Review of Lemay The Life and Wars of General Curtis Lemay, Part III

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The Second World War had many dark hours. And in the crucible of desperation, the U.S. found its man to wage war from the air, Gen. Curtis Lemay.

Who Was This Man?

The hour. The man. But let’s pause, and ask again who was this man? Keep in mind that Lemay was a field general, or perhaps we should call him an “air” general. Lemay devised doctrine, training and tactics for bombers. He planned and commanded air operations. His operations in many ways affected strategy.

But Lemay was always a subordinate, a general officer carrying out the greater aims and subject to the authority of others. That is, Lemay was not a politician, a theater commander or an industrialist. These latter players gave Lemay his orders and his tools. For all his efforts, Lemay was an instrument of the national will and productivity.

A Returning American Hero

Still, Lemay became the face of winged victory. He was the triumphant air marshal. When the war with Japan ended, Lemay flew home in a B-29 and landed to become an American hero. He toured the country, speaking to appreciative audiences, and received honorary degrees. Lemay was on the cover of Time Magazine.

The governor of his native Ohio considered appointing Lemay to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. Lemay declined the offer, preferring to remain on active duty in what was to become the newly-established U.S. Air Force.

Demobilization Fever

Lemay traveled, shook a lot of hands, testified before Congress. He was a walking testimonial to the idea of establishing an independent Air Force. By 1948, Lemay was assigned to build a new organization called the Strategic Air Command (SAC) out of the remnants of the U.S. Army airpower arm. And what a job that would turn out to be.

Building SAC was a Herculean task because the U.S. had demobilized so quickly after the war. It astonished many people – including Lemay — to learn that a mere 30 months after the war ended, U.S. forces operated almost no serviceable, long-range combat bomber aircraft. Nor were there sufficient trained crews or maintenance personnel. What happened? It was a classic case of demobilization fever.

Building Strategic Air Command

Yet Lemay set about accomplishing exactly what he was ordered to do. The World War was over, but the nation soon realized that its dark hours had not passed. Joseph Stalin had his own ideas about the fate of Europe.

On the other side of the world, there was a civil war raging in China. It highlighted the point that there was a world to police, or so went the bipartisan consensus. And someone had to do it, or so went the bipartisan consensus. The U.S. was the only free and great power left — with an intact economy — after the fighting.

So the late 1940s provided other of the nation’s hard hours, and these hours required a certain kind of man, Lemay — again.

Build SAC? Lemay requisitioned aircraft and spare parts from storage sites in the deserts of Arizona and California. He recruited the best pilots and maintenance personnel he could find. He scrounged for funds to build barracks and hangars and command centers. In essence, Lemay had to recreate an entire new bombing air force because the old one was gone.

Berlin Blockade

Lemay’s efforts were soon interrupted when the Soviets placed a blockade around Berlin in 1948. The U.S. turned to its great air general, Curtis Lemay, to organize an airlift of supplies to the beleaguered city. More than a few Germans changed their minds about the American occupation when they learned that Lemay, who used to bomb them, was now delivering coal and food to Berlin.

In the process of relieving Berlin, Lemay suggested making a highly visible geopolitical point. Eventually Lemay ordered B-29 “atomic bombers” to fly to England. The Soviets knew that there was a message in the action, and that message was crystal clear.

“We believe that Lemay would drop atom bombs on us,” said one Soviet diplomat to an American counterpart. The American diplomat smiled, as diplomats do, and concurred with the Russian.

Stalin was many things. But he was no fool. After a period of time, the Soviets wound down the Berlin blockade.

Korean War

Not long after, and again at the behest of that Soviet troublemaker Stalin, in June 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. Lemay had B-29 bombers ready to roll, and quickly sent his birds to Japan and Okinawa. From bases there, Lemay’s B-29s could hit targets in North Korea.

Lemay’s view was that early, massive, visible blows would help bring the war to a swift conclusion. Thus, early-on in Korea, Lemay urged intense bombing to shatter the economy and military forces of the North Koreans. Lemay wanted to do to North Korea what he had previously done to Germany and Japan. And this time, he had the bombers with which to do it from the start.

But at the beginning of the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was in command. MacArthur was an old-school soldier who did not want to see a reprieve of Lemay’s aerial campaign such as had burnt out Japan in World War II. Also, MacArthur had plans to fight and defeat the North Koreans on the ground. So MacArthur blocked Lemay’s idea of early and powerful bombardment.

Meanwhile, the Chinese and Soviets had plans of their own. And those plans involved NOT permitting their North Korean ally to be defeated by a Western army, particularly not by any army mostly American, commanded by a certain Douglas MacArthur.

