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General Curtis E. LeMay and the Berlin Airlift
By: Walter J. Boyne
The United States was extremely fortunate to have had a man like General Curtis E, LeMay come to the fore at
exactly the right time to help save our nation and lead it to victory.  LeMay was unique in that he was:

....... extraordinarily successful at every level of command, from squadron to Air Force;
........ a brilliant pilot, preeminent navigator, and a great bombardier;
........ a daring combat leader who flew the toughest missions;
........ a master of strategy and tactics;
........ tough and utterly demanding;
........ compassionate and concerned for the welfare of his troops;
........ a victor in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II
........ the creator of the Strategic Air Command;
........ the architect of victory in the Cold War and, not least
........ the man who created the framework for the Berlin Airlift.

In war, Curt LeMay was determined to win as quickly as possible,
with the minimum casualties.   During the Second World War,
he was able to mold successful fighting units by dint of hard work and training
when therewere no resources with which to work.  In- peace he was
determined to make war appear so terrible that it would not take place.  He succeeded
brilliantly in both cases.  Under his leadership-and his masterful relations with
Congress- he gained such enormous resources for the Strategic Air Command
that our opponents, rational if malevolent men, were deterred.

"Tough" is always the word that springs to mind in considering
LeMay.  Yet he went far beyond being tough to get the results he
knew were needed.  He achieved his great triumphs by marrying his powers
of analytical thinking to a rigorous operational philosophy.
 He was tough just as a combat commander should be tough, insisting on extremely
high standards of training and strict evaluation. He knew from experience that
this led to a proficiency that produced both good results and lower casualties.
 LeMay was ready for combat every day of his military career because he
believed that there might be combat any day.

So it was that then Lieutenant General LeMay was ready to contest
the Soviet Union when it began the Berlin blockade on June 22, 1948.
The date was exactly and not coincidentally seven years after Adolf Hitler
had begun Operation Barbarossa and a little over three years since the
Battle of Berlin.  The Soviet Union began by halting rail traffic.  This was followed
in a severe curtailment of electrical power, and ultimately by the closing of all
road, rail and canal traffic into the city.  The Western Allies found themselves with
ground access cut off to Berlin.  The Soviets did not believe that the Allies would
risk World War III for the sake of the divided city, and were certain
that a prolonged blockade would drive them out.

General Clay determined to use airlift to supply the city-including its
2.5 million civilians-until diplomacy could resolve the crisis.  Clay called
the commander of the USAF in Europe, LeMay, and asked him
if the Air Force could deliver coal to Berlin.  LeMay immediately said that
it could, and put together a scratch airlift of  Douglas C-47s to work on
what became known as "Operation VITTLES."

 Two U.S.A. F. Troop Carrier Groups-the 60'h and 6 I't -were
available,  and they could muster 102 C-47s and two Douglas C-54s. The
British had about 40 Dakotas at their immediate disposal.  On July 26, 1948,
American C-47 crews flew 32 missions, carrying 80 tons of milk, flour  and medicine
into Berlin.  It was a brave effort,, but both sides knew that Berlin required a
minimum of 4,500 top of supplies each day.  The Soviet Union had seen a
massive German airlift fail utterly at Stalingrad, unable to bring  in even 300
tons a day.  With the miserable Berlin weather approaching
(the city is on the same latitude as Labrador), they felt they had only
to wait and the blockade would succeed.

It was typical of LeMay to delegate tasks to the right person for the job,
and he appointed Brigadier General Joseph Smith as Berlin Airlift Task Force Commander
for an operation expected to last about two weeks. The widely experienced Smith
had flown the mail for the Army in 1934 and handled many tough jobs since then.
He immediately instituted procedures that were, in large part, used for the entire airlift

LeMay knew that the initial airlift strength was inadequate for the task at hand, and
General Clay recognized this.  Under LeMay's leadership the number of the aircraft
in the airlift built slowly.  LeMay was eventually returned to the United States
where he became the fabulously successful commander of the Strategic Air Commander.
But the Airlift he left behind was in excellent shape, and by September of 1948, the
Soviet Union threw in the towel-not the last time it would do so to the efforts
of the finest combat commander in USAF history, General Curtiss E. LeMay.


Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in
Washington, is a retired Air Force Colonel and author.  He has written more than
400 articles about aviation topics and 28 books, the most recent of which is
Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the United States Air Force, 1947 -1997.
His most recent article for the Air Force Magazine, "The Long Reach of the
Stratojet," appeared in the December 1997 issue.