page 1 of 7
For an airliner, the 463-mile flight from Fort Worth to Kansas City is a matter of two hours, but for the B-36 bomber that waddled out onto the runway one day last week, the flight would take some 30 hours and its course would take it over 7,000 miles. Shortly after noon, the long, blimp-nosed craft, her six propellers glinting in the sun, climbed out westward from her Texas base, on past the sandy fringes of California, high over the glazed emptiness of the Pacific; then her navigator pointed her northward to the tip of the Aleutians. She did not have an atom bomb aboard, but she had its equivalent weight.
She headed east through the long twilight of the 55th parallel—which also crosses Moscow—over the frosted spikes of southern Alaska, and rumbled southward to bore through the storms that lay down the spine of the Rockies. At 2 a.m., in the cold, sub-zero blackness eight miles above the earth, she found the telltale bend in the Missouri River on her radar, opened her bomb bays, and sent—not a bomb, but a long flash on her radio.
In the brightly lit war room at Offutt
Air Force Base (Neb.), mid-continent headquarters of the U.S. Air Force's Strategic Air Command, an operations control officer made a routine notation in his log. Another night's work was done, another major U.S. city had been theoretically demolished by the U.S.'s mightiest atom-bomb carrier. More important, another weary plane crew had flown through much the same kind of weather over precisely the same number of mile it would have taken to deliver the bomb to the industrial heart of Russia.
This was the Air Force's intercontinental bomber at the ready last week. The free world's Sunday punch was getting its daily windup. These were the men and this was the weapon, which in Winston Churchill's words, form the one "effective deterrent" hanging over the heads of the Soviet Politburo—the likeliest reason why Russia's aggressors have so far started only a proxy war in Korea, and not the big one.
In the middle of a nation pursuing a faraway war in a faraway mood, a tough, hard-driving Air Force bombardment expert had tirelessly trained the Sunday punch to battle fitness. Lieut. General Curtis Emerson LeMay, commanding general of the Strategic Air Command, was leaning on no hope that the world might get better or the U.S.S.R. more reason able. His 16 air bases, strung across the nation from Puerto Rico to California—and his outposts in England, Japan and Okinawa—bristled with readiness. His officers wore their sidearms at desks, at meals and in the air; his "A.P.s" (air police—Air Force for M.P.s) cradled loaded carbines ready for sabotage or parachute attack. Even ground crewmen worked at their big planes with their guns beside them. At one base Curt LeMay strode by a master sergeant who had laid aside his piece to dive into his lunch bag. The C.G. rounded up all the maintenance men for one of his longer speeches. "This afternoon," said he, "I found one man guarding a hangar with a ham sandwich. There will be no more of that."
page 2 of 7
A quick, certain fate awaited any LeMay man who betrayed the slightest sign of the milkshaky unpreparedness that enveloped the occupation troops of Germany and Japan. The Strategic Air Command (known to the Air Force as SAC) was a $310 million-a-year business, a top-priority task force with 1,100 planes, some 60,000 pilots, crewmen and groundmen. For 22 rugged months Curt LeMay had been holding them all to a relentless, competitive training schedule. With an impersonal assortment of charts and graphs —his "numbers racket," he called them —he kept a sharp, hazel-eyed watch on everything from bombing accuracy (up 500%) to venereal-disease rates.
Every month he waved the numbers in the faces of his wing and group commanders. "Al, your maintenance is down to 62%," LeMay might say. "Joe's is up to 72%. He's got the same problems you have. How come? Now, Joe, don't look so damned smug. Your costs are up . . ." One colonel complained that he was being marked down for "an act of God," because an eagle had damaged one of his planes in flight. LeMay sucked on his pipe, replied in a flat, low voice: "I'm not interested in distinguishing between the unfortunate and the inefficient. The result is the same." Such ruthlessness, which comes easily to some commanders, can either be sensible or silly. One of LeMay's victims shrewdly summed him up: "He's tough, but he's not stupid-tough."
SAC's complicated and outsize bombers demand ice-cold thinking, endurance and guts from the men who fly them. The Consolidated Vultee B-36, a cigar-shaped aerial monster, is LeMay's blue-ribbon flying warship. It costs $4,700,000 before it ever gets off the ground (a small submarine costs $6,000,000). The tanks in its 230-ft. wing can swallow 2˝ tank-car loads of gasoline, enough to feed its six pusher engines for nearly two days. It can cruise over the enemy out of sight of earth—and, the Air Force insists, fairly well above the range of effective interception. Four new jet engines, hanging beneath the wingtips, were designed to give it a spurt over the target to at least 435 miles an hour. It can carry a bomb load equal to 30 B17s at extreme range, or four B-29s.
