Billy Mitchell’s War With The Navy: The Interwar Rivalry Over Air Power
by Thomas Wildenberg, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2013, $34.95
Brigadier General William Mitchell has been controversial since 1919, when he first began to publicly advocate for a separate and unified aviation branch of the U.S. military services. Like many of Billy Mitchell’s ideas, it did not originate with him. The British had already established an autonomous Royal Air Force by combining the army’s Royal Flying Corps with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1918.
During the 1920s, Mitchell continued to campaign vociferously for an independent U.S. air force, simultaneously infuriating the Navy by arguing that airplanes rendered the fleet obsolete. He managed to antagonize the Army hierarchy as well, eventually leading to the highly publicized court-martial for insubordination that ended his military career in 1926.
Over the years Mitchell has evolved into a virtual patron saint to the U.S. Air Force, the foundation of which he didn’t live to see. That view is not shared by members of the naval aviation community, who— Mitchell’s statements to the contrary— were never in favor of a unified air service. In fact, as Thomas Wildenberg demonstrates, the animus that Mitchell almost single-handedly created between Army and Navy aviation persisted throughout the interwar period.
Billy Mitchell’s War With the Navy is a new account of his role in fomenting that bitter interservice rivalry, as well as the services’ competition over the limited funds then being made available by Congress for aviation development. While the book is meticulously researched, the fact that the author is a retired naval officer, and that it was published by the Naval Institute, makes one suspect the impartiality of at least some of the text. Still, it is a highly readable account of a fascinating period.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.