William “Billy” Mitchell
Mitchell used his court-martial in 1925 as a public forum to warn the nation of its almost defenseless position, and attacked those responsible by stating, “The Army and Navy are treasonable for not improving the Air Service – for violating the public trust.”
- In 1899 he served with distinction in the campaign against rebel Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines.
- First American airman ever to fly over enemy lines.
- In 1901 he helped establish telegraphic communications with the U.S in Alaska.
- In 1916 he learned to fly and commanded an aviation section in the Signal Corps.
- He joined General Pershing’s staff in Europe in July 1917 and helped form the American Expeditionary Forces Aviation Program.
- Supporting the St. Mihiel offensive, Mitchell organized 98 squadrons into pursuit, bombers and observation over 80 miles.
- From July 13th to 21st, 1921 his bombers demonstrated the value of air power by sinking three captured German warships. They later sank three obsolete U.S. battleships.
- He was the unofficial leader in the struggle for the recognition of air power, and in 1925 he was court-martialed for his view, controversial statements and articles regarding air power.
- In 1946 Congress posthumously awarded him a special Medal of Honor.
He was born in Nice, France in 1879, and he grew up in Milwaukee. At age 18 he enlisted as a private in the First Wisconsin Infantry Volunteers. His military career blossomed with exceptional speed, and at the age of 23 Mitchell became the youngest captain in the U.S. Army.
During these years Mitchell had served with energy and distinction in the Army Signal Corps, building the first telegraph lines in Cuba, battling insurrectionists in the Philippines, and helping to complete the Alaska telegraph system, which brought this remote northern region in communication with the rest of the world.
In 1913, at the age of 32, he became the youngest officer ever assigned to the General Staff of the War Department in Washington. He was one of the first to understand and advocate the need for a stronger and more independent Air Force. But most of his contemporary officers considered the airplane “a risky contraption” of little or no value as a weapon. But Mitchell said, “Men will someday wage war in the sky.” When the United States entered World War I in 1917, it had only 54 air-worthy airplanes and 35 flying officers. Mitchell became the first American officer to fly over enemy lines.
As aviation officer of the American Expeditionary Force, he organized the first all-American Air Squadrons, such as the famed “Hat-in-the-Ring” Squadron. One of his protégés, Eddie V. Rickenbacker, became an Ace in May of 1918. Mitchell moved his American air units to the Chateau-Thierry sector where Baron Manfried von Richthofen, the “Red-Baron”, led his airmen against the growing Allied air squadrons.
In July the Germans planned to unleash a major ground offensive and the Allied commanders, realizing the danger of the attack, desperately sought to learn where the Germans were concentrating their power. One American volunteered to find out. Flying low over the lines, Mitchell discovered thousands of Germans concentrating close to the Marne River. He then raced back to report the German strategy to his high command. The Allies launched a surprise attack on the German flank and scored a major victory, and Mitchell’s lone reconnaissance flight was hailed as one of the major aerial exploits of the war.
To support the St. Mihiel offensive in the Verdun sector he organized the 98 squadrons under his tactical command into pursuit, observation and bombardment groups and massed them along the eighty mile front. His 1,500 planes went out, wave after wave. It was the first terrifying display of massive airpower. The Germans reacted too late as they faced aerial tactical superiority for the first time. It proved to be a victory for aerial bombing tests.
President Harding was among the gallery of Observers and promised the creation of a powerful and independent Air Force if the airplanes could sink warships. It was to be a spectacle of air power versus sea power!
General Pershing watched grimly as Army and Navy pilots quickly dispatched a submarine, a destroyer and even the cruiser Frankfurt. But the real test was the battleship Ostfriesland, so heavily armor plated that many naval experts considered her unsinkable. The Ostfriesland was tough; in the first attack she took six direct hits and stayed afloat. Bombing stopped for an inspection. After the inspection, she took six more direct hits–four by 1,000 pound bombs–and, though severely damaged, she still stayed afloat. Before the next day’s attack, Mitchell told his pilots: “All we have done will be forgotten if we fail to kill and bury the Ostfriesland.” The next day, his boys did the job for him. Eleven direct hits with 1,000 pound and 2,000 pound bombs sent the Ostfriesland to the bottom.
It should have been the end of an era of frustration for American military aviation, but unfortunately such was not the case. President Harding forgot his promise to build an Air Force. By June 1924 the total Air Service strength fell to only 750 airworthy planes. It was a sad state of affairs for the world’s most powerful nation, and Mitchell said, “There are those in Washington who should be severely taken to task and court-martialed for their deliberate neglect of aviation. Today we haven’t a single airplane in service capable of engaging in war with a first class enemy.” By now his opponents had had enough of his bitter agitation and in 1925 he was demoted and sent to San Antonio, Texas as commander of the Eighth Corps Area.
Mitchell’s feelings didn’t reach the breaking point, however until the dirigible Shenandoah crashed in bad weather while on a publicity flight, killing 14 airmen. Among them was his friend Zachary Lansdowne. Mitchell lashed out bitterly. “Brave airmen are being sent to their deaths by armchair admirals who don’t care about air safety.” He charged “Incompetence, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense”. Mitchell’s comments had become too strong for the government “powers that be” to tolerate. President Coolidge ordered that he be court-martialed for insubordination. He faced his trial eagerly, confidently and defiantly, using it as public forum to warn the nation of its almost defenseless position and attacking those responsible. In the end, the court-martial board, which included his boyhood friend Douglas MacArthur, found him guilty of violating the 96th Article of War. Only MacArthur dissented as Mitchell received a sentence of suspension of rank, pay, and command for five years. His subsequent resignation brought a tragic end to a brilliant military career.
He died in 1936 at his Virginia estate, a disappointed but unrepentant prophet of airpower. His vision of the future, sometimes tragically, proved correct. In 1920 he said, “German militarism endangers the world”. In 1917 he had predicted “The British Isles will some day be vulnerable to mass aerial attack.” In 1919 he told General Pershing, “Airborne armies can be dropped behind enemy lines with devastating effect.” In 1925 he warned “Japan may unleash a war in the Pacific. She could attack America by striking first at Hawaii, some fine Sunday morning.” “Our future in this country,” he said, “depends upon air power.” In 1930 he said, “In their lifetime my children will see aviation become the greatest means of national defense and transportation all over the world and possibly beyond the world into interstellar space”.
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