Our most accurate historians say that General Curtis Lemay was one of the most famous and important warriors that our country ever had. During WWII we were not putting any effective bombs on the Germans, that had to be done if we were ever going to defeat them until he showed us how to do it.
In the Pacific we were not putting any damage on the Japanese that had to be done if we were ever going to defeat them until he showed us how to do it. And at one point the Russians were a grave threat to us. They were not afraid of our President or our other generals, be they were deathly afraid of General Leman and the Strategic Air Command that he built and headed. Without him we may all be speaking German or Japanese or Russian today.
I have written you before how he was my hunting partner and bunk-mate on those pheasant hunts in the San Juaquin Valley in California. He told me things that I don’t think he had ever shared with most anyone else.
I have also written you about how so many people were desperately praying for our success against the Germans, and how I believe God woke General Lemay up in the middle of the night and showed him what to do. However, I never showed you the details of that. Herewith are those details and their results if you care to know. I find them fascinating:
Lemay was a good pilot, but he also became the best navigator that the Army Air Corps had.
They got the first B-17 in January 1936 at Langley Field, Virginia , but it was 1938 before they got production models to effectively train in. The US wanted to show off this long-range bomber to the world. The folks in Washington were also concerned about the growing influence of Germany and Italy in South America . Three Italian bombers, commanded by Bruno Mussolini, the youngest son of the Italian dictator had just visited Brazil.
It was decided to send 6 B-17’s all the way from Langley Field to Buenos Aires , Argentina . They wanted Curtis Lemay to be the Chief Navigator for this 11,952-mile trip. He said that they had no aircraft maps of South America . He said that he went by National Geographic’s Office and got some of their maps. That is all he had for navigation of this flight. They took off on February 16, 1938, and refueled in Miami , Panama , and Lima , Peru . They landed at the El Palomar Military Air Base in Buenos Aires on February 27. Three days later they provided a fly-over for the inauguration of President Roberto Ariz.
The people there had never heard anything like roar of those Cyclone-9 engines which provided 22,500 horsepower to each of the 6 planes.
Just after this flight the US Army Air Corps was in a big fight with the US Navy. The Army said their new long-range planes could provide protection to the US coasts. The Navy said that was impossible. So, a test was set up. The Air Corps was supposed to send a flight of B-17’s way off the coast of California and intercept the Battleship Utah in misty conditions with very low cloud cover. The whole success or failure of the mission was up to the Chief Navigator, Curtis Lemay. Even after being given the wrong coordinates on purpose by the Navy, Lemay found the ship and it was hit with three water bombs, much to the consternation of the US Navy.
Later, in a second test, Lemay found the Italian Liner Rex, 610 miles off the Atlantic coast. Still, the Navy was never convinced.
At Langley , Lemay formed the 305th Bomber Group. It was now just before Pearl Harbor . His recruits were subjected to relentless training, as Lemay believed that training was the key to saving their lives. “You train as you fight” was one of his cardinal rules. It expressed his belief that, in the chaos, stress, and confusion of combat (aerial or otherwise), troops or airmen would perform successfully only if their individual acts were second-nature, performed nearly instinctively due to repetitive training. Throughout his career, Lemay was widely and fondly known among his troops as “Old Iron Pants”, mostly because he demanded training way beyond that of any other commander. His demands for such training pervaded his whole military career.
After Pearl Harbor, he was ordered to England . He was now a Major and successfully got his 305th Group across the Atlantic and joined the 3rd Air Division of the 8th Air Force. Because of his dedication to training, he was later made Commander of the 3rd Air Division.
Those B-17’s were called Flying Fortresses because they had so many defensive guns, but Lemay was amazed that the gunners he was getting from the States had so little training, that “they just couldn’t hit anything”. He was criticized for using an inordinate amount of fuel for taking them on so many training flights to teach them how to shoot.
Lemay had never been in combat, so he was very intent on quizzing the commanders who had been on the few bombing missions that had been flown over France at that point in the conflict. They all told him the same thing: That those German 88mm’s were so formidable as anti-aircraft weapons that you had to fly a zigzag pattern over the target or everyone would be shot down from the flak, though many were shot down anyway. They all told him that a plane must not fly more than 10 seconds in one direction without changing direction. This was the operating procedure for all bombers in the 8th Air Force.
