William Billy Mitchell Research Paper

For other people named Billy Mitchell, see Billy Mitchell (disambiguation).

William Lendrum Mitchell (December 29, 1879 – February 19, 1936) was a United States Army general who is regarded as the father of the United States Air Force.[1][2]

Mitchell served in France during World War I and, by the conflict's end, commanded all American air combat units in that country. After the war, he was appointed deputy director of the Air Service and began advocating increased investment in air power, believing that this would prove vital in future wars. He argued particularly for the ability of bombers to sink battleships and organized a series of bombing runs against stationary ships designed to test the idea.

He antagonized many administrative leaders of the Army with his arguments and criticism and, in 1925, was returned from appointment as a brigadier general to his permanent rank of colonel due to his insubordination. Later that year, he was court-martialed for insubordination after accusing Army and Navy leaders of an "almost treasonable administration of the national defense"[3] for investing in battleships instead of aircraft carriers. He resigned from the service shortly afterward.

Mitchell received many honors following his death, including a commission by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a major general. He is also the only individual for whom an American military aircraft design, the North American B-25 Mitchell, is named.

Early life[edit]

Born in Nice, France, to John L. Mitchell, a wealthy Wisconsinsenator[4] and his wife Harriet, Mitchell grew up on an estate in what is now the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, Wisconsin. His grandfather, Alexander Mitchell, a Scotsman, established what became the Milwaukee Road railroad and the Marine Bank of Wisconsin. Mitchell Park and the shopping precinct of Mitchell Street were named in honor of Alexander. Mitchell's sister Ruth fought with the Chetniks in Yugoslavia during World War II and later wrote a book about her brother, My Brother Bill.

Billy Mitchell graduated from Columbian College of George Washington University, where he was a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity.[5] He then enlisted as a private at age 18 in Company M of the 1st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment on May 14, 1898, early in the Spanish–American War. Quickly gaining a commission due to his father's influence, he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Following the cessation of hostilities, Mitchell remained in the Army. From 1900 to 1904, Mitchell was posted in the District of Alaska as a lieutenant in the Signal Corps. On May 26, 1900, the United States Congress appropriated $450,000 in order to establish a communications system to connect the many isolated and widely separated U.S. Army outposts and civilian Gold Rush camps in Alaska by telegraph. Along with Captain George C. Brunnell, Lieutenant Mitchell oversaw the construction of what became known as the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS).[6] He predicted as early as 1906, while an instructor at the Army's Signal School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, that future conflicts would take place in the air, not on the ground.

A member of one of Milwaukee's most prominent families, Billy Mitchell was probably the first person with ties to Wisconsin to see the Wright Brothers plane fly. In 1908, when a young Signal Corps officer, Mitchell observed Orville Wright's flying demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia. Mitchell took flight lessons at the Curtiss Aviation School at Newport News, Virginia.

In March 1912, after assignments in the Philippines that saw him tour battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War and conclude that war with Japan was inevitable one day, Mitchell was one of 21 officers selected to serve on the General Staff—at the time, its youngest member at age 32. Ironically, he appeared in August 1913 at legislative hearings considering a bill to make Army aviation a branch separate from the Signal Corps and testified against the bill. As the only Signal Corps officer on the General Staff, he was chosen as temporary head of the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps, a predecessor of the present day United States Air Force, in May 1916, when its head was reprimanded and relieved of duty for malfeasance in the section. Mitchell administered the section until the new head, Lieutenant Colonel George O. Squier, arrived from attaché duties in London, England, where World War I was in progress, then became his permanent assistant. In June, he took private flying lessons at the Curtiss Flying School because he was proscribed by law from aviator training by age and rank, at an expense to himself of $1,470 (approximately $33,000 in 2015).[7] In July 1916, he was promoted to major and appointed Chief of the Air Service of the First Army.[8]

World War I[edit]

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Mitchell was in Spain en route to France as an observer.[4] He arrived in Paris on April 10, and set up an office for the Aviation Section from which he collaborated extensively with British and French air leaders such as General Hugh Trenchard, studying their strategies as well as their aircraft. On April 24, he made the first flight by an American officer over German lines, flying with a French pilot. Before long, Mitchell had gained enough experience to begin preparations for American air operations. Mitchell rapidly earned a reputation as a daring, flamboyant, and tireless leader. In May, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was promoted to the temporary rank of colonel on October 10, 1917 to rank from August 5.

