Eagle Profile

General Curtis E. LeMay was one of America’s greatest military commanders. Born in Columbus, Ohio, on 15 November 1906, LeMay was commissioned a second lieutenant when he completed flight training at Kelly Field, Texas, in October 1928. Assigned to pursuit aviation, he later switched to bombardment and was posted to the first B-17 bomber unit. He served as lead navigator on a daring mission to locate the liner Rex over 700 miles at sea, and then pioneered routes to South America. These missions dramatically demonstrated the range on the new aircraft and the capability of air power. In June 1942, LeMay took command of the 305th Bombardment Group. Despite having only four B-17s in which to train his pilots, LeMay prepared his group for combat.

Deployed to Europe in the fall, LeMay became known as an innovator and outstanding combat leader. He modified the standard B-17 formation to make use of its defensive firepower, introduced the straight-and-level bomb run to the target, and implemented the lead crew concept. Later in 1943, Colonel LeMay, in command of the Third Bombardment Division, led the Regensburg shuttle bombing mission. In August 1944, he was transferred to the China-Burma-India Theater and a few months later took command of the Marianas based B-29s of the 21st Bomber Command. Now a major general, LeMay found innovative solutions to problems encountered using the B-29 at high altitude. He sent unescorted B-29s on low-level, night incendiary attacks against the cities of the Japanese home islands.

In the first attack, over 15 square miles of Tokyo were burned. After World War II, LeMay served successively as Chief of Staff, US Army Strategic Air Forces; Commander of the newly formed Air Materiel Command; and Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development. Assuming command of the US Air Forces in Europe in October 1947, he directed the Berlin Airlift. USAF and RAF aircrews delivered over 2,343,000 tons of food, coal, and supplies by air, thereby saving the city from a communist takeover. In 1948, General LeMay took command of the Strategic Air Command and created a truly global force of all jet bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

He was appointed Vice Chief of Staff in 1957, and four years later reached the pinnacle of his military career–Chief of Staff, United States Air Force. General LeMay retired on 1 February 1965 with the rank of four-star general.

Later, he was the vice-presidential candidate alongside George C. Wallace on the third-party ticket in the 1968 presidential election.

General LeMay was first selected as an Eagle by Air Command and Staff College’s Gathering of Eagles in 1982 and subsequently honored in 1988.

Years Honored: ,

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1982 Lithograph
1988 Lithograph

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The Y1B-17 Number 80 shown in the painting was assigned to the 2nd Bomb Group at Langley and navigated by General LeMay in 1938 to demonstrate its range and navigational accuracy. General LeMay navigated a flight of three aircraft to intercept the Italian liner Rex almost 800 miles out of New York. After fighting unexpected headwinds and thunderstorms, the flight broke into the clear almost directly over the Rex.

In October 1942, the 305th Bombardment Group arrived in England. Its commander, Curtis E. LeMay, recognized that the tactics used by B-17 units then in action were ineffective. He developed a new B-17 formation while observing training missions from the top turret--six plane elements flew approximately abreast with the lead element slightly in front. This retained the best features of the original stagger formation and was much easier to fly. To increase bombing effectiveness, LeMay calculated that a German antiaircraft gun would have to fire 372 rounds to hit a B-17. He concluded that "no evasive action" was needed from the initial point to the target. On the 305th's next mission over France, the formation flew straight and level for 7 minutes direct to the target. Bombing accuracy doubled and no B-17s were lost. Soon, all Eighth Air Force B-17s were using LeMay's tactics.