He would be remembered as the crazed general who wanted to bomb the people of North Vietnam “back into the Stone Age,” as the crank who ran for vice president on the 1968 presidential ticket of George Wallace, the racist from Alabama, and as the inspiration for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove. But in earlier years there had been a great deal more to Curtis Emerson LeMay. He had been the greatest leader of bomber aircraft in the history of American aviation until his judgment was warped by the advent of nuclear weapons and the fear and fervor of the Cold War. He looked the grim part of a bomber commander. His broad square-jawed face, straight mouth, strong chin, intense eyes, and thick black hair combed back from a high forehead said that this was a man who meant business. The lingering effects on the right side of his face of an episode of Bell’s palsy, a type of facial paralysis brought on in his case by flying in the frigid air of unheated cockpits at high altitudes, heightened the impression. So did his taciturn nature and blunt manner of speech.

He began as a fighter pilot, but in 1936, at the age of thirty, he requested a transfer to bombers. He reasoned that the fighter was a defensive aircraft (and this would hold true until the coming of the jet age and the development of powerful fighter-bombers in the late 1950s and 1960s), whereas the bomber was an intrinsically offensive weapon that carried the war to the enemy. His reasoning was infused with the theory on long-range strategic bombardment that had become the central doctrine of the Air Corps in the 1920s and 1930s. As refined and taught at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Alabama, the doctrine held that air power could win a war alone by bombing an enemy’s industry and related infrastructure into rubble and thus destroying his capacity to fight. The bombardment faculty at the Tactical School contended that “a well organized, well planned, and well flown air force attack … cannot be stopped.” Moreover, the attacks were to be flown in daytime, so that the bombers could be certain of their targets and strike with accuracy.

When LeMay made his decision at the end of 1936, the first of the bombers capable of conducting such long-range raids, the four-engine Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, was about to enter the Air Corps inventory. The second, the B-24 Liberator, was not far off. Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Ira Eaker, and the other men who were to lead the U.S. Army Air Forces in the Second World War all subscribed to the theory, but evolving a military theory is one thing and carrying it into practice in the furnace of conflict is another. LeMay had the genius of the implementer. While the theory proved too optimistic—air power alone could not win the war—LeMay was the man who demonstrated how it could make a mighty contribution to victory.

The bombsight of the Second World War was called the Norden after Carl Norden, who perfected it over several years during the 1930s. It required a minimum of four and preferably seven or eight minutes of straight and level flight, while the bombardier adjusted it, in order to put enough bombs on a large target, such as a petroleum refinery, a factory complex, or a railway marshaling yard, to inflict serious damage. Sent to England in October 1942, as a colonel commanding a bombardment group of B-17s, LeMay proved that this could be done without losing most of a formation to German antiaircraft fire. Some of the planes would be shot down, others would be damaged, but the majority would get through and the target would be hit hard.

He developed the first practical bomber formation, called the “combat box.” He put multiple combat boxes together to form a “combat wing.” The aerial gunnery schools in the United States for a bomber’s machine gunners were pathetically amateurish in the early years of the war. LeMay lobbied for gunnery schools in England to teach the men how to handle their .50 calibers well enough to knock down German fighters boring in to rake a bomber. He established “lead crew” schools for bombardiers and navigators to familiarize themselves with potential targets. When one of these was designated for a strike at a morning briefing, someone in the room already knew how to fly there and the best approach. As LeMay devised each of these innovations, they were quickly adopted as standard procedure by now Major General Ira Eaker’s VIII Bomber Command, the bomber branch of his fledgling Eighth Air Force. And as the struggle in the skies over Germany intensified, the bomber became more than a weapon to Curtis LeMay, it became a fighting machine to which he was deeply wedded emotionally, an arm in which he had unshakable faith.

In September 1943, he received his first star, and then in March 1944, at Eaker’s urging, Hap Arnold passed over several more senior brigadiers to give LeMay his second, making him, at thirty-seven, the youngest major general in the U.S. Army. He was also a well-decorated one, with two awards of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor, for LeMay was never shy about taking over the co-pilot’s seat in the lead bomber on a mission.

