When Gen. Curtis E. LeMay appeared for confirmation as USAF Chief of Staff before the Senate Armed Services Committee in early June it was pointed out, but not emphasized, that he “understands organization.” This understatement, possibly a deliberate one, was put in the record by Senator Stuart Symington, a former Secretary of the Air Force now sitting in the upper chamber as a delegate from the state of Missouri.
The Senator’s purpose, he made it clear, was to shift the center of attention. Somehow, in the halls of Congress as in the public prints, General LeMay has been viewed erroneously and exclusively as the advocate of strategic airpower with all of the parochialism that label might connote. Said Mr. Symington:
“One point often overlooked about General LeMay is the mistaken idea that he has been identified almost entirely with strategic airpower, because he happens to be the world’s foremost authority on strategic air.
“But I knew him and worked with him when he ran the Berlin Airlift, and I also knew him and worked with him when he ran R&D for the Air Force.
“The truth is this General has probably had more experience in more diversified fields of airpower than any other high-ranking officer in the Air Force except General [Thomas D.] White.”
The Senator was right. But he did not dissuade Congress, the public, the dailies, and the Sunday supplements from their concept of General LeMay as a gruff, tough, scowling disciplinarian. Said the caption on a LeMay photo in a current newsweekly: “Chews cigars and airmen.”
The men who know General LeMay best feel that this image of their Chief has its origin in some of the stern chapters of his career. The roots, they say, are not only in his organizational capability as displayed in nine years as head of the Strategic Air Command, but in his combat record in World War II. He has, time and again, been in the seat where tough decisions had to be made,-the kind of decisions that meant success or failure to a mission, life or death to hundreds of men in combat crews.
It is not necessary to list them all. Even before the war started, in 1937 and 1938, he was lead navigator on good-will flights of B-17 Flying Fortresses to South America and helped win a Mackay Trophy. On the verge of war, he pioneered the ferry route to Africa over the South Atlantic and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1942 he trained and led the 305th Bombardment Group to England and with it studied strategic bombing tactics. It was with this unit that General LeMay carried out his insistence that it was bombs on target that measured success. He was told that his proposed tactics were suicidal but he personally led the 305th on straight-in bomb runs and formation pattern bombing. Then there was Regensburg, where he was up in front with the first shuttle mission that flew out of England, dropped its bombs, and went on to North Africa. He got his first star, as a brigadier general, after this raid in September 1943. He was thirty-six years old.
In the official history of the Army Air Forces in World War II, it says that the decision to have the Marianas-based B-29 bombers undertake low-level night fire raids on Tokyo, although based on careful studies, was a decision made by General LeMay alone.
“It was a calculated risk,” the history relates, “and like most such decisions it required great courage on the part of the commander. If losses should prove as heavy as some experts feared, the whole strategic campaign would be crippled and LeMay’s career ruined. Instead, the gamble paid off extravagantly.”
But more pertinent than the war record is the history of SAC under General LeMay. That is where he got his reputation as “the toughest cop of the western world.” It is an image that his colleagues believe grew out of SAC, not out of the General as a person. It is an image, they say, in which the man has been confused with the command.
When General LeMay took over SAC in 1948 it was suffering, like most of the military organizations, from the casual anemia that was put in its veins by Louis Johnson, the Secretary of Defense who made a mission out of debilitation. General LeMay, possibly alone of all our high-ranking military commanders, took what he had and proceeded on the assumption that war might break out any minute. He was described at this point as “relentlessly efficient” and “a quiet and implacable perfectionist.”
It doesn’t make colorful copy for newspapers and magazines, but General LeMay’s closest colleagues say that the history of SAC is the proof of his “genius for organization.” A brigadier general who has been associated with him for many years says that this genius, almost universally unrecognized in the aura of the omnipresent cigar and SAC’s spit-and-polish, is the new Chief’s greatest strength. The man says General LeMay has an unsurpassed ability to set clear objectives, then select the right people and direct them toward these objectives.
A standard illustration, cited by every SAC veteran above the rank of lieutenant colonel, is the command’s air safety program. Created by General LeMay, it is stern and successful. Every wing commander in SAC knew that if one of his bombers or tankers had an accident he would personally be facing the top commander in a matter of hours. His story would have to be told with facts and facts alone. He would have to explain what had caused the accident and also what had been done to keep it from happening again.
