LeMay spent four years with the 27th Pursuit Squadron and then served with other fighter squadrons before being assigned to the 49th Bomb Squadron in 1937. In June 1942, he assumed command of the 305th Bomb Group, flying the B-17 Flying Fortress. That unit's fourth commanding officer within four months, LeMay became known as "Iron Ass" for the relentless pressure he placed on his men. In May 1943, he took command of the 3rd Bombardment Division, and he was promoted to temporary brigadier general that September. On 17 August 1943, LeMay piloted the lead bomber in the 3rd Air Division's bombing raid on Regensburg, Germany. That day, the 3rd lost 24 of 127 planes, but the raid inflicted heavy damage on the aircraft factory that produced nearly 30 percent of Germany's Me-109 fighter aircraft.
Promoted to temporary major general in March 1944, LeMay became the head of the 20th Bomber Command in China. In January 1945, he took over the 21st Bomber Group in Guam in the Mariana Islands. LeMay stressed extensive training and instituted new tactics that included low-level night attacks in the firebombing of Japanese cities. On the night of 9–10 March, his B-29s struck Tokyo in what was the single most destructive bombing raid in history. That July, LeMay assumed command of the Twentieth Air Force, composed of 20th and 21st Bomber Groups.
From 1945 to 1947, LeMay was deputy chief of the Air Force Staff for Research and Development. In September 1947, when the air force became a separate military branch, LeMay, a temporary lieutenant general, took command of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and helped organize the 1948–1949 Berlin Airlift.
In October 1948, LeMay became head of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). He was promoted to general in October 1951. He commanded SAC until July 1957, when he was appointed air force vice chief of staff. In May 1961, LeMay became chief of staff of the air force, remaining in that post until his retirement in February 1965. He had served as a general officer for 22 years.
LeMay published his autobiography in 1965 and was chairman of the board of Network Electronics from 1965 to 1968. In October 1968, he entered politics as George Wallace's vice presidential running mate on the American Independent Party ticket. LeMay was an outspoken proponent of the bombing of North Vietnam, and his campaign generated a firestorm of controversy. He died on 1 October 1990 at March Air Force Base, California.
Arthur A. Matthews
Coffey, Thomas M. Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay. New York: Crown Publishers, 1986.; LeMay, Curtis E., and MacKinlay Kantor. Mission with LeMay: My Story. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.; Morrison, Wilbur H. Fortress without a Roof: The Allied Bombing of the Third Reich. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.