The new long-range B-29 Superfortress was entering the bomber force. Arnold was convinced that if the full potential of the B-29s could be brought to bear on Japanese industry, the transportation system, and other infrastructure, Japan could be forced to surrender without the necessity of an invasion. The seizure of the southern home island of Kyushu, planned for November 1945 at the estimated cost of roughly 300,000 American servicemen killed and wounded, could be averted. Victory through the B-29s would, in addition, demonstrate the efficacy of air power in the most dramatic way possible and strengthen mightily the argument for an independent air force after the war.

In January 1945, Arnold demonstrated the special confidence he had grown to have in LeMay by placing him in command of all B-29s operating out of Guam and its sister islands, Saipan and Tinian, in the Marianas group in the western Pacific. The islands had been seized from the Japanese during the summer of 1944 at the cost of more than 16,000 Marines killed and wounded and nearly 4,000 Army casualties. But LeMay encountered over Japan an enemy he had not met in the German skies. It was a high-altitude jet stream, a wind so strong that it would grab B-29s, whose crews were attempting to line up on a target at 195 miles per hour, and propel them ahead at a speed of almost 450 mph. Accurate calculations with the Norden bombsight became impossible. To make matters worse, the reigning deity of the atmosphere over Japan was a god of the clouds. Clear visibility was infrequent.

LeMay was not a man to persist in a futile exercise and the challenge he faced brought out the ruthlessness in him. In contrast to the brick-and-mortar cities of Europe, Japan’s cities, like many other urban centers in the Asia of the time, were wooden and thus highly vulnerable to fire. An estimated 90 percent of the buildings in the wealthier sections of Tokyo were constructed of wood and 99 percent in the poorer districts. Moreover, the streets were narrow and the houses and other buildings close together, so that flames could easily spring from one structure to another and leap the streets, rapidly engulfing an entire area. Tokyo and the neighboring port of Yokohama to its south had experienced devastating fires on several occasions prior to the war, the worst set off by the earthquake of 1923, when much of the metropolitan areas of both cities had been devastated and 100,000 people killed. Since he could not bomb Japan’s industries directly, LeMay decided he would burn down the factories by burning down the cities around them.

On the night of March 9, 1945, he staged the most horrendous fire-bombing in the history of modern warfare. He sent 334 B-29s over the center of Tokyo, each loaded with six tons plus of 100-pound Mark 47 oil-gel bombs, one of which could ignite a major blaze, and Mark 69 bombs of napalm, a jellied gasoline, one of the more terrifying inventions of the war, which had been devised by a Harvard chemist named Louis Fieser. LeMay wanted to head the raid himself, but he had been briefed only recently on the atomic bomb and was thus barred from flying for fear that he might divulge the secret under torture if shot down and captured. He chose as the man to lead the attack his newest wing commander, Brigadier General Thomas “Tommy” Power, a slim, angular Irishman from New York City. His leadership of the attack that night was to begin a long association between the two men, and Power, in a subsequent and quite different role, was also to become a major figure in Bennie Schriever’s career in the building of the intercontinental ballistic missile during the 1950s.

“It was a hell of a good mission,” Tommy Power shouted down from the cockpit of his Superfortress when LeMay came out to meet him as the bomber taxied to a halt on the airstrip back on Guam at 9:00 on the morning of the 10th. The aerial reconnaissance photographs that afternoon showed that LeMay had razed a wasteland in Tokyo at least fifteen miles square. (The subsequent official Japanese calculation was 16.8.) Hardly anything was left standing amidst the ashes except charred steel beams and the concrete and masonry fragments that had once been parts of buildings. No one knows precisely how many people he killed in that single raid. At the time the Japanese authorities put the number at 83,793 dead and another 40,918 people injured. An official Japanese history of the war later revised the number to 72,489 deaths. A million people were also rendered homeless as the firestorm destroyed more than 267,000 buildings.

