Childhood & Early Life
LeMay was born on November 15, 1906 in Columbus, Ohio, to Erving LeMay, an ironworker and general handyman, and Arizona Dove, a home maker who did her best to hold her family together with her husband’ meager income.
His family moved around the country as his father looked for work, and eventually returned to Columbus. Here, he attended Columbus public school, and graduated from the Columbus South High School.
He graduated in civil engineering from the Ohio State University supporting himself by working and was a member of the National Society of Pershing Rifles and the professional engineering fraternity Theta Tau.
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LeMay was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve in 1929 and received a regular commission in the United States Army Air Corps the following year.
In 1937, navigating a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress under pilot and commander Caleb V. Haynes, he helped locate the battleship Utah in misty conditions off California though provided wrong coordinates by Navy personnel.
In 1938, he navigated three B-17s over 610 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to intercept the Italian liner Rex, showcasing the ability of land-based airpower to defend the American coasts.
When the U.S entered World War II, he became the commander of the B-17 Flying Fortress unit, the 305th Bomb Group, led it in combat until 1943, and helped develop the combat box formation.
In 1943, he became the first commander of the newly-formed 3rd Air Division and in the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission led 146 B-17s to Regensburg, Germany, beyond the range of escorting fighters, despite heavy losses.
In 1944, he was transferred to the China-Burma-India Theater and directed Bomber Commands in China and the Pacific and was later placed in charge of all strategic air operations against the Japanese home islands.
He directed Operation Starvation, an aerial mining operation against Japanese waterways and ports that disrupted Japanese shipping and food distribution assigning the entire 313th Bombardment Wing, consisting of about 160 airplanes, to the task.
He flew a specially modified B-29 from Japan to the U.S. in 1945, setting several new aviation records including the greatest USAAF takeoff weight, and the longest USAAF non-stop flight.
After the war, he was transferred to the Pentagon but was sent back to Europe as USAFE (US Air Force-Europe) commander, and in 1948 appointed Chief of Operations for the Berlin Airlift during the Berlin Blockade.
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The airlift continued for 11 months—213,000 flights brought in 1.7 million tons of food and fuel to Berlin. Finally the Soviets relented and reopened land corridors to the West.
Between1949 and 1957, he was in charge of SAC (Strategic Air Command), and entrusted the task of transforming it into a force capable of conducting a nuclear war should the need arise.
He was the Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF from 1957 till 1961, and then made the fifth Chief of Staff of the USAF and continued to believe in the strategic air campaigns.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, he clashed again with President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, and wanted authorization to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba and opposed the naval blockade.
LeMay retired in 1965 and became involved in radical right-wing politics and was selected as the vice-presidential candidate of arch-segregationist former Alabama governor George Wallace during his presidential campaign.
A string of reckless and alarming statements that he was not afraid of a nuclear war with Soviet Union, made voters wary of nuclear war policy and white supremacy and crushed Wallace’s chances
LeMay commanded the B-29 bomber operations against Japan, and his massive bombing campaign against more than 60 Japanese cities, in the months preceding the end of war resulted in one million Japanese civilian deaths.
He was instrumental in SAC's acquisition of a large fleet of new strategic bombers, establishment of a vast aerial refueling system, development of a strategic ballistic missile force, and enhancing their readiness capability
The United States of America recognized and honored Le May with the Distinguished Service Cross, Army Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, awarded for actions during the World War II.
He received recognition for his work from thirteen countries, including Britain, France, Belgium, Japan, Brazil, morocco, Ecuador, Uruguay Sweden, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and even the USSR, receiving twenty-two medals and decorations.
Personal Life & Legacy
Curtis Lemay married Helen Estelle Maitland in Ohio in 1934 and they had a daughter Patricia Jane.
He died on October 1, 1990 at March Air Force Base, California. He is buried in the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery at Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Situated in Air Force Village West, in Riverside, CA, the LeMay Foundation helps widows of all Air Force Retirees, both officers and enlisted, through financial grants of assistance
He was the inspiration behind the comedy movie, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Peter Sellers.
The phrase "We should bomb them back into the Stone Age" has been attributed to this U.S. Air Force Gen., the scariest Cold Warrior in American history.