Then there was the SAC Management Control System. This was a technique used by General LeMay to locate every breakdown or potential breakdown of SAC’s men and equipment. It resulted in new standards of reliability, separated the capable from the incapable. “MCS was flexible,” says one officer who worked with it for years, “but airplanes and people could be made or broken by the speed with which the boss knew where the flaws were located. And flaws were not tolerated.”
The Management Control System enabled General LeMay to measure the true capability of every SAC unit when it operated under wartime conditions. The missions always have been realistic and the results, on the General’s desk, had to be measured in terms of targets destroyed, not bombs delivered or the percentage of aircraft that made it back to the home base. Combat capability was the measure.
When he became Vice Chief of Staff in 1957, one of General LeMay’s innovations was to shift the scene of his 8:30 a.m. staff meeting from his office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon to the USAF operations center in the basement. That session still is held every day and in the same place, where operations officers must be prepared to answer every question on the forces, their disposition and dispersal, and any changes in the alert status. Already there is a marked trend to make this Pentagon site more of an operating headquarters than it has been in the past, ready with information without waiting to relay queries to the field.
In none of this activity is General LeMay concerned with the details of the operation. These are jobs that he delegates to competent people, and he expects nothing more than that they carry out their’ assignments. He works at an uncluttered desk.
Senator Symington’s effort to portray General LeMay as an airpower expert rather than a strategic bombing partisan should not have been necessary. Time and again the new Chief of Staff has told congressional committees that flexibility is essential in all the forces, that planes and missiles are complementary. He views himself as an airpower conservative in the sense that he jealously guards the force in being and approaches the introduction of new systems, from a practical point of view. This does not mean that he is opposed to change. It does mean that the existing punch will be retained by General LeMay until its technological successor is proven operational and represents true combat capability. And combat capability, he holds, is the measure of deterrence. In a speech about a year ago, General LeMay defined the “basic factors of genuine deterrence” as:
“Military forces capable of victory under all circumstances in the event of conflict.
“Public understanding of the capability of these forces and determination that they will be used if necessary.
“The enemy’s understanding of this capability and of our determination and willingness to use these forces.”
Then he added:
“Unfortunately there are people in this country who advocate reducing US strategic forces to a small, somewhat mobile, retaliatory capability suitable only for destroying cities.
“Due to the constant dollar squeeze on national defense, this concept offers the inducement of reduced over-all costs. The Soviets, incidentally, think this type of force is exactly what we should build.
“But what happens if we shave our deterrent margin so thin
“First, we cannot win the war if deterrence fails because, once we have used up the force and are without a capability to restrike, we will be open to equal or worse destruction by the enemy’s undamaged military forces.
“Second, such a force cannot deter limited war because the enemy will reason that we would use an inferior nuclear strike force only as a last resort and not to halt aggression that does not directly threaten our national survival.
“Third, this concept of force utilization is outmoded because destruction of cities is no longer a dependable deterrent factor if he can destroy our cities in return.
“Such destruction would contribute little or nothing to the outcome of the war. It would be an act of blind revenge.
“Plainly, an inadequate military force of this type cannot do the job. By accepting such a reduced force goal we would sacrifice our chances of winning should war come.
“Our forces, therefore, must be sufficient, prepared, and able to destroy any aggressor’s military power to the extent that he no longer has the will or ability to wage war.
“This is the type of force we must maintain—a counterforce—a force that can win—the kind of military force that is essential to true deterrence.”
This kind of straight military talk, it should be pointed out, finds its parallel in the recorded viewpoints of General LeMay’s immediate predecessor, General White. For all the differences in their personalities and backgrounds—General LeMay was educated at Ohio State, not West Point—the two men have identical convictions about the role of airpower. They are equally persuasive in presenting these convictions and are held in equal esteem by the most knowledgeable men on Capitol Hill.
There is general agreement that there will be some changes in USAF with General LeMay at the helm, although the people who know him best are quick to cite his wide agreement with General White and the advantages he has gained from four years in Washington as General White’s Vice Chief. It is expected that there will be a tightening of USAF policy and more uniformity of expressed opinion both at headquarters and in the field commands.
The “genius for organization” credited to General LeMay as his great unsung quality provides the kind of leadership most appreciated by competent and dedicated soldiers. It will bring new emphasis on responsibility, fixed on individuals with new firmness. Competence will be rewarded, incompetence penalized. The reputation and demeanor of General LeMay will be transfused into all of USAF.—End