While LeMay’s willingness to engage in slaughter on such a scale demonstrated the remorselessness of the man, he was not attempting to be deliberately cruel. The firebombings were the only way he could think of to destroy Japan’s industry. Balanced against the bloodletting the American infantryman and Marine would have to endure to invade and physically conquer the Japanese home islands, the agony of Japan’s civilians had no weight in the scales. No American leader, military or civilian, was going to protect Japanese civilians at the expense of American soldiers.

Two nights later it was the turn of Nagoya, the center of Japan’s aircraft industry. Then it was the turn of Osaka, then Kobe. Over a period of ten nights the somewhat stocky man of medium height with the square jaw and the taciturn manner razed thirty-three square miles of Japan’s four leading industrial cities. On the night of April 13, 1945, 327 Superfortresses revisited Tokyo, dropping 2,139 tons of incendiaries and torching another 11.4 square miles of the city. The capital’s sister city of Yokohama to the south was added to the list. The statistics became a litany of destruction. By the middle of June, LeMay had eliminated 105.6 square miles of Japan’s main centers of industry, including 56.3 square miles of Tokyo.

Working his ever-growing fleet of B-29s a record 120 hours a month, LeMay began to drop incendiaries virtually as fast as the Navy transports carrying them reached the Marianas. Japan had become more naked than ever at the end of March 1945, after the assault and seizure of the small volcanic island of Iwo Jima, less than a third the size of Manhattan, from its 21,000 dug-in Japanese defenders at the cost of 6,821 Americans killed from all services, including 4,554 Marines. (For the first time in the war, the assault forces sustained more casualties than there were Japanese on the island—almost 30,000 Americans in all, 23,573 from among the Marines.) Iwo Jima was located just 670 miles south of Tokyo, approximately midpoint from the Marianas. The island was the perfect base for P-51 Mustangs, shifted to the Pacific after the defeat of Germany. From Iwo Jima the P-51s, king of Second World War propeller-driven fighters, could easily rendezvous with the B-29s and escort them on daytime missions. They shot the remaining Japanese fighters out of the sky. The island also served as an emergency landing point for damaged bombers that would never have made it the remaining 625 miles to the airfield at Saipan, north of Guam. Bennie’s younger brother, Gerry Schriever, who had also become an Army Air Forces engineering officer in the Pacific, was awarded his colonel’s eagles by LeMay for the speed with which the engineer group he commanded repaired these B-29s on Iwo Jima and had them flown back to the Marianas.

By the end of July, LeMay had scorched the greater part of sixty large and medium-sized Japanese cities to cinders with 150,000 tons of firebombs. A total of 670,000 Japanese civilians were to perish in American bombings, most in LeMay’s fire raids. In June, Arnold had asked him when he thought he could end the war. LeMay replied that he would run out of targets about the first of October and by then the Japanese ought to be ready to capitulate without the necessity of an invasion. He was wrong about the timing. The awe-inspiring destruction of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki three days later enabled Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, to overrule the fanatical militarist holdouts and announce a surrender on August 15, 1945. Yet LeMay was still the man most responsible for ending the war with such swiftness, for it was he who had reduced Japan to the point where these bolts of nuclear annihilation could immediately snap the will to resist any further.

LeMay’s place in the postwar U.S. Air Force as its preeminent combat leader was assured. In determining the way the bomber arm of the U.S. Army Air Forces had fought in Europe and in the Pacific, he had also made the greatest contribution in proving the new preeminence of air power itself. And that preeminence, coupled with the unlimited potency of nuclear weapons, was to be the deciding factor in forming the military strategy of the United States during the early and middle years of the Cold War. LeMay had been the indispensable man. A message from Carl Spaatz to Arnold a week before the surrender of Japan demonstrated in what regard LeMay was now held. In July, with the Eighth Air Force due to transfer out of Europe and join the war against the Japanese, Arnold had persuaded the other chiefs to create a Strategic Air Forces command for the Pacific modeled on the one he had established for Europe in 1944. As in Europe, he put the man in whom he had ultimate faith, Tooey Spaatz, in charge. Spaatz appointed as his chief of staff an officer who had been a captain five years earlier, Major General LeMay, and told him to carry on. His message to Arnold, referring to LeMay’s B-29 command with the military message traffic term of Baker Two Nine, explained why:


