The town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, became one of SAC’s favorite targets, and it was secretly radar bombed hundreds of times…
~Eric Schlosser. Command and Control, 2013
For General Curtis LeMay, an effective Strategic Air Command meant conducting exercises in the most realistic environment possible. That’s when he turned his eye to Rhinelander and the Northwoods of Wisconsin. But let’s back up first.
For those who don’t know what SAC was…Strategic Air Command (SAC): the units of the US military that maintained command and control of the country’s combined strategic nuclear forces from 1946 to 1992.
General Curtis LeMay celebrated the end of World War II by doing what he loved best: flying. The young officer flew back and forth across the US. He broke a few records piloting the B-29 Superfortress from Japan to Chicago, but after touching down in the Windy City, LeMay looked for something else to conquer.
His service record remains controversial and his use of strategic bombing against the Japanese was seen by some as a necessary evil and others as a war crime. Under his direct planning, from 250,000 to 500,000 Japanese civilians had burned in the 67 cities his bombers had razed. American history still struggles with the ethics of strategic bombing. LeMay did not.
“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal,” he said.
The Berlin Airlift distracted him briefly, but his real baby became the creation of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). In 1948, a 40-year-old LeMay toured SAC’s resources and found the condition of the world’s only nuclear arsenal criminally lax. The American military was storing the most destructive weapons in the world as securely as grandpa’s shotgun!
Although responsible for the defense of the entire Western world, SAC possessed about 120 aging B-29’s and a few atom bombs, both stashed haphazardly at Omaha’s Offutt Air Force Base. Nothing was properly maintained and fewer than half the bombers were capable of flight.
LeMay’s temper boiled over when he walked into an open aircraft hanger holding a dozen nuclear-armed B-29s and found only ONE soldier lounging in a corner, eating his lunch. His service rifle leaned on a chair a half-dozen steps away.
“This afternoon I found a man guarding a hangar with a ham sandwich,” LeMay said. “There will be no more of that.”
The reality of SAC’s condition came during a test run at the Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. On that grim day, not one bomber hit its designated target. Most crews missed by over a mile.
“We didn’t have one crew, not one crew, in the entire command who could do a professional job.”
His tactics were very simple: General Curtis LeMay would start by training the bombardment groups until they cried. Then he’d train them some more. Then they’d do some training followed by training. After all that, they’d train again, right before they did more training. Finally, they’d finish with a little training.
By 1951, a 44-year-old LeMay had become the youngest four-star general since US Grant and SAC had grown from a national embarrassment into the most powerful fighting force in world history.
His drills had perfected the use of mid-air refueling, failsafe systems of command-and-control to prevent accidents, the installation of ballistic missiles, an increase in America’s nuclear arsenal (over 500 by 1951), and the start of the Nike anti-aircraft, anti-missile defense program.
LeMay had also adapted and modernized US military strategy, summarizing it with his infamous phrase “Killing a nation.” This frighteningly simple attack philosophy—known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)—essentially allowed America to control the world if necessary: 220 atom bombs, 104 city targets, 30 days.
From SAC’s center in Omaha, LeMay had his groups run drill-after-drill. In those heady days, the Air Force’s budget for SAC was almost infinite, but LeMay saw these as a necessary cost. Nuclear weapons meant another war could be the last war. Bombers dropped dummy bombs that cost as much as a Cadillac, installed expensive radar systems, built expensive bombers, and gulped expensive jet fuel.
Training had to be constant and as realistic as possible. With realism in mind, LeMay got tired of his brand-new bombers doing loops over huge X’s in the flatlands of the Midwest. He scoured the country and found his new, favorite target area amidst the clear lakes and thick forests around Rhinelander, Wisconsin. The Northwoods.
The cities had the same temps, humidity, climate, topography, and precipitation. Rhinelander was also tucked away in the sparsely populated Northwoods.
Source for above climate data can be found HEREand HERE.
As ICBMs eclipsed the B52 as a weapon of nuclear war, and response times shrank from weeks and days to minutes and hours, a nuclear response became a battle of technology, not training.
Instead of summarizing the life, career, and death of the controversial Curtis LeMay, there’s a short anecdote that tells you as much about the man as any three-volume biography:
During a practice bombing run in the 1950s, General Curtis LeMay, the Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command, perched in a B-47’s copilot seat watching the action unfold. A long cigar stuck out from his pursed lips, as it always did. The pilot nervously informed the general he had to extinguish the cigar. “Why?” asked LeMay.
The pilot jerked his head to the rear of the bomber and reminded the general they were flying on a giant gas tank. Even the smallest ember could ignite the 17,000 gallons of fuel. LeMay rolled his eyes and said, “It wouldn’t dare.”