A commander of a B-36 is usually a captain or a major, on the average a seasoned "old man" of 29 years and 3,000 hours' flight experience. LeMay laced SAC with veteran pilots, navigators and bombardiers from his old World War II bomber commands in England, India and the Marianas. Around them he has tailored the individual B-36 flight crews, trains them for weeks in ground school and on the Consolidated assembly line before he allows them to set foot in the super-plane.
"If they build an airplane any bigger they'll have to give the aircraft commander a desk and a secretary to help him run things," a harassed plane skipper groused last week. The pilots, sitting far forward in the ribbed, safety-glass nose, can't even see back to the six engines at mid-fuselage. Said one: "It's like standing in the bay window and flying your house."
page 3 of 7
Before the plane can take off, the commander and his flight engineer spend an hour chanting their way down a 600-item check list to be certain every one of their maze of controls is working—and will work in the air. The engineer operates from a console of 120 dials and gadgets, spends nearly half of every hour logging their readings. Just figuring the miles-per-gallon on a 5,000-ft. climb keeps him scribbling for 20 minutes. "A man can just about keep up with his work if the flight is ideal and not a damn thing goes wrong," an engineer explained. "If anything slips it's a rat race all the way back to the base. What this thing needs is an engineer with four hands and five eyes."
Thirty continuous hours in the air, ground out in the seconds, degrees and miles of a B-36 flight, mean packing aboard survival kits for the Arctic, life rafts for the ocean, 100 Ibs. of food*1 to be cooked in two tiny electric ovens—and endless time for minor irritations of dreadnought flying to sap the toughest crewman. The crew's sections are pressurized like bug-bombs. To get from the nose compartment to the rear chamber a crewman has to lie full length on a little roller sled, pull himself hand over hand down an 85-ft. connecting tube.
Among the guns and fire-control apparatus of the after-section are eight inviting bunks. But at high altitude nobody is allowed to "sack out." Reason: an accidental pressure failure would fill the cabin with a frigid blue haze, and the loss of oxygen would kill a man in 30 seconds if he didn't slap on his oxygen mask. A sleeper would be a dead duck. A more earthy problem: the toilet mechanism won't work at high altitude. The most practical makeshift is a bucket, and by unwritten law, the first man who needs it on the flight cleans it after landing. This makes the hours of flight a competition in painful restraint.
In the B-36's early days it was grounded so frequently by "bugs" in the 30 miles of wiring, tubing and cables that the crews dubbed it "the ramp rooster." But after long, slow shakedown, it is now admiringly known as "the magnesium monster," and the SACmen are ready to battle anyone who says it isn't the best bomber in the world. When the Navy insisted a year ago that the B-36 could be shot down, Curt LeMay shot back a blunt answer.
"I think that under certain circumstances it can be shot down," he told a congressional committee. "But I do not think whether it can or cannot be shot down enters into this controversy at all . . . The thing that I am concerned about is whether the proper number of B-365 in the proper tactical disposition can penetrate enemy defenses and destroy a target with acceptable losses to ourselves, and I believe the B-36 can do this job . . . I expect that if I am called upon to fight I will order my crews out in those airplanes, and I expect to be in the first one myself."
page 4 of 7
The number of B-36s now in service is secret, but the U.S. has more atom bombs than B-36s. Of SAC's 14 striking groups, only three have the intercontinental bombers. The rest of SAC's groups are equipped with World War II-type heavy bombers, now known as mediums. There are eight groups of Boeing B-29s (which SAC pilots used to call "mouse-powered," and their 2,200-h.p. engines, "dollar alarm clocks"), and there are three groups of their beefed-up postwar cousins, the Boeing B-50s. The mediums can't fly from U.S. bases to Russia without elaborate aerial refueling,*2 but they could shuttle devastatingly between Britain, Russia and the Middle East.
The C.G. Curt LeMay, 43, runs his armada from a second-floor office at Offutt Base, a converted World War II aircraft plant set peacefully among the rolling cornfields just west of the Missouri River. He leaves his door wide open and is usually "at home" to any brass-hat or buck private—somewhat as a lion is at home on meatless Tuesday. He sits immobile behind his polished walnut desk, black-maned, broad-shouldered and heavy-faced, his lips set as straight as the five rows of service ribbons on his tan uniform jacket.
