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First Name: Curtis

Last Name: LeMay

Birthplace: Columbus, OH, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Air Force (1947 - present)

Middle Name: Emerson

Date of Birth: 15 November 1906

Date of Death: 01 October 1990

Rank: General

Years Served: 1928-65
Curtis Emerson LeMay
'Old Iron Pants'

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


Curtis Emerson "Old Iron Pants" LeMay
General, U.S. Air Force

The Early Years

Curtis Emerson LeMay was born on 15 November 1906 in Columbus, OH. His father, Erving LeMay was at times an ironworker and general handyman, but he never held a job longer than a few months. His mother, Arizona Carpenter LeMay, did her best to hold her family together. With very limited income, his family moved around the country as his father looked for work, going as far as Montana and California. Eventually they returned to his native city of Columbus. LeMay attended Columbus public schools and studied civil engineering at Ohio State University. Working his way through college, he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering. While at Ohio State he was a member of the National Society of Pershing Rifles and the Professional Engineering Fraternity, Theta Tau.

Military Career

Curtis LeMay was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve in October 1929. He received a regular commission in the Army Air Corps in January 1930. While finishing college at Ohio State, he took flight training at Norton Field in Columbus during 1931-32. He married Helen E. Maitland on 9 June 1934 and they had one child, Patricia Jane LeMay Lodge, known as Janie.

LeMay became a pursuit pilot and, while stationed in Hawaii, became one of the first members of the Air Corps to receive specialized training in aerial navigation. In August 1937, as navigator under pilot and Commander Caleb V. Haynes on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, he helped locate the battleship USS Utah despite being given the wrong coordinates by Navy personnel, in exercises held in misty conditions off California, after which the group of B-17s bombed it with water bombs. In May 1938, he again navigated for Haynes and three B-17s over 610 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to intercept the Italian liner Rex to illustrate the ability of land-based airpower to defend the American coasts. In 1940 he was navigator for Haynes on the prototype Boeing XB-15 heavy bomber, flying a survey from Panama over the Galapagos Islands. War brought rapid promotion and increased responsibility.

When his crews were not flying missions they were being subjected to his relentless training, as he believed that training was the key to saving their lives. LeMay was widely and fondly known among his troops as "Old Iron Pants" throughout his career.

World War II

When the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, LeMay was a Major in the U.S. Army Air Forces (he was still a 1st lieutenant in 1940), and the Commander of a newly created B-17 Flying Fortress unit, the 305th Bomb Group. He took this unit to England in October 1942 as part of the Eighth Air Force, and led it in combat until May 1943, notably helping to develop the combat box formation. He led the 4th Bombardment Wing and was its first Commander when it was reorganized into the 3rd Air Division in September 1943. He personally led several dangerous missions, including the Regensburg section of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission of 17 August 1943. In that mission he led 146 B-17s to Regensburg, Germany, beyond the range of escorting fighters and, after bombing, continued on to bases in North Africa, losing 24 bombers in the process. The heavy losses in veteran crews on this and subsequent deep penetration missions in the autumn of 1943 led the Eighth Air Force to limit missions to targets within escort range. Finally, with the deployment in the European theater of the P-51 Mustang in January 1944, the 8th Air Force gained an escort fighter with range to match the bombers.

Robert McNamara described LeMay's character, in a discussion of a report into high abort rates in bomber missions during World War II:

"One of the commanders was Curtis LeMay - Colonel in command of a B-24 group. He was the finest combat commander of any service I came across in war. But he was extraordinarily belligerent, many thought brutal. He got the report. He issued an order. He said, 'I will be in the lead plane on every mission. Any plane that takes off will go over the target, or the crew will be court-martialed.' The abort rate dropped overnight. Now that's the kind of commander he was."

In August 1944, LeMay transferred to the China-Burma-India Theater and directed first the XX Bomber Command in China and then the XXI Bomber Command in the Pacific. LeMay was later placed in charge of all strategic air operations against the Japanese home islands.

LeMay soon concluded that the techniques and tactics developed for use in Europe against the Luftwaffe were unsuitable against Japan. His bombers flying from China were dropping their bombs near their targets only 5% of the time. Operational losses of aircraft and crews were unacceptably high owing to Japanese daylight air defenses and continuing mechanical problems with the B-29. In January 1945, LeMay was transferred from China to relieve Brig. Gen. Haywood S. Hansell as commander of the XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas.