In September 1918, he planned and led nearly 1,500 British, French, and Italian aircraft in the air phase of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, one of the first coordinated air-ground offensives in history.[4] He was elevated to the rank of (temporary) brigadier general on October 14, 1918 and commanded all American air combat units in France. He ended the war as Chief of Air Service, Group of Armies, and became Chief of Air Service, Third Army after the armistice.

Recognized as one of the top American combat airmen of the war alongside aces such as his good friend, Eddie Rickenbacker, he was probably the best-known American in Europe. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the World War I Victory Medal with eight campaign clasps, and several foreign decorations. Despite his superb leadership and his fine combat record, he alienated many of his superiors during and after his 18 months of service in France.[4]

Post-war advocate of air power[edit]

Return from Europe[edit]

Mitchell returned to the United States in January 1919; it had been widely expected throughout the Air Service that he would receive the post-war assignment of Director of Air Service. Instead, he returned to find that Maj. Gen. Charles T. Menoher, an artilleryman who had commanded the Rainbow Division in France, had been appointed director on the recommendation of his classmate General Pershing, to maintain operational control of aviation by the ground forces.[11]

Mitchell received appointment on February 28, 1919, as Director of Military Aeronautics,[12] to head the flying component of the Air Service, but that office was in name only as it was a wartime agency that would expire six months after the signing of a peace treaty. Menoher instituted a reorganization of the Air Service based on the divisional system of the AEF, eliminating the DMA as an organization, and Mitchell was assigned as Third Assistant Executive, in charge of the Training and Operations Group, Office of Director of Air Service (ODAS), in April 1919. He maintained his temporary wartime rank of brigadier general until June 18, 1920, when he was reduced to lieutenant colonel, Signal Corps (Menoher was reduced to brigadier general in the same orders).[13]

When the Army was reorganized by Congress on June 4, 1920, the Air Service was recognized as a combatant arm of the line, third in size behind the Infantry and Artillery. On July 1, 1920, Mitchell was promoted to the Regular Army (i.e., permanent) rank of colonel in the Signal Corps, but also received a recess appointment (as did Menoher) on July 16 to become Assistant Chief of Air Service with the rank of brigadier general. On July 30, 1920, he was transferred and promoted to the permanent rank of colonel, Air Service, with date of rank from July 1, placing him first in seniority among all Air Service branch officers. On March 4, 1921, Mitchell was appointed Assistant Chief of Air Service by new President Warren G. Harding with consent of the Senate. On April 27, Mitchell was reappointed as a brigadier general with date of rank retroactive to July 2, 1920.[12]

Mitchell did not share in the common belief that World War I would be the war to end war. "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."[14]

He returned from Europe with a fervent belief that within a near future, possibly within ten years, air power would become the predominant force of war, and that it should be united entirely in an independent air force equal to the Army and Navy. He found encouragement in a number of bills before Congress proposing a Department of Aeronautics that included an air force separate from either the Army or Navy, primarily legislation introduced concurrently in August 1919 by Senator Harry New of Indiana and RepresentativeCharles F. Curry of California, influenced by the recommendations of a fact-finding commission sent to Europe under the direction of Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell in early 1919 that contradicted the findings of Army boards and advocated an independent air force.

Friction with the Navy[edit]

Mitchell believed that the use of floating bases was necessary to defend the nation against naval threats, but the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William S. Benson, had dissolved Naval Aeronautics as an organization early in 1919, a decision later reversed by Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, senior Naval Aviators feared that land-based aviators in a "unified" independent air force would no more understand the requirements of sea-based aviation than ground forces commanders understood the capabilities and potential of air power, and vigorously resisted any alliance with Mitchell.

The Navy's civilian leadership was equally opposed, if for other reasons. On April 3, Mitchell met with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt and a board of admirals to discuss aviation, and Mitchell urged the development of naval aviation because of the growing obsolescence of the surface fleet. His assurances that the Air Service could develop whatever bomb was needed to sink a battleship, and that a national defense organization of land, sea, and air components was essential and inevitable, were met with cool hostility. Mitchell found his ideas publicly denounced as "pernicious" by Roosevelt.[15] Convinced that within as soon as ten years strategic air bombardment would become a threat to the United States and make the Air Service the nation's first line of defense instead of the Navy, he began to set out to prove that aircraft were capable of sinking ships to reinforce his position.[16][17][18]

His relations with superiors continued to sour as he began to criticize both the War and Navy Departments for being insufficiently farsighted regarding air-power.[4] He advocated the development of a number of aircraft innovations, including bomb-sights, sled-runner landing gear for winter operations, engine superchargers, and aerial torpedoes. He ordered the use of aircraft in fighting forest fires and border patrols. He also encouraged the staging of a transcontinental air race, a flight around the perimeter of the United States. He also encouraged Army pilots to break aviation records for speed, endurance and altitude. In short, he encouraged anything that would further develop the use of aircraft, and that would keep aviation in the news.

