1956 - 2021, Celebrating over 65 Years of Service
Like many AAHS members, I have long looked forward to reading Barrett Tillman's works because of both his diligent research and his careful insights. Thus, I looked forward to reading his recent book LeMay which is part of the "Great Generals Series" as distinct from his more frequent participation in the USNI Press program. Unfortunately, this book is not among his best efforts. It suffers from two faults: less research than is Tillman's norm when publishing in the USNI programs, and the overly generous use of superlatives.
In the early chapters of LeMay, Tillman describes LeMay's early career. The text left this reader with the impression that the Air Corps of the 1930s had only one competent pilot and one competent navigator, both being LeMay. Other flyers are mentioned, but not given their proper share of the credit for this dynamic era in airpower development, described by numerous other authors in our Journal pages. Tillman then examines LeMay's service as an 8th Air Force Group Commander. In this area it would be almost impossible for Tillman to overuse superlatives. LeMay was arguably the finest Group Commander the 8th Air Force ever had. He was a superb and innovative tactician, a commander who raised his unit's morale, and a man dedicated to lowering loss rates among his combat crews. Tillman gives proper credit to LeMay on each of these points.
Tillman's next subject is LeMay's assignment to the 20th Air Force in the Marianas. Here Tillman is ensnared by the same trap as numerous other historians. Tillman credits LeMay with the decision to use incendiary weapons against Japan's cities. Please think for a moment. About a year earlier, the United States conducted an extensive (and expensive) series of tests against wooden structures built in the Japanese manner in order to optimize incendiary bombs against such targets. After that, extensive facilities were devoted to producing these weapons, and finally great logistic effort was expended moving them to the Marianas. Admittedly, the number provided was inadequate, as shown by LeMay running out of these weapons only part way through his incendiary campaign. However, the decision to use incendiaries against Japanese cities had been taken well above LeMay's position in the chain of command. Where LeMay must be credited is with his brilliant analysis of Japanese air defenses which led to his innovative tactics for the use of these weapons. Tillman does credit these points to LeMay, but (like so many other writers on this issue) he overstates the issue of the decision to use incendiaries at all.
Tillman next covers LeMay's post-war duties culminating in his long tenure in command of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Here again, Tillman's respect for LeMay leads to overly generous use of superlatives. Lastly, Tillman covers LeMay's service as Vice-Chief and later Chief of Staff of the USAF. In this reviewer’s opinion, LeMay did not distinguish himself in either of these positions, so superlatives here bothered me.
There are two important insights Tillman provides which are in keeping with his reputation for good analysis well expressed. The first involves the Linebacker II fiasco. During the Vietnam War, senior SAC commanders ordered the B-52 crews to all turn at the same point in the sky when approaching their IP. This foolish order provided the North Vietnamese with a predefined and convenient aim point for their air defense, and cost many B-52 crew members captivity or worse. Although LeMay had long ago departed SAC by that time, many writers have argued that LeMay left behind a "SAC Mindset" which created this incident. Tillman cogently argues that LeMay's entire record of minimizing air crew loss rates makes such a charge ridiculous and unfair. His arguments as well as his analysis are convincing.
Tillman's other analytical point addresses LeMay's reputation for being totally humorless. While many writers have noted that LeMay was a victim of Bell's Palsy, Tillman's discussion of LeMay's inability to even smile at humor convinced me that this charge against LeMay's reputation is groundless. What should be added is that I had Bell's Palsy and though I recovered, I never adequately thought through this subject until Tillman discussed it cogently.
In summary, when the reader finishes this book, he is likely to conclude that one day LeMay did smile, and in so doing created God. The reason monotheism is so prevalent on this planet is that LeMay smiled only once.
H. Larry Elman