In October 1948, Hoyt Vandenberg had brought LeMay home from Europe, where he had been commanding general of U.S. Air Force units deployed there, and handed him a languishing organization called the Strategic Air Command with instructions to turn it into the formidable nuclear striking force it was intended to be. SAC had initially been formed by Spaatz in March 1946 with precisely this objective in mind. It had been so ill-maintained and badly trained over the two years before LeMay inherited it that the SAC of 1948 literally couldn’t hit anything under realistic conditions. The jet fighters the United States and the Soviet Union were both fielding meant that the propeller-driven B-29s, then the mainstay of SAC, and the B-50s then entering service, an improved version of the B-29 more easily rigged to carry an atomic bomb, could not survive in the daytime. (The B-36 colossus just coming on line could still bomb in daylight because Soviet fighters could not reach its 40,000-foot altitude, but that advantage would disappear as Russian jets improved.) The B-29s and B-50s therefore had to strike at night. This was made possible by employing the plane’s radar to pick out prominent terrain features or tall buildings, called “target finders,” that would show up distinctly on the screen, and then calculating the direction and distance to the drop point.

To demonstrate to the SAC crews precisely how incompetent he suspected they were, LeMay ordered the entire command, approximately 480 B-29s and a sampling of the new B-50s and B-36s, to stage a mock night raid on Wright Field. The nearness of the airfield to Dayton, Ohio, should have given the crews plenty of tall buildings to use as target finders. As they approached Wright Field, the planes would transmit a tone over their radios. It would be picked up by an antiaircraft radar unit at Wright. The bombardier would simulate the release of his bombs by halting the tone. The antiaircraft unit would then calculate from the moment the tone halted and the altitude, speed, and distance of the plane precisely where the bomb would have landed. Shoddy maintenance kept a lot of the bombers from even getting off the ground that night and forced others to abort and turn back. And of those that did make it to the general vicinity of Wright Field and sent the Bombs Away signal, not a single crew hit the target. The details of SAC’s assault on Wright were immediately classified secret to try to hide from the Soviets that they faced a sawdust bogeyman. But every crew learned how dismally it had performed. LeMay had made his point and reformation began.

When Bennie Schriever first encountered him in 1951, LeMay was about to gain the fourth star of a full general and had been back in the strategic bombing business for the better part of three years. He was transforming SAC into an organization that inspired dread in Moscow. As of December 1951 he had tripled its manpower to 144,525 officers and men, including civilian specialists and maintenance personnel, and his aircraft, 1,186 of all types, had grown significantly in numbers and striking power. His three heavy bomb wings were approaching their full complement of thirty B-36s each and he had another approximately 550 B-29s and B-50s organized into seventeen medium wings. Within the near future he would also have two more medium wings of the revolutionary B-47 Stratojet, America’s first strategic jet bomber, as the Boeing production lines fed them into his force. A svelte-looking aircraft with its slim fuselage and six jet engines slung on pods under the swept-back wings that were the first fruit of the von Kármán team’s postwar discoveries in Germany, the B-47 had a top speed of 630 miles per hour, as fast as most fighters of the day, and could climb above 40,000 feet.

Moreover, through a combination of midair refueling from tanker aircraft and overseas staging bases from which his bombers could launch strikes or stop to refuel on the way to raids, LeMay had given his entire SAC force an intercontinental span. The overseas bases encircled the Soviet Union. In most of Stalin’s empire, no city or town, no military installation, no industrial plant was beyond the touch of LeMay’s hand of destruction. The first of the staging bases were borrowed RAF airfields in England. Engineers were set to work meanwhile reconstructing into permanent SAC installations other disused fields such as Greenham Common, a former paratroop and glider base west of London near Newbury, or Brize Norton amidst the rolling landscape and stone-roofed cottages of the Cotswold Hills farther west in Gloucestershire. The locations west of London were deliberately chosen so that the RAF jet fighters at fields on the other, eastern, side of the English capital could protect SAC’s bombers against attacking Soviet aircraft.

