The Bomber MafiaRevisionist History
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- 9 Jul 2020
On the eve of the Second World War, a band of visionaries at Maxwell Air Force Base tried to reimagine modern warfare. They failed. Part one on the extraordinary life of the Air Force General Curtis LeMay.
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It came from nowhere. There it was. And I wanted to catch it. It was 1910. LeMay was five. He was in the backyard of the struggling neighborhood where his family lived in Columbus, Ohio. He goes on. Children can muster enormous strength in ideal, an idea in all their effort to grasp the trophy they desire. And nobody was holding me back. No one was standing close to say, look, you're just a little child.
That airplane is way up there in the air. And no matter how fast you run, you can't keep up with it. You can't reach high enough to seize it. I just thought that I might be able to grab the airplane and have it for my own and possess it always. So I lit out after it.
Little Curtis ran across neighbors' backyards, vacant lots, down sidewalks. Then it was gone. It's wonderful sound and force and the freakish illusion of the thing, a thing made of wood and metal piercing the air. Reading that made me think, oddly enough, of something I wrote years ago about Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time. His parents remember that when he was not yet two years old. Long before he knew much about the game of hockey.
Wayne would sit right in front of the television when a hockey game was on. He was enraptured. And then he would cry and cry uncontrollably when the match was over because he could not understand how something so sublime should have to come to an end. That's Curtis LeMay running after the flying machine in the sky. Something about that particular object. That act of flying perfectly fit the contours of his imagination. And from that point on, the airplane was everything.
My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. Over the next four episodes, I'm going to tell the story of Curtis LeMay and what he did on a cold night in March of 1945.
This is a love story about what happens when someone falls head over heels for a magnificent piece of machinery and a brilliant bit of technology. And what happens when that love starts to cloud every other human consideration? The events I'm going to talk about all took place a lifetime ago at the end of the Second World War, but everything about the May story seems very modern to me, mostly because everything about Lamay seems very modern. I think that's why I've decided to devote so much of this season to him.
It feels like he started something that we're still in the middle of. LeMay was a bulldog. Thick through the chest, oversized square head pair parted triumphantly, just a shade off the middle. A brilliant poker player, a crack shot. He was an innovator, utterly without fear, a mind that moved only forwards, never sideways, rational and imperturbable and incapable of self-doubt.
Were he alive today, he would be in command of some high tech powerhouse crushing competition, seizing the future. I find myself sometimes falling for Curtis LeMay because of his many gifts, his logic and rigour and commitment and resolve in the face of the longest of odds seem like things we need more of right now, not less. There is a chance you will fall for him to. And all I can say is that if you do try to remember the following fact.
If you make a list of the people responsible for the most civilian deaths in the 20th century, at the top are Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and Hitler, the familiar names and not too far behind, uncomfortably close behind, is Curtis Emmerson LaMay.
Or something embarrassing. There's a lot of people doing all of this. I'm mean, moral commander tries to minimize. Maybe the best way of getting over it is possible.
In its earliest days, the U.S. Air Force was not a separate branch of the military. That wouldn't happen until after the Second World War. Back in the 1930s, the Air Corps, as it was known, was a combat division of the army. It existed to serve the interests of the ground forces to support, assist, accompany the legendary Army General John Blackjack Pershing, who commanded the American forces in World War One. One set of airpower that quote, it can of its own account, neither win a war at the present time nor as far as we can tell at anytime in the future.
That's what the military establishment thought of airplanes. But in the years between the World Wars, a small group of airmen began to challenge the idea that airplanes were superfluous to winning a war. The group was centered at Maxwell Airfield in Montgomery, Alabama, at what was called the Air Corps Tactical School. Everyone in this group had once been that little boy who spotted a plane in the sky and ran after it blindly. They were in love with planes. They gave themselves a motto, perfectionists, Moreh ere attentive.
We make progress unhindered by custom. They thought that technological advances in aviation were about to revolutionize warfare forever. And they weren't talking about fighter planes. The romantic daredevil pilots who engaged in dogfights with the enemy. They had disdain for small planes. They were in love with bombers. They looked across the ocean at Europe and the threatening noises being made by Germany. And they said a fleet of long range highflying bombers could do so much damage and would be so difficult to defend against that the Air Corps could win a war all by itself.
