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Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.

Vol. 10, No. 8
(626) 350-1500 ext 102

©1998, 2013 William A. Cohen, PhD 

General LeMay – A Leader of Great Courage and Self-Confidence

You don’t hear much about General Curtis LeMay today, but he was a remarkable leader who demonstrated great courage in every assignments. LeMay had been a 32 year old captain and B-17 navigator in 1941. Three years later he was a young 35 year-old major general with a major Air Force command. He eventually became a full general and was perhaps the most well-known general who commanded the Strategic Air Command and built it to such a degree of readiness and professionalism that it is likely that LeMay and the terrible abilities he developed for his command prevented a Russian miscalculation which might have led to a Third World War. When he retired he had become the longest serving and the youngest 4-star general since Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. Yet he was not a graduate of West Point, and because of his seniority and the need for his services during the war, he had never attended a senior war college as had most of his contemporaries during, and immediately after the war.

LeMay Does What Others Would Not Do
Early in WWII LeMay was sent to Europe as a Colonel and Group commander. The bombing results before LeMay arrived were terrible. This was due primarily to heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft artillery efforts by the Germans.

“You can’t fly straight and level for more than 15 seconds,” the “old timers” told LeMay. “If you do, you’ll get shot down.”

Now a bomber needed to be a stable platform to deliver its bombs accurately. The bombardier had to identify his aiming point and accurately determine the winds that would affect the bombs after release. So the plane had to avoid evasive action for a lot longer than 15 seconds. Otherwise, the bombardier had no real chance to hit his target.

LeMay looked at his losses and at the results. Because results were so poor, his planes had to return to the same targets again and again. The bottom line was that he had high losses in total due to the repeated missions as well as poor results.

He soon gave new orders. “Every plane will fly straight and level for at least ten minutes prior to ‘bombs away’.” The experts gave him warning that his entire force could be destroyed. LeMay listened to the experts, but remained convinced that he was right.

He led the way himself, and his crews bombed after a ten-minute straight and level run from an initial point. The bombs hit accurately on the target. Although losses per mission increased, losses for each target destroyed declined significantly. LeMay’s success eventually led to his promotion to the rank of brigadier general.

From Europe to the Pacific
In 1943 LeMay was sent to the Pacific Theater as a major general to head up B-29 operations against Japan.

The B-29 was a remarkable airplane. It was designed as a “Superfortress” with guns bristling from all quadrants. Its four powerful engines were designed to take the plane at an altitude far above the effective range of the anti-aircraft guns. The B-29 had a sophisticated pressurization and oxygen system, and in many other ways was optimized for use as a high altitude bomber.

The B-29 was an expensive airplane for those days. So much so, that General Hap Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces told LeMay that the B-29 should be treated differently than other less expensive aircraft. Arnold felt that the loss of a single B-29 in combat or by accident should require more than a routine investigation. He told LeMay that he should consider treating the loss of each B-29 in the same way that the Navy treated the loss of a capital ship like a carrier or battleship.

LeMay began his operations. Once again, bombing results were poor. The culprit now wasn’t anti-aircraft artillery. The B-29 flew well above that. The problem was wind shear. The winds at the altitudes that the B-29 flew were vastly different from the winds at the lower altitudes above the target. Also, the winds acted on the bombs for a much longer time than bombs dropped at lower release altitudes. So the bombardiers lost control of where their bombs hit. They might hit anywhere, and they definitely weren’t hitting their targets.

LeMay Once Again Does What Others Would Not Do
LeMay looked at the situation and listened to the recommendations of the crews and his staff. Then he made his decision. He ordered all oxygen and pressurization equipment removed. He ordered the guns removed. Since there were no guns, the gunners wouldn’t need to go either. Removing all of this weight allowed more bombs to be carried. Then he proposed that his B-29s bomb, not at 29,000, but at 7,000 feet.

Again, experts told him he was wrong. They told him he would lose his entire fleet of aircraft. They told LeMay that General Arnold would relieve him of command for wasting the lives of his crews and not using the expensive high altitude and defensive capabilities built into the airplane

LeMay ordered his crews to bomb at 7,000 feet. The results were devastating…to the Japanese. LeMay got far greater results for lower losses than any air campaign in the war.

How did General LeMay summon up the courage and self-confidence to make these decisions and take these great risks? Where did such self-confidence come from in an individual who only a few years earlier commanded a single Group, and only a few years before that commanded nothing?

LeMay Becomes a 4-Star General
Without a doubt, LeMay believed he would succeed before he gave the orders to carry out his instructions in both instances. He had the self-confidence and courage to take risks he knew to be necessary. Those who succeed today — on the battlefield or in the boardroom do so because of the same reason. They study the situation and make their decision, risky or not, then they proceed to take action because they have the self-confidence and courage developed long before to do so. How can you build this degree of self-confidence?

Four Actions to Help You Build Self-Confidence

  1. Volunteer to be in charge of activities at work which are outside of your regular whenever you have the opportunity.
  2. Help others with others at work with their assignments whenever they are stuck or are having problems.
  3. Develop your expertise. Expertise is a good source of self-confidence.
  4. Use positive mental imagery. Simulations in the mind are rehearsals for success. They are interpreted by the mind as real experiences and can build self-confidence for a variety of activities before you attempt the activities in real life.


“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
— President Theodore Roosevelt


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