He became convinced that high-altitude precision bombing would be ineffective, given the usually cloudy weather over Japan. Furthermore, bombs dropped from the B-29s at high altitude (20,000+ feet) were often blown off of their trajectories by a consistently powerful jet stream over the Japanese home islands, which dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the high-altitude raids. Because Japanese air defenses made daytime bombing below jet stream-affected altitudes too perilous, LeMay finally switched to low-altitude nighttime incendiary attacks on Japanese targets, a tactic senior commanders had been advocating for some time. Japanese cities were largely constructed of combustible materials such as wood and paper. Precision high-altitude daylight bombing was ordered to proceed only when weather permitted or when specific critical targets were not vulnerable to area bombing. General Lemay was informed by a senior staff member, Colonel William P. Fisher, that bomber pilots were turning back from these low-altitude bombing runs due to heavy anti-aircraft fire from Japanese defense forces. Col. Fisher suggested to Lemay that crews who achieved successful strike rates should be rewarded by being released from their deployment. Lemay implemented this unorthodox plan and the strike rate went up to eighty percent. For this first attack, LeMay ordered the defensive guns removed from 325 B-29s, loaded each plane with Model E-46 incendiary clusters, magnesium bombs, white phosphorus bombs, and napalm, and ordered the bombers to fly in streams at 5,000 to 9,000 feet over Tokyo.

The first pathfinder planes arrived over Tokyo just after midnight on 10 March. Following British bombing practice, they marked the target area with a flaming "X." In a three-hour period, the main bombing force dropped 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs, killing some 100,000 civilians, destroying 250,000 buildings and incinerating 16 square miles of the city. Aircrews at the tail end of the bomber stream reported that the stench of burned human flesh permeated the aircraft over the target.

The New York Times reported at the time, "Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the B-29s of the entire Marianas area, declared that if the war is shortened by a single day, the attack will have served its purpose." Precise figures are not available, but the fire-bombing campaign directed against Japan by LeMay between March 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August 1945, may have killed more than 500,000 Japanese civilians and left 5 million homeless. Official estimates from the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey put the figures at 220,000 people killed. Some 40% of the built-up areas of 66 cities were destroyed, including much of Japan's war industry.

The remaining Allied prisoners of war in Japan who had survived imprisonment to that time were frequently subjected to additional reprisals and torture after an air raid. The massive bombing also hit a number of prisons and directly killed a number of allied war prisoners. LeMay was quite aware of the Japanese opinion of him: he once remarked that had the U.S. lost the war, he fully expected to be tried for war crimes, especially in view of Japanese executions of uniformed American flight crews during the 1942 Doolittle raid. He argued that it was his duty to carry out the attacks in order to end the war as quickly as possible, sparing further loss of life.

Presidents Roosevelt and Truman justified these tactics by referring to an estimate of one million Allied casualties if Japan had to be invaded. The Japanese had intentionally decentralized 90 percent of their war-related production into small subcontractor workshops in civilian districts, making remaining Japanese war industry largely immune to conventional precision bombing with high explosives.

As the fire-bombing campaign took effect, Japanese war planners were forced to expend significant resources to relocate vital war industries to remote caves and mountain bunkers, reducing production of war material. As an officer who served under LeMay, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McNamara was in charge of evaluating the effectiveness of American bombing missions. Later McNamara, as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, would often clash with LeMay.

LeMay also oversaw Operation Starvation, an aerial mining operation against Japanese waterways and ports that disrupted Japanese shipping and food distribution. Although his superiors were unsupportive of this naval objective, LeMay gave it a high priority by assigning the entire 313th Bombardment Wing (four groups, about 160 planes) to the task. Aerial mining supplemented a tight Allied submarine blockade of the home islands, drastically reducing Japan's ability to supply its overseas forces to the point that postwar analysis concluded that it could have defeated Japan on its own had it begun earlier.