The group of insurgent pilots at the Air Corps Tactical School were known as the bomber mafia.
They were a group of individuals coming together to construct ideas about applying the technology of bombing at the day in order to win a war against Germany.
That's the historian Robert Pape, who wrote a book called Bombing to Win, about the origins of many of the ideas taught at the Arklow School. The bomber mafia gave lectures to select groups of officers arguing, theorizing, and they were not really investigating the psychology of bombing.
They're not investigating the sociology of bombing. They're not really even investigating the politics of the bombing. That is the implications of bombing would have for populations, societies and for governments. What they're really doing is focusing on what the technology of the bombing of the time, what target sets it would allow the bombers to hit.
In one of the most famous tactical school lectures, Major Mü, Fairchild gave a two day presentation in April of 1939 on what a single bombing attack on New York City could do to America's will to fight. Fairchild was a charter member of the bomber mafia. He would later rise to number two in the Air Force. He says imagine that Germany and the United States are in the midst of a brutal land war in Europe. Germany decides to take out New York.
Could they do it? Fairchild says easy. They have a kind of hypothetical scenario. And do they imagine that a group of well-equipped bombers could bring the United States or at least New York City to its knees in an event of any kind of conflict?
Yeah, absolutely. The bombing that they're focusing on are, number one, the bridges. Number two, they have the bombing of the aqueducts. The bombing of the aqueducts is important because what they want to do is they want to cause massive thirst in the New York population. They basically want to create a situation where there is almost no potable water for the population to drink. And then number three, they target electric power.
In his lecture, Major Fairchild argues that the aqueducts are the most obvious of targets. Then there's the power grid. Fairchild directs his students to a chart. The aerial bomb vs. traction electric power in the New York City area. Quote, We then see that 17 bombs, if dropped on the right spots, will not only take up practically all of the electric power of the entire metropolitan area, but will prevent the distribution of outside power.
Seventeen bombs could bring the most important city in the world to its knees. The old idea was that you would just bomb the whole city, reduce it to rubble with wave upon wave of costly and dangerous bombing attacks. Fairchild's point was, why would you do that?
If you could use your intelligence and the best of modern technology to disable the city with a single surgical strike, you would put amazing stress on the, quote, will of the enemy, meaning the civilian population, which was already under stress. And then they just went to the conclusion that the civilians would crack and demand an end to the war.
Are they really thinking of the Air Force in this in this thinking is teaching as the primary arm of the American military in this kind of conflict?
They're certainly thinking that the bomber alone or airpower alone is going to win the war. And what they're thinking is that it's going to win the war and prevent mass carnage like occurred in World War One, where the armies clash together year after year after year. And millions and millions of people died in the meat grinder of the trenches in World War One for thousands of years.
Wars had been about armies of men fighting more or less in hand-to-hand combat on fields of battle. The bomber mafia believe that bombs carried by airplanes were about to make the armies of men obsolete. The Air Corps tactical school was never very large in 20 years of existence. It produced just over a thousand graduates, but it was enormously influential. Of the 320 Air Force generals on duty at the end of World War Two. Two hundred and sixty one came out of the tactical school.
And one of those graduates was Curtis Emmerson LeMay. Only a handful of American military leaders in the 20th century achieved real public stature. Douglas MacArthur, of course, with his corncob pipe and limitless charisma. Dwight Eisenhower, because he commanded the allied war effort in World War Two. And in more recent times, Colin Powell, in his day, LeMay's fame, exceeded them all. People who couldn't name their congressmen still knew who he was. In 1964 alone, three movies came out with a character, plenty based on them.
He's the model for the Air Force general in Sydney. Limits Thriller Fail Safe. He's clearly Burt Lancaster, his character, General Scott in seven days in May with a president. Choose him out.
I am prepared to brand you for what you watch studying English with the Napoleonic Power Complex. And I know now traitor.
And as if that's not enough in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, the Lamay character is General Jack Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden chomping on a cigar.
Your comment has no regard for human life. Not even his own. Now I want to impress upon you the need for extreme watchfulness.
