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Keep ‘Em Flying

Mission With LeMay

by General Curtis E. LeMay, by MacKinlay Kantor
Doubleday, 581 pp., $7.95

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—let us notice—class] and time, he was subject,” LeMay relates, “to whims and pressures of regional and national economy.” The Depression years, when he was a fledgling aviator, were hard for him and his family, but his only reference to them is “Depression or no depression, they were opening up airports all over the country.” Neither these early struggles nor his later experience in military service with plane manufacturers notorious for overcharges, led him to take a critical view of free enterprise. His nearest approach to an unfriendly remark about the capitalist system is an angry comment in his account of how the Air Corps flew the mails in 1934 under Roosevelt. “The public bought the idea (and still retains it),” he comments sourly, “that scores of Air Corps pilots lost their lives in an heroic but absurd attempt to emulate the superb performance of the commercial airlines.” It is only in the bitterness of his feud with McNamara, that he allows himself to reflect by implication on the Business Man. “I hadn’t spent the bulk of the years since World War II,” he says, “in reorganizing any vast business for the purpose of pulling it from the red side of the ledger to the black…I had reorganized and built up a vast business, the Strategic Air Command, but its mission was not to make a profit for stockholders…I had not been in the financial and organizational side of the automobile business…Thus it may be believed that Secretary McNamara and I would hold different views on the matter of manned aircraft.”

This might be described as a non sequitur de profundis, since it is difficult to see why McNamara’s experience in the (manned) automobile business should predispose him against the manned plane. LeMay’s record otherwise is spotless. Though he did a tour of duty in Research and Development, the experience did not lead him (as it did General Gavin) to protest big business practices in dealing with the armed services, nor (like Admiral Rickover) to acid comment on performance and profits. The military-industrial complex never had an officer more loyally blinkered.

His reflexes were already exemplary when he joined the ROTC his first week at Ohio State. He recounts with relish being part of an ROTC mob on its way to “clean out” a bunch of campus pacifists until stopped by a First Lieutenant with more sense. He reveals that in those days on the same campus Milt Caniff, whose Steve Canyon is the Air Force’s pride and joy, was then painting anti-military posters. No such ideological wild oats were sown by LeMay. Even in his youth he was no deviator.

LeMay’s own story, as told by himself and prettied up by MacKinlay Kantor, is hardly a candid portrait. It reads like the glossy fiction at which Kantor is so adept. To separate the truth from the treacle is a sticky task. But the ferocious prejudices which brought LeMay and Goldwater together in a mutual admiration society break through: “…in a day when labor unions howl for a 24-hour week, and God knows what fringe benefits besides”…”some newly emergent so-called Republic in darkest Africa”…”the Whiz Kid liberal of today”…”the intellectuals, the inveterate pacifists, the dreamers and idealists…who believed firmly that the soft answer turned away wrath.” In recalling the San Francisco Fair of 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, the prose turns apoplectic at the thought that if any man had said then that some day we would agree not to fly the U. S. flag over the Canal “unless the Panamanian flag floated beside it, on the same level” we would have “suspected that man to be a traitor.” Since it was LBJ who agreed to this traitorous concession, it is not hard to believe that the President was glad to “press the flesh” with LeMay in farewell last January 31 after the shortest extension of service ever given a Chief of Staff—ten months from the previous April, or just long enough to keep LeMay from campaigning for Goldwater.

LeMay’s attitude toward his bomber command exploits are of a piece with these ripe reflections. He says defensively in his Foreword that his bombings were of “military targets” on which attack was “justified morally.” But he can’t resist adding a sneer, “I’ve tried to stay away from hospitals, prison camps, orphan asylums, nunneries and dog kennels.” He says, “I have sought to slaughter as few civilians as possible.” But a few pages later he is boasting that in the great fire raids on Japan, “We burned up nearly sixteen square miles of Tokyo.” He quotes with relish General Power, who led that raid and later succeeded him as head of the Strategic Air Command, as saying that this one attack on Tokyo produced “more casualties than in any other military action in the history of the world,” greater than those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together.

These were civilian casualties. For all his business-like attitude toward bombings, a touch of unseemly zest colors LeMay’s jubilant description. “Enemy cities were pulverized or fried to a crisp.” Secretary of War Stimson, we now know, was horrified by these fire raids, and called in General Arnold to protest that the Air Force had promised there would be only precision bombing in Japan. In the autobiography Stimson wrote after the war with McGeorge Bundy, he admitted that “in the conflagration bombings by massed B-29s” he had found himself permitting “the kind of war he had always hated.” Stimson later told Robert Oppenheimer1 he was appalled by the lack of public protest and thought “there was something wrong with a country where no one questioned” such raids. Even more appalling is the inability of men in the highest offices to control their instruments once war breaks out. This is a lesson to be ignored at our peril.

The excuse General Arnold gave Secretary Stimson is the same excuse LeMay offers at a later point in his story, that the wide dispersion of Japanese industry made the fire raids necessary. He claimed with what seems obvious and characteristic exaggeration that in the ruins one could see “a drill press sticking up through the wreckage of every home.” “We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town,” he now says. “Had to be done.” But there were other reasons for indiscriminate urban bombing. As so often happens, the Air Force changed doctrine to suit its weapons. The B-29s, as Giovannitti and Freed explain, “had been designed for daylight precision bombing” but the effects had proven disappointing. The Air Force then decided that incendiary bombing against the cities of Japan, with their crowded quarters and wooden construction “would be more effective.” LeMay in a message to Norstad, then Chief of Staff of the 20th Air Force, felt the air war against Japan presented “the AAF for the first time with an opportunity of proving the power of the strategic air arm” (Giovannitti-Freed). The fire raids were the greatest advertisement yet for strategic air power. But they were only made possible because naval blockade had strangled the Japanese economy. The Japanese air force in the homeland had become almost non-existent so that low-level fire raids could be staged with little resistance and few losses. These raids were dramatic but were they necessary? A passage in the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey study of the effects on Japan’s war economy (p. 38) indicates that LeMay does not tell the whole story when he claims that widespread killing of women and children was unavoidable. “Although an effort was made,” this report says of the fire raids, “to direct these attacks toward targets the destruction of which would do damage to industrial production, the preponderant purpose appears to have been to secure the heaviest possible morale and shock effect by widespread attack upon the Japanese civilian population.”

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    This and the two previous references are from Giovannitti and Freed’s fascinating recent account, The Decision to Drop the Bomb (Coward McCann, $6.00).

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