Considered an aviation pioneer by many, Billy Mitchell (1879-1936) recognized the potential of air power as an integral part of national defense. His strong beliefs led to a court-martial for insubordination in the 1920s. The key role played by air defense during the Second World War II vindicated him.
In his website article "Billy Mitchell—Air Power Visionary," C.V. Glines stated, "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 egoist and zealot, who ran roughshod over anyone who opposed his views on air power." Glines concluded, "It was his voice that first loudly proclaimed the need for strong air defenses."
William ("Billy") Mitchell was born in Nice, France, on December 28, 1879. He was the eldest of ten children born to John Lendrum Mitchell, who came from a politically active Wisconsin family, and Harriet Mitchell. When Mitchell was three years old, the family returned to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Mitchell spoke French just as fluently as English. He and his siblings also learned German, Spanish, and Italian. In The Billy Mitchell Affair, biographer Burke Davis noted that Mitchell was "small, wiry, and utterly fearless." His nanny spent a good deal of her time trying to control him. When he was told not to climb the family greenhouse, Mitchell attempted to scale it on an almost daily basis. He also enjoyed guns and horses.
Mitchell's father was elected to Congress in 1891 and to the Senate in 1893. Important guests were often invited to the Mitchell home and, as Davis noted, "There was an air of freedom in the household which encouraged the young Mitchells to grow up in their own way." The children were encouraged to interact and converse with their parents' guests. Davis added that Mitchell "was allowed at the dinner table with important guests, and always found a way to intrude into the conversation."
Began Military Career
In 1898, Mitchell enlisted in the Army at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. He dropped out of Columbian University (later George Washington University) to enter the service. (He eventually completed his degree after World War I in 1919.) Mitchell served in Cuba and the Philippines, and quickly became a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army. He advanced to first lieutenant in 1901 and captain by 1904. His personal life changed as well. In 1903, he married Caroline Stoddard. They eventually had three children—Harriet, Elizabeth, and John Lendrum III.
Mitchell studied at the army's School of the Line and Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, from 1907 until 1909. In 1909, he began another tour of the Far East, returning to the Philippines, and proceeding to Japan and China. In 1913, he received a prestigious appointment to the U.S. Army General Staff, which introduced him to aeronautics, an emerging segment of the Signal Corps.
Becoming restless and seeking a more active role, Mitchell left the General Staff in 1916 to direct army aviation until the commander could take charge. Internal fighting and the outbreak of World War I provided new opportunities in aeronautics for officers like Mitchell. He was promoted to major and, once the commander arrived, assumed the position of deputy.
Told by the army that he was too old to fly, Mitchell spent his personal time and money taking lessons at a civilian flying school. He became a rapid advocate of military air power. Mitchell did not have a good relationship with his commander and decided to go to France as an observer in 1917. He reached Paris four days after the U.S. entered the war.
A Leader During World War I
Once in France, Mitchell tried unsuccessfully to take charge of American aeronautical planning in Europe. Not easily deterred, he became qualified as a U.S. Army pilot and studied the use of aviation on the western front. Davis noted that he also "bombarded the War Department with suggestions he gleaned from his French friends."
Mitchell continued to learn as much as he could. Biographer Davis wrote of Mitchell's flight with a French pilot in order to gain a different perspective. Mitchell commented, "One flight over the lines gave me a much clearer impression of how the armies were laid out than any amount of traveling on the ground." Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Mitchell was named air officer of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force).
In July 1918, the Germans launched their last great attack. Davis relayed that "it was Mitchell who discovered the strength and direction of the offensive." In September, he commanded the largest concentration of aircraft at that time—almost 1,500 warplanes. Victory was imminent. When the war ended a short time later, Mitchell was a decorated war hero and a brigadier general, as well as the senior American air combat officer. As Davis wrote, Henry "Hap" Arnold, a future general of the U.S. Army Air Forces stated, "Billy was clearly the Prince of the Air." Mitchell enjoyed his great popularity. In his website article, Glines stated, "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 also had his cause. As Davis wrote, at the end of World War I, Mitchell predicted that "the next war would come in the air. Planes would strike at cities and factories and not simply at armies. The air was now the first line of defense and, without air power to shield them, armies and navies would be helpless." Glines added, "Mitchell the hero soon became known as Mitchell the agitator as he tried to prove that airplanes could actually accomplish the things he forecast."
