Reforging the Weapon

B-36 “Peacemaker”

One General Curtiss LeMay legend concerns “the attack on Dayton.” After talking to his commanders and staff, he realized that they “weren’t worth a damn.” Unfortunately, they did not realize how bad they were, so he decided to show them. He announced an alert-a maximum effort of all SAC bombers to carry out a simulated attack on Dayton, Ohio. The strike would be made from high altitude, at night in lousy weather, using radar bombing techniques. According to LeMay, not one aircraft completed the mission as briefed. The SAC history is not quite that damning, but it notes that the results of the mock attack were poor. For example, of 15 aircraft scheduled in one B-36 bomb group, six aborted and three others failed to “drop” over the target due to radar malfunctions. The story was the same in several other groups, and in still others aircraft that made it to the target were unable to return to their home airfields and had to divert elsewhere. Targeting accuracy on bomb drops was appalling, with an average miss distance of two miles. LeMay had made his point. The general then began to strip down the command and remake it. The three numbered air forces were reshuffled. This had been needed for some time: it made no sense to have a bomb wing at MacDill AFB in Florida assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force, headquartered in California. The air forces also had been organized along functional lines: the Eighth had mostly B-50s, while the Fifteenth flew largely B-29s; the Second Air Force contained all reconnaissance assets. LeMay made all three composite units with a mix of very heavy bombers (the new B-36s coming on line), mediums (B-29s and B-50s), a reconnaissance wing, and fighter escorts. This commonsense reorganization saved money, cut communication and travel time, and allowed for better combat training.

At the base level, the so-called Hobson plan was by this time fully implemented across the Air Force. Instead of the standard group designation, a wing now became the parent organization on base with two groups under it: an operational group of bombers, reconnaissance, fighters, or some mix thereof and an air base group consisting of maintenance, supply, administrative, and financial staff. The wing commander, a full colonel, was now in command of all units needed to carry out the assigned mission. At the same time, the Air Force was introducing a new management system entailing comptrollers assigned to each command to help systematize financial planning and budgeting matters. Right behind these individuals would be computers; the Air Force pushed for their inclusion long before the other services. These initiatives were not LeMay’s doing, but he embraced them because they appealed to his sense of command responsibility and sound management.

Personnel issues remained: when Air Force headquarters imposed new cuts, LeMay wrote in exasperation that the efficiencies his reorganization was providing “will be accomplished only in time to be cancelled out by the cuts your office proposes.” In truth, the cuts and personnel shortages were a specialization concern. The aggregate numbers of personnel at SAC were close to the authorized strength. Although not at full manning, the debilitating era of units with less than half their complements was becoming a bad memory. Yet a lack of specialized people for radar, electronics, and engine maintenance remained problematic. In late 1949, for example, persistent B-29 engine problems caused most to be grounded until spare parts could be obtained and repairs made. Similarly, the B-36 was experiencing the typical troubles of any new aircraft: engines, exhaust systems, radars, defrosting systems, and fuel leaks. A “maintenance control” system was installed at base level that centralized flight maintenance functions for better efficiency and permitted a crew chief and a limited number of mechanics to work on a single aircraft-they became the “owners” of the plane and were expected to know and understand all of its individual quirks and problems, thereby forestalling difficulties.

Vandenberg continued to prod LeMay, writing in September 1948 that he hoped the deficiencies noted in the Lindbergh report would be quickly addressed. After the first of the year, Vandenberg sent Lindbergh back on another inspection trip. His report was better than the previous one but not by much. He began by stating, “The actual striking power of our Air Force is much lower than its numerical strength and material quality indicate.” Lindbergh cited inadequate training and “diversion from the primary mission.” He noted examples of poor flying: “I was present on two occasions when a B-29 squadron from England turned back to its home base rather than land under instrument conditions, which were above normal minimums in the first instance and bordering on VFR [visual flight rules] below 3,000 feet in the second instance. The GCA [ground controlled approach] radar was operating.” Many B-29 crew members were “seriously concerned” because of the high accident rates in their group and inexperience of some pilots. Inadequate housing conditions remained a trouble spot, but he noted that LeMay was working on this problem. Overall, SAC still had a long way to go.

