LeMay, Curtis Emerson (1906-1990)

Photograph of Curtis LeMay

U.S. Air Force

Curtis LeMay was born in Ohio, the son of a drifter, and was an ROTC graduate who managed to secure a regular commission and rise rapidly in the Air Service. Gifted with remarkable technical skills (he built a color television set with his own hands while serving as Air Force Chief of Staff), he was able to complete a civil engineering degree. He worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps and participated in a controversial airmail operation in 1934. An outstanding navigator, he also helped develop overwater navigation for the Air Corps and attended the Air Corps Tactical School in 1938-1939.

At the time of Pearl Harbor, LeMay held the rank of major. A member of the heavy bomber clique in the Air Corps, he became a protégé of “Hap” Arnold. He commanded a unit in 8 Air Force in England, where he improved bombing preparation and tactics and was credited with doubling the number of bombs hitting the target areas. He commanded the Regensburg raid of August 1943 and was promoted to brigadier general in September. In March 1944 he became the youngest American major general since the American Civil War. In August of that year he took command of 20 Bomber Command in the Marianas. He proved a strict disciplinarian and hard trainer as well as a gifted tactician, earning the nickname "Iron Ass" from his pilots. Colleagues referred to him sarcastically as "The Diplomat" on account of his bluntness.

LeMay's men cherished a legend that he once halted his jeep beside an aircraft being refueled, causing a sergeant timidly to remonstrate about the trademark pipe clamped in his jaw: "Sir, it could ignite gas fumes." Le May responded: "Son, it wouldn't dare."

(Hastings 2007)

LeMay had no more success with daylight precision bombing over Japan than had his predecessor, Haywood Hansell. He later recalled that Hap Arnold relayed a message to him:

You go ahead and get results with the B-29. If you don't get results, you'll be fired. If you don't get results, also, there'll never be any Strategic Air Forces of the Pacific.... If you don't get results it will mean eventually a mass amphibious invasion of Japan.

Declaring (with considerable justification) that daylight precision bombing had been a failure, LeMay advocated the wholesale destruction of the enemy’s urban centers through the deliberate kindling of firestorms, such as the ones that had destroyed Hamburg and Dresden in Europe. In line with this policy, he had his B-29s bomb at night, from low altitude, with most of their defensive armament removed to allow them to carry more incendiary bombs. The resulting firestorms consumed well over half the area of Japan’s leading urban centers and probably killed a quarter of a million civilians. Towards the end, his bombers would drop leaflets announcing the next target and warning civilians to leave — but this was probably motivated by its psychological value rather than any humanitarian impulse.

After the war, LeMay helped organize the Berlin airlift, and he became a strong advocate for an independent Air Force and a national defense policy built around the nuclear deterrent. As commander of the Strategic Air Command (1948-1957) he became the youngest full general since Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War. He frequently clashed with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the early 1960s and retired in 1965, running unsuccessfully for vice president with George Wallace in 1968.

LeMay had Bell’s palsy, and masked this facial paralysis by constantly chewing on a cigar. His speech was so slurred as to be almost incomprehensible (the cigar did not help.) He therefore avoided long sermons, expressing his displeasure when necessary with a cold glare. In much of the public eye, he became the prototypical demented cold warrior, and he has been identified as the inspiration for either General Jack D. Ripper or General Buck Turgidson in Kubrick’s black comedy film Dr. Strangelove. Some from the lunatic fringe of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists have suggested that he was the designated leader of a coup d’etat planned to follow the assassination. Yet as Tillman (2010) concluded: "LeMay remains the most competent, most thoroughly professional airman of his generation, of any service, any nation."

Service record


Born at Columbus, Ohio

Army flight school
Second lieutenant (reserves)     
1 Pursuit Squadron, Selfridge Field, Michigan

Commissioned into the Regular Army

18 Pursuit Group, Wheeler Field, Hawaii

49 Bombardment Squadron, Langley Field, Virginia

Air Corps Tactical School
7 Bombardment Squadron, Langley Field, Virginia

34 Bombardment Group
Lieutenant colonel
Executive officer, 306 Bombardment Group, Wendover Field, Utah

Commander, 305 Bombardment Group
Colonel Commander, 4 Bombardment Wing
Brigadier general Commander, 3 Bombardment Division
Major general


Commander, 20 Bomber Command

Commander, 21 Bomber Command

Commander, 20 Air Force

Chief of staff, Army Strategic Air Forces, Pacific

Headquarters, Air Material Command

Commander, Air Forces, Europe
Lieutenant general
Commander, Strategic Air Command


Vice chief of staff, Air Force

Chief of staff, Air Force




Air and Space Power Journal (accessed 2008-5-15)

Air Force Link (accessed 2008-5-14)

Burleigh (2011)

Dupuy et al. (1992)
Frank (1999) (accessed 2008-5-15)

Hastings (2007)

Larrabee (1987)

Perret (1993)
Pettibone (2006)

Tillman (2010)

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