Curtis LeMay is credited with introducing the fire raids on Japan during World War Two. LeMay had few qualms about the raids believing that they would shorten the war. As with ‘Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris of the RAF and head of Bomber Command, LeMay believed that total war was the only way to bring the conflict in the Pacific to an end and by that very nature, such a war had to include civilian targets.


Curtis LeMay was born on November 15th, 1906. He studied civil engineering at Ohio State University and in 1928 joined the newly created Airs Corps. In 1930 LeMay became a second lieutenant and seven years later transferred to bomber aircraft. LeMay gained a reputation for efficiency but he was not necessarily an easy man to get on with and he gained the nickname “Iron Ass”.

When America entered World War Two after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, LeMay was in charge of the 8th Air Force and in early 1942, he was given charge of the 305th Group for its bombing missions over Europe. Here, America flew daylight raids while the RAF’s Bomber Command flew night time raids. In July 1944, Le May was transferred to the Pacific war zone and given command of the 21st Bomber Command.

LeMay believed that Japan’s manufacturing industry had to be destroyed if America was to launch a successful invasion of Japan. He therefore concluded that the 21st’s mission was to destroy all of Japan’s manufacturing base – including the small cottage industries that fed the large factories. Strategic bombing had brought few results. Hence LeMay’s support for fire raids that would destroy whole sections of cities associated with manufacturing. The Tokyo raid on March 9th-10th, 1945, killed as many as 100,000 people but it also destroyed 16 square miles of the city, including many places involved with manufacturing.

“Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at the time….I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal….every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”Curtis LeMay

After the war had finished, LeMay became Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development at the Pentagon. However, in 1947, as the Cold War was rapidly developing, LeMay was sent back to Europe to become commander of the USAF in Europe. In this role, he oversaw the Berlin Airlift – an episode that furthered still his anti-communist views.

In 1949, LeMay became head of the Strategic Air Command – a post he held until 1957. It was during his leadership that the Cold War developed into a even more menacing episode as by 1955, both sides had acquired nuclear weapons far more powerful than those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

In 1961, LeMay was made Chief of Staff of the USAF. He was renowned for his abrasive personality and this invariably brought him into conflict with politicians. LeMay retired from the USAF in 1965. He seemed to be heading for a career in politics and in 1968, Governor George Wallace selected him as his vice-presidential running mate. Wallace’s failure in this campaign also effectively ended the political career of LeMay.

Curtis LeMay died on October 3rd 1990.

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