Project B: Anti-ship bombing demonstration[edit]

In February 1921, at the urging of Mitchell, who was anxious to test his theories of destruction of ships by aerial bombing, Secretary of WarNewton Baker and Secretary of the NavyJosephus Daniels agreed to a series of joint Army-Navy exercises, known as Project B, to be held that summer in which surplus or captured ships could be used as targets.

Mitchell was concerned that the building of dreadnoughts was taking precious defense dollars away from military aviation. He was convinced that a force of anti-shipping airplanes could defend a coastline with more economy than a combination of coastal guns and naval vessels. A thousand bombers could be built at the same cost as one battleship, and could sink that battleship.[19] Mitchell infuriated the Navy by claiming he could sink ships "under war conditions", and boasted he could prove it if he were permitted to bomb captured German battleships.

The Navy reluctantly agreed to the demonstration after news leaked of its own tests. To counter Mitchell, the Navy had sunk the old battleship Indiana near Tangier Island, Virginia, on November 1, 1920, using its own airplanes. Daniels had hoped to squelch Mitchell by releasing a report on the results written by Captain William D. Leahy stating that, "The entire experiment pointed to the improbability of a modern battleship being either destroyed or completely put out of action by aerial bombs." When the New-York Tribune revealed that the Navy's "tests" were done with dummy sand bombs and that the ship was actually sunk using high explosives placed on the ship, Congress introduced two resolutions urging new tests and backed the Navy into a corner.[20]

In the arrangements for the new tests, there was to be a news blackout until all data had been analyzed at which point only the official news report would be released; Mitchell felt that the Navy was going to bury the results. The Chief of the Air Corps attempted to have Mitchell dismissed a week before the tests began, reacting to Navy complaints about Mitchell's criticisms, but the new Secretary of War John W. Weeks backed down when it became apparent that Mitchell had widespread public and media support.[21]

1st Provisional Air Brigade[edit]

On May 1, 1921, Mitchell assembled the 1st Provisional Air Brigade, an air and ground crew of 125 aircraft and 1,000 men at Langley Field in Hampton, Virginia, using six squadrons from the Air Service:

  • Air Service Field Officers School, Langley Field, Virginia, (SE-5fighters)
  • 2nd Bombardment Group (later 2nd Bomb Group), Kelly Field, Texas (SE-5 fighters, Martin NBS-1, Handley-Page O/400, and Caproni CA-5 bombers)
  • 7th Observation Group (Second Corps Area), (now the 7th Operations Group), Mitchel Field, New York (DH-4 and Douglas O-2 observation planes)

Mitchell took command on 27 May after testing bombs, fuses, and other equipment at Aberdeen Proving Ground and began training in anti-ship bombing techniques. Alexander Seversky, a veteran Russian pilot who had bombed German ships in the Great War, joined the effort, suggesting the bombers aim near the ships so that expanding water pressure from the underwater blasts would stave in and separate hull plates. Further discussion with Captain Alfred Wilkinson Johnson, Commander, Naval Air Force U.S. Atlantic Fleet aboard USS Shawmut, confirmed that near-miss bombs would inflict more damage than direct hits; near-misses would cause an underwater concussive effect against the hull.[21][22]

Rules of engagement[edit]

The Navy and the Air Service were at cross purposes regarding the tests. Supported by General Pershing, the Navy set rules and conditions that enhanced the survivability of the targets, stating that the purpose of the tests was to determine how much damage ships could withstand. The ships had to be sunk in at least 100 fathoms of water (so as not to become navigational hazards), and the Navy chose an area 50 mi (80 km) off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay rather than either of two possible closer areas, minimizing the effective time the Army's bombers would have in the target area. The planes were forbidden from using aerial torpedoes, would be permitted only two hits on the battleship using their heaviest bombs, and would have to stop between hits so that a damage assessment party could go aboard. Smaller ships could not be struck by bombs larger than 600 pounds, and also were subject to the same interruptions in attacks.[23][24]

Mitchell held to the Navy's restrictions for the tests of June 21, July 13 and 18, and successfully sank the ex-German destroyer G-102 and the ex-German light cruiser Frankfurt in concert with Navy aircraft. On each of these demonstrations the ships were first attacked by SE-5 fighters strafing and bombing the decks of the ships with 25-pound anti-personnel bombs to simulate suppression of antiaircraft fire, followed by attacks from Martin NBS-1 (Martin MB-2) twin-engine bombers using high explosive demolition bombs. Mitchell observed the attacks from the controls of his DH-4 aircraft, nicknamed The Osprey.

