|15 Nov 1906
|1 Oct 1990
Contributor: David Stubblebine
ww2dbaseAboard US aircraft carriers, the Commander of Air Operations is known as the "Air Boss." In the US Air Force, if anyone ever deserved the title Air Boss, it was Curtis LeMay.
ww2dbaseCurtis Emerson LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1906. He did not attend West Point but earned an Engineering degree from The Ohio State University. He received his commission in 1928 through the Reserve Officer Training Corps Air Cadet program.
ww2dbaseOver 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 the Navy. He navigated B-17's nearly 800 miles over the Atlantic Ocean and intercepted the Italian liner Rex to illustrate the ability of airpower to defend the American coasts. In 1938 he led flights of B-17's to South America to display airpower's range and its role in hemisphere defense. These were all important events in the efforts to build the Air Corps as well as in the evolution of aerial navigation.
ww2dbaseWar brought LeMay rapid promotion and increased responsibility. At the start of World War II, Major LeMay was commander of the 305th Bomb Group flying the B-17 Flying Fortress. When the Group was formed, he was the only pilot in the group to ever have flown the B-17. In looking back years later, he said his greatest worry was that he "didn't have any confidence in their commander -- me!" He took that unit to England in October 1942 as part of the Eighth Air Force and led it in combat until May 1943, creating much of what would become bomber doctrine along the way. LeMay noticed that when bombers took evasive actions over their targets, there were decreases in targets hit, requiring repeat missions, resulting in higher losses. He ordered his pilots not to take any more evasive actions and, despite their protests, the new system resulted in more targets hit on the first mission, requiring fewer repeats, and an overall reduction of losses. Soon, "no evasive action" became the rule for the entire Eighth Air Force.
ww2dbaseGiven the lack of adequate fighter escorts early in the campaign, LeMay also ordered his bomber pilots to practice and perform tight-formation flying on combat missions as a means of defense against enemy fighters. Soon the "box" formation became standard throughout the theater. Within 18 months of arriving in England, LeMay had been promoted to Major General, one of the youngest in the army.
ww2dbaseHe often demonstrated his courage by personally leading dangerous missions, including the Regensburg section of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission of 17 August 1943. In that mission he led 146 B-17's beyond the range of escorting fighters and after bombing, he continued on to bases in North Africa, losing 24 bombers in the process.
ww2dbaseThe heavy losses in veteran crews on this and subsequent deep penetration missions in the autumn of 1943 led the Eighth Air Force to limit missions to targets within escort range. With the European deployment of the P-51 Mustang in January, 1944, the 8th Air Force gained an escort fighter with range to match the bombers.
ww2dbaseIn August 1944, LeMay was transferred to India and the XX Bomber Command. There he was tasked with introducing the new Boeing B-29 Superfortress into action against Japan. Almost right away he saw that the techniques and tactics developed in Europe were unsuitable against Japan. His bombers, now flying from China, were dropping their bombs near their targets only 5% of the time. Operational losses of aircraft and crews were unacceptably high due to Japanese daylight air defenses and continuing mechanical problems with the B-29. In January 1945 LeMay was transferred from China to the XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas.
ww2dbaseLeMay oversaw Operation Starvation, an aerial mining operation against Japanese waterways and ports which disrupted Japanese shipping and food distribution. Although his superiors were unenthusiastic by this naval objective, LeMay gave it a high commitment level by assigning the entire 313th Bombardment Wing to the task (about 160 planes in four groups). Aerial mining supplemented a tight Allied submarine blockade of the home islands, drastically reducing Japan's ability to supply its overseas forces to the point that post-war analysis concluded that it could have defeated Japan on its own had it started earlier.
ww2dbaseBecause LeMay knew high-altitude precision bombing on its own was ineffective, he switched to low-altitude nighttime incendiary attacks on Japanese targets; something senior commanders had been advocating for some time despite being contrary to all previous U.S. policy. LeMay did not inform USAAF Chief-of-Staff Henry "Hap" Arnold of the change in tactics, reasoning that if it failed, Arnold could always fire him. He also ignored the opposition of his crews, who felt that they were being sent on suicide missions. Precision high-altitude daylight bombing was ordered to proceed only when weather permitted or when specific critical targets were not vulnerable to area bombing.
ww2dbaseLeMay ordered the massive incendiary attacks on sixty-four Japanese cities by B-29 Superfortress. During the final two weeks of the twenty-five week bombing campaign over 5,000,000 leaflets printed in Japanese were dropped over a total of 33 Japanese cities warning the citizens which cities were to be bombed and encouraging them to flee for their own safety (later these became known as "LeMay Bombing Leaflets").
