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LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay

 By Warren Kozak. 354 pp. Regnery, 2009. $27.95.

 Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold created the mighty U.S. Army Air Forces, yet few played a greater role in turning that armada into a war-winning weapon than Curtis E. LeMay. Joining the Army Air Corps in the biplane era, LeMay gained renown as one of the service’s finest navigators. His hard-nosed leadership of the 305th Bomb Group out of England during the early years of the combined bomber offensive did much to make daylight precision bombing a viable concept. He transformed the strategic bombing of Japan from a failing enterprise into a devastating assault in which waves of B-29s systematically eradicated Japanese industrial and population centers.

And LeMay was much more than a tough combat leader. He was a technological innovator and first-rate organization builder; his forging of the postwar Strategic Air Command remains one of the most remarkable accomplishments in military history. Yet his life was bedeviled by controversy. Many have questioned the morality of his firebombing tactics. His tenure as air force chief of staff was stormy; a statement in his memoirs about bombing Vietnam “back to the Stone Age” and an ill-advised run as segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 vice-presidential selection tarnished his legacy. As a result, many recall LeMay only through the lens of the satirical portrayal in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Veteran journalist Warren Kozak has written a well-crafted, engaging, and sympathetic biography that succeeds in bringing this taciturn and enigmatic personality to life. He has turned to family members and private papers, as well as the dwindling band of LeMay’s surviving World War II colleagues, to craft his portrait. A particularly valuable voice is that of Ralph H. Nutter, a keen observer who served with LeMay in both theaters (and whose memoir, With the Possum and the Eagle, is one of the best firsthand accounts of the air war). LeMay did not always inspire warm personal feelings in those who flew with him, but there is almost universal praise for the quality of his combat leadership.

Kozak sees this biography as a “defense brief” for LeMay. His desire to capture LeMay’s perspective has led, perhaps understandably, to some overreliance on LeMay’s memoir, Mission with LeMay, coauthored with MacKinlay Kantor, and Thomas Coffey’s 1986 biography Iron Eagle, based in part on extensive correspondence with the general. He gives his subject the benefit of the doubt on most contentious issues, while acknowledging that the inflexible bomber commander could be his own worst enemy. For instance, Kozak believes that the “stone age” comment and his disastrous run with Wallace completely eclipsed his earlier accomplishments, and is determined to redress the balance. In this, Kozak is perhaps swinging after the bell. I. F. Stone may have called LeMay “the caveman in the jet bomber,” but the famed gadfly journalist hardly had the last word: recent books and articles have illuminated LeMay’s strengths and achievements as well as his flaws. That said, this is a worthy biography of a remarkable character.


Originally published in the September 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here