Curtis Emerson LeMay, the tough bomber general who directed the smashing of German and Japanese cities during World War II and then built the Strategic Air Command into a powerful nuclear strike force, died Monday of a heart attack. He was 83.
The four-star general relayed President Harry S. Truman's orders to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war, despite his later-expressed belief that Japan could have been defeated with conventional incendiary bombs.
LeMay died at 8:08 a.m. in the 22nd Strategic Hospital at March Air Force Base near Riverside, an Air Force spokesman said. He would have been 84 on Nov. 15.
Since 1989, LeMay had been living in Air Force Village West, a retirement community for Air Force officers near the air base. Before moving there, he lived in Newport Beach for nearly 20 years.
"He was the most patriotic and honest American I have ever known," said his son-in-law, James Lodge, in a telephone interview Monday night. "He cut a wide swath through a major part of our history. . . . He was a terribly interesting and dynamic man."
He had remained in Southern California since he was fired from his post-military job as board chairman of a Chatsworth electronics firm for serving as the running mate of George C. Wallace in the 1968 presidential campaign.
To an adoring American public during the war against the Axis powers, LeMay was "Old Iron Pants" and usually described as "cigar-chomping," "gruff" or "brusque." He was a strict disciplinarian who asked much of his fliers, but no more than he asked of himself.
Deciding that his bombers were missing too many targets while zigzagging to avoid heavy flak over Europe, LeMay clamped a cigar in his jaw and personally led the next raid over Saint Nazaire, France, holding his plane on a straight-in course for seven perilous minutes. The next day he issued orders that there would be "no more evasive action on the final bombing run."
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."
Controversy surrounded him in the early 1960s when, as Air Force chief of staff, LeMay feuded with then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara over the latter's push to cut back the number of manned aircraft in favor of more intercontinental ballistic missiles.
It intensified when LeMay saw fit to be Wallace's running mate, attracting demonstrators who chanted "Bombs away with Curtis LeMay!" He caused some embarrassment for Wallace by saying he would use nuclear weapons "if I found it necessary," a comment Wallace angrily contended was reported out of context.
Already known as a man of few words, LeMay grew even quieter in retirement. When he reluctantly attended an Orange County soiree in 1984, the old warrior said only, "I just stay at home and keep my mouth shut. That's always the best thing to do."
A pure military man, he did not go around in peacetime expressing regrets for his battle actions. "I have indeed bombed a number of specific targets," he conceded in the foreword of the 1965 book "Mission With LeMay," which he wrote with novelist and fellow World War II flier MacKinlay Kantor. "They were military targets on which the attack was, in my opinion, justified morally. I've tried to stay away from hospitals, prison camps, orphan asylums, nunneries and dog kennels. I have sought to slaughter as few civilians as possible."
Off duty, LeMay was an enthusiastic ham radio operator, gun collector and big-game hunter.
He was known for backing his men when they made understandable mistakes, but he did not tolerate the same mistake twice.
Once, invited to dinner by a group of colonels serving under him, the crusty LeMay refused. "A man should have dinner with his friends," he growled. "The commanding general has no friends."
LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 15, 1906. He was the eldest of six children of itinerant ironworker Erving LeMay and Arizona Dove LeMay.
He was fascinated by airplanes from childhood. He recalled in his book seeing pioneer stunt aviator Lincoln Beachy flying around the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. After Beachy crashed into San Francisco Bay and died, LeMay wrote, "I wondered a little where he had gone--but mostly I remembered how he felt when he was alive and flying."
He ached to go to West Point, but did not get appointed by his congressman, so he enrolled at Ohio State University as an engineering student, joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and paid his way through college working in a foundry and at other jobs. He had to work so much that he did not get his degree until after he was in the service.
He won a reserve Army commission through the ROTC, going on active duty with the 62nd Field Artillery Brigade at Camp Knox, Ky. He enlisted in the regular Army in 1928.