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General Curtis E. LeMay, (1906 - 1990)


General Curtis E. LeMay, (1906 - 1990) An icon of the U.S. Air Force; a remarkably creative tactician; and one of the Cold War's fiercest warriors; General Curtis LeMay led a colorful if extremely controversial career. From early on he argued that, "if you are going to use military force, then you ought to use overwhelming military force. Use too much and deliberately use too much... You'll save lives, not only your own, but the enemy's too." His men called him "Iron Ass" because he demanded so much of them. But because of his own physical courage and his military rigor most of them respected him immensely.

In the last months of the Second World War, LeMay took command of the main air effort against Japan, turning around its tactics. Instead of the established U.S. policy of daylight, precision bombing, he ripped out the armaments on 325 B-29s and loaded each plane with firebomb clusters. On March 10, 1945 he ordered the bombers out at 5 - 9,000 feet over Tokyo.

The devastation wrought that first night was catastrophic: the raid incinerated more than 16 square miles of the city, killing 100,000 people. According to the official Air Force history of the Second World War, "No other air attack of the war, either in Japan or Europe, was so destructive of life and property." For months LeMay's bombers went out night after night, relentlessly keeping up their fire-bombing campaign, so that by the end of the war, flames had totally or partially consumed 63 Japanese cities, killing half a million people and leaving eight million homeless.

Asked later about the morality of the campaign, LeMay replied: "Killing Japanese didn't bother me very much at that time... I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.... Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier."

LeMay was convinced that the United States had been forced into the war in 1941 because the country was weak and unprepared. He recognized that the development of new long-range bombers meant that for the first time the continental United States would be vulnerable. And he believed the way to prevent an attack was to build a incredibly powerful, well-armed and well-trained Air Force.

After a brief stint as the commander of air forces in Europe, LeMay returned to the States in October 1948 to take charge of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Air Force unit responsible for atomic attack. Rebuilding SAC was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career. When he arrived to take up his command he was appalled at the state of his crews. He immediately ordered a mock bombing raid on Dayton, Ohio, and was dismayed to discover that most of the bombers missed their targets by one to two miles.

But after years of rigorous training, LeMay turned SAC into one of the most powerful and effective military forces in the world. It was a force that was on constant alert, ready to deliver his so-called "Sunday punch"--an all-out atomic attack--at the shortest possible notice. His very first war plan drawn up in 1949, proposed delivering, "the entire stockpile of atomic bombs. In a single massive attack," which meant dropping 133 A-bombs on 70 cities within 30 days.

LeMay's career after his tenure at SAC was less successful. In 1961 he became Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and he soon found himself constantly in conflict with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Maxwell Taylor. He lost most of those battles, many of them waged in favor of new air weapons, including a bomber to replace the B-52. And when he argued strenuously early on in the Vietnam War for a more rapid and decisive involvement he was ignored. His entry into national politics was even less successful. In 1968 he ran for Vice President on George Wallace's ticket. The press spent much of the campaign mocking him and comparing him to General Jack D. Ripper from the 1964 movie "Dr. Strangelove".
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