In 1906 — two years before he witnessed a flying demonstration by Orville Wright — Billy Mitchell, an instructor at the Army Signal School, saw the future of war: in the coming years, battles would be fought and won in the air. After coming home from WWI with a reputation as a top combat airman, he campaigned for increased investment in air power at the cost of maintaining a large surface fleet.
When his pleas fell on deaf ears, he became more strident and more outspoken, believing the future of the United States to be at stake. So strong was his desire to be heard that he openly criticized his superiors, angering Army and Navy administrators and at least three presidents in the process. An abrasive and caustic man, he was court-martialed in 1925, found guilty, and suspended, essentially ending his military career…but not before organizing a demonstration that showed the potential of air superiority. Billy Mitchell died in 1936, years before he could dream of seeing his beliefs come good — but his impact on military doctrine cannot be overstated.
With this In Memoriam, we’ll be looking at the life and legacy of this complicated and controversial man.
Early Life and Career
Billy Mitchell was born on December 29th, 1879, to Wisconsin Senator John L. Mitchell and his wife Harriet. Mitchell grew up near Milwaukee, WI, and enlisted as a private at the age of 18. His father’s political influence granted young Mitchell an opportunity for a commission, and he joined the US Army Signal Corps (which develops, tests, and manages communications and information systems for the US Military) with the goal of fighting in the Spanish-American War.
The war ended before he saw any action, but he stayed with the Army Signal Corps, and in 1900 was sent to the District of Alaska to oversee the establishment of a communication system to connect the many isolated outposts and gold rush camps. It was there where Mitchell, now a Lieutenant, read about the monumental glider experiments performed by Otto Lilienthal, who was the first person to document repeatable, successful flights with unpowered aircraft. These experiments had a profound impact on Mitchell, and in 1906, while an instructor at the Army Signal School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he offered his now-famous prediction about the future of warfare.
But it wasn’t the only of Mitchell’s predictions that came true. In 1912, upon a tour of the battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War, he concluded that war with Japan was inevitable. Later, he went so far as to predict that Japan would attack Pearl Harbor without a formal declaration of war.
In 1916, at age 37, he finally took private flying lessons at great personal expense (he was disqualified from formal military training due to age and rank). In July, 1916, he was promoted to Major and appointed Chief of the Air Services of the First Army.
Mitchell was sent to France as an observer in 1917, a task for which he was uniquely suited, thanks to his exceptional organizational and writing skills, and the fact that he spoke French. While there, he began collaborating with senior aviation leadership from Britain and France, who taught Mitchell the basics of aerial combat strategy and major air operations. Among these was British Major General Hugh “Boom” Trenchard, himself known as “Father of the Royal Air Force,” who had been establishing the airpower playbook for years before Mitchell arrived.
At the onset of America’s entry into WWI, the Army Signal Corps Aviation Section (the “air force” then) had just over 50 aircraft, many not operational. Just a year and a half later, Billy Mitchell, now a Brigadier General, was given command of all American air units in General Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force, and orchestrated the air campaign of the Battle of St. Mihiel, coordinating nearly 1,500 Allied aircraft. What started inauspiciously ended as a major triumph — a testament to both America’s industrial prowess and to Mitchell’s exceptional command.
As Mitchell once wrote about the battle, “It was the first time in history in which an air force, cooperating with an army, was to act according to a broad strategical plan.” And it was a success. This further cemented Mitchell’s beliefs about the power of controlling the skies. “[WWI had] conclusively shown that aviation was a dominant element in the making of war, even in the relatively small way in which it was used,” he wrote.
Though given his initial command because of his status, he proved to be a daring and uniquely qualified leader. For his actions, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal.
More importantly, these successes contributed to his core belief that the Air Service had to be well-prepared at the start of the next great war, or the US could potentially lose before it ever fought.
He would spend the rest of his career working towards that preparedness…and openly challenging those who opposed.
Post-War: A Personal Crusade Begins (1919-1921)
Mitchell knew very well that the “War to End All Wars” had accomplished something short of its moniker, and that “If a nation ambitious for universal conquest gets off to a flying start in a war of the future, it may be able to control the whole world more easily than a nation has controlled a continent in the past.”
To his horror, at the end of the war, demobilization was the order of the day. Of the nearly 200,000 officers and men who were assigned to the Air Service at the end of the war, only 10% remained. He was appalled.
To reverse that trend and prepare for the next conflict, he encouraged pilots to set world speed records to raise public consciousness. He organized long-distance air routes and simulated bombing attacks on New York. He proposed a special corps of mechanics, troop-carrying aircraft, bombers capable of transatlantic range, and—most notably—bombsights.
