Share This Article

As the U.S. Air Force celebrated its 50th anniversary in September 1997, it is fitting that the man who did much to help bring the Air Force into being should be remembered. William ‘Billy’ Mitchell was a crusader who had the vision to understand the potential of air power long before his contemporaries.

The name Billy Mitchell brings different images to mind. To most, he was a hero, without whose dire warning the United States might never have been able to field the world’s largest air force in time to fight World War II. To others, he was an ambitious egotist and zealot who ran roughshod over anyone who opposed his views on air power, especially his military and civilian superiors.

In a sense, the barnstorming era of the 1920s was also the Billy Mitchell era, because it was his voice that first loudly proclaimed the need for strong air defenses. Long before anyone else, he vigorously advanced the theory that the airplane would replace the fleet as America’s first line of defense. He also saw the flying machine as a strategic weapon that could take a war to an enemy’s industrial resources.

Mitchell was born in Nice, France, in 1879, the son of a U.S. senator. At age 18, he enlisted in the Army as a private when the Spanish-American War broke out. He was commissioned and served in the Army Signal Corps in Cuba, the Philippines and Alaska before becoming interested in aviation. As early as 1906, however, he prophesied in the Cavalry Journal that ‘conflicts, no doubt, will be carried out in the future in the air.’ After the first aircraft was purchased by the Army, he wrote several more articles pointing out that airplanes would be useful for reconnaissance, for preventing enemy forces from conducting reconnaissance and for offensive action against enemy submarines and ships.

Mitchell was assigned to the Army General Staff in Washington in 1912 as a captain; at age 32, he was the youngest officer ever assigned to that important post. He prepared a report on the needs of American aviation and argued that, with the advances then being made in aeronautics, the United States was being drawn ever closer to its potential enemies and that distance would soon have to be measured in time, not miles.

Promoted to major, Mitchell was considered too old and held too high a rank for flight training. Convinced that his future lay in aviation, however, he paid for his own flying lessons at a civilian flying school at Newport News, Va., and later received a rating as a junior military aviator.

In April 1917, by then a lieutenant colonel, he was assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces in France and became one of the first Americans on the scene after the United States declared war on Germany. He immediately fought for the creation of American air units in France but was frustrated by the delay in getting American planes and pilots into the war. It galled him that the French had to provide air protection over the American lines, resulting in what Mitchell viewed as a lack of control and effectiveness. Mitchell met British General Hugh ‘Boom’ Trenchard and quickly adopted his thesis that military air power could and should be used in a ‘relentless and incessant offensive’ in wartime and, if so used, would one day become much more important in military strategy than sea power.

Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, posed here at the end of World War I. (Library of Congress)

Slowly, American pilots arrived, were assigned to squadrons and were put in the air in French planes. In March 1918 the Germans began a desperate push against the Allies, and Mitchell was placed in charge of all American aviation units at the front. On Sunday, April 14, 1918, a year after the United States entered the war, Mitchell declared that America had finally put its first squadron into combat. His flair for combat leadership was subsequently proved at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel when he coordinated a force of 1,481 British, French and Italian planes to support American ground forces. He was promoted to brigadier general and became more vocal about the importance of a strong military air arm. He quickly earned the enmity of his nonflying contemporaries for his aggressiveness in building airfields, hangars and other facilities. His flamboyance, ability to gain the attention of the press and willingness to proceed unhampered by precedent made him the best-known American in Europe.

Mitchell returned to the States as a hero in 1919 and was appointed assistant chief of the U.S. Army Air Service. He was appalled at how quickly the organization he had helped to build in war had disintegrated in peacetime. He decided that the nation must not be deluded into the belief that ‘the war to end all wars’ had really accomplished that end. ‘If a nation ambitious for universal conquest gets off to a flying start in a war of the future,’ he said, ‘it may be able to control the whole world more easily than a nation has controlled a continent in the past.’ Such statements embarrassed his superiors. He soon provoked the Navy admirals into open hostility through his tirades against their super-dreadnought concepts.

Mitchell the hero soon became known as Mitchell the agitator as he tried to prove that airplanes could actually accomplish the things he forecast. He proposed a number of daring innovations for the Air Service that stunned the nonflying Army generals—a special corps of mechanics, troop-carrying aircraft, a civilian pilot pool for wartime availability, long-range bombers capable of flying the Atlantic and armor-piercing bombs. He encouraged the development of bombsights, ski-equipped aircraft, engine superchargers and aerial torpedoes. He ordered the establishment of aerial forest-fire and border patrols, and followed that with a mass flight to Alaska, a transcontinental air race and a flight around the perimeter of the United States. He encouraged Army pilots to set speed, endurance and altitude records in order to keep aviation in the news.