Post-War: Japan-Washington Flight

LeMay piloted one of three specially modified B-29s flying from Japan to the U.S. in September 1945, in the process breaking several aviation records at that date including: the greatest USAAF takeoff weight; the longest USAAF non-stop flight; and the first ever non-stop Japan-U.S. flight. One of the pilots was of higher rank: Lieutenant General Barney Giles. The other two aircraft used up more fuel than LeMay's in fighting headwinds, and they could not fly to Washington, DC, the original goal. They decided to land in Chicago to refuel. LeMay's aircraft had sufficient fuel to reach Washington, but he was directed by the War Department to join the others by refueling at Chicago. The order was ostensibly given because of borderline weather conditions in Washington, but according to First Lieutenant Ivan J. Potts who was aboard, the order came because LeMay had one less star (2 vs. Giles' 3) and should not be seen outperforming his superior.

Cold War: Berlin Airlift

After World War II, LeMay was briefly transferred to the Pentagon as Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research & Development. In 1947, he returned to Europe as Commander of USAF Europe, heading operations for the 1948 Berlin Airlift; a blockade by the Soviet Union and its satellite states that threatened to starve the civilian population of the Western occupation zones of Berlin. Under LeMay's direction, C-54 cargo planes that could each carry 10 tons of cargo began supplying the city on 1 July. By the fall, the airlift was bringing in an average of 5,000 tons of supplies a day. The airlift continued for 11 months; 213,000 flights brought in 1.7 million tons of food and fuel to Berlin. Faced with the failure of their blockade, the Soviet Union relented and reopened land corridors to the West. Though LeMay is sometimes publicly credited with the success of the Berlin Airlift, it was, in fact, orchestrated by General Lucius D. Clay and successfully implemented by Air Force flight logistics expert Lt. General William H. Tunner.

Strategic Air Command

LeMay returned to the U.S. in 1948 to head the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base, replacing General George Kenney. When LeMay took over command of SAC, it consisted of little more than a few understaffed B-29 bombardment groups left over from World War II. Less than half of the available aircraft were operational, and the crews were undertrained. Base and aircraft security standards were minimal. Upon inspecting a SAC hangar full of U.S. nuclear strategic bombers, LeMay found a single Air Force sentry on duty, armed only with a ham sandwich. After ordering a mock bombing exercise on Dayton, OH, LeMay was shocked to learn that most of the strategic bombers assigned to the mission missed their targets by one mile or more. "We didn't have one crew, not one crew, in the entire command who could do a professional job" noted LeMay.

In 1949, LeMay was first to propose that a nuclear war be conducted by delivering the nuclear arsenal in a single overwhelming blow, going as far as "killing a nation."

In 1952 the 1st Missile Division was activated, having operational control over strategic missiles.

Upon receiving four-star rank in 1951 at age 44, LeMay became the youngest General in American history since Ulysses S. Grant and was the youngest four-star general in modern history as well as the longest serving in that rank. In 1956 and 1957 LeMay implemented tests of 24-hour bomber and tanker alerts, keeping some bomber forces ready at all times. LeMay headed SAC until 1957, overseeing its transformation into a modern, efficient, all-jet force. LeMay's tenure was the longest over an American military command in close to 100 years.

Despite popular claims that LeMay advanced the notion of preventive nuclear war, the historical record indicates LeMay actually advocated justified preemptive nuclear war. Several documents show LeMay advocating preemptive attack of the Soviet Union, had it become clear the Soviets were preparing to attack SAC or the U.S.. In these documents, which were often the transcripts of speeches before groups such as the National War College or events such as the 1955 Joint Secretaries Conference at the Quantico Marine Corps Base, LeMay clearly advocated using SAC as a preemptive weapon if and when such was necessary. Little evidence suggests LeMay ever advocated unauthorized or unjustified nuclear attack of the Soviet Union. To the contrary, a December 1949 letter from LeMay to Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg indicates LeMay was concerned with having explicit authority from the nation's political leadership to launch a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union. This letter, in LeMay's files at the Library of Congress, indicates LeMay was not willing to operate outside the authority afforded him as a military officer and that LeMay also recognized the constitutional role political leadership played in the decision to initiate war. Other accounts differ: RB-47 'Stratojet' crew member Hal Austin of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing said that upon his return from a mission over Soviet territory, LeMay told him: "Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started."

The "Airpower Battle"

General LeMay was instrumental in SAC's acquisition of a large fleet of new strategic bombers; establishment of a vast aerial refueling system; the formation of many new units and bases; development of a strategic ballistic missile force; and establishment of a strict command and control system with an unprecedented readiness capability. All of this was protected by a greatly enhanced and modernized security force, the Strategic Air Command Elite Guard. LeMay insisted on rigorous training and very high standards of performance for all SAC personnel, be they officers, enlisted men, aircrews, mechanics, or administrative staff, and reportedly commented, "I have neither the time nor the inclination to differentiate between the incompetent and the merely unfortunate."

