Gen. Curtis LeMay, WWII air strategist

Published Oct. 2, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

Air Force Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the tough bomber general who directed the smashing of German and Japanese cities during World War II and later built the Strategic Air Command (SAC) into a powerful nuclear strike force, died Monday at 83. The four-star general relayed President Truman's orders to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and later directed the Berlin Airlift. He ran for vice president with third-party candidate George Wallace in 1968.

Gen. LeMay died of a heart attack at the 22nd Strategic Hospital at March Air Force Base near Riverside, said Sgt. Steve Mahnke.

To an adoring American public during the war against the Axis powers Gen. LeMay was "Old Iron Pants" and "Iron Eagle." But his hero image began to fade somewhat during ensuing years as he continued to talk like a combat man, observing that most Americans had a "phobia" about nuclear weapons ("just another weapon in the arsenal"), and suggesting that North Vietnam be bombed "back into the Stone Age."

Years after he directed the air attack on Japan at the end of World War II, he said the nuclear bombings were unnecessary to force Japan's surrender.

When the Air Force became an independent service in 1947, he was assigned to command U.S. Forces in Europe, where he headed the 1948 Berlin Airlift to break the Russian blockade.

Named SAC's second commander in October 1948, he set up headquarters in Omaha, Neb., and built SAC into a outfit that kept nuclear-armed intercontinental bombers in the air around the world at all hours. Aerial refueling was perfected.

After leaving SAC in 1957 he became vice chief, then chief of staff of the Air Force.