Macarthur scored successes at Inchon and afterwards. His troops rolled up the invading North Koreans. Then MacArthur made a fateful decision and ordered U.S. and United Nations troops to cross the 38th Parallel. MacArthur’s soldiers spent the late summer and early fall overrunning most of northern Korea.

China would nave none of this. The Chinese had just kicked out the Japanese five years earlier. They wanted nothing of a Western army on their border. So in October 1950 China entered the war, sending vast numbers of troops south across the Yalu River. U.S. and U.N. forces were quickly overrun and pushed back, south of Seoul. It was a humiliating defeat. For this, and a list of other reasons, MacArthur was relieved of command.

After MacArthur departed, Lemay tried once more to move the idea of a massive Korean bombing campaign. But Lemay was overruled by the policymakers in Washington. No massive bombing.

In Korea Lemay encountered the beginnings of the modern American political phenomenon of committing troops to wage war, without the political will to deliver crippling military blows against the enemy. The expression of the soldiers was, “We die for a tie.”

The Worst of All Worlds

The fighting in Korea strung out over the next three years. The bitter combat, and overall air war, eventually pulverized most significant targets in the North. The end-result was the same as Lemay had first proposed. But it played out slowly, not quickly. The fighting and destruction occurred gradually, piecemeal, and at great human and material expense.

Compounding the problem, the war commanders used Lemay’s B-29s inappropriately. Air tasking orders had B-29s performing missions like ground-interdiction and close-air-support. Really, you just don’t use big bombers down low for things like that.

“I have heard of military campaigns that were clumsy but swift,” wrote Sun Tzu. “But I have never seen military campaigns that were skilled but protracted.” That is, time is precious during a war. And over time the North Koreans, and their Chinese allies on the ground, learned how to dig in and take hits from the big American bombers.

The North Koreans and Chinese also figured out how to fight back against the B-29s. It helped that they had at their disposal several hundred veteran Soviet pilots flying MiG-15s. These MiGs were nimble jet-powered fighters, flying from airfields in Manchuria that were off-limits to U.S. attack. By the end of the Korean conflict, 107 of 150 B-29s in theater had been lost to enemy action or in-flight accidents.

“No nation has ever benefited from protracted warfare,” wrote Sun Tzu. And of course, Sun Tzu was correct. For American air power, Korea demonstrated the point. It was the worst of all worlds.

{Of interest, the Korean War gave rise to the military requirement for a day-night, all-weather, radar-mapping, low-level attack aircraft with a heavy bomb load. The result was the venerable and incomparable Grumman A-6 Intruder. Intruders Forever!}

Evolving SAC

While Lemay ran SAC, 1948 – 1957, he finally was in a position to drive policy. And he presided over transformations that were astounding. For example, Lemay commanded four different generations of advancing aircraft, and a host of evolving munitions. The logistics requirements, basing requirements, personnel and training requirements and operational planning were a continuous whirlwind.

Think about the complexity. Starting with the World War II-era B-29, Lemay transitioned SAC to the improved, but gigantic and costly B-36. Then came the sleek, jet-powered B-47. The B-47 was followed by the mighty B-52 – which is still part of the backbone of U.S. security, 50 years later. As Air Force Chief of Staff in the early 1960s, Lemay pushed hard for the supersonic B-70 (which never made it past two prototype examples).

Keep in mind, though, that Lemay was always subject to the push and pull of the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). Sometimes the pork-hawks in Congress gave Lemay what he wanted. Often not.

Evolving Weapons

Still, it’s fair to say that Lemay also had a powerful hand in defining the requirements for several early generations of nuclear weapons, as well as aircraft and missile systems, electronic warfare systems, and precision weapon developments.

When it came to the early nuclear weapons, Lemay needed bombs that could fit inside his bombers (and later his missiles). He needed bombers and missiles that could carry the big-yielding boomers that the weapons designers were dreaming up. Thus for more than a decade Lemay played a key role in aircraft and missile design requirements, as well as in setting the requirements for missions, targets and payload.

Basically, Lemay wanted faster, more potent aircraft, and smaller, more secure, more accurate weapons. Thus did the U.S. aircraft industry, electronics industry, and nuclear weapons complex – among numerous defense sectors — shape itself to the will of one senior officer and his immensely capable staff of aerial war-fighters. Lemay issued requirements that drove technology, shaped industry, and even reached down into the research and teaching levels of academia.

Among other things, Lemay soon realized that most of the new nuclear weapons could be armed and triggered by just one person. So he insisted that the designers build safeguards into the weapons. And Lemay inaugurated the idea of two-person control, with arming keys, and airtight security systems during storage and transport.

Through it all, in the 1950s, much of SAC’s development, acquisition and operating tempo occurred in an era of tight and balanced federal budgets.

