Mission With LeMay
One of General Curtis LeMay’s earliest memories—he thinks it must have been at four or five in the winter of 1910-11 or the next—was the sight of his first plane. He ran as fast as he could to try to catch it. He felt when it vanished that “I had lost something unique and in a way Divine.” At least this is the recollection, after a lifetime of bomber command, as he told it to the writer of his story, MacKinlay Kantor. The General is not a religious man; this early feeling for the plane is the one note of piety in the account he helped prepare of his life. Nor is he a man ordinarily moved by beauty. It is the memory of the first plane he saw close-up on the ground that evokes the one moment of aesthetic enthusiasm in the book; what he remembers is “the appealing gush of its engine—the energy and beauty of the brute.” He went from Ohio State with an engineering degree to the old Army Air Corps in 1928. In 1937 at Langley Field, he met the plane which was to be linked with the most heroic episodes of his life—the B-17. There he saw “seven of the Flying Fortresses squatting on the ramp.” Of these he writes. “I fell in love with the 17 at first sight.” Six years later he led an entire Air Division of these bombers over the European continent. It was not until 1944, when he began the first fire raids over Japan, that he switched to the bigger B-29. He can remember the smell of the B-17 as different from the smell of any other plane. This ability to differentiate these mighty metallic monsters by his animal sense of smell is even more impressive than the love and worship that so closely linked this man to his machines. He emerges in this story as much their instrument as they were his. LeMay’s later, long and stubborn rear-guard action to keep the bombers flying in the age of the missile begins to seem touching, like any attempt to maintain the vanishing familiar in a world of change without pity. So, unexpectedly, on the bomber, too, Vergil’s lacrimae rerum fall.
Unlike Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh, the targets of whom LeMay has dreamed voluptuously in recent years, our bomber General was of impeccably proletarian origin. His father began as a railroad worker but was soon reduced to all kinds of handyman jobs to support his family of seven children, a task at which he never fully succeeded. LeMay as the eldest began selling papers during high school to help the family budget, and sent money home while he worked his way through college. Poverty and insecurity no more led him to question the economic system than the weather. Indeed he speaks of his father’s struggles as if they were a meteorological phenomenon. “Like many men in his category [not …
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