Curtis Emerson LeMay (1906–1990) was a four-star general in the United States Air Force during and after World War II. He was in charge of the strategic bombing of Japan by the B-29 in 1945, including the fire bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombs. Although originally opposed to the use of the bombs, he agreed that they hastened the end of the war and saved millions of Japanese and American lives.
He was the conservative vice presidential running mate of George C. Wallace in 1968, seeking the election on an independent party ticket.
LeMay, a ROTC graduate of Ohio State University, was commissioned in the Army Air Corps in 1930. A versatile flier and consummate organizer, he rose rapidly during World War II. Promoted to major general in 1943, he commanded the 305th Bomber Group and 20th Bomber Command in Europe, which used the B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers against Germany. Shifted to China to fight Japan in 1944, he discovered China was a poor base for the B-29. He moved his bombers in the 21st Bomber Command to the Marianas in 1945 and, as lieutenant general, became commanding general of the 20th Air Force at Guam.
LeMay always sought innovative engineering solutions to tactical problems. In Europe he had his bombers abandon the usual zigzag pattern of flight to avoid flak so they could have more accurate runs, and in the Pacific he removed the guns from the bombers, and flew over Japan at low altitudes, in order to carry heavier payloads.
LeMay opposed dropping the atomic bombs because he believed more firebomb raids would secure a surrender. He followed orders and dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
LeMay rose through the ranks of the Air Force, which became independent of the Army in 1947. He took command of the Strategic Air Command in 1957, and was promoted to the top job as USAF Chief of Staff in 1961, a position he held until his retirement in 1965.
At the beginning of the Cold War, LeMay managed the Berlin Airlift in 1948. Subsequently he took over the fledgling Strategic Air Command and for ten years he built it into the professional, disciplined, and powerful organization that kept the peace for thirty-five years after he left it.
Unexpectedly named the vice presidential running mate for independent candidate George Wallace in 1968, LeMay proved a mediocre campaigner. He called for using all available firepower, including nuclear weapons, to force North Vietnam to end the war quickly. He said that the United States was capable of "bombing Vietnam back into the stone age" and that the North Vietnamese should be aware of such power. LeMay felt any settlement in the Far East should protect free governments from communist takeovers. He quit politics after the race.
- Coffey, Thomas M. Iron Eagle: The Times and Life of General Curtis LeMay, (1986) the best biography.
- LeMay, Curtis. Mission with LeMay My Story with McKinlay Kantor (1965), autobiography
- Kozak, Warren. LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay (2009), from a conservative perspective excerpt and text search
- Tillman, Barrett. LeMay (Great Generals) (2009) excerpt and text search, good popular biography
- The "Army Air Corps" became the "Army Air Forces" in 1941, and the United States Air Force in 1947.