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By Barrett Tillman
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Barrett Tillman
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The flier's name was Lincoln Beachy, and he flew through the San Francisco sky in a machine called an aer-o-plane. The twenty-eight-year-old Ohioan was hailed as "the flying fool," drawing thousands of spectators to the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The exposition was the equal of a world's fair, attracting national and international participants of all kinds.
In 1915, one of the witnesses to Beachy's aerial antics was eight-year-old Curtis Emerson LeMay. He had seen an aer-o-plane only once before, but the sight was acid-etched in his memory. Since that defining day in his parents' Ohio garden some five years before, young Curtis had been enthralled with the concept of flight. Seeing an aer-o-plane for the first time, he yearned for "the drive and speed and energy of the creature."
Beachy continued flying as what later generations called a stunt pilot. His usual aerial routine was memorable, but he ended his career in 1915 by plunging into San Francisco Bay, the victim of a structural failure in an untried airplane. An estimated 75,000 people witnessed his fall from 200 feet: at once the high and the low of the exposition. One of LeMay's heroes was gone, but the inspiration gestated, sprouted, and cropped.
* * *
Curtis E. LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio, on November 15, 1906, twelve months after Erving and Arizona Carpenter LeMay's wedding. His given name was chosen by his mother, who "just drew it out of thin air." Likewise, his middle name was chosen "because she liked the sound of Emerson."
By his own reckoning, Curtis's youth was nomadic. Erving was a steel worker and handyman who moved the family wherever employment beckoned: to Pennsylvania, Montana, California, and back to Ohio in 1919. In that time the family grew with the addition of two more boys and three girls: brothers Leonard and Lloyd, and sisters Methyl, Patricia, and Velma.
Young Curtis displayed his ambition and willingness to work almost from the start. He took a variety of part-time jobs and odd chores, saving money for a bicycle. He recognized the monetary potential in a bike, as it would enable him to increase his earning power with a paper route. Even at that tender age, he was goal oriented and planned for the future.
Among Curtis's early pursuits was the Boy Scouts, in which he accumulated most of the merit badges required for Eagle, the highest scouting rank. However, time was an asset in shortage, and LeMay lacked sufficient opportunity to complete all the requirements. Raised with a serious work ethic, his paper route and other jobs limited the time he could devote to scouting. Consequently, his scouting career peaked at First Class, halfway up the ladder to Eagle.
LeMay's first full-time job was more pleasure than business: At the neighbors' request he shot birds with his BB gun in order to feed their voraciously lazy cat. At a nickel a pop, young Curtis became a deadly marksman. Perhaps unknowingly, at a tender age he absorbed the Clauswitzian lesson of economy of force: maximum effect for minimum expenditure.
Curtis LeMay was what later generations called a self-starter. He received little encouragement from his parents to pursue particular interests, so he developed his own. One was reading, beyond the confines of the classroom. He preferred historical fiction and biography, though travelogues also appealed to him. Wanderlust became a character trait, both personally and professionally.
The boy's social life was, by his own admission, minimal. Dating, what he called "the girl stuff," cost money that could be applied to more immediate pursuits: guns and radios. He had a passion for all manner of machinery, especially engines and electronics. Always skilled with his hands, Curtis saved enough money to buy the components for a crystal radio set and before long he was listening to stations as far afield as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. He much preferred hunting and mechanics to socializing, and proved an awkward date. Until relatively late in life the female half of the human race took second place to his "happy little tinkerings."
The career of an army pilot held fascination for LeMay, and he was astute enough to realize that a regular commission offered something approaching job security. But the thought of competing for a West Point appointment was too daunting: In 1924 he took the road more traveled, opting for ROTC at Ohio State. He majored in civil engineering and worked night jobs. The two were incompatible. Cadet LeMay, at the top of his military studies, was frequently too tired for many other classes after working a shift in a steel mill to meet tuition. Five hours' sleep per night simply could not sustain an academic lifestyle.
The ROTC instructor was Lieutenant Chester Horn, who imparted a sense of objectivity and balance not always present in Scabbard and Blade organizations. In averting a tentative feud with campus pacifists, Horn reminded his charges that the world always turns, and eventually both "cowards" and "warmongers" could be proven right — and wrong.
Forced by finances to leave OSU, LeMay demonstrated the persistence that marked his career. Despite his poor academic standing, he gained entry to the Ohio National Guard on basis of his excellent ROTC record and set his sights on becoming an aviation cadet.
In October 1928 LeMay reported to March Field near Riverside, California. Not long afterward he was able to resign his artillery position in the Guard in order to apply as a regular army officer.
LeMay's first aircraft was the Consolidated PT-3, a state-of-the-art trainer, new that year, with a 220-horsepower Wright engine. The instructor and student sat in open cockpits, one behind the other. The PT-3 was rated at an optimistic 102 mph but cruised at 80 and a bit more.