The Sinking of Ostfriesland
As noted by Martin Caidin in Air Force—A Pictorial History of American Airpower, until air power was introduced during World War I, the army and navy were responsible for the nation's defense, and each unit knew what was expected of them. Caidin wrote, "The rise of aviation vastly complicated this defense situation, and touched off a fierce battle between the two services regarding authority and service capabilities."
Home from the war in 1919, Mitchell was named the assistant chief of the Army Air Service in Washington D.C. He argued that air power could threaten the nation's security. Mitchell led a group of AEF fliers who campaigned for a separate air force, similar to the British Royal Air Force. Their request was denied in 1920. Caidin noted, "The Army and Navy held fast to their concept that airplanes could never play anything but a subordinate role in war; to the Army, the infantry was the Queen of battle, and to the Navy, the battleship reigned supreme." Mitchell changed his strategy. Davis wrote, "He talked more of defending the United States from attack, and less of building an offensive force for the future."
Mitchell was allowed to do some experiments and, as a result, Glines stated, "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." Antagonizing many military leaders, but getting a great deal of press coverage, Mitchell was given permission to sink obsolete warships at sea to prove his air power theories were true. In June and July of 1921, the experiments took place. Davis wrote, "The program would open with the bombing of a submarine, working upward through a destroyer and a cruiser to a battleship, the allegedly unsinkable Ostfriesland. "
On July 21, 1921, off the Virginia coast, the Ostfriesland took several direct hits, and sank in 212 minutes. Mitchell biographer Davis wrote, "To some, the bubbling and gushing of air from the sinking Ostfriesland seemed like great sobs." Mitchell also sank the USS Alabama, and in 1923, off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the USS Virginia and the USS New Jersey. Americans followed Mitchell's every move, fascinated by his air power ideas and watching mighty battleships sink. Despite the "success" of the experiments, the country's defense budget was being scaled back and building airplanes was not really considered an option. No organizational changes were made.
Labeled a Troublemaker
Mitchell's experiments caused quite a stir. As noted by Caidin, "The Navy reluctantly agreed (it had little choice) that coastal defense should be shared with the Army and Air Service." Caidin added, "General Mitchell set forth an entire new concept of coastal defense which virtually swept the Navy bare of its cherished authority in this area." He concluded that the battles of jurisdiction and overlapping jurisdiction between the War Department and the Navy were never really resolved—which directly led to the disastrous consequences in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941.
During his air experiments, Mitchell and his first wife divorced. In the summer of 1922, he met Elizabeth (Betty) Trumbull Miller at a Detroit, Michigan horse show. They were engaged six months later. The couple later married and had two children, Lucy and William Jr.
Mitchell's supervisor sent him on temporary assignments to keep him out of trouble. However, in 1924 he launched another campaign to build an air force in the U.S. As Davis noted, Mitchell and his new bride were sent on a tour of the Far East. Mitchell carefully observed the powers in Asia and wrote (as relayed by Davis) in a report of his trip: "Japan is preparing her whole war-making powers so that every advantage can be taken of new developments in the art of war." Mitchell added, "She knows that war is coming some day with the United States, and it will be a contest for her very existence." Mitchell's predictions would come true in 17 years.
Still considered controversial, Mitchell lost his Air Service post in 1925 and the rank of brigadier general that went with it. He was transferred to San Antonio, Texas. On September 1, 1925, a naval seaplane was lost while on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii. Two days later, the U.S. Navy dirigible (a zeppelin, called a "battleship of the skies") Shenandoah, crashed in Ohio, killing its commander and several crew members. Mitchell issued the scathing statement that would lead to his court-martial. As relayed by Davis, Mitchell stated: "These accidents are the result of incompetency, the criminal negligence, and the almost treasonable negligence of our national defense by the Navy and War Departments."
