Curtis LeMay

From Ohio History Central
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Curtis LeMay

Curtis LeMay was a prominent and controversial United States Air Force commander during the mid-twentieth centurty.

Curtis LeMay was born on November 15, 1906, in Columbus, Ohio. As a child, he became fascinated with airplanes. He attended The Ohio State University and earned a degree in civil engineering. He also participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Upon graduating from college, LeMay joined the Army Air Corps. He became a specialist in bombing aircraft. He also became known for his stern and unforgiving demeanor. Men under LeMay's command commonly referred to him as "Iron Ass." At the same time, LeMay's men respected him. He implemented numerous reforms to improve their quality of life, including better food and housing. He also refused to risk his men's lives unnecessarily.

With World War II's outbreak, LeMay's talents proved valuable to the United States' war effort. LeMay quickly advanced through the ranks, and in 1942, he assumed command of the Third Bombardment Division in Europe. In 1944, as the Americans and their allies began to subdue the Germans, LeMay was transferred to the Pacific Theater. Here, he commanded first the XX and then the XXI Bomber Commands. LeMay also was promoted to the rank of major general.

LeMay was the primary planner of bombing raids against the Japanese mainland in 1945. He also oversaw the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan, helping to conclude the war. LeMay ordered the incendiary bombing of more than sixty Japanese cities during the first part of 1945. Incendiary bombing, or "fire jobs" as LeMay called them, commonly resulted in civilian deaths. Estimates vary on how many Japanese civilians died in the attacks that LeMay ordered, but it could have been as many as one million people. On the night of March 9, perhaps as many as 100,000 people died in an incendiary bombing of Tokyo. LeMay's tactics were described by many as "brutal," and the general expected to be tried as a war criminal if the United States lost the conflict to the Japanese. LeMay also directed the aerial mining of Japanese harbors and other waterways.

Upon World War II's conclusion, LeMay became the Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development and was assigned to the Pentagon. He held this position for a little more than a year, when he assumed command of the United States Air Wing in Europe. His greatest accomplishment in this post was overseeing the Berlin Airlift. In 1949, he assumed command of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), a position that he held until 1957. Under his leadership, SAC became a much more advanced force, especially as all planes became jet-powered.

In 1957, LeMay was appointed as Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. He became the Chief of Staff in 1961. During his time in this position, LeMay became known for his staunch opposition to communism. While a general dislike of communism ran rampant in the United States during this period, LeMay advocated a much more militant approach to stopping the spread of communism than other political and military leaders. During the Vietnam War, LeMay called for the escalation of force against the North Vietnamese and their South Vietnamese allies. He also was a strong supporter of using the United States' air power more effectively in Vietnam. Some people claim that LeMay even once stated that the United States "should bomb Vietnam back into the stone age," although he denied ever making that comment. Many political and military leaders agreed with LeMay's call for strategic bombing to weaken America's enemies -- a strategy that remains in effect today.

LeMay retired from the armed forces in 1965. He then embarked upon a brief political career and actually ran for Vice President of the United States with George Wallace, a strong supporter of segregation, in 1968. LeMay was not a segregationist and later claimed that he had accepted Wallace's proposal to be his running mate to weaken the Democratic Party's chances of winning the presidency. LeMay eventually retired from public life. He died on October 3, 1990.

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