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Retired Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay Dies at 83

October 2, 1990

MARCH AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) _ Air Force Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, who relayed the order to drop the A-bomb on Japan and said the United States should threaten to bomb North Vietnam ″back into the Stone Age,″ died Monday. He was 83.

LeMay, who also directed the 1948 Berlin Airlift and ran for vice president in 1968 as George Wallace’s running mate, died of a heart attack at the 22nd Strategic Hospital, said Sgt. Steve Mahnke.

An ambulance had picked him up minutes earlier at his retirement home outside this base east of Los Angeles.

″He was one of the real American heroes of World War II,″ Wallace said. ″I am proud to have served under him in World War II and proud to have had him on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate in my third-party campaign. ... I will always count it a high honor to have been his personal friend.″

The former four-star general who built the Strategic Air Command into a global strike force.

Considered the father of strategic bombing, LeMay and his tactics were instrumental in pressing the daylight bombing offensive against the Nazis in Europe in World War II.

LeMay was the architect of B-17 bombing formation tactics in Europe, and later transferred to the Pacific where he organized the B-29 bombing campaign against the Japanese islands.

Years later, he said the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary to force Japan’s surrender.

″We felt that our incendiary bombings had been so successful that Japan would collapse before we invaded,″ LeMay said in a 1985 interview with the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald.

″We went ahead and droppped the bombs because President (Harry) Truman told me to do it. He told me in a personal letter.″

But LeMay told the newspaper he felt the United States could have defeated Japan in ″a few more days″ if it had continued the firebombing of Japanese cities.

After the war, LeMay was given command of the U.S. Air Force in Europe. He was there in 1948 when the Soviet Union cut off ground access to West Berlin. His management of the airlift that kept West Berlin supplied brought LeMay much notice at home.

He was named commanding general of the Strategic Air Command in October 1948 and held the command until June 1957 - longer than any other general.

The 1955 Jimmy Stewart movie, ″Strategic Air Command,″ provided a glimpse of the strike force LeMay built. A cigar-chomping Frank Lovejoy portrayed a character that displayed LeMay’s tough, demanding persona.

He was SAC’s second commander but was widely credited with having built its bomber force to a formidable level.

Within a few short years he transformed the largely demobilized air arm into a global striking force that could deliver nuclear weapons anywhere at any time.

In a 1965 biography, ″Mission with LeMay,″ published in 1965 after his retirement as Air Force chief of staff during the early years of the Vietnam War, he wrote that a solution to the war might be to warn the North Vietnamese that they ″have got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we are going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.″

His reputation was that of a man who was equally unsparing of his men and himself. He said he was unable to distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent, and he tolerated little if any error from his subordinates.

But he would willingly do any job that he demanded of his followers. He was as comfortable in a machine gun cupola as he was in the cockpit. He personally led dozens of missions in Europe.

One of many famous stories about LeMay was that he once found a SAC sentry who had put down his weapon to eat a sandwich.

″This afternoon I found a man guarding a hangar with a ham sandwich. There will be no more of that,″ LeMay’s subsequent memo said.

He was promoted to full general while at SAC.

After leaving SAC, LeMay became vice chief, then President Kennedy named him chief of staff of the Air Force.

LeMay retired in 1965, frustrated by the politics of the Pentagon and by Robert S. McNamara, defense secretary under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

McNamara had denied LeMay the B-70, which the general had wanted as the successor to the B-52, and forced him to accept the F-111 fighter-bomber. In so doing, McNamara had subordinated LeMay’s coveted bombers to the new ballistic missiles.

LeMay also grew angry over McNamara’s restraints on U.S. air power in Vietnam, a sore point for LeMay who believed in an all-out war.

At a news conference at which he was introduced as Wallace’s running mate, LeMay said he saw nothing wrong with using nuclear weapons to shorten any war and, thus, save lives.

LeMay had been living in Air Force Village West, a military retirement community outside March.

A memorial service is scheduled for Wednesday at the air base chapel. Burial will be at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Thursday.

He is survived by his wife, Helen, and a daughter.

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