The Court Martial
Having continually criticized his superiors, Mitchell's court-martial was probably inevitable. It began in October 1925. There was a lot of media coverage and Mitchell used the trial as a sounding board for his ideas. The court-martial lasted seven weeks. The board deliberated for only one half hour before convicting him of insubordination. He was found guilty on eight charges. Davis wrote that the board "sentence[d] the accused to be suspended from rank, command, and duty, with the forfeiture of all pay and allowances for five years." Half of this was later restored. Mitchell resigned from the army in February 1926 and went to his farm in Virginia.
Mitchell was able to adjust to life as a civilian. From his home in Virginia, he wrote books, and newspaper and magazine articles. He traveled around the country, gave lectures on his vision of air power, and showed the film footage of his experiments. Mitchell continued to assert that war between Japan and the U.S. was inevitable. He also predicted that Germany would once again become a strong military power. Once the Great Depression came, citizens worried about things other than air power and Mitchell's vision.
Ailing from the flu and suffering from heart trouble, Mitchell died suddenly on February 19, 1936 in New York City, at the age of 56. At his request, Mitchell was buried in Milwaukee rather than Arlington National Cemetery.
World War II brought vindication for Mitchell. In 1939, the Army Air Corps began using a bomber—the B-25 Mitchell—named in his honor. The navy used almost 700 of these planes during World War II. In his website article, Glines stated, "Mitchell believed that Japan was the dominant nation in Asia and was preparing to do battle with the United States. He predicted the air attacks would be made by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and described how they would be conducted." Mitchell's predictions came true and, in 1946, Congress bestowed a special medal of honor on him.
In 1956, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, a film with an all-star cast and Gary Cooper in the lead role was released. In his website article "Lost Legacy of Billy Mitchell," Walter J. Boyne stated, "Sadly, most memories of Mitchell derive from the Gary Cooper film on that done-deal trial; nor have his biographers served him very well."
In 1957, Mitchell's youngest child, Billy Jr., asked the Air Force to set aside the court-martial verdict. The public supported his son's request. As reported by Davis, the Milwaukee Journal wrote, "Time has proved how right Billy Mitchell was." As retold by Mitchell biographer Davis, the secretary of the Air Force, James H. Douglas stated: "The history of recent years has shown that Colonel Mitchell's vision concerning the future of air power was amazingly accurate. He saw clearly the shape of things to come in the field of military aviation, and he forecast with precision, the role of air power as it developed in World War II, and as we see it today. Our nation is deeply in his debt." But he added, "He chose to remain on active duty while making his charges against his service superiors. In taking this course, he was bound to accept the consequences." The request to overturn the verdict was denied.
Despite this decision, Mitchell continued to be honored and remembered. The "General Billy Mitchell Award," given to a cadet of the Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the United States Air Force, has been in existence since 1964. In 1970, Mitchell was invested in the International Aerospace Hall of Fame. His hometown proudly honors him as well. The airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is named the Milwaukee-General Mitchell International Airport. On the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, there is an exhibit of Mitchell at the Golda Meir Library. Considered a trailblazer and a pioneer, Boyne stated in his article that Mitchell should be remembered for two important qualities: his ability to intelligently forecast the future, and his willingness to sacrifice his career for his beliefs.
Further Reading on Billy Mitchell
Caidin, Martin, Air Force—A Pictorial History of American Air Power, Bramhall House, 1957.
Davis, Burke, The Billy Mitchell Affair, Random House, 1967.
Business Journal-Milwaukee, April 9, 1999.
Aviation History, September 1997, http://www.militaryhistory.com/AviationHistory/articles/1997/0997_side.htm (October 16, 1999).
"B-25 Mitchell," Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, http://www.state.sc.us/patpt/b25.htm (October 16, 1999).
"General Billy Mitchell, Milwaukee Native and Air Force Pioneer," University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Golda Meir Library, http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/Library/arch/mitchell/exhibit.htm (October 16, 1999).
"General Billy Mitchell Award," Civil Air Patrol, http://www.cap.af.mil/nhq/cp/cpr/mitchell.htm (October 16, 1999).
"General William 'Billy' Mitchell," and "William Mitchell,"ALLSTAR (Aeronautics Learning Laboratory for Science, Technology, and Research) Network—Heroes, People, and Organizations section, http://www.allstar.fiu.edu/aero/mitchell.htm (October 16, 1999).