ww2dbaseFor the firebombing raids of Tokyo on 9 & 10 March 1945, LeMay removed the defensive guns from 325 B-29's and loaded each plane with incendiary magnesium bombs, white phosphorus bombs, and napalm. The bombers were ordered to fly in streams at 5,000 to 9,000 feet over Tokyo. The first pathfinder planes arrived over Tokyo just after midnight on March 10. Following British bombing practice, they marked the target area with a flaming 'X.' In a three-hour period, the main bombing force dropped 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs. Aircrews at the tail end of the bomber stream reported that the stench of burned human flesh permeated the aircraft over the target.
ww2dbasePrecise figures are not available, but the firebombing and atomic bombing campaign against Japan, directed by LeMay between March 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August 1945, may have killed more than one million Japanese civilians. Official estimates from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (considered to be low) put the figures at 330,000 killed, 476,000 injured, 8.5 million people made homeless, and 2.5 million buildings destroyed. Nearly half the built-up areas of sixty-four cities were destroyed, including much of Japan's war industry. LeMay argued that it was his duty to carry out the attacks in order to end the war as quickly as possible, sparing further loss of life.
ww2dbaseThe New York Times reported at the time, "Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the B-29's of the entire Marianas area, declared that if the war is shortened by a single day, the attack will have served its purpose." This view was later echoed by Japan's former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, who said, "The determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing."
ww2dbaseReturning to the US after the war, LeMay served briefly as the head of the USAAF research and development effort, and then was sent to Germany as commander of the air forces in Europe arrayed against the Soviets. In 1947 the US Army Air Force was reorganized into a separate service, the US Air Force, with LeMay maintaining his leadership position in the new service. When the Soviets instituted a ground blockade of Berlin in 1948, LeMay was responsible for initiating the Berlin Airlift, originally called "The LeMay Coal and Feed Delivery Service."
ww2dbaseAs the crisis in Germany spread across Eastern Europe, it precipitated a major reshuffling in Washington. A war with the Soviets appeared increasingly possible and the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which would bear the brunt of such a war, was seen as deficient so General Hoyt Vandenberg placed LeMay in command of SAC. The building of SAC into an effective and efficient fighting arm would become LeMay's greatest accomplishment. Right away he demonstrated SAC's poor state of readiness with a "bombing raid" on Dayton, Ohio where not a single SAC bomber was able to get its "bombs" within a mile of the target. LeMay then set about the difficult but essential task of rebuilding the entire command. Through his single-mindedness and legendary iron discipline, new bases were built, the training was restructured & intensified, and SAC was soon transformed into one of the most effective military units in the world. LeMay headed SAC for nine years until 1957, the longest over a military command in nearly 100 years. On LeMay's departure, SAC was comprised of 224,000 airmen, nearly 2,000 heavy bombers, and nearly 800 tanker aircraft.
ww2dbaseLeMay was also an active amateur radio operator. He was famous for transmitting on amateur bands while flying aboard SAC bombers. Through amateur radio, LeMay became aware that the new Single Side Band technology offered significant advantages over the systems being used by SAC aircraft when operating long distances from their bases. In 1957 he implemented this technology as the radio standard for SAC bombers.
ww2dbaseIn 1961 LeMay was named Air Force Chief-of-Staff. His naturally gruff manner was partly responsible for his tenure as Chief being neither successful nor happy. A staunch advocate for heavy bombing as the decisive combat tactic, "Bombs-Away LeMay" argued against fighter aircraft and tactical aircraft programs. Even though LeMay's influence landed the Air Force large portions of the military budget for the bomber command, his dislike for tactical aircraft and training backfired in the low-intensity conflict in Vietnam.
ww2dbaseAs usual, LeMay voiced his strong feelings regarding American involvement in Vietnam. He advocated sustained strategic bombing campaigns against North Vietnamese cities, harbors, ports, shipping, and other strategic targets and argued against the gradual response advocated by the administration. As was often the case, he was ignored.
ww2dbaseWhen he retired in 1965, LeMay was widely regarded, and probably rightly so, as a great commander of the Strategic Air Command but as a poor Chief-of-Staff. In retirement, he continued his interests in amateur radio and served as one of the directors of the National Geographic Society. He returned to a public life once more very briefly as George Wallace's running mate in the 1968 third-party presidential campaign.
