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World Battlefronts: BATTLE OF JAPAN: V.LR. Man

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One day last week a heavy-jowled, stocky general officer of the U.S. Army Air Forces flew the 100-odd miles back to his Guam headquarters from his B-29 bases at Saipan and Tinian. His aide, waiting with new orders, showed them to the boss. Major General Curtis Emerson LeMay read them without a flicker of expression. Said he, seeming scarcely to open his lips: “File them and we will move tomorrow.”

Next day General LeMay moved out of the double Quonset hut which had been his headquarters since January—first, as commanding general, 21st Bomber Command, lately as commanding general, Twentieth Air Force. When he moved 1,500 ft. beyond the road to a cramped, three-man office he took with him a Lucite name plate, a box of cigars, a black walnut tobacco humidor, a letter opener made from a B-29 throttle by some of his boys in India long ago, and a leather folder containing pictures of his wife Helen and six-year-old daughter Jane, who wait in Lakewood, Ohio.

The General was giving up his office and his job as C.O. of the Twentieth to a veteran of the early Pacific and the Mediterranean air wars, Lieut. General Nathan F. (“The Champ”) Twining (TIME, Aug. 6). In turn, LeMay was taking a new assignment: the orders had made him chief of staff of the U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces. In that executive capacity, just when the B-29s were getting a new atomic weapon which might change the whole concept of war, he would run the B-29 show under the overall supervision of the U.S.’s top strategic airman, wise, imperturbable General Carl Spaatz. In Spaatz’s command were both Twining’s Twentieth and Lieut. General “Jimmy” Doolittle’s Okinawa-based Eighth Air Force.

Indispensable Man. Thus, the most spectacularly successful airman produced in the Army’s Pacific war was no longer his own on-the-spot boss. Some of LeMay’s devoted associates in the Twentieth did not take kindly to the change, just as they instinctively resented him when he replaced the first commander of the B-29s in the Marianas—friendly, brown-eyed Brigadier General Haywood S. (“Possum”)

Hansell. But there were good reasons for LeMay’s new orders.

Imposing as the B-29 forces under Curt LeMay had become, it was only a part of the power to be turned against Japan in a vast offensive that even more conservative airmen hoped would knock the enemy out of the war before a U.S.

foot soldier ever touched a beach on Honshu. To command this force, “Tooey” Spaatz, director of the strategic campaign against Germany, was an obvious choice, both by seniority and accomplishment.

Spaatz already had his team — Doolittle and Twining — who had done the job for him in the European theater. He also had in Curt LeMay a brilliant tactical commander; LeMay’s know-how in Pacific battle and B-29 operations had to be spread through the enlarged strategic air forces. So while LeMay’s officers grumbled a bit at a good man and a crack leader being taken from tactical command, their black-browed boss was moved up.

Whether he liked it or not — and from dead-pan LeMay there was no sign — he had become a staff officer. One consolation was that at 38, LeMay, already the youngest major general in the U.S. Army in World War II, probably could look for ward to getting his third star. He is younger than any of his young wing commanders.

“Old Ironpants.” A longtime friend of Curtis LeMay was once asked whether he had ever seen the General smile. The answer: “I think so, but I can’t remember when.” LeMay talks in such a low voice that his staff say they have bent ears, none of them can remember hearing him raise his voice. This relaxed calmness was well illustrated one day during an air raid over Germany when a B-17 side gunner shouted over the intercom to Pilot LeMay: “Colonel, my guns won’t work!”

Said LeMay impersonally: “You’re going to look pretty silly when the 190s start coming in.”

After an Ohio boyhood (his father was an ironworker in Columbus) LeMay went to Ohio State University, was near to graduating when he quit to be a flying cadet in the Army. In due course he became a fighter pilot (later as an Army officer he went back to Ohio, got his degree). Once, when he was stationed at Self ridge Field, Mich., he almost quit the Air Corps to fly trimotored planes for Henry Ford. But he stuck and studied, and by 1937 he was recognized as one of the Corps’s ablest celestial navigators. This led to his transfer to bombardment and the first B-17s. He navigated a flight 600 miles out to sea—a famous and daring feat in 1937—and came out of the overcast over his objective, the Italian liner Rex.

LeMay’s fame as a combat leader began after he took the 305th Bombardment Group to England in 1942. In the early bombing of Europe, U.S. airmen were often less than successful and Colonel LeMay perceived the reason: the bombers were taking evasive action in the face of heavy German ack-ack and fighter interception; pilots would shirk from holding their course the five or six minutes necessary to make good, sound bombing runs. LeMay announced that he would bomb the Brest submarine yards himself, and that he would hit the target.

With cold courage LeMay held the course seven minutes, although planes around him were going down and his own plane was hit by flak. Upon landing he posted a new order, ruthless but necessary: no more evasive action over the targets. (“Having paid the price of admission to get over the target, we’ve got to get the benefits.”) His men saw the casualty list go up, tagged the skipper “Old Ironpants.” But LeMay got bombing results. He led many a flight himself, including the famed raid on the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg in August 1943.

