A Review of "Lemay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis Lemay"

“He never fit the image of the American flyboy – dashing, handsome and suave,” writes author Warren Kozak in the prologue to his remarkable new biography of General Curtis Lemay (1906–1990). “He was, instead, dark, brooding, and forbidding. He rarely smiled, he spoke even less, and when he did, his few words seemed to come out in a snarl.”

When even the biographer begins on such a disparaging note, it’s not hard to understand why Lemay has been the subject of so few worthy accounts. One that comes to mind is Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of Gen. Curtis Lemay, by Thomas Coffey, 1987. But there are few others. So after 22 years we now have a new effort to tell the tale of one of America’s greatest warriors. Better late than never, I suppose.

The Neglected Military and Strategic Genius

Again and again, fine writers have told the stories of almost all U.S. military leaders of World War II and the Cold War. Library shelves strain beneath books detailing the military accomplishments of George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Omar Bradley, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz and others of that mid-century era.

But Curtis Lemay? He’s a neglected captain, if not forgotten. Today, many Americans under age 50 scarcely know his name. To those with only a casual acquaintance of Lemay’s story, his life is summed-up in the disdainful quip – an irreverent dismissal, really — that he was “George Wallace’s running mate in the 1968 presidential election.” Oh, you don’t say. Well, yes he was. And that’s a nugget of truth that explains precisely nothing in the saga of war and peace in our time.

To those with more knowledge, Lemay supposedly said of North Vietnam that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” Actually, Lemay denied saying that. The words are those of a ghost-writer who took too much literary license.

Then there’s the insult of artful insults. It was Lemay who was caricatured as the loony Gen. Buck Turgidson (played by the actor George C. Scott) in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

No, Stanley. Not at all. Not even close. When it comes to portraying Lemay, Dr. Strangelove is literary license on steroids. Here’s the rebuttal. Dr. Strangelove is only a movie. As to Lemay, it’s neither accurate nor fair. Lemay was Lemay, of course, sui generis. But Lemay was no Buck Turgidson.

A Man of Many Great Battles and Campaigns

What a shame, then, that two (going on three) generations of Americans know so little about Curtis Lemay. He was more than just an effective wartime commander. He was one of the most brilliant military leaders and strategists that the U.S. has produced in its entire national existence. Thus it’s about time that the man receives the recognition he deserves in this new volume of straightforward biography.

First, some perspective. How many great battles and campaigns did George Washington plan or fight? Less than ten. For how many great battles did Ulysses Grant or Robert E. Lee set the stage? Under twenty. How about John J. Pershing, or Douglas MacArthur or George Patton? A couple of dozen, perhaps.

What about Curtis Lemay? As commander of the Eighth Air Force in Europe, and later the 20th Air Force in the Pacific, Lemay set the stage for literally hundreds of great aerial battles.

During those battles, Lemay flew many a combat mission. But he was no mere knight of the air. Lemay was directly responsible for inventing and refining many key concepts of aerial warfare, from heavy bombardment to precision strike. Lemay took the abstract ideas of airpower thinkers from Giulio Douhet to Billy Mitchell, and turned them into the steel rain of bomb-dropping reality.

By one macabre statistic, Lemay ordered and commanded actions that led to the deaths of more enemy combatants and civilians than any other military leader in U.S. history. So Gen. Sherman burned Atlanta? Well, Lemay out-Sherman’ed Gen. Sherman. Indeed, Lemay put the torch to Japan, as we’ll discuss below.

Cometh the Hour…

Burn Japan? Yes indeed. Lemay burned many cities — to the ground. That’s what Lemay did AFTER his bombers pounded large swaths of Germany into rubble. Lemay’s record for death and destruction is a strange honor, to be sure. It’s probably a dubious distinction these days, in the hindsight of contemporary morality and the trend towards judgmental, 20-20 hindsight.

But then again, recall the old saying that “cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Lemay lived and served in a time of many desperate hours. His hour came. In the context of his time, the dirtiest of dirty jobs fell to Lemay. He worked with exactly the tools that his nation handed him. It was left to Lemay to act.