In 1964, when Dr. Strangelove came out, Americans were exhausted from anxiety about nuclear destruction. It felt good to laugh at a Cold War phonetically. General Jack Ripper. But the actual General LeMay was a more complicated matter. As the world slowly begins to reopen, Nexis once again looks to people for inspiration, asking a simple question that's been on everyone's mind of all the places we're looking forward to. Where will you go first? Will it be familiar streets, but perhaps unknown roads or cruising down grand boulevards, exploring lanes along the coast or along interstate highways?
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Try it now for free at zip recruiter dot com slash Gladwell. That's zip recruiter dot com slash Gladwell. Curtis LeMay put himself through the engineering program at Ohio State, going to school by day and working all night at a foundry on the other side of town. He joined the Air Corps right out of college.
He was a captain by 33 then. In short order, a major, then a colonel, a brigadier general. And by the age of 37, a major general. After the Second World War, he ran the Strategic Air Command SAC, the arm of the Air Force that controlled the bulk of America's nuclear arsenal. Russell Doherty, who followed the as head of SAC, love to tell a story about the time the maid was briefed about a new airplane called the F 111 B.
The briefings lasted about two and a half days, sometimes one hour, sometimes two hours, and followed. They wrapped up the briefing and said a word the whole time. We just should have triggered all Theroux's general emotions. Sure. This year. And got Upanishads in a big enough and walked out. That was his only comment.
Curtis LeMay commanded by silence. He liked to have a cigar in his mouth at all times and he really didn't like to remove it.
There was another illustration I had. First person will love me. I went with him out to CIA to get the briefings on what later became known as the Bay of Pigs.
This was 1961, the Bay of Pigs, as one of the signature crises of the Cold War. A clandestine invasion of Cuba by a group of Cuban exiles backed by the CIA.
We spent about three hours under. Got the full entire briefing down in the CIA briefing room. And when it was over, they should generally have any comments. General, if I go head for the door, says it won't work. That was his only comment. It won't work. And, boy, he was dead, right? It did work.
Three words. That's it. And of course, he was right.
LeMay made his reputation after the U.S. entered the Second World War. He was put in charge of the 300 fifth bombardment group out of Charleston Air Base in England. It was a desperate time. The Air Corps was losing hundreds of planes on his bombing runs over Germany to antiaircraft fire and German fighter planes. The airmen knew they were essentially flying suicide missions. And the problem got so bad that the Air Force calculated that 20 percent of their pilots were aborting before they reach their targets.
One of the commanders was Curtis LeMay. Colonel in command of a beat 24 group, that's Robert McNamara, who would later become secretary of defense during the Vietnam War.
He was the finest combat commander of any service I came across in the war. But he was extraordinarily belligerent, many thought brutal in World War Two.
McNamara was an analyst for the Air Force.
He is in Errol Morris is brilliant documentary, Fog of War, describing what LeMay did after he heard that so many pilots were turning tail.
He issued an order. He said, I will be in the lead plane on every mission. Any plane that takes off will go over the target or the crew will be court martialed. The abort rate dropped overnight.
Now, that's a kind of a commander he was, but that was just the beginning because the air war over Europe still faced huge problems. Years later, in an interview, LeMay talked about it.
One of the things that are very apparent are that the bombing was not right.
Good bombers have cameras that take pictures of where their bombs fall. Strike photos. And when LeMay looked at the strike photos after the cruise had come back to base, he could see that the bombs were landing everywhere.
But the target not only were targets not being destroyed. But I didn't have any record of or most bombed, likely fail. Why? We're taking strike photos, of course. But you could not locate over half the bombs that were all over the continent.
The problem was that the pilots were not flying straight at the targets. They believed that would make them sitting ducks for antiaircraft fire because enemy artillery men on the ground would simply estimate the plane's speed and altitude and aim accordingly. So the pilots were taking evasive action, not flying directly at the target until the last few seconds of their bombing run, which is why the bombs were falling wide. How could you hit your target if you were lined up over it?
Only at the very last moment.