From London to Guam, LeMay’s men have always understood two things: 1) an order is just that—the Old Man never checks up on an order, but disobedience brings dismissal; 2) the Old Man never orders anything he can’t do himself. A favorite LeMay conference remark: “Now, does everybody understand this? If not, I’ll show you how to do it myself.”

Where the LeMay career will lead depends on the kind of men the postwar air world will require. Many “old” Air Forces generals of 50 and above swear they are going to leave the A.A.F. to younger men at war’s end. After his tour as Spaatz’s chief of staff, and after his bosses have learned the mysteries of the Pacific and the biggest bombers, LeMay probably will join a selected group of younger generals being trained in staff duty in Washington for the postwar years —generals like Hoyt Vandenberg, Lauris Norstad, Elwood (“Pete”) Quesada. Until then LeMay concentrates on Japan.

The Appalling Power. The air war was already going well. The Japs were reduced to drawing charms in the sand to frighten “evil spirits” away from the homeland (see cut). For weeks Japanese opposition had been dwindling—and LeMay’s striking power had been increasing. Even as “The Cigar” moved his office, his bombers were returning from their biggest LeMay-conceived mission up to that time: 822 Superfortresses had gone out to lay a vast net of mines and to bomb four Japanese cities (pop. 66,000 to 127,000). Only one was lost. The big planes carried 6,632 tons of explosives—almost as much as U.S. and British airmen together had ever dropped on Europe in a single day.

Soon 1,000 B-29s carrying as much bomb weight as 3,000 B-17s, would be hitting Japan day after day, and the increased power of their atomic missiles would be astronomically out of proportion to the increase in weight. An observer used to the European pattern of heavy bombardment arrived on Guam and was moved to say: “It is an appalling power we Americans possess.”

The fourth (Spaatz) stage of the B-29 operations had begun. In all stages, including the newest, Curtis LeMay was inextricably wrapped. More than any other combat airman, he had become the V.L.R. (Very Long Range) man of the war against Japan.

The Beginning. The first B-29 mission against Japan was flown June 15, 1944, when 68 planes from Chengtu, deep in China, bombed the Yawata Steel Works on Kyushu. The communiqué said hopefully that results were “effective.” Four planes were lost on this pioneering mission. A total of 49 missions was flown from China, India and Burma bases, but B-29 men knew from the start that the invasion of the Marianas (begun at Saipan, also June 15) was far more important for their purposes. For in China every bomb, every gallon of gasoline had to be flown over the Hump from India; airfields had to be handmade by half a million coolie laborers; it was over 1,600 miles to Japanese soil, and the industrially rich Tokyo-Nagoya area was still out of range.

For experimental purposes the China-based B-29 raids were invaluable. But “it was a hell of a way to operate an air force,” reflected Curtis LeMay, who arrived from Europe to take over the China-based operation two months after it had started.

Second Stage. Saipan was ready by Nov. 24, when 100 B-29s took off on the first 1,500-mile raid on Tokyo. (A coordinated carrier strike had been called off because of 1) the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea and 2) the alarm inspired by increasing Kamikaze attacks.) By January 1945, when Trouble-Shooter LeMay came out of China to take over the Marianas operations, three wings composed of about 300 B-29s were operating or being organized, and 14 missions had been flown. The China-based force was later transferred to the Marianas.

LeMay found more planes and plenty of gasoline on Guam, Saipan and Tinian. He also found plenty of trouble.

The biggest trouble was the weather over Japan. At 30,000 feet the wind often blew 200 miles an hour. This meant that the B-29s had to drop their bombs while traveling upwind at a ground speed of 50 or 100 m.p.h. (making fat targets for fighters and ack-ack) or downwind at 500 m.p.h. with doubtful accuracy or no accuracy at all. Japanese fighters apparently could go as high as the B-29s could—and their suicidal pilots did not hesitate to ram the big planes.

Morale began to drop in the B-29 outfits. January losses were nearly 6%. Compared with losses at the most grueling period of the European bombardment, this percentage was not high. But it did mean that a man could expect to average 17 missions before he was killed—and no quota of missions had been set.* Furthermore, pilots and their crews, bombing mostly through heavy clouds did not know whether they were hitting anything or not. “I believe it is worthwhile,” said one pilot, “because I’ve got to believe it.”

The Driver. For more than a month after LeMay’s arrival in the Marianas, B-29 bombing was reduced to a trickle. The tough new general set his pipe or cigar in the corner of his mouth and quietly gave the orders: get to work on maintenance, give the crews more training.