Thus in both World War II and the following Cold War, Lemay accomplished what necessity demanded. By all accounts Lemay performed his work out of a sense of duty. History, if not the fates, offered him his hour and assigned him his mission. By all accounts Lemay didn’t relish the death and destruction he rained upon the enemy. But he accomplished what his nation asked him to do, and under the hardest circumstances.

For a while, Lemay even received high praise for his grisly work. Until, of course, some people forgot why they needed Lemay. Until, of course, a new generation came along that knew not of the desperation of those previous hours. But this gets ahead of the story.

Leading from the Front – from Inside a Plexiglas Dome

Unlike many generals – before his time, then or since — Lemay shared the risk. Many times he led his troops into battle over Germany, directing the fight from a cramped perch inside a Plexiglas dome atop a B-17. Lemay was often in the lead aircraft, at which German guns poured heavy volumes of fire.

Later, Lemay flew against Japan as well. He only flew a few missions and wouldd have flown more, except that eventually his knowledge of the Manhattan Project kept him out of the action. Under direct orders from Washington, Lemay could not risk getting shot down and captured.

Later, in 1948 Lemay organized the Berlin Airlift, and not long afterwards orchestrated the 1950 – 1953 air campaign against North Korea during the Korean War.

Throughout the 1950s Lemay built the Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the U.S. Air Force, and set it on a near-constant, wartime footing.

In 1962, as Air Force Chief of Staff, Lemay counseled Pres. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis while SAC and other Air Force capabilities gave Kennedy military options to play out against the moves of his Soviet counterparts.

A Story of a General, and of America at Mid-Century

In the life of any nation, it is for the fates to decide when the hard hours shall come. But whence cometh those men to meet those hours?

The question brings us to Kozak’s new biography of Lemay. It’s not just another book about another military man. Oh, Kozak tells that tale of course. But another theme that permeates the discussion is the story of the U.S. at war in the mid-20th Century.

Lemay’s early life sets the stage. Lemay was a child of an unsuccessful father. Most of the time, his family was destitute. And from such humble roots, Lemay rose to command great air armies, to control god-like nuclear powers, and to advise U.S. presidents – several of them, in fact.

Yet despite his early hardships, Lemay revered the Wright Brothers. He wanted to fly. Eventually it dawned on Lemay that he needed to pursue an education. Thus did Lemay work his way through college. And while in school, Lemay joined the Army Reserve because he figured it was about the only way he’d ever get off the ground.

At first, Lemay didn’t know where the Army would take him. But flying airplanes seemed like a good skill on which to build some sort of career. It’s not unlike the story of another college-man of his era, Ronald Reagan, who joined an Army unit to learn how to ride horses. You just never know where some skills will take you.

Work Hard, and the Army Will Buy the Gas

After college, Lemay passed flight school and took to the air, with the U.S. Army buying the gas. He achieved his success without the advantages of family, politics, good looks, charm or even all that much luck. It’s fairer to say that Lemay succeeded by dint of a phenomenal work ethic. He had guts, street-smarts and the uncanny ability to make good decisions. Later, he maintained his success by selecting other good people who could interpret his ideas and help him accomplish things.

Lemay started as an Army pilot in the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression. Funding was tight, although it also was a time of great advances in aviation. Lemay mastered the technical intricacies of every aircraft he flew. He was, in particular, a superb navigator – perhaps the best in the Army; perhaps the best in the country; perhaps one of the best in the world. It would come to matter, eventually.

And Lemay knew his aircraft weapons, too, from guns to arming wires to tail fins. In the process of mastering these systems, he developed a sense of the training and supervision he needed to impart to his subordinates.

Thus Lemay understood the “envelope” of performance in many different respects. That is, he understood what he could demand from both people and machines. Lemay also understood how the Army system worked, and he could out-bureaucrat even the best of bureaucrats.

Finally, Lemay thought broadly about big ideas, of how to employ technology and people within the system, to accomplish the job at hand. People, ideas, machines, systems. That’s what all the great ones understand. They can tie it all together and make something work.

