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Legendary General Launched Career at Selfridge -- With a $50 Fine

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127 Wing Public Affairs
(Part of a series of historic profiles on key Airmen in the early history of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

He was the guy who was fined $50 for flying a biplane through Hangar Six.

If anyone ever put the "general" into Selfridge Field's nickname as "Home of the Generals" it was Curtis E. LeMay. His days at Selfridge, however, are most notable for the stiff fine he was levied by his commander for a stunt LeMay pulled as a young lieutenant who had just earned his wings.

Though he would later serve as the Air Force chief of staff - the most senior officer in the Air Force - LeMay is perhaps best known for his role as the "father" of the Strategic Air Command, the Air Force's Cold War-era bomber command. LeMay spent the earliest days of his Air Force career at what is now known as Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

Selfridge became known for a time as the "Home of the Generals" due to the significant number of young officers who served at Selfridge and then later went on to become general officers in the Air Force and its predecessor organizations, such as the U.S. Army Air Forces. In 1919, the 1st Pursuit Squadron was assigned to Selfridge and, despite a brief re-location to Texas, would remain at Selfridge for about 20 years. During the time between World War I and World War II, when the military was relatively small, promotions came very slowly. As the U.S. entered World War II, many of the officers who had served for years in relatively low-rank positions were called upon to serve in new command billets. More than 100 officers and pilots of the 1st Pursuit Group who had served at Selfridge would eventually become generals - including LeMay. Including officers who served at Selfridge but were not in the 1st Pursuit Group, some 145 or more future general officers served at the Michigan base prior to World War II.

A Michigan historical marker on the grounds of the Selfridge Military Air Museum attests to the base's "Home of the Generals" moniker.

Since LeMay retired from the military in 1965, he is primarily only a historic book figure to even the most seasoned Airman today. But even now, LeMay stands out as one of the giants of the early Air Force. Even his photo - of the cigar-chomping, stern-looking man with the stars on his shoulder - seems right out of central casting, assuming the script called for an "old school military general."

While LeMay made his name as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot and commander in World War II, the air operations boss during the post-war Berlin Airlift and then as the strategic visionary who turned SAC into the all-jet bomber force charged with keeping world peace via a nuclear deterrent, lesser known is the fact that the general actually began his career as a fighter pilot. And that career first took flight at Selfridge.

LeMay entered the Air Force as a flying cadet in 1927 and trained at Kelly Field, Texas. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1929 and was assigned to his first duty station, flying with the 27th Pursuit Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group, at Selfridge Field. (It wasn't until the 1940s, that "pursuit" squadrons were re-designated as "fighter" squadrons.) LeMay would spend the first 10 years of his almost 40 year Air Force career flying fighter or "pursuit" aircraft.

Assigned to Selfridge, LeMay and the 27th were flying primarily P-1 and P-6 aircraft in the late 1920s and early 1930s, both of which were known as the "Hawk." And it was in the Hawk that LeMay incurred his fine.

"Hangar Row" along the east edge of the east aircraft parking ramp at Selfridge was built in the mid-to-late 1920s and the same hangars, though re-worked some over the years, continue to be in use to this day. And it was through Hangar Six, either on a dare or a bet from his fellow lieutenants, that Curtis E. Lemay flew his bi-plane Hawk - in one open door and out the other. No doubt LeMay was cheered by his fellow pilots - right up until the moment he was called to stand before the commanding officer, who promptly fined LeMay $50 - a fairly gargantuan sum considering the average monthly salary in the U.S. was only about $125 at the time.

Obviously, LeMay was able to overcome this early financial set-back and go on to lead the Air Force to significant new heights in World War II and the first half of the Cold War era.

After nearly 10 years at the helm of the Strategic Air Command, LeMay served for three years as the Air Force's vice chief of staff and then was the service's fifth chief from 1961-1965, leading the Air Force during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the early years of the Vietnam War. LeMay died in 1990, age 83. He is buried in the cemetery on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Selfridge's Hangar Six still exists, though with a different name. Decades ago, the building was re-configured to only have aircraft doors on one side - no more flying through the building. A connecting building was constructed between the former Hangars Six and Seven and now the combined building is officially known as Hangar Seven, though a Six is painted on an exterior corner of the building.

The 27th Pursuit Squadron - which first operated as the 27th Aero Squadron beginning in 1917 - continues to operate today, flying the F-22 Raptor as the 27th Fighter Squadron as part of the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.