Air Force general, V.P. candidate, Curtis LeMay, dies

MARCH AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Gen. Curtis LeMay, the blunt- spoken warhawk who helped smash Germany and Japan, then commanded America's airborne nuclear deterrent at the height of the Cold War, is dead at 83.

LeMay, a legendary soldier who ran for vice president with George Wallace in 1968, died Monday of heart failure at the 22nd Strategic Hospital near the retirement home for Air Force officers where he had spent his declining years.


Regarded as the father of the Strategic Air Command, the airborne arm of America's three-pronged nuclear deterrent, LeMay had lived for a number of years at Air Force Village West, a retirement community about 6 miles from the Southern California air base.

The cigar-chomping LeMay, a four-star general who ran SAC when its nuclear-armed bombers were aloft around the clock in the 1950s and 60s, was regarded as a super hawk and was proud of it.


After 35 years of distinguished military service that included bombing raids against Germany and Japan and Air Force command of the Berlin Airlift, LeMay signed on as the vice presidential running mate of George Wallace in their unsuccessful third party bid. Ironically, LeMay was in the position of taking orders from a man -- Wallace -- who had served under him as a sergeant while LeMay commanded the 20th Air Force in World War II.

The gruff, stocky Lemay was a colonel in the 395th Bomber Division in England in the early days of the aerial war against Germany, when he acquired hisreputation for cold courage and absolute dedication to military results.

LeMay decided that his B-17 Flying Fortresses could wreak more havoc on German cities if they flew straight through anti-aircraft fire rather than flying the zigzag pattern previously considered necessary to minimize losses.

Characteristically, LeMay -- known to his troops as 'Old Iron Pants' -- piloted the lead bomber in the first test of his theory, which was generally adopted by Army Air Corps units in Europe.

LeMay was transferred to the Pacific Theater after the fighting ended in Europe and played a major role in the devastating B-29 raids against Japan, including the atomic bombing missions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war.


After the war, he became U.S. Air Force commander in Europe and in that capacity was an architect of the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift.

Shortly thereafter, he became commander of SAC, which went from 600 bombers at 18 bases to 3,000 B-52s and smaller planes carrying hydrogen bombs from 50 bases worldwide. He became Air Force chief of staff in 1961, remaining in that job until he retired Feb. 1, 1965.

LeMay went to work for Networks Electronics Corp. of Chatsworth, Calif., as a highly paid consultant. He was fired as chairman of the board in 1968, and decided to run with Wallace on the American Independent Party ticket.

Uncomfortable in the role of politician, he would not or could not abandon his candid style of speaking his mind. He complained of a national 'phobia' about nuclear bombs and said they were 'just another weapon in the arsenal.' He was criticized for suggesting that if peace talks failed, North Vietnam be bombed 'back into the Stone Age.'

He said he could understand conditions under which the atomic bomb could be used in Vietnam.

'If you're in a poker game with a bunch of card sharps and you tell them you never bluff and you never draw to an inside straight, I guarantee you you're not going to do very well in that poker game,' he said.


LeMay bridled at accusations he was what one political opponent called 'the big bomber general, with a thunderbolt in one hand and a nuclear warhead in the other.'

He called the accusation a scare tactic and said, 'The real war mongers are those who would needlessly prolong the Vietnam War.'

LeMay was born Nov. 15, 1906, in Columbus, Ohio. He received an engineering degree from Ohio State University and won his wings in 1932 when he signed up as a cadet in the Army Air Corps.

In later years, LeMay lived quietly in a retirement community in Newport Beach, Calif., where he said he was 'as retired as I can be' although he was still called upon for consulting jobs and traveled occasionally.

In his book, 'Mission With LeMay,' he said he had 'blood on my hands ... not because I preferred to bathe in blood. It was because I was part of a primitive world where men still had to kill in order to avoid being killed, or in order to avoid having their loved nation stricken and emasculated.'

Latest Headlines


Follow Us