With each success, Mitchell became more determined that the nation’s money should be spent on aircraft and not expensive battleships. He stepped on the egos of the ground generals and the battleship admirals—especially the latter—with his fiery rhetoric and boasted that Army planes could sink any battleship afloat under any conditions of war. Dynamic and impetuous, he sought out the American press and announced that if he were given permission to bomb captured German battleships, he would prove his assertions.

Newspaper reporters and editors, sensing open interservice warfare that would make headlines and sell papers, thought he should be given the opportunity to conduct tests against actual warships that were going to be scuttled or scrapped anyway. The New York Times summarized the general feeling by saying that the country could not afford to ignore Mitchell’s claims.

The Navy’s ironclad die-hards fought the idea of actual tests and preferred that their word be taken that aircraft could never sink the super-safe, first-class fighting ships of any nation. Strong pressure was brought to bear on President Warren G. Harding and Congress to withhold permission to use the German ships as targets. An angry Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels offered to stand bareheaded on the bridge of any ship Mitchell chose to bomb.

Not all of the admirals disagreed with Mitchell, however. Admiral William S. Sims, commander of U.S. naval forces in European waters during World War I, remarked: ‘The average man suffers very severely from the pain of a new idea….It is my belief that the future will show that the fleet that has 20 airplane carriers instead of 16 battleships and 4 airplanes will inevitably knock the other fleet out.’ Admiral W.F. Fullam, author of an exhaustive study of the use of air power, concluded that with the progress then being made in aviation, ‘Sea power will be subordinated to or dependent upon air power.’

Mitchell continued to expound his views in speeches and articles for national publications. With the press strongly behind him and despite Navy foot-dragging, permission to demonstrate his theories was finally granted. The tests were scheduled for June and July 1921. While the ships were being assembled off the Virginia coast, Mitchell amassed an armada of airplanes as the 1st Provisional Air Brigade and ordered exhaustive bombing practice against mock ships near Langley Field. Army ordnance personnel produced the new 2,000-pound bombs that would be needed to sink a battleship.

The tests began as scheduled, and the careful preparations paid off. The bombers sank a German destroyer first, followed by an armored light cruiser and then one of the world’s largest war vessels, the German battleship Ostfriesland, followed by the U.S. battleship Alabama—and later the battleships New Jersey and Virginia. As far as Mitchell and the press were concerned, the assertion that air power should be the nation’s first line of defense had been proved. ‘No surface vessels can exist wherever air forces acting from land bases are able to attack them,’ Mitchell declared.

Mitchell’s subsequent writings and pronouncements—all duly carried by the nation’s press—continually fanned the flames of interservice rivalry. He proposed that the U.S. Army Air Service should take over all control of defense responsibilities for 200 miles out to sea. In view of the bickering over the tests that had taken place, he asserted that fundamental changes in defense policy were necessary and called for a ‘Department of National Defense…with a staff common to all the services’ and with ‘subsecretaries for the Army, Navy and the Air Force.’ Mitchell staged a simulated bombing attack on New York City and mock bomb runs over other eastern cities, and he let the press carry the message to the public.

To quell the resultant fury of the battleship admirals and get Mitchell off the front pages, his superiors sent him to Hawaii. However, he returned with a scathing report on the inadequate defenses he saw there. He also went to Europe and the Far East to study the advances being made in aviation. After returning from the latter trip in 1924, he wrote a shocking 323-page report—probably the most prophetic document of his career—that stressed that, when making estimates of Japanese air power, ‘care must be taken that it is not underestimated.’

Mitchell believed that Japan was the dominant nation in Asia and was preparing to do battle with the United States. He predicted that air attacks would be made by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and described how they would be conducted.

His report was received with all the enthusiasm of ‘a green demolition team approaching an unexploded bomb,’ according to one writer. The report was ignored; it is said that even his boss did not read it for two years.

Billy Mitchell shown here during his 1925 court-martial (National Archives)

In the following months, Mitchell wrote many articles expounding his theories and demanding national awareness of the new dimension of warfare that he perceived. Despite his efforts, large appropriations for new aircraft were not forthcoming. The Air Service was still flying aging de Havillands. Crashes occurred frequently, and with each one, Mitchell lambasted the shortsightedness of the War Department and Congress for allowing them to happen.