"The Old Man doesn't say hello to you; he just looks up from his desk, nails you with a stare and listens," one SAC-man says. "You begin talking and you don't hear a reply—all you hear is your own voice. Then, when you are in mid-sentence he takes the pipe out of his mouth and says, 'Get to the point.' A minute or two later: 'You're straying from the point. Don't waste my time. Come back when you've got this thing in hand.' "
LeMay's capacity for anger has probably never been tested to its fullest: he runs himself as he flies an airplane; to spout smoke or to get off course would be inefficient. He can ignore an uncut lawn or an unpolished shoe, but will pick out an unkempt airplane across the field. "He is a single-minded 'why?' guy, an administrator of high ability, and above all a hard-shelled military realist," one of his staff said appraisingly. "And I'm damn glad he's not on Russia's side."
The only place where he is likely to unbend is in the privacy of the commanding general's red brick house, across from the green Offutt parade ground. There, in the evenings, he sits in a comfortable armchair pulling at his ever-present pipe. His gregarious, twinkly eyed wife Helen, whom he met 19 years ago at a dance, is not afraid to chatter, or to stray as far from the point as she chooses. SAC's officers have unconcealed admiration for LeMay's eleven-year-old daughter Jane, who frequently tells the Old Man, "No, I won't."
LeMay first landed on SAC in October 1948, relieving Sg-year-old General George Kenney, MacArthur's top airman in World War II. Kenney, a good commander, had neither LeMay's training as a long-range bomber specialist, his experience as a battle pilot, nor his hard-driving temperament. Kenney's bombers spent much of their time making easy training flights, "just boring holes in the air," as one of them recalls it. LeMay picked the outfit up by the neck, shook it in a way none of the oldtimers will soon forget, and flung it across the U.S. to get ready for its mission.
page 5 of 7
To help him get going in a hurry, he wangled the best officers he knew. Slight, short Brigadier General John B. Montgomery, one of the Air Force's rising young (38) one-stars, moved into SAC's new headquarters at Offutt. For his deputy commander LeMay picked handsome, high-polished Thomas Sarsfield Power, 45, a bold, skillful pilot and something the Old Man is not: a diplomat and smoother-over. LeMay's chief of staff, tall, soft-spoken Major General August Walter Kissner, 44, is two other things LeMay is not: a West Pointer and a man who can do paper work and like it.
Neither the staff nor anybody else fawns—for long—around Curt LeMay. His friends are few and he works them the hardest. "They know how I feel about them," he once explained. "They know I wouldn't hesitate to send them out on a one-way mission if it ever became necessary." For his commanders he has one stock warning: "You will make some mistakes, and I will back you up—until you make the same one the second time. But don't ever try to fool me. That will be your last mistake."
Curt LeMay's fierce single-purpose first showed itself back in high school in Columbus, Ohio. Boyhood friends recalled that he paid girls little attention, preferred to spend his leisure building crystal "wireless" sets or prowling through the hills of southern Ohio with a gun and a bowie knife.
His one ambition even then was to fly for the Army. He tried to make West Point, but couldn't get a congressional appointment. So at Ohio State*3 he began an alternate route to flying. He busied himself in R.O.T.C., graduated (in 1928) to a National Guard summer camp with a reserve commission. In the fall he began training as a flying cadet at California's March Field.
LeMay loved flying (has since logged 7,000 hours), but he was no comic-strip fly boy. While his classmates swooped off for weekends in Los Angeles, he often hung back to take engines apart, work at machine guns, pore over weather charts and navigation logarithms. Result: after seven years in fighters, he was called from Hawaii to fly the first of the Army's Flying Fortresses because he was the rare Army airman who could find his way around with a navigator's sextant and chart. From then on his career was set as a big-plane man.
In World War II he became a legend —a brigadier general at 36, a major general six months later. In England, LeMay decided that too many of his B-17s were missing enemy targets because they zigzagged out of the way of heavy antiaircraft fire. He clamped a cigar in his jaw, led the next raid over Saint Nazaire, held his plane on course up to the bomb drop through murderous ack-ack for a grim seven minutes. Next day he issued a flat order: no more evasive action on the final bombing run. Plane damage went up, but results went up more.