So Hopley had to be done to give the bomber there a chance to hit a target. This man along a bomb on there give him ample time to get the bomb site level and get the rate killed in order and do a good job. Lamay saw only one solution. The pilots had to stop taking evasive action. They had to fly straight in over the target.
All of the people I talk to that have been in combat or are of the opinion that this aircraft gone down.
Key phrase of the opinion. Lamay was an empiricist. He went back and studied his old artillery manuals, did some calculations. How many rounds from an anti-aircraft gun would it take to bring down a B 17 bomber?
And it worked out. It required 370 some round. Who had it. That doesn't look too bad.
Three hundred and seventy seven rounds is a lot of ammunition. So flying straight is a risk, but it's not a crazy risk. Selimi says, let's try it. Let's fly in straight instead of a 10 second run. Let's fly a seven minute long, straight and steady approach.
And if that sounded suicidal, which it did to all of his pilots, he says, once again, I'm going to be the first to try it. Selimi led the way. November 1942, overspenders, Air France. No evasive action. What happened? His group put twice as many bombs on the target as any group had before and didn't lose a single bomber.
So we did it and it worked out. I'll met some uneasiness on my part and some of the other people on the outside. When I made that first grade bomb wrong. But at work.
I'll admit some uneasiness. He says that's it. Some uneasiness. After the war in 1949, there was a movie starring Gregory Peck called Twelve O'clock High. About that moment in the air war when a couple of Oscars, the lead character, General Frank Savage, was based in part on DOMA. And in the movie, General Savage is under so much stress trying to keep his pilots flying on these impossible missions that he has a nervous breakdown.
Screenwriters love the idea that beneath a stoic exterior is a hurricane of repressed emotion. But that's Hollywood's may not the actual the main. One of LeMay's pilots later said that when he shared his fears about flying a combat mission, LeMay replied, Ralph, you're probably going to get killed. So it's best to accept it.
You'll get along much better now. That's the man. He reserved his emotions for the thing. He truly loved flying. Here he is. Years later, rhapsodizing about a mission, some of his bombers ran against an aircraft factory in occupied Poland.
What we have done, some very accurate bombing, some of our jobs. I remember Russia Olsen's group run my position during an attack on Mariem four oh oh crap factory where I report on a beautiful pattern. This I don't think a single bomb fell outside the fence of the factory.
He put down a beautiful pattern on that thing, meaning that when the man looked at the strike photos from the bombing run the next day back at base, the marks left by the bombs on the roof of the factory took on a shape that pleased his eye. I don't know if you've ever heard the old adage, the minute a company moves into a fancy new headquarters, it's all over. It's the surest sign they peaked.
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It was just getting back to land. I always tell you what to do.
The Arab was just getting the back of the hand. LeMay says, meaning when the top brass sat down in Washington to plot the course of the war, they didn't understand what the bomber could do, that it was capable of winning a war all by itself. Years later, LeMay still felt the sting of that attitude.
Our own Arop, or up in Washington, was consists of a bunch of volunteer characters. People who didn't know much about it set out stuff that I didn't much agree with. But orders were orders of how to best good redemption.
When it finally came, what happened on the other side of the world?
Bandel havoc wrecked by the Japanese bomber at the upper part of the screen. Now you can see them. The people are bewildered by the blow without warning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
The U.S. was dragged into a hard and costly battle against the Japanese empire in the Pacific. And as that war ground on one thing slowly became clear, the only way to beat Japan was to take the fight to Japan directly. One option was a land invasion, but that was a terrifying prospect. It could easily end up being one of the deadliest and costliest campaigns of the whole war. The Second World War was supposed to be winding down. No one had any appetite for a land invasion.
So was there a way to bring about Japan's surrender through the air? Yes. Barbara Maffia said we can do it.
The story begins in 1939 when the far-Sighted Army forces that we want to play in our defense going to fly a bomb load thousands of miles out to sea and return when the bombing Maffia first set up shop back in the early 1930s.
They're theorizing was hypothetical. They imagined fleets of bombers flying deep into enemy territory, dropping bombs from the safety of high altitudes. But there was no airplane actually capable of doing that at the time. It was a bomber mafia fantasy until the arrival midway through the war of the B twenty nine bomber, the Super Fortress.