A famous legend often used by SAC flight crews to illustrate LeMay's command style concerned his famous ever-present cigar. In the first known published account of the story, Life Magazine reporter Ernest Havemann related that LeMay once took the co-pilot's seat of a SAC bomber to observe the mission, complete with lit cigar. When asked by the pilot to put the cigar out, LeMay demanded to know why. When the pilot explained that fumes inside the fuselage could ignite the plane, LeMay reportedly growled, "It wouldn't dare." The incident in the article was later used as the basis for a fictional scene in the 1955 film Strategic Air Command. In his highly controversial and factually disputed memoir War's End, Major General Charles Sweeney related an alleged 1944 incident that may have been the basis for the "It wouldn't dare" comment.

Despite his uncompromising attitude regarding performance of duty, LeMay was also known for his concern for the physical well-being and comfort of his men. LeMay found ways to encourage morale, individual performance, and the reenlistment rate through a number of means: encouraging off-duty group recreational activities, instituting spot promotions based on performance, and authorizing special uniforms, training, equipment, and allowances for ground personnel, as well as flight crews.

On LeMay's departure, SAC was composed of 224,000 airmen, close to 2,000 heavy bombers, and nearly 800 tanker aircraft.

LeMay was an active amateur radio operator and held a succession of call signs; K0GRL, K4FRA, and W6EZV. He held these calls respectively while stationed at Offutt AFB in Washington, and when he retired in California. K0GRL is still the call sign of the Strategic Air Command Memorial Amateur Radio Club. He was famous for being on the air on amateur bands while flying on board SAC bombers. LeMay became aware that the new single sideband (SSB) technology offered a big advantage over Amplitude Modulation (AM) for SAC aircraft operating long distances from their bases. In conjunction with Art Collins (W0CXX) of Collins Radio, he established SSB as the radio standard for SAC bombers in 1957.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff & Chief of Staff

LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force in July 1957 and served until 1961 when he was made the 5th Chief of Staff of the Air Force on the retirement of General Thomas White. His belief in the efficacy of strategic air campaigns over tactical strikes and ground support operations became Air Force policy during his tenure as Chief of Staff.

As Chief of Staff, LeMay clashed repeatedly with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Air Force Secretary Eugene Zuckert, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Maxwell Taylor. At the time, budget constraints and successive nuclear war fighting strategies had left the armed forces in a state of flux. Each of the armed forces had gradually jettisoned realistic appraisals of future conflicts in favor of developing its own separate nuclear and nonnuclear capabilities. At the height of this struggle, the U.S. Army had even reorganized its combat divisions to fight land wars on irradiated nuclear battlefields; developing short-range atomic cannon and mortars in order to win appropriations. The U.S. Navy, in turn, proposed delivering strategic nuclear weapons from supercarriers intended to sail into range of the Soviet air defense forces. Of all these various schemes, only LeMay's command structure of SAC survived complete reorganization in the changing reality of postwar conflicts.

Though LeMay lost significant appropriation battles for the Skybolt ALBM and the B-52 Stratofortress replacement, the XB-70 Valkyrie, he was largely successful at expanding Air Force budgets. He advocated the introduction of satellite technology and pushed for the development of the latest electronic warfare techniques. By contrast, the U.S. Army and Navy frequently suffered budgetary cutbacks and program cancellations by Congress and Secretary McNamara.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, LeMay clashed again with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba. He opposed the naval blockade and, after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis "the greatest defeat in our history." Unknown to the U.S., the Soviet field commanders in Cuba had been given authority to launch-the only time such authority was delegated by higher command. They had twenty nuclear warheads for medium-range R-12 ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. cities (including Washington) and nine tactical nuclear missiles. If Soviet officers had launched them, many millions of U.S. citizens would have been killed. The ensuing SAC retaliatory thermonuclear strike would have killed roughly one hundred million Soviet citizens, and brought nuclear winter to much of the Northern Hemisphere. Kennedy refused LeMay's requests, however, and the naval blockade was successful.