Lemay and his group flew several missions. He was lead pilot on every raid. However, it was just overwhelming consternation to him that the post raid photos showed that they were just not hitting anything. They were spending all that fuel and equipment and losing planes and getting guys killed, and so very few of their bombs were hitting the target.
They had that amazing new Norden Bombsight. US Airmen had to take an oath that they would guard it with their very life from falling into enemy hands. We did not even let the English have access to it for the same reason. It had a system that allowed it to directly measure the aircraft’s ground speed and direction, which older bombsights could only estimate with lengthy in-flight procedures. The Norden further improved on older designs by using an analog computer that constantly calculated the bomb’s impact point based on current flight conditions, and an autopilot that let it react quickly and accurately to changes in the wind or other effects. These features seemed to promise unprecedented accuracy, and they did in practice. But if you had to zigzag every 10 seconds, all that wonderful design was of little use.
General Lemay deeply believed that it was going to take success with strategic bombing of Germany to degrade their ability to wage war if we were ever going to defeat them. I am sure he was correct, too. The Germans were right on the verge of completing jet planes that could wipe out anything we had. They were also perfecting amazing rockets and were dangerously close to perfecting atomic bombs.
What happened next is why I have asked you to wade through all this history with me. I have already mentioned that more prayers were being offered up to God concerning WWII than any event at that point in human history. We can look back and see how those prayers were answered over and over, but here is what I consider to be one of the most important answers for its impact on the war in Europe .
Lemay was brooding on all this, when suddenly he was bolted from his sleep in the middle of the night. There, clearly in his mind was the answer, but it was so radical that he had to prove it. He never could explain even to himself why he had taken his old ROTC artillery manual from Ohio State with him all the way to England in his footlocker. He immediately got it out. It had been used by his old ROTC instructor there. He had been an artillery officer in WWI. He had drilled into Lemay and his fellow students the fundamentals of artillery warfare. The book had been written for French 75mm shells, but Lemay knew he could adapt it for the German 88’s.
He spent the rest of the night calculating the distance the 88 shell would have to travel to reach a B-17, the size of a B-17 at that distance, how fast the Germans were able to load the artillery piece with the next shell and a host of other parameters. He checked and rechecked his calculations and concluded that it would take 372 shells being fired to hit a plane if it were flying straight-in to the target without deviating at all. He knew, and I am convinced that God showed him that those were acceptable odds.
At the briefing the next morning of the 305th in their briefing room the guys were all assembled after their breakfast of eggs and spam and much black coffee. The back door opened, there was the “ten shun”. They all jumped to their feet, and “Old Iron Pants” walked up to the front. There was the weather report, and the maps of their target that day were put up. They were to hit the German submarine pens and the rail yards at St.Nazaire.
Then Lemay dropped the big one on them: They were to fly straight in from the first sighting of the target until all bombs were released. No one was to deviate the slightest bit.
Lemay had always encouraged his crews to speak up in a briefing if they felt it imperative to do so. At this point he rather wished he hadn’t allowed it, for all manner of commotion erupted. One pilot even stood up and said: “Sir, it just can’t be done!” Lemay informed them that it would be done, and that he would be flying the lead plane. That quieted things down, if he had that much conviction in his calculations to fly lead; but many guys wrote home: “Mama, I ain’t coming home!”
With no more talk, the men of the 305th got into their planes and prepared to take off. Twenty fortresses of the group took off. Four turned back because of mechanical problems and 16 continued on to the target, which wasn’t that bad in those days.
They got into an even tighter box formation as they neared St. Nazaire. For weeks and weeks Lemay had been having them practice a special box formation, flying very tightly together so that they would be protecting each other from enemy fighters. The thought of sending men in to die had been weighing more and more heavily on their commander. He devised the tight box formation with its resulting overlapping fire to protect them from the German ME-109s and the open engine FW-190s. These fighters used either 7.92mm MG machine guns or 20mm MG FF cannon, depending on the pilot’s preference. All were lethal to bombers but facing this tight box formation with all its overlapping firepower was something the German pilots had not faced before. If they could find a straggler that had drifted out of the formation, they pounced on it.
