Curtis Emerson LeMay (November 15, 1906 – October 1, 1990) was a General in the United States Air Force and the vice presidential running mate of American Independent Party candidate George Wallace in 1968.
He is credited with designing and implementing an effective, but also controversial, systematic strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific theater of World War II. During the war, he was known for planning and executing a massive bombing campaign against cities in Japan. After the war, he headed the Berlin airlift, then reorganized the Strategic Air Command (SAC) into an effective instrument of nuclear war.
Early life and career
Curtis Emerson LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio on November 15, 1906. His father, Erving LeMay was, at times, an ironworker and general handyman, but he never held a job longer than a few months. His mother, Arizona Carpenter LeMay, did her best to hold her family together. With very limited income, his family moved around the country as his father looked for work, going as far as Montana and California. Eventually they returned to his native city of Columbus. LeMay attended Columbus public schools and studied civil engineering at the Ohio State University. Working his way through college, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. While at Ohio State he was a member of the National Society of Pershing Rifles and the Professional Engineering Fraternity Theta Tau. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve in October 1929. He received a regular commission in the United States Army Air Corps in January 1930. He married Helen E. Maitland (died 1994) on June 9, 1934 with whom he had one child—Patricia Jane LeMay Lodge, known as Janie.
LeMay became a pursuit pilot, and while stationed in Hawaii became one of the first members of the Air Corps to receive specialized training in aerial navigation. In August 1937, as navigator on a B-17, he located the battleship Utah in exercises off California, after which the aircraft bombed it with water bombs, despite being given the wrong coordinates by Navy personnel. In May 1938 he navigated B-17s over 610 miles (980 km) over the Atlantic Ocean to intercept the Italian liner Rex to illustrate the ability of airpower to defend the American coasts. War brought rapid promotion and increased responsibility.
When his crews were not flying missions they were being subjected to his relentless training as he believed that training was the key to saving their lives. LeMay was widely and fondly known among his troops as "Old Iron Pants" throughout his career.
World War II
At the entry of the U.S. to World War II, LeMay was a major in the United States Army Air Forces and commander of the newly created 305th Bomb Group. He took that B-17 Flying Fortress unit to England in October 1942 as part of the Eighth Air Force and led it in combat until May 1943, notably helping to develop the combat box formation. He led the 4th Bombardment Wing and was its first commander when it was reorganized into the 3rd Air Division in September 1943. He often demonstrated his courage by personally leading dangerous missions, including the Regensburg section of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission of August 17, 1943. In that mission he led 146 B-17s beyond the range of escorting fighters to Regensburg, Germany, and after bombing, continued on to bases in North Africa, losing 24 bombers in the process.
The 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 deployment in the European theater of the P-51 Mustang in January 1944, the 8th Air Force gained an escort fighter with range to match the bombers.
In August 1944, LeMay transferred to the China-Burma-India theater and directed first the XX Bomber Command in China and then the XXI Bomber Command in the Pacific. LeMay was later placed in charge of all strategic air operations against the Japanese home islands.
LeMay soon concluded that the techniques and tactics developed for use in Europe against the Luftwaffe were unsuitable against Japan. His bombers flying from China were dropping their bombs near their targets only 5% of the time. Operational losses of aircraft and crews were unacceptably high owing to Japanese daylight air defenses and continuing mechanical problems with the B-29. In January 1945 LeMay was transferred from China to relieve Brig. Gen. Haywood S. Hansell as commander of the XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas.
He became convinced that high-altitude, precision bombing would be ineffective, given the usual cloudy weather over Japan. Because Japanese air defenses made daytime bombing below jet stream altitudes too perilous, LeMay finally switched to low-altitude, nighttime incendiary attacks on Japanese targets, a tactic senior commanders had been advocating for some time. Japanese cities were largely constructed of combustible materials such as wood and paper. Precision high-altitude daylight bombing was ordered to proceed only when weather permitted or when specific critical targets were not vulnerable to area bombing.
LeMay commanded subsequent B-29 Superfortress combat operations against Japan, including the massive incendiary attacks on 64 Japanese cities. This included the the firebombing of Tokyo on 9–March 10, 1945, the most destructive bombing raid of the war. For this first attack, LeMay ordered the defensive guns removed from 325 B-29s, loaded each plane with Model E-46 incendiary clusters, magnesium bombs, white phosphorus bombs, and napalm and ordered the bombers to fly in streams at 5,000–9,000 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, killing some 100,000 civilians, destroying 250,000 buildings and incinerating 16 square miles (41 km2) of the city. Aircrews at the tail end of the bomber stream reported that the stench of burned human flesh permeated the aircraft over the target.
The New York Times reported at the time, "Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the B-29s of the entire Marianas area, declared that if the war is shortened by a single day, the attack will have served its purpose."
Precise figures are not available, but the firebombing bombing campaign against Japan, directed by LeMay between March 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August 1945, may have killed more than 500,000 Japanese civilians and left 5 million homeless. Official estimates from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey put the figures at 220,000 people killed. Some 40% of the built-up areas of 66 cities were destroyed, including much of Japan's war industry.
The remaining Allied prisoners of war in Japan who had survived imprisonment to that time were frequently subjected to additional reprisals and torture after an air raid. The massive bombing also hit a number of prisons, and directly killed a number of allied war prisioners. LeMay was quite aware of the Japanese opinion of him—he once remarked that had the U.S. lost the war, he fully expected to be tried for war crimes, especially in view of Japanese executions of uniformed American flight crews during the 1942 Doolittle raid. He 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.
Presidents Roosevelt and Truman justified these tactics by referring to an estimate that seven million American troops would be killed if Japan had to be invaded. Additionally, the Japanese had intentionally decentralized 90 percent of their war-related production into small subcontractor workshops in civilian districts, making remaining Japanese war industry largely immune to conventional precision bombing with high-explosives.
As the fire bombing campaign took effect, Japanese war planners were forced to expend significant resources to relocate vital war industries to remote caves and mountain bunkers, reducing production of war material. A young officer who served under LeMay, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McNamara, was in charge of evaluating the effectiveness of American bombing missions. Later McNamara, as secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson, would often clash with LeMay.
LeMay also oversaw Operation Starvation, aerial mining operations against Japanese waterways and ports that disrupted Japanese shipping and food distribution. Although his superiors were unsupportive of this naval objective, LeMay gave it a high commitment level by assigning the entire 313th Bombardment Wing (four groups, about 160 planes) to the task. 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 postwar analysis concluded that it could have defeated Japan on its own had it begun earlier.