Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, ex-Air Force chief, dies

October 02, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Gen. Curtis Emerson LeMay, the tough bomber general who directed the smashing of German and Japanese cities during World War II and then built the Strategic Air Command into a powerful nuclear strike force, died yesterday of a heart attack at an Air Force hospital near here. He was 83.

The four-star general relayed President Truman's orders to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war. He later expressed his belief that Japan could have been defeated with conventional incendiary bombs.

He had been living in Air Force Village West, a retirement community for Air Force officers. He remained in Southern California after being fired from his post-military job as board chairman of a Los Angeles electronics firm for serving as the running mate of then-segregationist George C. Wallace in the 1968 presidential campaign.

To an admiring American public during World War II, General LeMay was "Old Iron Pants."

Deciding his bombers were missing too many targets while zig-zagging to avoid heavy flak over Europe, he clamped a cigar in his jaw and personally led the next raid over Saint-Nazaire, holding his plane on a straight course for seven perilous minutes. The next day he issued orders that there would be "no more evasive action on the final bombing run."

But his hero image began to fade somewhat during ensuing years as he continued to talk like a combat man, observing that most Americans had a "phobia" about nuclear weapons (which he referred to as "just another weapon in the arsenal"). He once suggested that North Vietnam be bombed "back into the Stone Age."

Controversy surrounded him in the early 1960s when, as Air Force chief of staff, he feuded with then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara over the latter's push to cut back the number of manned aircraft in favor of more intercontinental ballistic missiles.

It intensified when General LeMay saw fit to be Mr. Wallace's running mate, attracting demonstrators who chanted, "Bombs away with Curtis LeMay!" He caused some embarrassment for Governor Wallace by saying he would use nuclear weapons, "if I found it necessary."

In peacetime he did not express regrets for his wartime decisions. "I have indeed bombed a number of specific targets," he conceded in the foreword of the 1965 book, "Mission with LeMay," which he wrote with novelist and fellow World War II flier MacKinley Kantor. "They were military targets on which the attack was, in my opinion, justified morally. I've tried to stay away from hospitals, prison camps, orphan asylums, nunneries and dog kennels. I have sought to slaughter as few civilians as possible."

Off-duty, he was an enthusiastic ham radio operator, gun collector and big-game hunter.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, the eldest of six children of an itinerant ironworker, he ached to go to West Point but did not get appointed by his congressman. He enrolled at Ohio State University as an engineering student, joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and paid his way through college working in a foundry and at other jobs.

Soon after World War II began he was a colonel in command of the 305th Bombardment Group, which he took to England in the autumn of 1942. He flew five combat missions over Europe, winning the Air Medal and the Silver Star. For his heroism in leading that attack on Germany's principal Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Promoted to brigadier general and then major general, he was commander of the 3rd Bombardment Division through mid-1944, then was sent to the China-Burma-India Theater to head the 20th Bomber Command.

When the Air Force became an independent service in 1947, he was assigned to command U.S. forces in Europe, where he headed the 1948 Berlin Airlift to break the Soviet blockade.

In October 1948, he took over the Strategic Air Command, finding it to be made up of weary fliers left over from World War II. He set up headquarters in Omaha, Neb., and built SAC into a proud, energetic outfit that kept nuclear-armed intercontinental bombers in the air around the world at all hours of the day and night.

In 1961, President Kennedy named him Air Force chief of staff.

Married in 1934, he had one daughter.

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