Eventually the entire 8th Air Force adopted Lemay ’s box formation.
As St. Nazaire came into sight, Lemay banked his plane into a straight, steady course and leveled his wings. When he looked around at the rest of the group, not a single plane wavered, even as the flak came up to meet them. The nasty little black clouds began to burst above, below, and among them. Later, when asked, Lemay said that after working out the artillery problem the flak did not particularly bother him, “But I certainly didn’t care for those flickering machine guns coming straight at me.”
He was making an unprecedented demand today, not only upon himself but on the other men in his group, when he insisted that all of them look into the muzzles of those machine guns and press forward with no evasive action and the flak of the German 88’s. Not every man is capable of such cool courage, and he knew it.
The flak was all around them at 21,000 feet, but they continued straight and level for 7 minutes when the bombardiers took over and adjusted their bomb sights. At 1:40 PM the first bombs fell. Two minutes later they were beyond the target.
Lemay’s plane was hit by two pieces of shrapnel and two guys in the back slightly injured. Five other planes reported being hit, but none went down. Six German fighters made passes at them but moved on after doing only minor damage. All 16 continued back toward base with no stragglers.
Lemay immediately summoned the rookie bombardier and asked how he had done. “I put bombs on the target. It was a good run, Boss”, he said. “Are you sure of that?” Lemay asked. “I am sure, but I could have done even better if it weren’t for those white clouds. They kind of got in the way.” Though he didn’t know it, those white clouds were from the flak bursts. There wasn’t a regular cloud in the sky that day.
All the 305th planes got back safely, told stories, and turned in their strike photos. It was two days before the intelligence officers of the 8th Air Force could analyze everything and turn in their mission report. The 305th had put twice as many bombs on target as any other bomber group and none of their planes had been shot down.
Within three weeks, every group in the Eighth Air Force was flying straight-and-level bomb runs, taking no evasive action over the targets.
After several more raids Air Force intelligence concluded that: The 305th was attracting fewer fighter attacks than other groups. They were using more ammunition than other groups but shooting down fewer German planes.
They had a much lower loss rate than other groups.
When asked for his impressions of why by the intelligence section he gave these answers. Lemay said:
1. The 305th usually had more ships in the air than other groups, giving greater protection.
2. His stagger box formation gave them more firepower against an approaching enemy.
3. They were shooting at longer ranges. Lemay had decided that if fighters were welcomed by bullets before they even came close, they were not as likely to come close.
By now the 8th Air Force had doubled in size with the addition of new Groups from the US . Ira Eaker, still head of the 8th, was becoming anxious to bomb Germany , but the weather there remained dismal.
They bombed across France, even the airport at Paris where Lindbergh had landed. On July 17, 1943 they entered Germany for the first time in hopes of bombing the submarine plants at Hamburg , but the clouds were too thick to find the target. The clouds over Germany continued and continued.
Finally on July 24, Fred Anderson, the new head of Bomber Command became so disgusted with waiting that he decided to bomb elsewhere. He assembled 324 Fortresses, the largest group to go on a mission up to that time and sent them to German occupied Norway . They bombed the ports that the Germans were using and hit quite a few German ships and port facilities, though several of their targets were covered by clouds. But then the clouds cleared over Germany .
Immediately Eaker, still over the 8th Air Force, started what became known as Blitz Week. The 8th went on 6 missions in 7 days. On July 25 Andersen sent planes to Kiel, Hamburg , and Warnamunde, but the clouds were too thick. Lemay’s planes found a hole in the clouds and hit their secondary target of Rostock with impressive results. This was mostly due to Lemay ’s relentless drilling of his navigators’ and bombardiers’ studying of their targets before hand.
By then the Germans had transferred some of their best fighter squadrons back from the Eastern Front to oppose the bombers. On this raid they shot down 19 fortresses and many more on the rest of Blitz Week. By the end of the week the 8th Air Force had lost 100 bombers and over 1,000 men, but Lemay ’s 3rd had hit important targets. They knocked out rail yards, a rubber factory, and on July 30 they dropped 100 tons of bombs on the Fock-Wulf components factory at Kassel that shut it down for over a month.