LeMay graduated from pilot training at Kelly Field, Texas, and was commissioned in the Air Corps Reserve October 1929. Four months later, standing in the snow before a Curtiss P-1, LeMay was sworn into the Regular Army Air Corps with fourteen other officers.
The graduates in LeMay's advanced training class comprised an Air Force galaxy studded with stars. Among the 117 newly winged airmen were some historic names: Nathan Bedford Forrest and George B. McClellan, whose grandfathers had fought in the Civil War; Emmett O'Donnell, who slipped to a later class after an accident; Jesse Auton, who would command an Eighth Air Force fighter wing; William H. Tunner, who became "Mr. Airlift," leading the aerial lifelines over the Hump and into Berlin; Laverne G. "Blondie" Saunders, who began World War II at Pearl Harbor and would lead the India B-29 command; and Frank F. Everest, commander of a bomb group in the Pacific during World War II and the Fifth Air Force in Korea.
Lieutenant LeMay's first assignment was the Twenty-seventh Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Michigan. Ironically, considering that he became a big bomber advocate, he spent most of his first decade in fighters. The Twenty-seventh was a prestige assignment — its origins harkened back a decade to the glory days of Frank Luke, "the Arizona Balloon Buster" who received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his 1918 exploits.
Most new pursuit pilots were delighted to fly fighters: not LeMay. From the beginning he demonstrated a voracious appetite for knowledge and experience beyond immediate duty. His attitude was soon noticed, bringing him an assortment of assignments sometimes beyond his junior status. He took a course in celestial navigation and mastered instrument flying with the rudimental gauges of the period. For a fighter pilot, droning along under the hood of a Douglas O-2 observation plane was only marginally more glamorous than serving as airdrome officer. But LeMay realized that tail chasing and dogfights would not win wars: The ability to penetrate hostile airspace in all weather, day or night, just might. Perhaps without realizing it, Curt LeMay was becoming less a "pursuiter" and more a bombardment man.
In the fall of 1933 LeMay was among a dozen officers sent to a navigation course at Langley Field. The school was run by Harold Gatty, a Tasmanian veteran of the Royal Australian Navy. An accomplished professional, he had guided Wiley Post's round-the-world flight in 1931. The Army Air Corps hired him to establish navigation schools in Virginia and California, and seldom was public money better spent. Previously, aerial navigation largely was done by "pilotage," following visual cues such as railroad tracks or highways. Pilots had seldom used "dead reckoning," or flying by time and estimated distance computed over featureless terrain. But as LeMay said, under Gatty's system, "we entered a new world."
Gatty had applied his nautical experience to aviation, permitting improved celestial and dead reckoning navigation (using only time and speed to estimate distance covered). The timing of his lessons proved fortuitous. With faster, longer-ranged aircraft becoming available, army fliers could benefit from Gatty's techniques. There was "turf" concern in the navy — army pilots seldom ventured far over water — but technology and doctrine were merging. The long-range strategic bomber would soon roll out of the institutional hangar, with the range to cover vast areas of ocean previously the domain of battleships.
LeMay took Gatty's lessons to heart — with a philosophy to match. Recognizing the tremendous potential in all-weather flying, the student eventually became a tutor. He mastered the instrument-flying trade in typical LeMay style: a full-ahead, feet-first entry into the potentially chilling waters of instrument flight. Whenever possible he checked out a Douglas observation plane, flying "under the hood," a cockpit covering permitting no outside view.
Early in 1934 LeMay and his colleagues found themselves the unintended victims of a political vendetta. The new Roosevelt administration, still eagerly dismissing Hoover-appointed Republicans, claimed improprieties in the Hoover administration's issuance of airmail contracts. President Franklin Roosevelt asked the chief of the Air Corps if the army could take over the airmail, and Major General Benjamin Foulois leapt at the chance. After only hours of consultation with the post office department and his own subordinates, Foulois gave a "can do" response. That was all Roosevelt needed. Most existing contracts were cancelled on February 9; the army was to begin flying the mail in ten days. Lieutenant LeMay embarked upon his first dangerous assignment.
Foulois's optimism was wholly misplaced, and a disservice to his men. Though he issued a "safety first" dictate, neither his pilots nor many of his aircraft were up to the challenge. That winter was one of the hardest on record, with arctic temperatures and reduced visibility. Coupled with the fact that most mail was flown at night, army airmen began dying in headline-grabbing numbers. Three were killed just training for the mail flights.
Lieutenant Colonel H. H. Arnold ran the Air Corps' western division from Salt Lake, where the first three fatalities occurred. Even so determined an optimist as Hap Arnold described the situation as "most impossible."
Despite the highly publicized deaths (eight in a few months), LeMay later insisted that the biggest danger was cadging enough money to eat, since no extra funding was provided for the mail flights. In February he began flying between Richmond, Virginia, and Greensboro, North Carolina. Part way through the airmail project LeMay was ordered to Wright Field near Dayton for a "blind landing school," learning to land with reference to instruments. He continued flying the familiar Dougas O-2 biplane but graduated to the new twin-engine Martin B-10 monoplane bomber, a much faster and more complex aircraft.
