Relatively small in numbers are those of us who remember one of our nation’s greatest military heroes, former Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay. Yet, only a generation ago, his outsized personality and larger than life portfolio of accomplishments made him a beloved and trusted figure to most Americans. No more a telling testament to his character and leadership abilities were there ever than the near universal love of and devotion to LeMay displayed by those who were fortunate enough to have served under him. Yet, today, one need only “Google” General LeMay’s name to witness the endless pages of virulent attacks against his character and achievements where he is accused of everything from taking part in the assassination of President Kennedy to being a racist war monger, frothing over at the mouth to incinerate all of humanity in a Nuclear inferno.
General LeMay beckons our collective memory back to a time when America’s Military leaders were warriors and forceful guardians of our national security who suffered fools poorly and had little patience for those civilian officials who would try to compromise our national defense in the name of political horse trading or expedience. LeMay and his contemporaries during those crucial and uncertain years of the Cold War stand in stark contrast to some of today’s meek mannered, politically correct Generals who seem more interested in future admission into the Council on Foreign Relations than risking controversy by aggressively standing up for our national security. Could anyone honestly say that if Generals like Curtis LeMay, Lyman Lemnitzer, George Patton, or Thomas Power were giving a free hand at running the War on Global Terrorism we would be losing or at least void of any measurable results?
Curtis LeMay was born and raised in Ohio, one of ten children, under extreme poverty. Hunger was the daily norm for him and his nine siblings. Overcoming many obstacles, he went on to work his way through Ohio State University graduating with a degree in civil engineering. A stellar member of the university’s R.O.T.C. program, LeMay went on to a career in the then fledgling U.S. Army Air Corps in 1930.
Young Lieutenant LeMay proved a natural, both as a stellar pilot and as a student of aerial navigation. At a time when the Air Corps was considered an overpriced novelty by America’s military leaders, LeMay recognized the overwhelming potential of aircraft as the seminal force in future wars. As navigator on a B-17 bomber, he located an American battleship in exercises off the coast of California, after which LeMay’s aircraft successfully attacked it with water bombs, despite being given the wrong coordinates by Navy personnel. In May 1938 he navigated a group of B-17 Bombers over 610 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to intercept the Italian liner Rex thus illustrating the ability of U.S. airpower to defend the nation’s coasts.
Upon the entry of the United States into World War II, LeMay was rapidly advanced in rank. Initially commanding the 305th Bomber Group, LeMay became instrumental in developing U.S. tactics and strategy in the European Air campaigns. He is credited with inventing the “Box Formation” for B-17 Bombers. Bombing missions at the time were the most dangerous in the war. Over half of the B-17 air crews would be lost during the early years of the war. Although not expected of bomber wing commanders, LeMay would often personally lead his formations during bombing operations taking the position of lead aircraft which was far and away the most dangerous position to fly in the formation. Typical of these missions was the attack on the Regensburg section of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg area of Germany during August of 1943. In that mission LeMay personal led a formation of 146 B-17 bombers beyond the range of escorting fighters into Regensburg, Germany, and after bombing, continued on to bases in North Africa, losing 24 bombers in the process.
At the onset of the Cold War, America found itself in the position of needing a credible nuclear deterrent. The Triad doctrine consisting of a strategic nuclear deployment configuration of bomber, submarine and missile (ICBM) based delivery platforms was the virtual creation of General LeMay. LeMay also conceived and oversaw development of what would become the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The institutions, doctrines and policies proved an insurmountable defense to any adversary hoping to achieve a nuclear knockout blow via a surprise attack on U.S. strategic assets. Perhaps more importantly, this brainchild of General LeMay prevented any subsequent wars of the scale of WWI and WWII. Such large scale conventional conflicts between world powers became far too risky in the LeMay nuclear age. Curtis LeMay was the father of the Peace through Strength school of thought and indeed, coined the “Peace is Our Profession” mission statement frequently displayed on SAC bases throughout the Cold War.
Yet, despite the years of service to his country and immeasurable contributions to our national security, which were realized for decades after his retirement from active service, his vilification became a cause célèbre for the radical left in America. While beloved by the vast majority of Americans for his role as the preeminent defender of our national security, it was these same traits that caused him to be despised by the American hating left of the era. He was often portrayed by American radicals as a warmonger, frothing at the mouth to initiate a global holocaust. Very odd when one considers that it was LeMay alone, during his time commanding SAC, who had at his disposable the launch codes and orders needed to launch a nuclear strike independent from an order given by the U.S. President. This, so as to ensure that any surprise attack against the national command structure in Washington, would not leave the country unable to launch a coordinated counter-attack.
For most of us who remember him, his true legacy will always be secure.