LeMay recognized that the Air Force’s inventory of B-29s was inadequate to serve as the nation’s primary atomic-age bomber. He led the Air Force into the jet age with the hybrid Convair B-36 Peacemaker (it combined six “conventional” piston engines with four jet engines), followed by the fully jet-driven Boeing B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress bombers. LeMay also pioneered the development of midair refueling, using large jet tanker aircraft (KC-135s). This not only greatly extended the bombers’ range, it allowed bomber patrols to fly twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. LeMay pioneered the tactics of continual high readiness, in which nuclear-armed aircraft were always in flight, prepared to retaliate against attack.

Despite being a consummate pilot himself, LeMay was not sentimental about manned aircraft. Many officers resisted the introduction of unmanned missiles, fearing that they would replace pilots and planes. By the 1950s, LeMay oversaw the introduction of ICBM weapons into the Air Force’s inventory of nuclear and thermonuclear delivery systems.

Curtis LeMay was promoted to general in October 1951, the youngest four-star general since Ulysses S. Grant. In 1957, he was named vice chief of staff of the Air Force and became chief of staff in 1961. During the 1960s, his hard-nosed, unyielding, and at times frankly racist conservatism brought him into conflict with the liberal administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. His relations with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara were particularly strained and even bitter. As he met with increasing resistance, LeMay became increasingly irascible, extreme, and outspoken. On February 1, 1965, he retired from the Air Force, and as his political conservatism hardened during the turbulent late 1960s, he decided to become the running mate of the notorious segregationist former Alabama governor George Wallace in his failed 1968 third party bid for the presidency.

The association with Wallace, unfortunately, tarnished the image of this uncompromising commander, who demanded “maximum effort” from his air crews and from their aircraft, and who shaped the modern Air Force as the most strategic of the “triad” of services. No one, except for those directly involved in the Manhattan Project, had greater influence in ushering the world into the nuclear age than Curtis E. LeMay.

3 thoughts on “Curtis LeMay

  1. My Dad was SAC from the time that he went to his first school out Air Force basic training in 1952 until his death in 1969 from phlebitis. Growing up on SAC bases meant alerts and long hours for him as a crew chief, but for me and my brothers it meant growing up in an ideal environment. Gen. Lemay looked after his folks.


  2. >>I saw him in old age walking around our neighborhood, smoking his cigars. Never looked happy, sadly.

    Curtis Lemay suffered from Bell’s Palsy, which happened after he contracted scarlet fever as a child. This left him with partial facial paralysis, and what looked to an almost permanent scowl. While this could be an asset in some situations (commanding bomber squadrons, then wings, then air forces, then Strategic Air Command, then the Air Force itself, it would put off people who didn’t know him. Those close to him said he had a sense of humor and appreciation for irony.


Comments are closed.