The memorandum from LeMay, Chief of Staff, USAF, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 4 January 1964, illustrates LeMay's reasons for keeping bomber force along ballistic missiles: "It is important to recognize, however, that ballistic missile forces represent both the U.S. and Soviet potential for strategic nuclear warfare at the highest, most indiscriminate level, and at a level least susceptible to control. The employment of these weapons in lower level conflict would be likely to escalate the situation, uncontrollably, to an intensity which could be vastly disproportionate to the original aggravation. The use of ICBMs and SLBMs is not, therefore, a rational or credible response to provocations which, although serious, are still less than an immediate threat to national survival. For this reason, among others, I consider that the national security will continue to require the flexibility, responsiveness, and discrimination of manned strategic weapon systems throughout the range of cold, limited, and general war."


LeMay's dislike for tactical aircraft and training backfired in the low-intensity conflict of Vietnam, where existing Air Force fighter aircraft and standard attack profiles proved incapable of carrying out sustained tactical bombing campaigns in the face of hostile North Vietnamese antiaircraft defenses. LeMay said, "Flying fighters is fun. Flying bombers is important." Aircraft losses on tactical attack missions soared, and Air Force commanders soon realized that their large, missile-armed jet fighters were exceedingly vulnerable not only to antiaircraft shells and missiles but also to cannon-armed, maneuverable Soviet fighters.

LeMay advocated a sustained strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnamese cities, harbors, ports, shipping, and other strategic targets. His advice was ignored. Instead, an incremental policy was implemented that focused on limited interdiction bombing of fluid enemy supply corridors in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. This limited campaign failed to destroy significant quantities of enemy war supplies or diminish enemy ambitions. Bombing limitations were imposed by President Lyndon Johnson for geopolitical reasons, as he surmised that bombing Soviet and Chinese ships in port and killing Soviet advisers would bring the Soviets more directly into the war and destabilize the European Cold War.

Evidence of LeMay's thinking is that in his 1965 autobiography, co-written with MacKinlay Kantor, LeMay is quoted as saying his response to North Vietnam would be to demand that "they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age. And we would shove them back into the Stone Age with Air power or Naval power-not with ground forces."

Some military historians have argued that LeMay's theories were eventually proven correct. Near the war's end in December 1972, President Richard Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II, a high-intensity Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aerial bombing campaign, which included hundreds of B-52 bombers that succeeded in widespread destruction of previously untouched North Vietnamese strategic targets. The intense bombing compelled the communist government to quickly conclude negotiations that finally ended America's longest war. Others believe the impact was smaller, as the peace negotiations were only temporarily stalled and the North Vietnamese were trying to get better terms.

General LeMay retired from active duty on 1 February 1965.

Rank History

Curtis LeMay's first contact with military service occurred in September 1924 when he enrolled as a student in the ROTC program at Ohio State University. By his senior year, LeMay was listed on the ROTC rolls as a "cadet lieutenant colonel" but had not actually received an appointment in the regular United States military.

On 14 June 1928, the summer before the start of his senior year, LeMay accepted a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Field Artillery Reserve of the U.S. Army. In September 1928, LeMay was approached by the Ohio National Guard and asked to accept a state commission, also as a second lieutenant, which LeMay accepted. This created a unique situation in LeMay's service record since in 1928 it was unusual for a person to hold a commission both in the National Guard and the Army Reserve.

On 29 September 1928, LeMay enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet under the service number 6650359. For the next 13 months, LeMay was not only on the enlisted rolls of the Regular Army but also still held a commission in the National Guard and Army Reserve. Thus, for this short period in LeMay's career, he was technically an officer and enlisted soldier at the same time, a practice no longer permitted in the U.S. military. The matter was resolved on 2 October 1929, when LeMay's Guard and Reserve commission were terminated. According to his service record, these commissions were revoked "by telephone" after an Army personnel officer, realizing that LeMay was holding officer and enlisted status simultaneously, called him to discuss the matter.

On 12 October 1929, LeMay finished his flight training and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve. This was the third time he had been appointed a second lieutenant in just under two years. He held this reserve commission until June 1930, when he was appointed as a Regular Army officer in the Air Corps.

