When Bombers Ruled

A new book examines the power of the Strategic Air Command during the cold war.

The B-52 bomber, still airborne after all these years.

Melvin G. Deaile, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who flew bombing missions during Desert Storm, is the author of Always at War. The book, a history of the Strategic Air Command, provides a detailed examination of the organization’s deterrent role during the cold war. He spoke with Senior Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi.

Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?

Deaile: My research into the Strategic Air Command initially grew out of simple curiosity. After completing the Air Force Academy and pilot training, the Air Force assigned me to fly a B-52 Stratofortress in SAC at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Later in my career, in 2004, the Air Force sent me to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to pursue a doctorate, and I took that opportunity to delve into the origins of SAC.

How would you describe the culture of SAC?

When General [Curtis] LeMay first took over, he wanted to assess the readiness of the organization. In January 1949, he flew every bomber in SAC against a target he picked out near Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. Not one bomber successfully completed the mission. With the organization’s attention, LeMay told the command they were no longer preparing for war, but they were “at war.” This is the origin of the book’s title. Every day that SAC members came to work, they were at war.

What are some of the challenges the Air Force faced during the cold war?

Securing a prominent role for strategic bombers and atomic weapons in national security meant that other Air Force missions—especially close air support—suffered for lack of funding and emphasis. Although the nation was preparing for the big nuclear fight with the Soviet Union, the Air Force had to support ground troops who were actually fighting proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam.

What are some areas where SAC could have improved?

SAC’s emphasis on realistic training and competition took its toll. SAC members were constantly working to better themselves and rise to the top. Crews and maintenance personnel had to work long hours, pull alert, and deploy overseas in support of other nuclear operations. All of this stressed the command’s families. SAC had the highest divorce rate of all the Air Force commands.

Although SAC excelled at nuclear operations, its crews were not as prepared for the conventional fight when called upon in Vietnam. The rigidity of SAC’s operations meant crews had lost their ability to innovate or improvise under fire. Flying over Hanoi in 1972, SAC crews executed the bombing missions, but their rigidity meant their actions became predictable, and this resulted in the first combat loss of B-52Gs under LeMay.

What is your opinion of Curtis LeMay?

The strength of LeMay was his ability to command. He organized, trained, and equipped airmen to become a credible enough deterrent so that the cold war never went “hot.” He understood the importance of the mission, and he got buy-in from those under him.

Has SAC influenced the Air Force of today?

The Air Force deactivated SAC in 1992. The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent success of Operation Desert Storm meant the Air Force had to reorganize to prepare for the “New World Order.” Although SAC stood down, its legacy and culture still permeate the Air Force today. Realistic training, short-notice inspections, standard operating procedures, and competition are still part of the Air Force today.

General LeMay tried to take care of his airmen. He instituted a dorm system that made life in a 24/7 command easier. LeMay also had bases open aero clubs—for recreational flying—auto hobby shops, and rod and gun clubs for recreational sporting activities. All of these remain to some extent on Air Force bases today.

Melvin G. Deaile
Melvin G. Deaile

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This story is a selection from the August issue of Air & Space magazine

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