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LeMay: A Biography

By Barrett Tillman. 206 pp. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. $21.95

Curtis LeMay was the most controversial advocate of air power in World War II, but his imprint on the fledgling U.S. Air Force remains legendary. Barrett Tillman, author of the bestselling Warriors, provides a solid if encapsulated look at a complex man in this new selection from the Great Generals Series (Gen. Wesley K. Clark, editor).

LeMay embodied fascinating contradictions. A radical innovator, he could also become myopically focused on drill—to the point that subordinates dubbed him “Iron Ass.”

Tillman fills this fast-paced narrative with anecdotes that help illuminate LeMay’s inner drive and willingness to take risks. LeMay’s innovative air formations, such as the B-17 combat box and use of a lead aircraft to guide bombers to targets, greatly sharpened precision daylight bombing. His aerial mining of Japanese waters effectively cut off vital imports like foodstuffs, raw materials, and oil.

LeMay turned the problem plagued B-29 Superfortress into one of the war’s most powerful weapons. When daytime B-29 operations produced marginal results from bases in China and the Marianas, he jettisoned accepted Army Air Forces doctrine and moved to night time, low-level, incendiary attacks against urban areas. On March 9–10, 1945, LeMay’s B-29s destroyed fifteen square miles of Tokyo, causing 100,000 civilian deaths. Here, Tillman falls short. While he attempts to explain why LeMay did what he did, citing his subject’s “pragmatic attitude” that let him tune out civilian casual ties, a more detailed examination is demanded by such horrific numbers.

When atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, LeMay saw firsthand the dawn of a new age of warfare, but to him these new capabilities and their strategic inferences represented merely larger weapons, more tools in the arsenal. He could not see or understand the many political implications of nuclear devices. In this con text especially, it’s unfortunate that Tillman makes only a passing mention of how LeMay strenuously advocated incendiary bombardment versus other options to end the war.

As postwar head of the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, LeMay’s passion for efficiency and effectiveness shone. The book carefully illustrates how he deterred a potential nuclear holocaust while making unparalleled efforts to maintain peace. This would be the peak of LeMay’s career, though he later became Air Force chief of staff. Critics called him a “caveman in a bomber” for his memoir’s outré comments about Vietnam. When he joined George Wallace’s 1968 ticket as the vice presidential candidate, allegations of racism dogged him. His reputation was tarnished for good.

Tillman’s summary of one of the twentieth century’s most contentious military men is credible but has holes. For instance, he fails to really look at why LeMay adopted his controversial stances. We get interpretation by others but few primary sources and little insight. So it’s even odder that a constant distraction arises from Tillman’s speculation about what the late LeMay might have thought or done about such current concerns as Iraq or al-Qaeda, which is both unknowable and irrelevant. There are also technical errors, some notable—such as the statement that the Hiroshima atomic bomb had a yield of 15 megatons, instead of 15 kilotons.

Shortcomings and all, this book is a good start for anyone unfamiliar with this most influential airman of World War II.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here