LeMay experienced slow advancement throughout the 1930s, as did most officers of the seniority-driven Regular Army. At the start of 1940 he was still a First Lieutenant but, beginning in 1941, began to receive temporary advancement in grade in the expanding Army Air Forces. LeMay advanced from First Lieutenant to Brigadier General in less than four years and by 1944 was a Major General. When World War II ended, he was appointed to the permanent rank of Brigadier General in the Regular Army but held his temporary rank of Major General in the Army until promotion to Lieutenant General in the now separate U.S. Air Force in 1948. He then was promoted to the four-star rank of General in 1951 and held this rank until his retirement in 1965.

Dates of Rank

Army ROTC Cadet: September 1924

Second Lieutenant, Field Artillery Reserve: 14 June 1928

Second Lieutenant, Ohio National Guard: 22 September 1928

Flight Cadet, Army Air Corps: 28 September 1928

Officer Commissions Terminated: 2 October 1929

Second Lieutenant, Air Corps Reserve: 12 October 1929

Second Lieutenant, Army Air Corps: 1 February 1930

First Lieutenant, Army Air Corps: 12 March 1935

Captain, Army Air Corps: 26 January 1940

Major, Army Air Corps: 21 March 1941

Lieutenant Colonel, Army of the United States: 23 January 1942

Colonel, Army of the United States: 17 June 1942

Brigadier General, Army of the United States: 28 September 1943

Permanent in the Regular Army: 22 June 1946

Major General, Army of the United States: 3 March 1944

Lieutenant General, United States Air Force: 26 January 1948

General, United States Air Force: 29 October 1951

General, USAF (Retired): 1 February 1965

Further Promotion

According to letters in Curtis LeMay's service record, while he was in command of SAC during the 1950s, several petitions were made by Air Force service members to have LeMay promoted to the 5-star rank of General of the Air Force. The Air Force leadership, however, felt that such a promotion would lessen the prestige of this rank, which was seen as a wartime rank to be held only in times of extreme national emergency.

Per the Chief of the Air Force General Officers Branch, in a letter dated 28 February 1962:

It is clear that a grateful nation, recognizing the tremendous contributions of the key military and naval leaders in World War II, created these supreme grades as an attempt to accord to these leaders the prestige, the clear-cut leadership, and the emolument of office befitting their service to their country in war. It is the conviction of the Department of the Air Force that this recognition was and is appropriate. Moreover, appointments to this grade during periods other than war would carry the unavoidable connotation of downgrading of those officers so honored in World War II.

Thus, no serious effort was ever made to promote LeMay to the rank of General of the Air Force, and the matter was eventually dropped after his retirement from active service in 1965.

In Retirement

Owing to his unrelenting opposition to the Johnson administration's Vietnam policy and what was widely perceived as his hostility to Secretary McNamara, LeMay was essentially forced into retirement in February 1965 and seemed headed for a political career. Moving to California, he was approached by conservatives to challenge moderate Republican Thomas Kuchel for his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1968, but he declined.

For the presidential race that year, LeMay originally supported Richard Nixon; he turned down two requests by George Wallace to join his American Independent Party that year on the grounds that a third-party candidacy might hurt Nixon's chances at the polls. (By coincidence, Wallace had served as a Sergeant in a unit commanded by LeMay during World War II.) However, LeMay gradually became convinced that Nixon planned to pursue a conciliatory policy with the Soviets and accept nuclear parity rather than retain America's first-strike supremacy. Consequently LeMay, being fully aware of Wallace's segregationist platform, decided to throw his support to Wallace and eventually became Wallace's running mate. The general was dismayed, however, to find himself attacked in the press as a racial segregationist because he was running with Wallace; he had never considered himself a bigot. When Wallace announced his selection in October 1968, LeMay opined that he, unlike many Americans, clearly did not fear using nuclear weapons. His saber rattling did not help the Wallace campaign.

During the 1968 campaign, LeMay became widely associated with the "Stone Age" comment; especially because he had suggested use of nuclear weapons as a strategy to quickly resolve a deeply protracted conventional war which eventually claimed over 50,000 American and millions of Vietnamese lives. This reputation did nothing to diminish perceptions of extremism in the Wallace-LeMay ticket. General LeMay disclaimed the comment, saying in a later interview: "I never said we should bomb them back to the Stone Age. I said we had the capability to do it."

The Wallace-LeMay AIP ticket received 13.5 percent of the popular vote, higher than most third-party candidacies in the U.S., and carried 5 states for a total of 46 electoral votes, but this was not enough to deny Nixon his election as 37th President of the U.S. Following the 1968 election, LeMay returned to private life, including pursuing several charitable projects. He declined further suggestions to run for political office.