Mostly because of Blitz Week the 8th Air Force crewmen suffered 75 emotional breakdowns in July of 1943. The stress of battle was bad enough, but their planes were not pressurized. The waist gunners had to have large open sections in the side of the plane through which to fire their 50 calibers. At 20,000 feet and above the temperature was 30 to 50 degrees below zero. Their oxygen masks would freeze up and cut off the oxygen supply, and they would not realize it until it was too late. Many times the plane’s oxygen system would be hit or just malfunction. They did not dare descend to a lower altitude so they could breath, for leaving the formation spelled certain death from fighters and flak.
Because of his exceptional leadership ability and all he added to the bombing campaign against the Germans, Lemay was asked to take over the whole 3rd Air Division of the 8th Air Force. This task called for him to be a Brigadier General, but he remained a Colonel for way longer than he should have. He was doing the work of a General but did not have the rank. When he finally got his General’s star, he remarked to his aids: “Well, it is about time.”
Because the P-47 fighters could not go very far with the B-17’s for protection, the bombers suffered horrendous losses. One of the reasons was that the fighters could not get auxiliary wing tanks. Lemay became furious when he found that one of the reasons the fighters did not get them was that Walter Reuther, who was head of the United Auto Workers Union and founder of the AFL-CIO and a big Civil Rights worker, and Women’s Rights worker was holding up their production back in the States. It is estimated that hundreds of bomber crews died because of it.
Lemay and some of the other generals confronted the head of the 8th’s Fighter Command. Their men were dying from lack of fighter support even on missions so short that wing tanks were not needed. What really rankled him was the Fighter Command’s policy of having one of the good fighter planes escort any fighter back to base that was having engine trouble. Lemay had previously been a fighter pilot for 8 years. He had no patience for such a policy when the good plane was so needed to protect his bombers. He informed Fighter Command that when one of his bombers had engine trouble, it had to fly back to base on its own. He walked out; but soon, because of his new-found influence with Hap Arnold back in Washington there was a new commander for Fighter Command.
Lemay did not go on any of the missions on Blitz Week. Ira Eaker was saving him to command something much more special. They wanted to make a two-pronged attack against the German’s big plant for making the Messerschmitt 109 at Regensburg on the Danube River and the Focke-Wulf 190 plant at Wiener Neustadt in eastern Austria. This was to be a double attack to spread the German fighters out more thinly. Also, to make them even more thin, they wanted to simultaneously hit the big ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt which was close to Regensburg .
Ira Eaker wanted Lemay to lead the attack against the Messerschmitt plant, while General Carl Spaatz, Commander of the Fifteenth Air Force in north Africa would hit the Focke-Wulf plant. At the same time General Bob Williams, commander of the First Division of the 8th Air Force was to hit the ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt . However, this was no ordinary mission for Lemay . After dropping his bombs at Regensburg they wanted him to fly on across the Alps to north Africa, refuel, resupply, and fly back across Germany and bomb a target there the next day. Since these targets were so far across Germany and were sure to be very well defended, this was going to be a dangerous mission.
The B-17’s could carry enough fuel to safely do this, but it was quite unusual. In preparation, Lemay flew to Africa and met with Col. Lauris Norstad who Hap Arnold considered one of the smartest men in the Air Force. He assured Lemay that the best base to land his B-17’s was at Telergma (about 60 miles inland from Tunis ). He assured Lemay : “Telergma is your field. It’s both a depot and a combat field. There you’ll have supplies, extra mechanics—-everything you need. That’s the place to land. You can get well serviced there. All the parts you need. All the maintenance people and support.”
Lemay left Norstad feeling confident about everything but the weather. Maybe he should have gone to Telergma to see for himself, but Norstad had such a good reputation that he just trusted him.
When he got back to England his bomb groups were getting ready for the special mission, though they did not know its details yet. At that time Lemay ’s Third Division consisted of Bomber Groups——94th, 95th, 96th, 100th, 385th, 388th, and 390th.
In August the weather remained bad across Germany . By August 13 General Spaatz in Africa was tired of waiting for the Eighth to move against Regensburg . That day he sent his heavy bombers (including 3 B-24 groups) against the FW-190 plant at Wiener Neustadt, thus scrapping the two-pronged mission as it had been originally planned.