Sinking of the Ostfriesland[edit]

On July 20, 1921, the Navy brought out the ex-German World War I battleship, Ostfriesland. On the scheduled day, 230, 550, and 600 lb (270 kg) bomb attacks by Navy, Marine Corps, and Army aircraft settled the Ostfriesland three feet by the stern with a five-degree list to port. She was taking on water. Further bombing was delayed a day, the Navy claiming due to rough seas that prevented their Board of Observers from going aboard, the Air Service countering that as the Army bombers approached, they were ordered not to attack. Mitchell's bombers were forced to circle for 47 minutes, as a result of which they dropped only half their bombs, and none of their large bombs.[25]

On the morning of July 21, in accordance with a strictly orchestrated schedule of attacks, five NBS-1 bombers led by 1st Lt. Clayton Bissell dropped a single 1,100 lb bomb each, scoring three direct hits. The Navy stopped further drops, although the Army bombers had nine bombs remaining, to assess damage. By noon, Ostfriesland had settled two more feet by the stern and one foot by the bow.

At this point, Capt. Walter R. Lawson's flight of bombers, consisting of two Handley-Page O/400 and six NBS-1 bombers loaded with 2,000 lb (910 kg) bombs, was dispatched.[26] One Handley Page dropped out for mechanical reasons, but the NBS-1s dropped six bombs in quick succession between 12:18 pm and 12:31 pm. Bomb aiming points were for the water near the ship. Mitchell described Lawson's attack, "Four bombs hit in rapid succession, close along side the Ostfriesland. We could see her rise eight to ten feet between the terrific blows from under water. On the fourth shot, Capt Streett, sitting in the back seat of my plane stood up and waving both arms shouted, "She is gone!" [26] There were no direct hits but at least three of the bombs landed close enough to rip hull plates as well as cause the ship to roll over. The ship sank at 12:40 pm, 22 minutes after the first bomb, with a seventh bomb dropped by the Handley Page on the foam rising up from the sinking ship.[27] Nearby the site, observing, were various foreign and domestic officials aboard the USS Henderson.

Although Mitchell had stressed "war-time conditions", the tests were under static conditions and the sinking of the Ostfriesland was accomplished by violating rules agreed upon by General Pershing that would have allowed Navy engineers to examine the effects of smaller munitions. Navy studies of the wreck of the Ostfriesland show she had suffered little topside damage from bombs and was sunk by progressive flooding that might have been stemmed by a fast-acting damage control party on board the vessel. Mitchell used the sinking for his own publicity purposes, though his results were downplayed in public by General of the ArmiesJohn J. Pershing who hoped to smooth Army/Navy relations.[25] The efficacy of the tests remain in debate to this day.

Nevertheless, the test was highly influential at the time, causing budgets to be redrawn for further air development and forcing the Navy to look more closely at the possibilities of naval airpower.[28] Despite the advantages enjoyed by the bombers in the artificial exercise, Mitchell's report stressed points which would later be highly influential in war:

...sea craft of all kinds, up to and including the most modern battleships, can be destroyed easily by bombs dropped from aircraft, and further, that the most effective means of destruction are bombs. [They] demonstrated beyond a doubt that, given sufficient bombing planes—in short an adequate air force—aircraft constitute a positive defense of our country against hostile invasion.[29]

The fact of battleship sinking was indisputable, and Mitchell repeated the performance twice in tests conducted with like results on the obsolete U.S. pre-dreadnought battleshipAlabama in September 1921, and the battleships Virginia and New Jersey in September 1923.[30] The latter two ships were subjected to teargas attacks and hit with specially designed 4,300 lb (2,000 kg) demolition bombs.[31]

Aftermath of the bombing tests[edit]

