Retired Air Force Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, 83, a legendary leader of men and bombers during World War II whose career culminated as Air Force chief of staff and who also ran as a third-party candidate for vice president in 1968, died yesterday at the hospital on March Air Force Base, Calif., after a heart attack.

The retired four-star general carved a colorful, cantankerous and at times quixotic swath through recent military history. During World War II, he led what may have been the first U.S. bomber group to take on the Germans over Europe. He pioneered precision daylight bombing, often leading the group with a cigar clamped firmly in his jaw.

He later led heavy bombers in daring raids against Japan that set Tokyo ablaze. As a staff officer, he helped develop the plans to drop nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and passed the word from President Harry S. Truman that sent the planes aloft.

Gen. LeMay served as the first postwar chief of Air Force research and development, in a period when the service took enormous technological strides. He returned to Europe in 1947 as commander of all U.S. air forces in Europe, and from June 26 to Sept. 30, 1948, directed and led what became known as the Berlin Airlift, a breathtaking exhibition of logistical air power that stunned the world and left the Soviets utterly defeated in their attempt to starve West Berlin into submission.

In October 1948, he was named commanding general of Strategic Air Command and built that organization into a global striking force that was the most efficient and feared nuclear arm of the 1950s and 1960s. He commanded SAC until June 1957, longer than any other general. He then served as Air Force vice chief of staff, then as chief of staff for four years until retiring in 1965.

He ran as the running mate of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace in the 1968 presidential election. Their American Independent Party ran best in the South and appealed to those most against the civil rights advances of the 1960s. But Gen. LeMay spoke mainly to those who disliked the seemingly unkempt and uncouth youth who so vocally opposed the war in Vietnam in particular and the country's military establishment in general. The personification of the "hawk" (he is said to have speculated on bombing Vietnam into the Stone Age), he was not a success on the campaign trail.

Upon learning of Gen. LeMay's death, Wallace said, "He was one of the real American heroes of World War II. I am proud to have served under him in World War II and proud to have had him on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate in my third-party campaign . . . . I will always count it a high honor to have been his personal friend."

Curtis Emerson LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio. He said he remembered being happiest prowling nearby hills with a gun and bowie knife. The son of an ironworker, he worked in a foundry at night so he could attend Ohio State University.

In 1928, he dropped out of school when he received a reserve commission in the Army field artillery. Called to active duty in 1929, he transferred to the air corps in 1930. In 1932, he received his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Ohio State.

During the 1930s, he served in Army fighter and bomber squadrons. He was promoted to major in 1941, to lieutenant colonel in January 1942 and colonel in March 1942. Named commanding officer of the 305th bombardment group, he trained it in California, then led it and its B-17 Flying Fortress bombers to Europe and combat.

One of his most famous acts of the war occurred when he ordered his men to stop taking evasive maneuvers while over the target. He both doubted whether such maneuvers did any good and was sure they threw off bombing accuracy. He personally led the first raid after the order, flying dead straight over Saint-Nazaire, with cigar firmly in place and pulverizing the air around him with antiaircraft fire. The flight became legend.

He also pioneered a battle formation of 18 Flying Fortresses that gave the ships greater defensive power against enemy fighters. And he led a famous "shuttle" mission against the Germans' largest Messerschmitt plant, in Regensburg, Germany, in which bombers took off from bases in England and landed in North Africa.

Gen. LeMay was promoted to brigadier general in September 1943, then major general in March 1944. He commanded the Eighth Air Force's 3rd bombardment division before being sent to the China-Burma-India theater in August 1943.

His first command as a general was the 20th bomber command and its new and giant B-29 Superfortress bombers. In January 1945, he began leading low-altitude nighttime assaults on the Japanese mainland. Leading a force of 300 bombers, he set Tokyo and other Japanese cities ablaze. In July 1945, he became chief of staff of U.S. Strategic Air Forces.

In that post, he took a major part in the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He later wrote that he was against the strikes, largely because he believed that his fire-bombings would have brought Japan to its knees within days anyway.

He left the Pacific for peacetime service in Washington in typical style. His trans-Pacific flight set new records for distance and speed. He continued to fly as well as command. During the Berlin Airlift, when the Soviets blocked the United States land access to Berlin and Americans responded to the supply needs of the city with unending relays of heavy transports, Gen. LeMay was the more-than-occasional pilot. He claimed that he had to be in Berlin "for a conference," and said he might as well fly a much-needed transport as travel as a VIP passenger.

The macho image of "Old Iron Pants" continued to grow at SAC. He took an organization composed of the tired pilots of World War II, opened new headquarters in Omaha, and built his organization into a proud, elite force that kept waves of nuclear-armed heavy bombers aloft 24 hours a day. He perfected aerial refueling and boasted a force that with nearly 20 bases worldwide was ready to strike anywhere at any time.

One of many famous stories about Gen. LeMay was that he once found a SAC sentry who had put down his weapon to eat a sandwich. "This afternoon I found a man guarding a hangar with a ham sandwich. There will be no more of that," he raged in a memo.

Yet, he also became known for his interest in the physical well-being and comfort of his men, as demanding of the brass as he was of his pilots and men, and was known as a general who ordered his men to do nothing he would not do himself.

At times, he seemed to identify more with the men than with his fellow generals. During World War II, another story goes, he finally amended the series of seemingly endless memos that came down from Allied Command trying to forbid fights between American and British servicemen. Gen. LeMay shouted that he endorsed the order, but if his men did fight, they were ordered to win.

As Air Force chief of staff, he tangled with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara over his plans to cut back on manned bombers for ballistic missiles. McNamara had denied Gen. LeMay the B-70, which the general wanted as the successor to the B-52, and forced him to accept the F-111 fighter-bomber. Gen. LeMay also disagreed with McNamara's restraints on U.S. air power in Vietnam, a sore point for a former combat pilot who believed in and had fought in all-out war.

After retiring, he thundered that McNamara's plans "may be signaling the end of the country."

In recent years, Gen. LeMay had lived in Air Force Village, a retirement home for Air Force officers near March Air Force Base. He had been board chairman of a Los Angeles electronics firm before being fired for supporting George Wallace in 1968.

His military decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, two Distinguished Service Medals, the Silver Star and numerous Air Medals.

Survivors include his wife, the former Helen Estelle Maitland, whom he married in 1934, and a daughter.