Mitchell’s attacks became more vitriolic and were embarrassing to his superiors as well as to Capitol Hill and the White House. When his term with the Air Service expired in April 1925, he was not reappointed. He reverted to his permanent rank of colonel and was transferred to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as air officer for the VIII Corps.

On September 1, 1925, a naval seaplane was lost on a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Hawaii. Two days later, the U.S. Navy dirigible Shenandoah was destroyed while on a goodwill flight. Mitchell’s reaction was prompt. From his post in ‘exile,’ he released a scathing denunciation of the Navy and War Department and dropped the heaviest bomb of his career. He released a 6,000-word statement saying that these and other accidents were ‘the result of incompetency, criminal negligence, and the almost treasonable negligence of our national defense by the War and Navy departments.’

Mitchell added that ‘all aviation policies, schemes and systems are dictated by the non-flying officers of the Army and Navy, who know practically nothing about it.’ He ended his denunciation by saying that ‘I can stand by no longer and see these disgusting performances…at the expense of the lives of our people, and the delusions of the American public.’

Reaction in Washington was immediate. Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis announced that Mitchell would be disciplined and implied that it would be by court-martial. Mitchell said he would welcome a court-martial if it’stung the conscience’ of the public. Press reaction was mixed. The New York Times charged Mitchell with ‘insubordination and folly.’ The Herald Tribune called him ‘opinionative, arrogant and intolerant.’ However, the Kansas City Star editorialized that although he was ‘a zealot, a fanatic, a one-idea man,’ someday his dream might come true.

Mitchell was put under technical arrest, and a court-martial began in Washington on October 28, 1925, for insubordination under the catch-all 96th Article of War. Twelve generals (two of whom were later dismissed) and a colonel were appointed to sit in judgment, the highest ranking court ever convened to try an officer. None of them was a flier.

The court-martial dragged on for seven weeks. When it was over, the board deliberated for about half an hour and rendered its verdict—guilty of the charge and all eight specifications. The sentence was suspension from rank, command and duty with forfeiture of pay and allowances for five years.

The verdict was widely debated on Capitol Hill, and veterans groups passed resolutions condemning the outcome. President Calvin Coolidge approved the sentence handed down by the court, but altered the court’s verdict by granting him full subsistence and half pay because Mitchell would not be able to accept private employment while still in uniform. Mitchell said he would not accept the modified sentence because it would make him ‘an object of government charity.’

Mitchell resigned effective February 1, 1926. He immediately embarked on a four-month, coast-to-coast lecture tour, showing films of the ship bombings and continually expressing his by now familiar theme of the necessity for military preparedness in the air. His sweeping charges appeared in major American magazines and aviation journals. He continually called attention to the rapid strides being made in aviation in Europe and Asia and warned of Japanese plans to seize the Hawaii, Alaska and the Philippines. He also predicted, accurately, that the Japanese would not bother to declare war formally. ‘We not only do nothing in the face of all this,’ he said, ‘but we leave our future in the air to incompetents.’

Mitchell wrote more than 60 articles, several newspaper series and five books, never deviating from his appeal for public understanding of the promise and potential of air power. He made his last public appearance on February 11, 1935, when he addressed the House Military Affairs Committee.

Billy Mitchell and his wife Elizabeth, in 1925. (Library of Congress)

Weakened by his struggle, the old campaigner died in a New York hospital on February 19, 1936, at the age of 56. He had elected to be buried in Milwaukee, his hometown, where he enlisted in 1898, rather than at Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1955, the Air Force Association passed a resolution to void Billy Mitchell’s court-martial. In 1957, Mitchell’s youngest child, William, Jr., petitioned the Air Force to set aside the court-martial verdict. Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas unhappily denied the request, saying, ‘It is tragic that an officer who contributed so much to his country’s welfare should have terminated his military career under such circumstances.’

Although the conviction was not removed, Billy Mitchell had already received a measure of official recognition from a grateful nation when President Harry S. Truman signed legislation in 1946 bestowing a special medal posthumously on Mitchell ‘in recognition of his outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American military aviation.’

Should Billy Mitchell be remembered today? The answer is a definite and strong affirmative. He not only foresaw that an air force was essential for national survival but also educated the public and its leaders on the role that the airplane would eventually play in national life. For his foresight and willingness to sacrifice his career for his beliefs, the nation owes to this unorthodox visionary a debt of gratitude it can never repay.

Suggested for further reading: Mitchell: Pioneer of Air Power, by Isaac Don Levine; The Billy Mitchell Affair, by Burke Davis; and Memoirs of World War I, by William Mitchell.