The bombing tests had several immediate and turbulent results. Almost immediately the Navy and President Harding were incensed by an apparent demonstration of naval weakness just after Harding had announced on July 10 invitations to other naval powers to gather in Washington for a conference on the limitation of naval armaments. Statements asserting the obsolescence of the battleship by disarmament proponents in Congress such as Senator William Borah heightened official anxiety. Both services tried to defuse the results by reports from the Joint Board and General Pershing dismissing Mitchell's claims and suppressing his report, but the latter was leaked to the press.[32]

In September, General Charles T. Menoher forced a showdown over Mitchell as the bombing tests continued. Menoher confronted Secretary Weeks and demanded that Weeks either relieve Mitchell as Assistant Chief of Air Corps or he would resign. On October 4, Weeks allowed Menoher to resign and return to the ground forces "for personal reasons". A reciprocal resignation offer from Mitchell was refused.[33]

Major General Mason Patrick was again chosen by Pershing to sort out a mess in the Air Service and became the new Chief on October 5. Patrick made it clear to Mitchell that although he would accept Mitchell's expertise as counsel, all decisions would be made by Patrick. When Mitchell soon got into a minor but embarrassing protocol rift with Rear Admiral William A. Moffett at the start of the naval arms limitation conference, Patrick assigned him to an inspection tour of Europe with Alfred V. Verville and Lieutenant Clayton Bissell that lasted the duration of the conference over the winter of 1921–22.[33][34]

West Virginia[edit]

Mitchell was dispatched by President Harding to West Virginia to stop the warfare that had broken out between the United Mine Workers, Stone Mountain Coal Company, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, and other groups after the Matewan Massacre.[35] Miners outraged by the ambush slaying of Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield by agents for the coal company marched on Mingo and Logan County leading to the Battle of Blair Mountain, August 25 to September 2, 1921. On August 26, Mitchell commanded Army bombers from Maryland to Charleston, West Virginia. Mitchell told the press that Army bombers alone could end the "Mingo War" by dropping tear gas on the miners. A private army of 3,000 led by Sheriff Don Chafin and financed by the Coal Operators Association engaged in gun battles and used private planes to drop dynamite charges and World War I surplus gas and explosive bombs against an estimated 13,000 miners. Neither side responded to President Harding's August 30 proclamation to cease hostilities. In the last days of the civil disturbance, Mitchell's bombers flew several reconnaissance missions but did not engage in combat; one bomber crashed on a return flight, killing three crew members. On September 3, surrounded by 2,000 Army troops, Chafin's force dispersed and most miners went home although some surrendered to the Army. Later, Mitchell cited the "Mingo War" as an example of the potential for air power in civil disturbances.[36]

Promoting air power[edit]

The day has passed when armies on the ground or navies on the sea can be the arbiter of a nation's destiny in war. The main power of defense and the power of initiative against an enemy has passed to the air. – November 1918[37]

In 1922, while in Europe for General Patrick, Mitchell met the Italian air power theorist Giulio Douhet and soon afterwards an excerpted translation of Douhet's The Command of the Air began to circulate in the Air Service. In 1924, Gen. Patrick again dispatched him on an inspection tour, this time to Hawaii and Asia, to get him off the front pages. Mitchell came back with a 324-page report that predicted future war with Japan, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of note, Mitchell discounted the value of aircraft carriers in an attack on the Hawaiian Islands, believing they were of little practical use because they were incapable of operating effectively on the high seas, nor capable of delivering "sufficient aircraft in the air at one time to insure a concentrated operation."[38] Mitchell believed instead, a surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands would be conducted by land-based aircraft operating from islands in the Pacific.[39] His report, published in 1925 as the book Winged Defense, foretold wider benefits of an investment in air power, believing it at the time, and for the future, " a dominating factor in the world's development", both for national defense and economic benefit.[40]Winged Defense sold only 4,500 copies between August 1925 and January 1926, the months surrounding the publicity of the court martial, and so Mitchell did not reach a wide audience.[41]

Friction and demotion[edit]

Mitchell experienced difficulties within the Army, notably with his superiors when he appeared before the Lampert Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and sharply castigated Army and Navy leadership.[4] The War Department had endorsed a proposal to establish a "General Headquarters Air Force" as a vehicle for modernization and expansion of the Air Service, to be funded through shared appropriations for aviation with the Navy, but shelved the plan when the Navy refused, incensing Mitchell.