The most expensive project of the war, 43 billion in today's dollars. When the workers reported for the first time, few of them guessed the exact nature of what they were building. They knew that the giant plane would result. But beyond that, it was largely conjecture.
The war department made newsreels about the super fortress. Americans watched them in movie theaters around the country.
But then the day came. Inevitably, when the pieces of the jigsaw began to fit together, the day when the mountains of material and the millions of man hours all combined to confirm the assembly line rumor, the washroom gossip, and they are honest to God. American curiosity. They were building the mightiest aircraft in history. To be 29, predecessor to be 17, was known as the Flying Fortress. It was the workhorse bomber of the early years of the war.
The flying fortress is what bombed most of Germany, but the B 17 had a great limitation range. It was good for just over 30, 700 miles. There's no way it could get across the Pacific to Japan to beat 29 change that. It could carry twice as many bombs as the B 17. It could outrun fighter jets. It could fly higher than the B 17. Upwards of 30000 feet out of the reach of all but the most powerful of antiaircraft weapons.
And it could fly more than fifty eight hundred miles in a single run.
They were building the Boeing designed B twenty nine. And this is how they voted in Israel just keeps going and going like this. It's like they're talking about the birth of a prophet.
Identical miracles of modern machinery, nursed and tended and made productive by people who look and think like these people. The fair, the dark. People with deft hands and unblinking eyes. Oh, young. The young old working together in intimate harmony.
Their product. Their goal. Peter. The motto of the Bahrain Mafia, remember, was prefigure Miss Morais irritant. We make progress unhindered by customs and they sold that vision to the American public. Technology, American technology could win the war. Product death. Their goal, peace for the true believers. The B twenty nine was gold, frankincense and myrrh. If the bomber mafia were the three wise men, they would have brought the B twenty nine to the baby Jesus.
There's a book I ran across years ago by a researcher at the Rand Corporation named Carl Builder. It's called the Masks of War. And it's a cultural explanation of the differences among the army, the Air Force and the Navy. The army in builder's view is the servant of the people. Understated, secure in its position. The Navy is heir to a grand tradition. It measures itself by the number of its ships, its reach. But what happens with the rise of the Barbara Mafia?
Midway through the war, the pilots and airmen begin to chart a whole new course. Modern, disruptive, technologically focused. They're the only part of the military entirely born of the 20th century. The Air Force builder writes, sees itself as the embodiment of an idea, a concept of warfare, a strategy made possible and sustained by modern technology. And then Builder quotes this passage from a historian named Perry McCoy Smith, which is worth repeating in full objectivity about this weapon, meaning the airplane was absent within our course circles for many reasons.
Perhaps the foremost reason was the psychological attachment of the airman to his machine.
To him, the airplane was not just a new and exciting weapon. It was what carried him miles behind enemy lines and brought him back. It was a personal possession which was given a personal, usually feminine name kissed upon return from a mission and painted with a symbol for each enemy. Planes shot down or bombing mission completed. The affinity of the pilot for his airplane has a parallel in the history of the cavalry soldier and his horse. The airmen, like the cavalry of the past, was not known for his modesty or his objectivity when it came to the employment of his chosen steed.
B, twenty nine arrived and the bomber Maffia said, we've got this, a few well-placed bombs. Boom, it's over. The tanks will have to be filled. The engines given a final check. The guns are armed. The bombs set in the right and then briefings and the assembled airmen will listen to words that a few years ago would have been fantastic.
But today rose casually off a briefing officer's lips. The target, gentlemen, is Japan.
If only it were that simple. Coming next week, in part to Curtis, the mayor has the bomber he wants and the challenge he wants, but not the weapon. For that, he needed a group of mad scientists at Harvard University.
Revisionist history is produced by Mealer, Bell and Leming as to with Jacob Smith, Ellery's Clinton. And on a nine hour editor is Julia Baaden, Original Scoring by Louis Scarer. Mastering by Flon Williams. Fact checking by Beth Johnson. Special thanks to the Pushkin crew. Head of Fein, Carly Migliore, Maya Koeneke, Maggie Taylor, Jason Gambril and of course, Jacob Weisberg.