Skip to content

A Long View Of American Air Power: Curtis LeMay

June 4, 2012

There is no greater expression of the United States’ military might than its Air Force. To better understand this fascinating institution and its future role, the men and machines who created it deserve a closer look.

The goal here is simple: to give the reader an in-depth understanding of how the US wages war from the air. Its scope spans the age of the propeller, then onward to jets, helicopters, drones, stealth and everything in between.

The first great figurehead of this saga is General Curtis LeMay. He is the undisputed godfather of heavy bombing.

LeMay joined the Air Corps Reserve in 1928, a time when the United States had shaken off its interventionist tendencies for good a dozen years after World War 1 ended. There wasn’t much use for an Air Corps then despite mutterings of a future war with Japan.

The only distinguishing hallmarks in LeMay’s early career were a fierce work ethic, an aptitude for technology, and a new found belief in bombing after a transfer to a B-17 squadron in 1937. It would take the US’ entry into World War 2 before these passions would finally bear fruit. In the meantime, LeMay had to rise through the ranks.

In 1938 he led a trans-American flight of B-17s to Brazil that cemented the long-range capabilities of the untested bomber. It wasn’t until 1942, however, that LeMay would finally set foot in England to join the broader war effort.


In the dark days of ’42, bombing Germany was proving far more viable in the planning rooms than reality. German air defenses were too formidable, the American and British crews badly trained. LeMay remedied this by pushing his men hard and hammering out an effective heavy bombing doctrine that decimated the Third Reich. LeMay’s unsullied record as the CO of the 3rd Bombardment Division and subsequent commander of the 20th Bomber Command in the China-India-Burma theater would become his springboard to his greatest achievement—the air campaign over Japan.

Dozens of Japanese cities—including Tokyo—were incinerated by LeMay’s 21st Air Command. When nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war, a new era had begun for humanity and LeMay.

His reputation as a cigar-and-pipe-chomping bulldog of a man who gets results beyond dispute, a short stint at the post-WW2 Pentagon preceded LeMay’s enormous contributions to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Once in charge of SAC, LeMay applied his bombing doctrine to the nuclear age and built the US’s nuclear offensive capability from scratch. Even if he was working with inexperienced crews with poor training and few accomplishments–just like in the last war–LeMay delivered. By the time the Korean War broke out, LeMay had transformed the SAC into the greatest deterrent to Soviet aggression with his ‘Sunday Punch’ doctrine specially crafted to annihilate the enemy in the first rounds of World War 3.


Unfortunately, the Korean War also marked the beginning of LeMay’s fall from grace. Like many generals, LeMay’s later years were wracked by frustration. His push for a massive bombing campaign over North Korea was largely ignored. Upon relinquishing command of the SAC in 1957 and assuming a new role as special adviser to President Eisenhower, LeMay became the embodiment of a Cold Warrior, an incorrigible hawk ever watchful of the Soviet adversary.

The sidestepping of LeMay’s proven heavy bombing doctrine continued in the Kennedy administration when his suggestion of unilateral strikes on Cuba and North Vietnam met with little enthusiasm from the likes of Robert McNamara and Air Force secretary Eugene Zuckert.

Most biographies of LeMay book end his career with a failed vice presidential run, which means little else marked his life past 1968. This hardly diminishes his impact on the US Air Force. Conventional heavy bombing in the nuclear age entered the public consciousness via B-52s pummeling North Vietnam—a strategy LeMay preferred to subdue any enemy.

LeMay also pioneered the deployment of ICBMs and heavy bombers as effective tools in destroying the Soviet war machine. Even today, LeMay’s legacy is still alive. Any general or Secretary of Defense who envisions a future war that can be resolved by bombing the enemy’s weak spots owes this mindset to Curtis LeMay. For this reason alone, General LeMay ranks among the proud few who set the foundation stones of indomitable US air power.