ww2dbaseCurtis LeMay died on 1 October 1990 at March Air Force Base in Riverside County, California as one of the icons of American military history, rivaling Billy Mitchell in his importance and controversial career. General LeMay is buried in the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery at Colorado Springs, Colorado.
ww2dbaseThroughout LeMay's life, he lived up to every bit of his reputation as a straight-talking stern disciplinarian who insisted on the very best from those in his command. Being a man of few words and stone-faced from Bell's palsy added to his image as an "Iron Ass." When he did speak, he was blunt and said exactly what he thought without apology. As a result, his remarks often brought controversy. His "first strike" theories to save lives through long range bombing at the beginning of a conflict to inflict massive damage were long vilified, but recent "Shock and Awe" operations have greatly resembled them. LeMay is also responsible for many sayings that were destined to become fixtures of the popular culture.
ww2dbaseIn August 1945, Lemay was quoted in the New York Times as saying:
ww2dbaseHe was attributed with describing war with:
ww2dbaseLeMay was also credited with:
ww2dbaseSpeaking years after the war about the incendiary bombing of Japanese cities, LeMay said:
ww2dbaseMany have cited his "war criminal" remark as an admission of remorse, but this misunderstands LeMay. LeMay was expressing his understanding of the political reality that it is the victor who defines what is right and what is wrong. He felt that the intense bombings were actually saving lives on both sides, especially if they encouraged surrender without an invasion. Even without the nuclear bomb, LeMay felt his bombers could have won the war by October.
ww2dbaseProbably LeMay's best known quotation came from his 1965 autobiography. When discussing the treatment of the North Vietnamese, he said:
ww2dbaseThis "bomb them back into the Stone Age" remark still draws a lot of criticism from those wishing to depict Lemay as a war-monger, but he later disclaimed the essence of this remark saying that his ghostwriter had overstated LeMay's words:
ww2dbaseWhen supporting his proposals for a massive first strike, he said:
ww2dbaseSometimes his words went too far, but never his actions. He always tried to do what was best for America. In his autobiography, he defended his life:
ww2dbaseLeMay was part of the Air Force's higher leadership during the UFO frenzy of the 1950's & 1960's and many UFOlogists still point to him as one of the architects of the supposed UFO cover-up. US Senator Barry Goldwater, and a Major General in the Air Force Reserve, was quoted, "I used to receive a hundred calls a year from people who wanted me to get into the Green Room at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, because that's where the Air Force stored all the material gathered on UFO's. I once asked Curtis LeMay if I could get in that room, and he just gave me holy hell. He said, 'Not only can't you get into it but don't you ever mention it to me again.'"
ww2dbaseOne story that has achieved near legendary status claims that when LeMay approached a fully-fueled SAC bomber with his signature cigar stuck in his teeth, a guard suggested to the General that his cigar might cause the fuel to explode. LeMay growled back, "It wouldn't dare."
ww2dbaseAwards and Decorations
ww2dbaseGeneral Curtis LeMay received recognition for his achievements from thirteen countries, receiving thirty-seven medals and decorations:
Distinguished Service Medal with 2 oak leaf clusters
Distinguished Flying Cross with 2 oak leaf clusters
Air Medal with 3 oak leaf clusters
Presidential Unit Citation with oak leaf cluster
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three battle stars
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four battle stars
World War II Victory Medal
Occupation Medal with Berlin Airlift Device
Medal for Humane Action
National Defense Service Medal
Air Force Longevity Service Award with 6 oak leaf clusters
British Distinguished Flying Cross
French Croix de Guerre with Palm
Belgium Croix de Guerre with Palm
Japanese Order of the Rising Sun; First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon
Argentinean Order of Aeronautical Merit
Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross
Brazilian Order of Aeronautical Merit
Chilean Order of Merit
Chilean Medalla Militar de Primera Clase
Ecuadorean Order of Aeronautical Merit (Knight Commander)
Moroccan Oissam Alaouite
Swedish Commander of the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of the Sword
Uruguayan Aviador Militar Honoris Causa (Piloto Commandante)
U.S.S.R Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Degree
Fog of War
PBS, The American Experience
US Air Force
Pamela Feltus, The Centennial of Flight Commission
Last Major Revision: Mar 2009
Curtis LeMay Interactive Map
Curtis LeMay Timeline
|15 Nov 1906
|Curtis LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio, United States.
|29 Aug 1944
|Major General Curtis E. LeMay arrived in India as the newly appointed commander of the US Twentieth Air Force.
|1 Oct 1990
|Curtis LeMay passed away.
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