Widely reported as a fiasco in the press, the army airmail program was cancelled after seventy-eight days. A dozen fliers were killed and fifteen badly injured in sixty-six crashes — nearly one a day. Owing to prudence and unpreparedness, the army completed less than two-thirds of its scheduled flights.
The year 1934 was significant for Curtis LeMay personally as well as professionally. On a blind date, he had met a young lady named Helen Maitland and began courting her. He even swapped assignments with another junior pilot, Lieutenant Robert L. Scott, so both could be nearer their girlfriends. LeMay and Helen were married in Cleveland on June 9. They established officers' quarters at Selfridge Field, where LeMay fought a losing campaign against his wife to keep his new mustache. He concluded that it was a "good idea to let them [brides] have obvious victories every now and then. Helps the morale."
Only weeks after the wedding, LeMay was transferred to the Sixth Pursuit Squadron at Wheeler Field near Honolulu. The slow boat to Hawaii passed through the Panama Canal, and though LeMay was never stationed there, he acquired a lasting memento. According to Strategic Air Command (SAC) staffers, in Panama he picked up a stubborn virus that settled in his mouth. Eventually he found that tobacco offered temporary relief, leading to his trademark cigar chewing.
The Sixth Pursuit was undermanned, so Lieutenant LeMay was assigned an onerous variety of tasks, including communications, engineering, assistant operations, and mess officer. The smorgasbord of jobs interfered with flying, but in retrospect LeMay saw professional advantage in the diverse tasks, especially in the realms of operations and maintenance.
Among LeMay's other chores was working as a navigation instructor. Working with Lieutenant John W. Egan, LeMay developed a curriculum involving both classroom and flight time. With a variety of castoff aircraft, including Douglas OA-4 amphibian airplanes, the proprietors of "Egan and LeMay's Young Men's Navigational Seminary" admitted that they operated "one jump ahead of the students," but they also produced results. Their more precise methods expanded the Army's traditional overland flying into long-range ocean navigation, and LeMay personally developed a powerful reputation as an over-water navigator. Of the twin-engine Douglases he said, "We flew the damn things to death."
Somewhere along the way, LeMay began pondering the relative merits of pursuit versus bombardment aviation. By their nature, fighters were defensive weapons whereas bombers could carry the war to an enemy's heartland. LeMay remained uncertain whether John Egan planted the seed, but eventually LeMay concluded that pursuit, being defensive, could not win a war. Only the offensive team could do that — and that meant bombers.
When he was promoted to first lieutenant in March 1935, LeMay had been a "second John" for six years. His remaining two years in Hawaii passed pleasantly enough, but LeMay had already decided upon a change. Since he burned his bridge in the 6th Pursuit with a blunt, reasoned analysis of the squadron's poor showing in a war game, he had no qualms about opting out of fighters. When he came up for reassignment he requested transfer to the Second Bomb Group at Langley Field, Virginia.CHAPTER 2
No sooner had Lieutenant LeMay unpacked his bags at Langley Field than he found himself employed as a navigator rather than a pilot. His record at the Gatty school and his credentials as an instructor in Hawaii had preceded him. He was expected to organize a navigation school for the Second Bomb Group along the lines of the Hawaiian curriculum. LeMay was appalled: He knew fighters and amphibians well, but next to nothing about bombardment aviation.
Upon reporting to the personnel officer, LeMay sought a way out of his tutorial dilemma. But an old ally was close at hand. John Egan also had papers to the Second Bomb Group, and would arrive in a few months. LeMay reasoned that since his old partner was a bomber man from the ground up, it made sense for Egan to run the Langley school while LeMay learned his new trade. The personnel department accepted his reasoning, and LeMay checked into the Forty-ninth Squadron as assistant operations officer, compiling duty rosters and planning missions.
LeMay's arrival at Langley coincided with delivery of the first Boeing B-17s. Twelve "Y1Bs" were built for service evaluation, identifying and eliminating technical "bugs" such as engine problems and high altitude performance. As with any complex aircraft, there were bound to be growing pains, but for young aviators like LeMay, the big, gleaming Boeings were futuristic marvels.
Today, with their glass framework noses and almost art-deco styling, they may appear quaint. But in 1937 there was nothing like them: huge, gleaming engineering masterpieces of latent power and polished aluminum. Considering that the army was flying mediocre twin-engine types such as the Martin B-10 and Douglas B-18, the big, four-engine Boeings inspired awe and confidence. With their speed, range, and altitude, they were unlike anything then in service.
Curtis LeMay was exactly where he wanted to be.
Excerpted from LeMay by Barrett Tillman. Copyright © 2007 Barrett Tillman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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