LeMay could understand these types of problems and knew that hard work, more training, and better managerial skills could handle them soon enough. Other matters were more serious and dumbfounded him. In November 1948 he wrote to Vandenberg that two dispersal bases he visited were in shocking condition and “without even primitive operational facilities such as suitable control towers, radio aids, night lighting, crash and fire equipment, etc. As we are responsible for dropping the atomic bomb, I maintain that to be unable to dispatch aircraft into and out of these fields at night during marginal weather is ridiculous.” He argued, “We must get top priority in filling the gaps in our atomic program.” It was a great help when Vandenberg put SAC and its combat efficiency at the top of his agenda, but it did not happen immediately. Not until October 1949 did the chief of staff direct that “first priority to those units comprising the Strategic Striking Force would be provided.” This move was long overdue.

For some time, airmen on the Military Liaison Committee and the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project had been complaining that the Air Force was not taking its atomic responsibilities seriously. In January 1948, Maj Gen William Kepner said the atomic energy program in the Air Force was “infirm.” He urged a service wide education program so airmen would understand the importance of the atomic mission. He also called for immediate action to “enunciate a policy giving atomic warfare an overriding priority.” Two months later, a board chaired by Gen Joseph McNarney issued a report on the subject almost brutal in its starkness. It stated that the Air Force “has not established complete strategic and operational plans for carrying out its mission of strategic atomic air warfare.” The service needed to define its primary atomic mission and make clear what forces, training, equipment, logistics support, and basing were required to carry out that mission. Taking a swipe at leadership, McNarney stated, “This can be done adequately only by the top USAF planning and intelligence staffs, with assistance as required from Air University, SAC, AMC [Air Materiel Command], the Special Weapons Group, and others as may be necessary. It is not a committee job, not a job to be deposited in any other extracurricular staff agency.” He reiterated that point: “atomic warfare must become the business of the Air Staff and the Command, not relegated to one agency such as the Special Weapons Group.” Regrettably, this report hit just as the Berlin crisis began to unfold, which was soon followed by the relief of Kenney. As a consequence, matters were still allowed to drift.

The following year another study, this one chaired by the vice-chief, General Fairchild, arrived at a similar conclusion: the central nature of atomic matters, and by extension SAC, to the Air Force mission. It was soon after this report that Vandenberg issued his statement announcing SAC was the service’s top priority. This was welcome news to LeMay and his command, but a pronouncement was only the first step.

What concerned LeMay most, and in fairness was a problem recognized by his predecessors, was that of accuracy. Crew bomb scores were inadequate and had to be improved. In a letter from General Fairchild to Kenney in mid-1948, the vice-chief had hit this point hard, noting that Airmen had become complacent about accuracy. Strategic bombing was all about putting bombs on target, but too many Airmen were reliant on atomic weapons to solve the problem for them. Fairchild argued that the paucity of atomic weapons meant a “shot-gun fashion” approach to bombing, as had been the case with ordinary bombs, would no longer work. Instead, commanders needed to think in terms of having a rifle with one cartridge and very few men; accuracy with that cartridge-the atomic bomb-was paramount. Fairchild concluded forcefully that “single bomb precision will be the measure of merit of bombing accuracy.”

LeMay agreed and was given a boost when deployments to Europe eased as the Berlin crisis ended. Instead of three bomb wings rotating to Germany and Britain, only two were required. He requested that this lightened schedule be maintained while SAC transitioned to B-36s. In addition, Arctic exercises and deployments were scaled back while the Berlin airlift was in progress and were not reinstated at its conclusion-the realization that such operations were far more difficult than anticipated was dawning on air leaders. Mapping projects also were curtailed, as were antisubmarine drills and sea searches. All of this meant that SAC could begin focusing on its primary mission, which to LeMay was bombing accurately in simulated wartime conditions. This meant that exercise targets were changed frequently, as were aim points, altitudes, and run-in headings, to prevent crews becoming too familiar with training routines and thereby gaining inflated bomb scores. At the same time, crews used detailed radar surveys of US cities as training guides. LeMay recalled these surveys as being extremely important:

The first thing we did was pick out Baltimore (the city most like European cities) and God, I don’t know how many thousands of pictures (scope pictures) we had from all directions and all altitudes and angles of Baltimore. Then you start making these plates for the trainer. You take a photograph and try to make out what the reflection is going to be like from the photographs and make a plate and compare it with the actual scope photo . . . and they kept getting better and better, so the plates were pretty good. We made a plate for all of our targets based on the photography we had or whatever information we had. Then they could make runs on their targets. Every crew had thousands and thousands of runs on his target with the information that we had, and we had a lot of photography. The Germans had photographed Russia pretty well up to Moscow, and we had all of that.