When the B-36 with its 3,500-mile combat radius was counted in, everything from the satellite states like Poland, Hungary, and Romania, and all of western Russia as far as Moscow and beyond to the industrial centers of the Urals, was within reach of these English bases, airfields that recalled those from which the B-17s in which LeMay had learned his craft had risen not long before to humble Nazi Germany. The oil wells and refineries at Baku and elsewhere in Azerbaijan in the Soviet Caucasus were vulnerable to SAC bombers staging out of North Africa from the air base abuilding at Sidi Slimane in Morocco. Any targets worth hitting in the Soviet Far East, like Vladivostok with its air and naval facilities, and much of China, where the Communist leader Mao Tse-tung now ruled, were exposed to attacks staged from Guam and Yokota Air Base in American-occupied Japan.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal, which numbered 549 atomic, i.e., fission, weapons by the end of 1951, did not yet possess quite enough for all of LeMay’s bombers, but that shortcoming was being remedied. The Sandstone series of nuclear tests at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific in April and May of 1948 had led to the development of a more advanced plutonium bomb, the Mark 4, which, at 31 kilotons, exceeded the blast of the Nagasaki weapon by approximately 10 kilotons. The Atomic Energy Commission geared up its facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, and elsewhere to mass production. LeMay was also hoping that his aircraft would soon be armed with the hydrogen bomb, which, in 1950, President Truman had ordered the AEC to create through the laboratory it now controlled at Los Alamos.

SAC was no longer the bumbling organization LeMay had been given in 1948. He honed his combat crews and subordinate commanders with the training techniques he had devised for use against the Germans and the Japanese. He instituted practice bombing competitions. To further motivate his men, he wangled the authority, a privilege extended only to SAC, to award spot promotions for outstanding performance, as high as lieutenant colonel in the officer grades and technical sergeant and master sergeant in the enlisted ranks. The awards were usually given to an entire crew at once in order to encourage teamwork. For example, a command pilot who was a captain could go to major, his co-pilot from first lieutenant to captain, and everyone else in the crew could also jump one rank ahead of their peers. If their proficiency fell, LeMay would take away the promotions. By 1951, LeMay’s force was ready to go. The atmosphere of the time reinforced the motivation. These were the years when anti-Communist fervor ran so high that some of the citizenry did not think it insane to repeat the slogan “Better Dead Than Red!”

LeMay’s SAC had, in fact, become the centerpiece of America’s national strategy. The concept underlying it had originally evolved out of Truman’s short-lived confidence in an American atomic monopoly—the same source of his and Jimmie Byrnes’s abortive attempt to intimidate Stalin with their postwar atomic diplomacy—and out of his concern to avoid deficits, curb inflation, and prevent the American economy from being undermined by profligate military spending. If the United States alone possessed the bomb and the means to deliver it through a long-range strategic bomber force, there was no need to burden the American economy with the huge expense of large ground forces to match the Red Army and with major naval forces for a prolonged war with the Soviet Union. The bomb would render any war with Russia short and decisive.

Truman demonstrated his determination to hew to this strategy when it put him on a collision course with the Navy and set off the “Revolt of the Admirals” in 1949. That April he and his secretary of defense, Louis Johnson, canceled the Navy’s planned “supercarrier,” the USS United States, in favor of more adequate funding for the B-36. The Navy had been counting on construction of this imposing ship, the model for the majestic aircraft carriers that were to be built in later decades to handle modern jet aircraft, to keep it on a par with the Air Force. The secretary of the navy, John Sullivan, resigned and Truman and Johnson sacked Admiral Louis Denfeld, the chief of naval operations, to quell further opposition within the senior ranks.

Soviet acquisition of the bomb in 1949 did not negate the economic rationale for the strategy. The end of the monopoly simply meant that the United States would have to outpace the Russians constantly in the size and power of its nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver an annihilating assault. The same economic motivation then led Dwight Eisenhower to adopt and elaborate on the strategy after his election in 1952. The surge in military spending for conventional armaments brought on by the Korean War, and the need to arm the new West German state and rearm Washington’s European allies for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance Stalin had clumsily provoked, peaked after his death in 1953 cleared the way for a truce in Korea that July. To achieve what he called “security with solvency,” Eisenhower resumed Truman’s policy of restricting spending on the conventional military in favor of reliance on the intercontinental reach of LeMay’s nuclear bombers.

