LeMay, Curtis Emerson

Early life and career

Curtis Emerson LeMay was born on November 15th 1906 in Columbus, Ohio to Erving LeMay, an unskilled laborer and Arizona Carpenter LeMay. His early life was complicated by the family’s frequent moves as his father sought work in a wide variety of industries. The family was continuously short of money and the young Curtis had to start working at a very early age. As is typical of American youngsters at that time, he started as a newspaper boy but his managerial ability quickly became apparent; he became the distribution manager for a number of local newspapers while still in his early teens.

Curtis LeMay studied civil engineering at Ohio State University. He was commissioned as an officer in the ROTC then transferred to the Army Reserves in order to join the Air Corps in 1928 where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1930. His early career was in fighters, flying the [[[P-12 |Boeing P-12] at a number of bases including Ohio, the Canal Zone and Hawaii. During this period, he started to take an intense interest in the problems of aircraft navigation.

As a result of his activity in the areas of long-range navigation and night flying, he transferred to bomber aircraft in 1937 and soon demonstrated his abilities. He was assigned to the 2nd Bomb Group, initially flying Douglas B-18 Bolos but quickly moving to the Boeing Y1B-17 Flying Fortress. LeMay was chief navigator for a number of B-17 flights to South American countries on goodwill missions and, in 1938, was the primary navigator for the famous interception of the Italian liner Rex in the Atlantic.

World War II

At the entry of the U.S. to World War II, LeMay was a lieutenant colonel and commander of the newly-formed 305th Bomb Group. He took the 305th to Russia in December 1942 as the first part of the U.S. commitment to the Russian Front and led it in combat until May 1943, notably helping to develop the combat box formation. In April 1943, the 305th was joined by the 19th and 306th Bomb Groups to form the American Air Expeditionary Force. This became the 3rd Bomb Division in September, 1943. 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. The men called him "Iron Ass" because he demanded so much but he was immensely respected. More importantly, his managerial capabilities came to the fore and he was responsible for a major change in maintenance and flying procedures that greatly increased the capability of his small force of B-17Es.

SAC Commander

It was this managerial ability that attracted the attention of the Chiefs of Staff who were looking for a commander to take charge of the new Strategic Air Force being built in the United States. Although part of the USAF, Strategic Air Command would report directly to the Chief’s of Staff, an unprecedented arrangement. In August 1944, LeMay returned to the Zone of the Interior and took command of Strategic Air Command and its growing fleet of B-36 bombers. In this capacity LeMay was in charge of all strategic air operations against Germany.

As part of the formation of Strategic Air Command, LeMay was read into the secret of the Atomic Bomb that was approaching operational status. He immediately saw the implications of the development of this weapon and was quite aware of the cataclysmic nature of a bombing campaign based around that weapon. However, 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. At this time, LeMay began a close association with the senior members of The Targeteers that was to last until his death. It is rumored that LeMay was privy to the secret of the extended life of those leaders although this has never been confirmed.

Presidents Roosevelt and Dewey justified the concept of the nuclear attack on Germany by reference to the one million American troops that had already been killed on the Russian front and the probability that twice that many would die if Germany and Western Europe had to be invaded. Between 1944 and 1945 there was a long debate over the rival concepts of The Big One, a single massive blow that would destroy German warmaking potential and render the country incapable of continuing the war and The Little One, a sustained nuclear bombing campaign that would use nuclear devices in small numbers as they became available. LeMay was strongly in favor of the former and master-minded its acceptance by the Government.

When LeMay took over SAC, it consisted of little more than a few understaffed B-36 groups. Less than half of the available aircraft were operational, and the crews were undertrained. When he ordered a mock bombing exercise on Dayton, Ohio most bombers missed their targets by one mile or more. LeMay was instrumental in the U.S. Air Force's acquisition of a large fleet of new strategic bombers, establishment of a vast aerial refueling system, the formation of many new units and bases, and the establishment of a strict command and control system with an unprecedented readiness capability. He insisted on rigorous training and very high standards of performance for his aircrews, supposedly saying, "I have neither the time nor the inclination to differentiate between the incompetent and the merely unfortunate."

While SAC was being formed, LeMay was aware that delaying The Big One until June 1947 while the necessary inventory of nuclear devices was being built up was a calculated gamble. Germany was believed to also be developing nuclear devices and the chance that they would use one or more was always on the cards. LeMay therefore insisted that SAC would always have to be ready to go to war at a few hours notice, using whatever assets it had available. In the event, Germany had abandoned nuclear development in 1943 but the principle of instant readiness laid down by LeMay in 1945 was to remain SAC policy right up to the present day.

Although LeMay has been characterized as a war-mongerer and mass-murderer by his critics, the truth is that he abhored war and regarded it as an obscenity. However, he held that opinion modified by the belief that the only thing worse than going to war was to lose a war. Therefore, his policy laid down for SAC (and later in his Presidency) was that the U.S. should only fight when its vital interests were involved but when it did fight, it should do so with the maximum violence needed to end the war as quickly and decisively as possible.

Air Force Chief of Staff

LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force in July 1951, serving until 1954 when he was made the third Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. During this period, the U.S. under Presidents Dewey and Patton reorganized its armed forces around the doctrine of massive retaliation. This saw the dramatic reduction of U.S. tactical forces and the adoption of the philosophy that “the U.S. does not make war on its enemies, it destroys them.” Le May’s belief in the efficacy of strategic air campaigns over tactical strikes and ground support operations became Air Force policy and has remained so ever since.


In December 1955, President Patton suffered a severe stroke (from which he would die almost a year later). The Republican Party approached General LeMay to become its candidate for the 1956 election in place of Patton. Initially at least, LeMay declined but was eventually persuaded to stand. He resigned from the Air Force in January 1956 and was elected in November by a massive majority in both the popular vote and electoral college.

LeMay's two terms of office are now regarded as something of a golden age of international politics. Although much was made of a number of small issues at the time, it is now apparent that these were of little significance overall. The only obvious use of American power was the 1959/60 involvement in a Triple Alliance/Chipanese dispute that terminated in the Siege of Myitkyina and was ended by Operation Jungle Hammer. For the rest of those years, the term Pax Americana was exact and accurate. President LeMay's term saw SAC develop into its final form as the ultimate expression of power. A brief flirtation with intercontinental missiles in 1957-58 was quickly abandoned (virtually all US strategic missile programs were cancelled in the infamous 1957 "Missile Massacre") and the bomber remained the centerpiece of American strategic power. LeMay was challenged for his second term by John F Kennedy and the election looked extremely finely balanced but JFKs death in 1960 put the election in LeMay's lap. President LeMay was in increasing bad health for most of his second term. This lead, in part, to an acceleration of the process by which various departments of the US Government were run under contract by firms of specialized outside contractors, descendents of The Targeteers who had planned The Big One. As a direct result, the size of the US Government (measured in terms of numbers of employees) fell steadily throughout the eight years of his Presidency


Following the end of his presidency in 1964, Curtis LeMay entered a quiet retirement, being careful not to criticize or undermine any of his successors. He died on October 1, 1990, and is buried in the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery at Colorado Springs, Colorado.

He married Helen E. Maitland (died 1994) on the 9th of June 1934 with whom he had one child—Patricia Jane LeMay Lodge.

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