In the Pacific, where he ran the 300-plane B-29 raids against Japan, he suddenly pulled the high-tailed bombers down from the clouds, took out their guns and gunners, and overloaded them with fire bombs to dump on Japan from low level. It was a risk that could have wrecked an air fleet and a career, but it caught the Japanese off guard, ripped Tokyo and three other industrial centers as devastatingly (over a period of ten days) as the atom bomb tore up Hiroshima.
page 6 of 7
Less than three years after the peace, when everyone else was loosening up their military girdles, LeMay found himself running the Berlin airlift as chief of U.S. air forces in Europe. One day a C-54 pilot at Frankfurt felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, looked up into the Old Man's three stars. "Son, I'll take this load," said LeMay. "Go and tell your dispatcher—and if he lets the other end know I'm coming he'll get hell from me." LeMay flew into Berlin, unloaded, then took his place in the take-off waiting line for 40 minutes.
Back in Frankfurt he buzzed for his staff. Said he: "Get it fixed. I will expect airplanes to be taking off five minutes after they have unloaded—by day after tomorrow." Three days later he dropped in again. "O.K., it's fixed," he grunted. "See if you can better it."
When things eased up in Germany, he relaxed by hunting wild boar in the Black Forest and running his own "ham" radio transmitter at Wiesbaden. He invited his enlisted men to draw all the surplus radio equipment they needed to set up their own stations, often swapped midnight advice with his fellow hams. It was characteristic of his attitude towards his men: he never would step out of his way to make a public show of thoughtfulness, but was willing to rustle up radio gear on their behalf, be responsible for it and sit up late at night telling them how to use it. His reasoning: "I might want a lot of radio operators some day."
When SAC moved from a field outside Washington to Offutt, next-door Omaha was tingling with anticipation of the big armadas to come. "What will this mean to Omaha?" asked a reporter as LeMay arrived on the scene. "It doesn't mean a damn thing to Omaha, and it doesn't mean a damn thing to me," he growled.
Actually, Offutt was to become the nerve center: no war planes are based there; the armadas and their crews are safely dispersed around the world at the other end of private telephone lines and powerful short-wave radios.
On the morning of Korea, LeMay didn't wait for the Pentagon to stir. He got. on the wire with the commanders of his air forces: the Second, Eighth and Fifteenth. He ordered in Major General Emmett O'Donnell, boss of the Fifteenth at March Field. For two days, while SAC was in the dark on Washington's plans, the staff pored over their own top-secret intelligence on North Korean targets. "Rosie" O'Donnell's B-29s were loaded with flyaway kits, holding enough spare engines and parts to keep them flying for 30 days until normal supply lines could be set up wherever they might go.
Within four days and 23 hours after LeMay got his orders, Rosie's B-29s were bombing targets in Korea. LeMay almost worked up a pleased smile at this achievement,-then nearly bit through his pipestem when he heard that his high-bombers had been used, as they were never intended to be, in low, front-line support.
He recognized, of course, that in a tight spot, a commander had to use whatever he had wherever he could.
page 7 of 7
Korea wasn't really Curt LeMay's fight and it made him as restless as any main-eventer during the preliminaries. His Sunday punch was tense and ready, but like a fighter with one hand tied behind him, he knew he would probably never be allowed to use it until the enemy struck first.
One thing that most worried LeMay and his command was the possibility that their outfit could be crippled before it ever got orders to strike back. LeMay has a hunch that SAC itself offers a more tempting initial target for an all-out Russian atomic attack on the U.S. than cities like New York and Detroit. That is why he keeps his men on ever-ready alert; why all of them constantly wear sidearms ; why Offutt is fenced in and on the watch for saboteurs and guarded against paratroop surprise; why two men have been trained to spring to LeMay's side in case of trouble. It is why, too—though they know the decisions of state are not theirs to make—that men in SAC often fidget at the notion that they must first be hit before they can hit back. Like most men, they prefer peace and life to war and the possibility of death, but more than most men, they have had to condition themselves to a pessimistic reading of the possibilities of peace.
Guarding themselves and keeping fit is a negative necessity; retaliating against an enemy is SAC's real job. That is why, nearly every night, the big B-36s nose through the long twilight of the 55th parallel, learning more & more about Russia's kind of weather, and how to get through it, in case of war, with their death-spreading weapons.