Medals and Awards

Distinguished Service Cross

Distinguished Service Medal (3 Awards)

Silver Star Medal

Distinguished Flying Cross (3 Awards)

Air Medal (4 Awards)

Presidential Unit Citation (2 Awards)

American Defense Service Medal

American Campaign Medal

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal plus 4 Bronze Campaign Stars

World War II Victory Medal

Army of Occupation Medal with Airlift Device

Medal for Humane Action

National Defense Service Medal

Air Force Longevity Service Award (7 Awards)

British Distinguished Flying Cross

French Croix de Guerre with Palm

Belgian Croix de Guerre, with Palm

Japanese Order of the Rising Sun, Grand Cordon

Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross

Brazilian Order of Aeronautical Merit

Moroccan Order of Ouissam Alaouite

Swedish Commander Grand Cross of the Royal Order of the Sword

Argentina - Order of Aeronautical Merit - Grades of Grand Official and Grand Cross

Chile - Order of the Merit

Chile - Medalla Militar de Primera Clase

Ecuador - Order of Aeronautical Merit (Knight Commander)

Uruguay - Aviador Militar Honoris Causa (Piloto Commandante)

U.S.S.R - Order of the Patriotic War - 1st Degree


Command Pilot Badge


On 13 March 2010, LeMay was named the Exemplar for the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2013.

In 1957, LeMay was elected into the Alfalfa Club.


(with MacKinlay Kantor) Mission with LeMay: My Story (Doubleday, 1965) ISBN B00005WGR2

(with Dale O. Smith) America is in Danger (Funk & Wagnalls, 1968) ISBN B00005VCVX

(with Bill Yenne) Superfortress: The Story of the B-29 and American Air Power (McGraw-Hill, 1988) ISBN 0-07-037160-1

Film and Television Appearances

The Last Bomb (documentary, 1945)

In the Year of the Pig (documentary, 1968)

The World at War (documentary TV series, 1974)

Race for the Superbomb (documentary, 1999)

JFK (film, 1991; featured in archival footage)

Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis (documentary, 2001)

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (documentary, 2003)

DC3:ans Sista Resa (Swedish documentary, 2004)

In Popular Culture

Above and Beyond - LeMay is portrayed by Jim Backus (film, 1952)

Strategic Air Command - the character of General Ennis C. Hawkes, based on LeMay, is played by Frank Lovejoy (film, 1955)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - the character of General Buck Turgidson, played by George C. Scott, is based in part on LeMay (film, 1964)

The Missiles of October - LeMay is played by Robert P. Lieb (TV, 1974)

Enola Gay: The Men, the Mission, the Atomic Bomb - LeMay is portrayed by Than Wyenn (TV, 1980)

Kennedy - played by Barton Heyman (TV series, 1983)

Race for the Bomb - played by Lloyd Bochner (TV series, 1987)

Hiroshima played by Cedric Smith (TV, 1995)

Thirteen Days - LeMay is played by Kevin Conway (film, 2000)

Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis - played by Kevin Conway (video, 2001)


LeMay and UFOs

The 25 April 1988 issue of The New Yorker carried an interview with retired Air Force Reserve Major General and former U.S. Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, who said he repeatedly asked his friend General LeMay if he (Goldwater) might have access to the secret "Blue Room" at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, alleged by numerous Goldwater constituents to contain UFO evidence. According to Goldwater, an angry LeMay gave him "holy hell" and said, "Not only can't you get into it but don't you ever mention it to me again."

LeMay and Sports Car Racing

General LeMay was also a sports car owner and enthusiast (he owned an Allard J2); as the "SAC era" began to wind down, LeMay loaned out facilities of SAC bases for use by the Sports Car Club of America, as the era of early street races began to die out. He was awarded the Woolf Barnato Award, SCCA's highest award for contributions to the Club, in 1954. In November 2006, it was announced that General LeMay would be one of the inductees into the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2007.

Death and Burial

General Curtis Emerson LeMay died on 1 October 1990, at March Air Force Base in Riverside County, CA. He is buried at the U.S. Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs, CO.

He was survived by his wife, Helen, who died on 16 February 1992 and is now buried next to her husband.

Honoree ID: 769   Created by: MHOH




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