However, Eaker still planned his two-pronged attack against Schweinfurt . Clustered around the railroad yards of this small eastern Bavarian city were five huge factories which provided almost two-thirds of Germany ’s ball and roller bearings. At that time it was thought that the whole German war effort depended on these bearings.
Finally, the orders came for their mission the next day. At the briefing that evening, Lemay told his men to take rations for two days and that they would probably be sleeping on the ground for one or two nights. The men were very quiet. They knew that this was to be the 8th’s biggest, and the deepest penetration into Germany against two targets that were sure to be as well defended as any in the Third Reich.
Next morning the clouds were low and getting lower as Lemay rolled out of his bunk at three o’clock on August 17. And when the zero hour for takeoff approached the low clouds had reached the ground into a thick fog. Lemay figured that if men would escort the planes to the runway with flashlights, they could find their way to the end of the runway and take off.
The approval finally came and the props began to turn. They all got off and got through into the blue sky. Then began the huge job of assembling. The people on the ground could hear the noise of the roaring B-17’s and the Germans with their sophisticated listening devices would know that they were coming; they just did not know where.
The Ninety-sixth Bomb Group was to fly lead, and Lemay was the lead plane in that group. The assembly went smoothly and soon the Third was ready to head toward the Continent, but where were the eighteen squadrons of American Thunderbolts and the sixteen squadrons of British Spitfire fighters scheduled to escort them at least as far as Holland . And where was the First Division, which by now should have been assembling its 230 planes for its mission to Schweinfurt . If Lemay ’s Third Division was to act as a decoy as planned, the First would have to follow in 30 minutes.
Lemay got on the radio to Anderson at Bomber Command and asked what was wrong. He was informed that they could not get off the ground because of the low clouds. He was furious. He had trained his people how to do that. Why hadn’t the others been trained? Thought was given to scrapping everything, but that would have been bad for morale, and would involve all that assembling on another day.
Just then, it did not matter. The radio went dead in Lemay ’s plane. No order to return could be given.
General Lemay never told me if it actually went dead on its own, of if he just turned it off. Anyway, the whole Third Division turned east to the continent. They had used up so much fuel circling and waiting that they had to abort or go now if they were going to drop their bombs and reach Africa.
Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, a member of Ira Eaker’s staff went along as an observer and to get some combat experience. He described what happened from one of the rear most planes where he was riding. He said that as they approached Belgium about seventeen minutes after the Fortresses crossed the coast of the Continent, radial engine fighters approached. He hoped at first that they were the radial engine Thunderbolts, but no such luck. They were a hoard of FW-190s and bullet spitting ME-109s.
An exit door from one of the forward B-17s came hurtling through the formation with a man, who had apparently been sucked out with it. He had his knees tucked up and was just spinning over and over like a diver doing a triple summersault.
One of the fortresses fell gradually out of formation and drifted down to the right, and then moments later disintegrated in one giant explosion. The fighters kept pressing. In his rear plane he said they were flying through a hail of exit doors, tail assembles all manner of debris and partially opened parachutes.
He said that he watched one plane that was completely engulfed in flames but kept flying. He described how only the co-pilot got out through breaking his window. Lay said he crawled out but could not get through with his parachute on. He reached back, retrieved his chute and hooked his arms through it, and jumped off the plane. He hit the rear horizontal stabilizer and his chute never opened.
Lay said two FW-190s hurtled through the formation at a closing speed of five hundred miles per hour—-so fast that one of them nicked a pair of B-17s in passing. Smoke trailed from the wings of the bombers, but they stayed in formation. The 190 was not so fortunate. Smoke was trailing from its nose, and metal was flying from its wing as it plunged downward.
“After we had been under attack for a solid hour,” Lay reported, “it appeared certain that the One-hundredth Group that I was in was faced with annihilation. Seven of our group had been shot down, the sky was still full of fighters and more were coming up. And we still had 35 more minutes before we reached the target. I had long since mentally accepted the fact of death.”