The Eisenhower administration’s official euphemism for the strategy was “The New Look,” taken from a women’s fashion line exhibited by Christian Dior in the late 1940s. (Some in the administration also favored a catchy phrase for the strategy that was tinged with a bit of gallows humor—“a bigger bang for a buck.”) It soon became more appropriately known as Massive Retaliation, after Eisenhower and his stridently anti-Communist secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, made clear that a Soviet assault on West Berlin, for instance, or on any of America’s allies, would result not merely in a local defense under NATO, but in an all-out response of America’s nuclear might. Eisenhower and Dulles reasoned that the threat would curb military adventurism by the Soviets on the periphery of their empire and deter the Russians from launching a general war with their own growing nuclear arsenal. And if general war did occur, SAC would be the fist that delivered the knockout blow of a nuclear holocaust.

The strategy entailed previously unimaginable civilian casualties, but this does not seem to have bothered anyone in authority. The prospect certainly did not disturb LeMay Having had to inflict a cruel death by fire on hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in order to destroy Japan’s industry and render the country prostrate and ripe for surrender appears to have calloused him morally. Taking human life on a horrendous scale once apparently made it easier for him to contemplate taking it on a far more horrendous scale the next time. It was therefore not that difficult for him to go from anonymous Japanese men, women, and children by the hundreds of thousands to the planned killing of tens of millions of anonymous civilians in the Soviet Union, the East European states, and China. The same could be said of the other military leaders of his generation who had not had LeMay’s personal experience and of the civilian politicians above them. The RAF campaign of nighttime “city busting,” culminating in the slaughter at Dresden in February 1945, when a city filled with refugees was struck by both British and American bombers and from 36,000 to 136,000 civilians killed (no one has been able to estimate the number accurately), along with the incineration of Japan, inculcated the assumption that strategic bombing entailed massive civilian casualties as an unavoidable consequence. By 1954, when LeMay would have 1,500 atomic bombs at his disposal, the estimate was that 60 million people would be killed and 17 million injured within the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China if SAC was unleashed. A chilling phrase began to appear in the lexicon of advocates of strategic nuclear bombing: “to kill a nation.”

Massive Retaliation as a national strategy also confirmed the primacy of the Air Force among the services and raised LeMay’s Strategic Air Command to ascendancy within the Air Force itself. While Eisenhower reduced the overall strength of the military establishment by nearly a million men, inflicting most of the cuts on the ground forces of the Army but also shrinking the Navy and the Air Force as a whole, he encouraged SAC to grow. By 1957, when LeMay was to depart after nearly nine years to go to Washington as vice chief of staff, his creation would number 224,014 officers, enlisted men, and civilian support personnel. One hundred and twenty-seven of the B-36s would linger, but not for long. The rest of the propeller-driven fleet, the B-29s and B-50s, would have become a memory. In their place, lavish spending would have immensely enhanced the air power they had represented. SAC would field 1,285 B-47 medium jet bombers in 1957 and almost 250, with many more to come, of the new eight-engine B-52 jet Stratofortresses Boeing had begun delivering two years earlier to constitute the heavy bomb wings. (The tanker shortage had also long been solved after hundreds of KC-97s had flowed into SAC’s fleet by the end of 1953 and into 1954 to form new refueling squadrons that would meet the bombers going out and coming home.) When LeMay took command of SAC in 1948 his title was the ordinary one of commanding general. By 1955 the ordinary would be exalted to commander-in-chief. The letters and memoranda LeMay exchanged with his superior, General Nathan Twining, who was to succeed Vandenberg as chief of staff in mid-1953, reflect the unique status he held within the Air Force. It was customary for ranking generals to address each other in the familiar Dear Nate, Dear Curt manner, but LeMay’s side of the correspondence, preserved with Twining’s in the archives of the Library of Congress, goes one step further. It has the tone of a man addressing an equal, not a senior.

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