He set up special schools for pilots, navigators, bombardiers. At a lead crew school, selected men were trained intensively to ride the lead planes, take them in to the targets, give the signal for all planes in the formation to drop their bombs. New crews and re-educated crews trained together in practice runs on LeMay’s bombing range: the bypassed island of Rota, 60 miles north of Guam.

Maintenance was LeMay’s fetish (“you can’t drop bombs from a grounded plane”). When he noticed the ground force overworked in one group, while another group’s men were comparatively idle, he pooled all the maintenance forces within each wing. A crack pilot with an exceptional feel for mechanic’s work, he set up a system of specially skilled roving workers, for speedier, better repairs.

By setting up an assembly line, he cut engine-change time from three days to less than half a day. The mechanics soon knew that the Old Man knew as much about the work in the shops and hard-stands as he did about what to do in the pilot’s seat of a B-29—or the navigators seat for that matter.

But LeMay’s great asset was his ability to make men work hard—even in the wretched (by Air Forces standards) living conditions in the Marianas. When he was hard-pressed he borrowed Seabees to help load bombs, and they liked it. Somehow the grim General made hard work attractive. Mechanics learned to make certain small parts whose lack had grounded planes. The General never said much—for him, a nine-word sentence is a monologue —but his men gladly toiled around the clock. The availability record of B-29s (i.e., the daily number ready to fly) rose almost to 70%, double what it had been.

Iwo & Fire Bombs. This made for safer as well as for more powerful operation. The morale of the air crews rose. Then the Marines (after 22,500 casualties) captured Iwo Jima, halfway between Saipan and Tokyo. Iwo had been intended primarily as a base for P-51 fighters which would accompany the B-29s over Japan. But Iwo turned out to be even more valuable as a rescue station where crippled or gas-shy B-29s could settle down on the way back from Japan.

By last week B-29s to the number of 2,000 had pulled up at Iwo. Some of them could have made it back to Saipan, but their pilots took no chances. Many more would have been lost on the way home. B-29 crews blessed the Marines, named some of their planes for Marine divisions.

From Iwo, too, air-sea rescue planes could go to the shores of Japan to pick up downed airmen, and that was good for LeMay’s V.L.R.-men to know. Finally, B-29s used Iwo as a gasoline filling station on the way to Japan, thus increasing their bombloads. Among B-29 men time is divided “before Iwo” and “after Iwo.”

Another event in March involved one of the great military decisions of the war.

It was LeMay who made it and he did it without batting an eye. He called in the brigadier generals commanding his three wings—Thomas Power of the 314th, Emmett(“Rosie”) O’Donnell of the veteran 73rd and John Davies of the 313th. LeMay had a plan: to throw the whole force at Tokyo at night from 5,000 and 6,000 feet, using the new M69 incendiary bombs. The plan might be a spectacular success or it might be an earth-shaking failure—some officers speculated that three-quarters of the planes might be shot down.

By his decision to get down out of the upper levels and bomb from a mile high, LeMay took the lives of over 3,000 airmen in his hands, not to mention his own career. Not the least courageous phase of his decision was the implied admission that high-level bombing with the missiles then being used was still not so good as low-altitude work. The B-29 had been painstakingly built to work above 25,000 feet.

But LeMay believed that the Japs would be susceptible to surprise, and he calculated shrewdly. Jap antiaircraft could shoot down an occasional plane at 30,000 feet, but their flak was weak and ineffective at one-fifth the height. Besides, they were no longer putting many fighters in the air—a vital factor in his later calculations.

By last week, before still another turning point came, some 150 square miles of Japan’s greatest industrial centers had been burned out. In a four-week period devoted exclusively to low-level missions, the loss of planes dropped well below 1%. Because the gasoline used in climbing was saved, the bomb tonnage per plane rose spectacularly, from 2.8 to 7.5 tons. (For Japan-bound planes refueling at Iwo, it rose to 10 tons.) High-level bombing was not out for good, but low-bombing had its day.

The Enemy’s Will. Up to last week 307 B-29 missions had been run against Japan, 276 of them by LeMay. In July, at a cost of only eleven planes, 40,000 tons of bombs (almost one-fourth of the overall Marianas total) were dropped on 39 manufacturing centers and 13 isolated factories. The three wings had grown to five with the arrival of Roger Ramey’s 58th and Frank Armstrong’s super-duper 315th.

That was only the beginning. In weight alone vastly more would be done within the next ten weeks. Japan was going to get at least twice the monthly tonnage that ever hit Germany.

The question was: how much could the Japs stand? Up to this week, most U.S. military authorities agreed that the burrowing enemy, the world’s greatest master of underground fortifications, probably could not be bombed out of the war. They had the example of Germany for their conclusion. But Japan was in for a test which had never been applied to Germany. If the results of that test proved the authorities wrong, a host of scientists and technicians would deserve much of the credit. But some of it would go to levelheaded, devoted airmen like Curtis LeMay.

* After 35 missions crews nowadays are relieved and sent home.

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