German fighters were swarming all over the armada but concentrating on the battered and more vulnerable rear combat wings. Twin-engine ME-110s appeared on the scene to help the other fighters. They fired rockets from a distance and tried a new tactic of dropping bombs from above to explode in the midst of the fortresses. Col. Lay’s group had now lost 15 planes.
They finally reached the Initial Point from which they would begin their bomb run. Despite the onslaught, Lemay had led his division to the target. At 11:45 Lt. Dunstan Abel, the bombardier in Lemay ’s plane, dropped his load of explosives and incendiaries directly on the factory’s buildings, and the rest of the planes in the group released on his cue. Lemay ’s task force dropped 303 tons of bombs on the Messerschmitt plant in what proved later to be one of the most accurate bombardments of the war.
The fighters had disappeared as they approached the target; probably from running short of fuel They continued on toward the Brenner Pass in the alps, but 15 ME-110s and Junkers-88s caught up with them and they lost three more planes.
They formed up at a rally point south of the Alps and headed toward Africa . They had all suffered damage, but two fortresses were so badly damaged that they would never reach Africa . They headed into Switzerland for sanctuary as the others continued on.
They moved on down the boot of Italy . At an airbase near Verona there were fighters on the ground, but they must have been Italian. They did not come up to attack.
As they left the southern tip of Italy they went into a gradual, gliding descent to save gas. They hit the African coast about 18 miles off course but found Telergma. 45 planes landed one behind the other at the shortest possible intervals. Others landed on two desolate fields right on the coast. They were running out of fuel from having circled so long over England . Four could not even make those two fields on the coast. They landed in wheat fields and dry lake beds. Another four did not even make the coast and ditched in the Mediterranean . Two of their crews were saved by air-sea rescue units. The other two were never heard from again.
Much to his consternation, Lemay found nothing was as Telergma had been described to him. There were no parts depots. There was not a single mechanic there. There were bombs and there was gasoline in 55-gallon barrels, but almost nothing else.
Lemay was still fuming about this when Lt. Col. Beirne Lay arrived with the twelve remaining planes of the rearmost One-hundredth Group which had somehow managed to survive. Lay, who had just flown through Armageddon, and had watched countless Fortresses fall, including nine from the One-hundredth alone was glad to just be on the ground again and alive.
Lemay, knowing he was expected to bomb the next day sent a message back to Eaker in England with a preliminary report of his task force’s condition. By the time Eaker received Lemay’s message, he already knew about the Schweinfurt losses of the other armada. Though the damage to the vital German ball bearing plants had been as great as he had hoped; 36 of the 230 fortresses in Gen. Bob William’s First Division taskforce had been shot down. Added to Lemay ’s loss of 24, this brought the day’s toll to a disastrous 60, without counting the many planes that were so badly damaged they might never fly again. He knew the mission was dangerous, but he never expected to break a record.
Eaker immediately flew to Africa to assess the situation. What he found absolutely amazed him. Lemay had set up a headquarters tent and had his air crews scavenging the parts from the planes that were too damaged to ever fly again and repairing the other planes. Not a single man in the air crews was even close to a being a qualified mechanic except for one—– Lemay himself. He was directing everything for the repair job.
It took four days to refuel from those 55-gallon drums.
Eaker insisted that they fly home on a safe route to avoid any more losses, but Lemay was determined to complete his mission.
The best estimate is that of the 145 B-17s with which Lemay left England for Regensburg and Africa , at least half were either lost or would never fly another mission. Never-the-less on August 24, most of the survivors “returned proudly across France and in broad daylight”, dropped 144 tons of bombs on the German-held air base at Bordeaux.
Lemay was sent back to the States to boost morale and sell war bonds. However, he got back to England as quickly as possible. And on his return, he found that many more bombers had arrived and that plans were being made for the Normandy Invasion on the Continent. Yet, one more change had happened.
The long-range P-51 Mustang was coming to England, squadron after squadron, to escort the B-17s all the way to their targets and back. These slender, fast, durable and deadly fighters, equipped now with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, brought a dramatic change to the American’s daylight bombing effort. When Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Air Force Chief was captured after the war, he was asked when he knew they had lost the war. His immediate answer: “When those red-nosed fighters appeared over Berlin .”