The Battles of Washington

By the late 1950s Lemay was posted to Washington as Assistant Chief of Staff, and eventually Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Now he was ensconced within the highest reaches of the MICC.

Lemay got along well with Pres. Eisenhower and members of the Eisenhower administration. At many meetings with Ike, senior military brass and civilian staff sitting around the table, it was as if the old World War II boys were holding a reunion.

Eisenhower was an old soldier who had been the Supreme Commander in Europe. Ike implicitly understood the military and national security issues that confronted the U.S. in those days. Nobody had to explain basic defense and security concepts to Ike, let alone explain them twice. And then came a new presidential administration, in which many of the novices needed spoon-fed – twice and more.

Opposing Bay of Pigs

In the early days of the Kennedy administration, one of Lemay’s first big fights was an unsuccessful attempt to stop the Bay of Pigs operation. Lemay reviewed the plan to land a small number of mercenary troops in Cuba, with the idea of staging an overthrow of Fidel Castro.

Lemay was appalled at the shoddiness of the plan, and said so. But of course the CIA experts knew better how to stage an invasion than did Lemay, the crusty old bomber pilot. Thus despite his best efforts to prevent the operation, Lemay watched in April 1961 as the Bay of Pigs fiasco blew up in the face of Pres. Kennedy.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Bay of Pigs debacle emboldened Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to place missiles in Cuba. Again, this led to an international military standoff, the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962. The U.S. and Soviet Union were perhaps days, if not hours, from going to war.

Through it all, Lemay offered steady and consistent advice to Pres. Kennedy and his advisers. Backing up Kennedy was Lemay’s potent and powerful creation, SAC. This highly trained airborne battle-force, aimed at the heart of the Soviet Union, was critical. SAC – along with the battle forces of the U.S. Navy in blockade-mode — gave Kennedy the military flexibility and credibility he needed with which to negotiate and de-escalate the looming crisis.

Opposing Kennedy-Johnson Vietnam Strategy

Towards the end of the Kennedy administration, and in the early days of the Johnson administration after Kennedy was assassinated, Lemay argued strenuously against the U.S. strategy of gradual escalation that he saw occurring in Vietnam. Lemay’s principle nemesis throughout was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and what Lemay called “the Whiz kids.”

Lemay visited and toured South Vietnam. He saw that South Vietnam’s security was being undermined by Communist troops and guerilla cadre whose arms and training flowed down from the North. Thus, according to Lemay, if the security of South Vietnam was worth committing U.S. forces (a very big “if,” in Lemay’s view), then it was important to hit the North Vietnamese soon and hard.

At the outset, Lemay recommended destroying and mining North Vietnamese logistic centers such as the port facilities at Haiphong and other coastal areas. Lemay offered a plan to wreck the North Vietnamese supply lines at the source. The Kennedy-Johnson policymakers rejected Lemay’s advice — although this operational plan stayed near the top of the military shelf. The bomb-Haiphong operation is exactly what the Nixon administration eventually did in December 1972, about nine years after Lemay suggested it.

“Back Into the Stone Age”

This period is also the origin of that “bomb them back into the Stone Age” comment, attributed to Lemay about attacking North Vietnam. In 1963 Lemay was working with the author McKinlay Kantor to write an autobiography, entitled Mission with Lemay: My Story. Kantor spent many hours with Lemay. He took notes and apparently took a number of liberties in his writing. In short, Kantor simply made some things up.

According to Lemay, he read the galley proofs and never noticed Kantor’s version of Lemay saying he would bomb North Vietnam “back into the Stone Age.” Hence the made-up quote went to print in a book under Lemay’s name.

The Advice Not Taken

During his tenure in Washington, Lemay offered his fair share of military advice. It’s accurate to say that essentially all of it was based on Lemay’s experience, and it was sincerely presented. As with all advice, some was accepted. And some was rejected – some of the best, in fact, to the eventual regret of those who failed to listen hard enough.

By 1964 there was concern within the highest political circles of the Johnson White House that Lemay might go public with his criticism of defense policy. Pres. Johnson turned on the charm and sweet-talked Lemay into remaining on active duty through the 1964 election. This was to prevent Lemay from hanging up his uniform and campaigning on behalf of another old Army pilot named Barry Goldwater.

Ever the good soldier, Lemay stayed in the Air Force through the election of 1964. He kept his mouth shut, out of deference to his commander in chief. Shortly after Johnson’s inauguration in January 1965, the newly-sworn president asked Lemay to retire.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man? Well, by now Lemay’s clock had run out. It was time for the old warhorse to retire, kick back and think about the good old days. Then again, there were still some chapters yet to be written in a remarkable life.

Thanks for reading Part III.

Until we meet again,
Byron W. King

September 15, 2009