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American Aviator William “Billy” Mitchell was born in Nice, France, in 1879, and grew up speaking French as well as he spoke English. He joined the U.S. Army on the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and as a second lieutenant saw action against the guerrillas of Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines. After the war he led a pathfinding mission for a telegraph cable route across the Alaskan wilderness. While journeying across the territory’s vast expanses, he developed a keen interest in aviation, then a brand-new technology. He worked as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army General Staff in 1912 and learned to fly in 1915.

After the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies in April 1917, Mitchell, by then a colonel, was appointed commander of the Army’s Air Service in France. He was from the start an innovator in the use of airpower, and deployed his aircraft in large-scale bombing attacks against German targets in addition to their more usual roles of reconnaissance and fighting enemy warplanes. After the war Mitchell loudly criticized the hidebound army and navy officers who did not share his vision of airpower and refused to finance their aviators in the cash-strapped postwar era.

Back in the United States, as assistant chief of the Air Service, Brigadier General Mitchell had a knack for ruffling the feathers of those in the upper echelons of the armed forces. He also threatened their cherished notions of how war should be fought. In 1921 he and his aviators conducted a series of bombing tests against several target ships, including the heavily armored German dreadnought Ostfriesland, which they sank with a series of 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs dropped from Martin and Handley-Page bombers. The tests and results were controversial, but they proved that aircraft could sink great warships. The navy was not grateful for this lesson. Mitchell became a celebrity proponent of airpower, continually scolding the army and navy for failing to back the creation of an independent air force and to buy modern aircraft. He was especially concerned about Japan, which he thought was ahead of the United States in airpower at the time, and predicted that one day the Japanese would launch an air attack in the early morning against Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.

Mitchell’s strident tone worried other sympathetic officers, who thought he was going too far with his condemnations of the generals and admirals. “Billy, take it easy,” warned Major Henry “Hap” Arnold, the future chief of the U.S. Army’s Air Forces in World War II. “Airpower is coming.” But Mitchell could not silently stand by, claiming that his aviators were going to die in the “old flaming coffins” that they had to fly in the absence of more modern aircraft. “When senior officers won’t see the facts,” he replied to Arnold, “you’ve got to do something unorthodox, perhaps an explosion.”

Mitchell was eventually forced out of his job as assistant chief of the Air Service. He was reduced to his permanent rank of colonel, but he remained in the army in an out-of-the-way posting in San Antonio, Texas. The loss of the navy airship USS Shenandoah, which had crashed on September 3, 1925, marked the beginning of the end of his army career. The ship had run into a squall while on a nonmilitary mission to visit state fairs in the Midwest, and 14 men, including the dirigible’s captain, had perished. Three navy seaplanes had also recently been lost in a separate series of accidents. Mitchell’s opinions on the disasters were sought by the press, and on September 5, Mitchell told reporters that the calamities were “the result of the incompetency, the criminal negligence, and the almost treasonable negligence of our national defense by the Navy and the War Departments.”

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

Mitchell seemed to be spoiling for a showdown. On September 9, Mitchell made another incendiary statement to the press in which he deplored “the disgraceful condition” of American military aviation and argued that what he had said about the national defense “hurts the bureaucrats in Washington…because it’s the truth.” He even welcomed a court-­martial where he might air his views. His outright challenge could not be ignored. Mitchell had his explosion, and it pushed the infuriated American brass over the edge.

By early November 1925 Mitchell was in Washington, D.C., standing before a court-martial held to investigate his alleged violation of the 96th Article of War, a catchall provision of military law that allowed an officer to be tried for just about any action deemed to be “of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service.” The charges were that he had conducted himself in a manner “to the prejudice of good order and military discipline”; that his statements about the Shenandoah and the loss of the navy’s seaplanes were insubordinate; and that he had been “highly contemptuous and disrespectful” of the War Department and the navy.

The trial before a panel of generals, including Douglas MacArthur, electrified the American people, who closely followed the arguments in the nation’s newspapers. Mitchell pleaded “not guilty” and argued that his statements had been true and that he had no choice but to step forward and tell the nation about the state of its air defenses, since he could get nowhere through the normal channels. Such aviation notables as World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker and future American generals Hap Arnold and Major Carl “Tooey” Spaatz testified on his behalf. On December 17, 1925, after seven weeks of testimony, the generals found Mitchell guilty of all charges, the accuracy of his statements being immaterial.

Mitchell’s punishment was surprisingly light on account of his fine war record. He was suspended from duty and for­feited all pay and allowances for five years. Mitchell then tendered his resignation. Though he died in 1936 of heart problems and influenza, his ideas ultimately triumphed in the dispute over American aviation: During World War II, airpower would play a hugely important role, as he had foreseen, and shortly after the end of that conflict, a completely independent U.S. Air Force would be established, as Mitchell had so fervently wished. His influence was long felt by the aviators he left behind. “We obeyed him the rest of our lives,” one officer who knew him during his army days said. “And long after he was dead.”