Lemay Rewrites the Book of Bombing in Europe

So there was Lemay, working in the wings of the U.S. Army (pardon the pun) as World War II began in Europe in 1939. Initially, Lemay rose to squadron-level command posts during the U.S. aerial supply effort towards Britain. He learned a lot, and it would prove to be useful knowledge after the U.S. entered the war with Germany.

By 1942, and the early days of U.S. bombing effort against Germany, things were not going well. Targeting was poor. Accuracy was terrible. Losses were high. Into this mix, Lemay was assigned to command one of the first B-17 bomber groups in England.

Lemay immediately focused on crew-training and aircraft-maintenance. He flew with his crews, developing the “box formation” in which the defensive guns of each bomber provided protection not only to themselves, but to others in the group as well.

As the bombers approached the target, Lemay insisted on steady, accurate run-ins despite the murderous German antiaircraft fire. Lemay believed that there was no use taking the risks and losses of air assaults, if the bombs could not be placed accurately on targets.

Lemay’s tactics were successful. Bombing accuracy increased, and his units’ losses went down. Over time, the B-17 even became a fearsome killer of enemy aircraft, shooting down more German fighter airplanes than any other type of aircraft in World War II. Lemay was promoted, and his tactics became operational doctrine. Lemay’s concepts began to have a strategic impact on the war effort.

“A Lot to Learn in Combat”

But Lemay knew – and never forgot — that bombing was a brutal, unforgiving business. The Germans put up one hell of a fight, every time. “We had a lot to learn in combat,” Lemay wrote later. “Many people didn’t last long enough to learn much.”

On a typical mission, flak exploded all around, tossing thousands of pieces of supersonic shrapnel in every direction. Or the German Messerschmitt-109s fired cannon shells the size of milk bottles, filled with high explosive.

Blue Battlefields, Orange Balls

In 10,000 years of human history, there had never been a conflict like this. Up in the blue battlefield, massive airplanes were ripped to pieces in just fractions of a second. Death was random and made no distinction between good men or bad. Aircraft collided. Aircraft maneuvered so violently that their wings ripped off. Aircraft were hit, and exploded into orange balls that vaporized every soul. The lucky ones, at least, died before tumbling 26,000 feet to earth amidst a rain of scorched metal and parts.

In World War II, the Army Air Corps suffered more combat deaths than did the ground-pounding, beach-hitting Marines. Almost every day, for over three years, hundreds of aircraft full of young men took off from bases in England. Later in the day, chaplains stood by the end of the runways, counting the returning aircraft and checking off their tail numbers as they landed. Lemay, too – when he was not up-front and flying — was in the control towers or operations rooms, keeping vigil.

And of those aircraft that never returned? There were just so many, something like 5,000, filled with American aircrew. Later, as time permitted, the chaplains went through the personal effects of the missing. Then the Army sent a footlocker home to a grieving family. Lemay went through many a service record, personally writing thousands of condolence letters.

The Highest Praise Comes from the Opponent

After the war, the Strategic Bombing Survey second-guessed the results of Lemay’s efforts. Targeting was never all that good, the survey pointed out. Indeed, most bombs missed the targets entirely. Bombing did not truly cripple German industry, noted the survey. One key conclusion was that bombing used vast resources for limited results.

Then again, not everything is subject to “survey.” Indeed, Lemay’s European bombing campaign received high praise from the highest of all sources. It came from no less an expert than Albert Speer, the German Minister of Armaments. Speer would know, of course, because it was his industries on the receiving end of Lemay’s bombs.

In memoirs published in the 1970s, Speer noted that the increasingly effective U.S. bombardment required Germany to redeploy over 2.5 million troops, 150,000 high-velocity guns and 20,000 fighters and pilots across Western Europe to cover the “aerial front.” Speer commented wryly on the effect these troops and munitions could have had, if only they had been available to fight the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

Cometh Another Hour…

Thus did one man meet the call of a dark hour in Europe. But Mars, god of war, was not finished with Lemay. There was another trumpet blowing. There was another dark hour for the nation, and Lemay was summoned to Asia.

Thank you for reading Part I. Part II will follow.

Until we meet again,
Byron W. King

September 8, 2009

The Daily Reckoning