In March 1925, when Mitchell's term as Assistant Chief of the Air Service expired, he reverted to his permanent rank of colonel and was transferred to San Antonio, Texas, as air officer to a ground forces corps.[4] Although such demotions were not unusual in demobilizations (Patrick himself had gone from major general to colonel upon returning to the Army Corps of Engineers in 1919), the move was widely seen as punishment and exile,[4] since Mitchell had petitioned to remain as Assistant Chief when his term expired, and his transfer to an assignment with no political influence at a relatively unimportant Army base had been directed by Secretary of War John Weeks.


In response to the Navy's first helium-filled rigid airshipShenandoah crashing in a storm in September 1925, killing 14 of the crew, and the loss of three seaplanes on a flight from the West Coast to Hawaii, Mitchell issued a statement accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense."[42] In October 1925, a charge with eight specifications was proffered against Mitchell on the direct order of President Calvin Coolidge, accusing him of violation of the 96th Article of War, an omnibus article that Mitchell's chief counsel, Congressman Frank Reid, declared to be "unconstitutional" as a violation of free speech.[43] The court martial began in early November and lasted for seven weeks.

The youngest of the 12 judges was Major General Douglas MacArthur, who later described the order to sit on Mitchell's court-martial as "one of the most distasteful orders I ever received."[44] Of the thirteen judges, none had aviation experience and three were removed by defense challenges for bias, including Major General Charles P. Summerall, the president of the court. The case was then presided over by Major General Robert Lee Howze.[45] Among those who testified for Mitchell were Eddie Rickenbacker, Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Ira Eaker, Robert Olds, and Fiorello La Guardia. The trial attracted significant interest, and public opinion supported Mitchell.[46]

However, the court found the truth or falsity of Mitchell's accusations to be immaterial to the charge and on December 17, 1925, found him "guilty of all specifications and of the charge". The court suspended him from active duty for five years without pay, which President Coolidge later amended to half-pay.[4] The generals ruling in the case wrote, "The Court is thus lenient because of the military record of the Accused during the World War."[47] MacArthur (who himself in 1951 was removed from duty for similar reasons) later said he had voted to acquit, and Fiorello La Guardia said that MacArthur's "not guilty" ballot had been found in the judges' anteroom.[48] MacArthur felt "that a senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors in rank and with accepted doctrine."[44]

Later life[edit]

Mitchell resigned instead on February 1, 1926, and spent the next decade writing and preaching air power to all who would listen.[4] However, his departure from the service sharply reduced his ability to influence military policy and public opinion.

Mitchell viewed the election of his one-time antagonist Franklin D. Roosevelt as advantageous for air power, and met with him early in 1932 to brief him on his concepts for a unification of the military in a Department of Defense. His ideas intrigued and interested Roosevelt. Mitchell believed he might receive an appointment as Assistant Secretary of War for Air or perhaps even Secretary of War in a Roosevelt administration, but neither prospect materialized.[4]

In 1926, Mitchell made his home with his wife Elizabeth at the 120-acre (0.5 km2) Boxwood Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, which remained his primary residence until his death.[49] He died of a variety of ailments, including a bad heart and an extreme case of influenza,[4] in a hospital in New York City on February 19, 1936, at the age of 56, and was buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[50]

Mitchell's son, John, joined the Army in 1941. Promoted to first lieutenant in the 4th Armored Division, he died from a blood infection in 1942.[51] Mitchell's first cousin, the Canadian George Croil, went on to secure an autonomous status for the Royal Canadian Air Force and in 1938 became its first Chief of the Air Staff.[52]

Military and civilian awards[edit]

Note – Incomplete list. The dates indicate the year the award was presented and not necessarily the date it was earned.

Mitchell's military awards[edit]

Mitchell as Assistant Chief of Air Service (in non-regulation uniform)
The wreck of the Indiana in the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay. In the background the remains of San Marcos are visible.
Frankfurt burning during bombing tests
1921 cartoon in the Chicago Tribune
A 2,000 lb. bomb "near-miss" severely damages Ostfriesland at the stern hull plates
A scene taken from Mitchell's court-martial, 1925. This scene was recreated for the 1955 movie The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. Note the "turned-down" collar uniform worn by Mitchell, for which the Air Service had campaigned for several years.
Mitchell with his wife Elizabeth, 1925

By C.V. Glines
6/12/2006 • Aviation History Magazine

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.

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.

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.

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.

This feature was originally published in the September 1997 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe toAviation History magazine today!

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