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'Mission With LeMay', A Book Review

Discussion in 'Biographies and Everything Else' started by George Patton, May 14, 2013.

  1. George Patton

    George Patton Canadian Refugee

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    Mission with LeMay is the autobiography of Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who led the decisive bombing campaign against Japan, whose tactics had a major effect on the bombing campaign in Europe and shaped the new USAF into the most powerful air force on the planet. The book is co-written by Mackinlay Cantor, a noted journalist and long time friend of LeMay. The book starts off with LeMay's rough upbringing in the Midwest, the plains and California pre-WWI and ends with his retirement as USAF Chief of Staff in 1965. The book extensively covers all the events in LeMay's life, with unexpected candor. LeMay goes beyond just offering the facts -- he delves into the decisions behind them, and his thoughts on them.

    The book is split into 6 sections, the first three dealing with his childhood, joining the air force and becoming one of the pre-war leaders in navigation and bomber tactics. Sections 4 and 5 deal with WWII, the first with Germany and the second with Japan. Finally, Section 6 deals with his post-war life, offers some interesting insight into the daily routine of the USAF chief of staff and finally ends with some political jabs at his contemporaries, McNamara and Johnson.

    I bought my copy of the book off eBay. Its autographed by LeMay - but not personalized -, which is rare. After his retirement, LeMay actively corresponded with people through the mail and over his radios.

    The Good
    • Its unexpected candor offers valuable insight into the mind of one of WWII's greatest air force generals.
    • The first five sections are intertwined, meaning that LeMay frequently refers to past events. This lets you know what he considers to be important moments in his life. This can also be viewed as a negative -- see the next section.
    • Doesn't just give the facts. Instead, it gives the thoughts, philosophy and decisions behind them. In that regard, this is a unique book and contains information that you could not obtain anywhere else.
    • Well-rounded. LeMay doesn't focus solely on his military career, he frequently references his family. While some may find this off-putting, I found it valuable in that it gives you a better understanding of LeMay. Likewise, he makes references to his hobbies and personal life (usually making this humorous). He mentions his passion for cars (interesting story -- he and a fellow general were working in one of the SAC hobby garages he started late one night - without rank insignia - when a private came in and asked "the guys" to give his car a push. "The guys" - Lemay and the other general - obliged, and got his car going. LeMay comments that he hopes the private never figures out who pushed his car because he might have a heart attack). He also talks extensively about his electronics (LeMay was an avid HAM radio operator, and enjoyed building circuits at home) and hunting (there's a few pages devoted to an entertaining hunting trip he took to Africa).
    • Dispels the accusations that LeMay was a thermonuclear war-monger. LeMay clarifies some of the 'sound bite' comments seized upon by the press, and explains them them. In the end you learn that LeMay was entirely mission-oriented, and if a job had to be done, he advocated doing it well and finished it quickly. This didn't always fly well with the press.
    The Bad:
    • The intertwining of the chapters can be confusing at times. For instance, LeMay frequently mentions his early career as a B-17 navigator, and relates his experience there with other events in the book. If you are not actively following the book, this may be confusing.
    • Some parts are scattered. This ties into the above -- there are isolated sections of this book that are scattered and seemingly disconnected. Usually if you read on, it becomes clear, but at first you may be scratching your head.
    • May be some self-promotion here. LeMay frequently mentions how he cared for his men, and how he was the sole proponent of many of the stategies that were essential to the success of the bombing campaign (the 'Combat Box', calculating the effectiveness of enemy AA guns, etc). While most of what I have read back this up, I can't help but think that LeMay engages in some degree of self-promotion. Again, this may be completely unfounded, but this is the feeling I get.
    • Literary references. There's a good deal of literary and cultural references that seem out of place given LeMay's personality. I'm assuming these came from co-author Mackinlay Cantor. I think they detract from the book.
    Other Observations:
    • The last section is rather vague compared to the rest of the book (likely because a lot of this information was classified at the time). This can be forgiven when taking the latter into account
    • LeMay goes into his philosophy on security, war and air power and it soon degrades into some political jabs. I found this part very interesting (and I agree with a lot of it), but others may find that this detracts from the book.

    This book is an excellent mix of historiography and autobiography. As I've said before, LeMay doesn't just tell the events, he delves into the decisions behind them, and his thoughts on them; tying both into his philosophy and way of thinking. As you read, you get the feeling that from the time he joined the Air Force, LeMay is a 'man on a mission'. At the same time, he doesn't gloss over his own personal difficulties (notably, he doesn't say that something was easy just to make himself look better -- if he had trouble with it, he clearly communicates it) and this gives you more respect for the man. The last chapters that deal with philosophy offer great insight in his mind, and can serve as an inspiration to future leaders. After you read it, you can't help but reflect upon it -- this is a 'thinking book'. Mission with LeMay is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. I recommend that if you want a copy, search eBay and wait for a signed one to come up for auction. There's several signed copies on eBay as I speak (they're personalized, but none-the-less autographed by a significant historical figure.)

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5
     
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  2. rkline56

    rkline56 USS Oklahoma City CG5

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    My Father trained Nav/Bombardiers for SAC bombers at Maither AFB, Sacramento, CA during LeMay's tenure. There are a wide range of opinions regarding General LeMay but my father is a big proponent of his command philosophy. SAC did a difficult job well, it may have been unpopular to some, but it was a very necessary precaution in a dangerous world.

    Thank you for the review, Alan. I am especially interested in the European Air Campaign, Cold War discipline and the jabs at McNamara.

    P.S. The Navigators often thought they could fly better than the pilots. Of course, "The Bubbleheads", as they were affectionately called caught major flak for this flawed thinking. It was always fun when the pilots came over to the house for parties. I recall a very great number of parties, yippee kai ehh.



    "That's the reason some schools of thinking don't rule out a destruction of the Chinese military potential before the situation grows worse than it is today. It's bad enough now."
    Curtis LeMay (hmmm very interesting) He had some other great opinions as well.

    Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/curtislema228415.html#t6kfPp4bv4jwljOi.99
     
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  3. George Patton

    George Patton Canadian Refugee

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    Thanks for the story Rick. As you may have figured out, I am a big LeMay supporter. His comments didn't always play well with the press (or more specifically, didn't play well in sound-bite form), but he knew what had to be done and he did it well. Its a shame that he ran with Wallace in '68 (despite supporting essentially none of his views) -- I think this did more damage to his reputation than all of his soundbites combined.
     
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