In addition, radar bomb-scoring (RBS) detachments were deployed throughout the United States using sophisticated wind-measuring instruments and radar to determine the accuracy of simulated bomb drops. The use of RBS units increased dramatically under LeMay: in 1946 SAC logged 888 radar bomb runs; in 1950 that number leapt to 43,722. These radar specialists also realized they could do more than measure results; they could assist a crew’s bombing effort. During the Korean War these teams deployed to Korea to aid B-29s on their bombing missions.

A “gross error board” was established to review the problems of bombing inaccuracy and recommend corrective action. Operational readiness tests had been instituted in early 1948, but LeMay refocused them to emphasize flying, radar bombing, the in-commission rate of aircraft, and the ability to sustain a maximum effort over a period of several days. This was the birth of the dreaded ORI-the operational readiness inspections in which teams would fly into a SAC base unannounced and tell the wing or air division commander to assume war had broken out and to execute the unit’s part of the war plan. LeMay expected every wing to score at least 90 percent on these ORIs-in 1949 only three did so, while six others rated fair, and two were deficient. Work needed to be done. In addition, the bombing competition held in June 1948 was institutionalized and held annually. Crews from each bomb group would drop a series of simulated bombs from 25,000 feet using radar. The winning crews returned home as heroes. Rivalry between the wings grew, and so did morale.

Undoubtedly, equipment problems were partly to blame for the poor bomb scores endemic throughout SAC, and LeMay directed his operations analysis division to look into the problem. As during the war, these mathematically minded problem solvers studied the situation thoroughly before concluding that radar equipment currently used was deficient; although newer versions were getting better, truly effective radars were still in the future. As a result, “we must continue to think in terms of personnel and techniques . . . and improvement henceforth will result mainly from exploitation of and concentration on many details at crew, command, and headquarters level.” The main culprit, according to analysts, was consistency. There were too many techniques and procedures being utilized by crews and instructors- SAC needed to standardize its methods. This would become a theme for the command in the years ahead.

The most significant initiative to improve SAC bombing accuracy was the Lead Crew School. LeMay had instituted such programs while a commander during World War II and decided to replicate the practice in SAC. While a division commander in England, he had noted how the crews never knew what target they were going to strike until the morning briefing. Afterwards they would scramble to prepare for the mission. The navigators and bombardiers needed more time. He began pulling certain crews aside and had them devote their entire preflight time to studying the target, its topography, landmarks, and distinguishing characteristics. That way, if weather was marginal over the target, these select crews would be better able to pick out their aiming points and targets. His technique worked; his division achieved greater accuracy, and soon the other air divisions adopted the same procedure.

In June 1949 LeMay established SAC’s Lead Crew School at Walker AFB, formerly Roswell Army Air Field, in New Mexico. There crews trained together in a standardized and uniform pattern. Each wing sent three crews to each class, where most training was in the air, although classroom academics were included. The school got off to a rocky start: half of the first class did not even graduate. Problems noted were poor aircraft maintenance on the planes-especially the radars-and crew inexperience. Although wings had been told to send their best crews, some commanders were not yet convinced of the school’s utility; they sent people who were available and not necessarily crack troops. That attitude soon changed. By the time the Lead School had moved to MacDill AFB in January 1950, it was already establishing a reputation. Each class performed progressively better, and after eight cycles, bomb scores had improved by over 50 percent. The intent was for these crews to return to their units and instruct the other crews on what they had learned, slowly but noticeably improving the performance of SAC.

In December 1949, LeMay pushed through another radical idea- spot promotions. He met with Generals Idwal H. Edwards (deputy chief of staff for personnel) and Vandenberg, convincing them to allow him to promote lead crew members temporarily “on the spot” to the next grade. Winning bomb competition crews would receive promotions as well. The intent was to improve morale, give all a heightened sense of purpose and competition, and confirm that SAC was the premier organization in the Air Force. LeMay recognized this would cause irritation within the service, so he made it clear that spot promotions would be based on merit and continued outstanding performance: “I intend to make an example of the first officer I find who has relaxed now that he has made temporary captain as a crew member.” If a crew failed a check flight, the entire crew would lose their spot promotions. The first year LeMay promoted 237 officers. In 1950 he asked for and received permission to spot-promote higher grade officers as well.

Yet, other factors outside of SAC remained sources of angst. In one of the many stories told of LeMay, during a briefing a young captain referred to the Soviets as “enemies.” The general allegedly interrupted him and said, “Young man, the Soviets are our adversaries; the Navy is our enemy.” He had some history for believing so.


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