But Mitchell knew these small victories could only accomplish so much. True preparedness would require a fundamental change in thinking at the top levels of military leadership. He took every opportunity to advocate for the establishment of a separate, independent air force at the cost of spending on the surface fleet…which put him in direct conflict with US Navy leadership, notably Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt (this was the first future or sitting president Mitchell’s behavior would incense).
Understanding what Mitchell was up against requires an understanding of Mahanian Doctrine. In short, to those in senior leadership positions, a country’s military might was measured in battleships.
Of course, Mitchell disagreed vehemently. And if senior military leadership wouldn’t listen to him, he would plead his case to congress, media, public, and anyone else who would listen.
Mitchell’s beliefs can be summarized briefly:
- Dreadnoughts had become obsolete, and could be destroyed easily by bombs dropped from aircraft.
- There should exist an independent Air Force, equal to the Army and Navy.
- A force of anti-warship airplanes could defend a coast more economically than coastal guns and naval vessels, and that the use of “floating bases” was necessary to defend the nation from naval threats.
- The United States needed the ability to strike at the industrial heart of enemy powers via strategic bombing. (Please note that this is not a complete representation of his beliefs.)
The media by and large took his side, and argued that Mitchell should be allowed to conduct tests on actual warships, either captured or soon to be scuttled.
He would soon get his chance.
Project B: The Sinking of the Ostfriesland (1921)
After some pressure from the media and from congress, Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels agreed to a demonstration, held on July 20, 1921, whereby Mitchell’s aircraft would try to sink a captured German ship called the Ostfriesland.
True to form, Mitchell oversaw every aspect of preparing, right down to the building of the one-ton bombs.
The rules of the test favored the survivability of the ship — Navy construction experts would get to examine the ship between each bombing run—but Mitchell was never one to let rules get in the way of proving his point. Directing the action from his biplane Osprey, he had his airmen bombard the Ostfriesland…and in a 20-minute period, it sank to the bottom of the sea.
Though the results were “dubious” to some…he had broken the rules, and perhaps a well-trained damage control team could patch the hull…the captured battleship was indeed sunk by aerial bombs — a fact that was impossible to ignore.
He replicated the results by sinking the retired battleship USS Alabama in September of the same year, angering President Warren Harding (the second President to react this way to Mitchell), who didn’t want any show of weakness before the Washington Naval Conference.
Mitchell’s campaign was tireless. To fight the status quo, he had to resort to stronger and stronger rhetoric, often agitating—even embarrassing— his superiors. “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 said publicly. He ruffled a few feathers, to say the least.
As a punishment, senior staff sent him to Hawaiii, but he only returned with a scathing review of the lack of preparedness. Then, they sent him to Asia…but it only served to deepen his conviction that war with Japan was inevitable. These two anecdotes are very revealing of the man’s character and ambition: he knew he was being exiled, but still did his best to warn leadership of vulnerabilities. This was, for all intents and purposes, classic Billy Mitchell.
When he returned in 1924, he offered yet another eerily accurate prediction: “His theory was that the military strength of the United State was so great, in Japanese eyes, that Japan could win a war only by using the most advanced methods possible. Those methods would include the extensive use of aircraft,” wrote Gen. James Doolittle in his book I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: An Autobiography.
One very important thing remains to be said about the sinking of the Ostfriesland. Just days after the demonstration Congress funded the very first aircraft carrier. Probably not a coincidence.
The Court-Martial (1925)
He kept crusading, and little by little, funding for aviation was increased. Still, though, leadership dragged its feet. And more airmen were paying the price, as the military’s aging aircraft were becoming dangerous to fly. A Navy plane en route to Hawaii a crashed into the sea, and just two days later, a dirigible over Ohio crashed in inclement weather. Mitchell, now especially angry, stepped up the scathing rhetoric.
In September 1925, he issued a stunning statement:
“These incidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments.”
This proved to be the final straw.
One month later, a charge with eight specifications was proffered against Mitchell under the 96th Article of War. This came from the direct order of President Calvin Coolidge, the third president to take umbrage at Mitchell’s methods.
Mitchell welcomed the court-martial as it forced the public to take notice.
Unsurprisingly, Mitchell was found guilty of all specifications and of the charge. He was suspended from active duty for five years without pay, which was amended by President Coolidge to half pay. Instead, he resigned on February 1st, 1926, and spent the next decade campaigning for air power to anyone he could.
Billy Mitchell died on February 19th, 1936 at the age of 56. He would never know how right he was.
The Measure of a Man
Billy Mitchell’s legacy is complicated. Was he caustic and overzealous in his pursuit of a unified, separate Air Force? Yes. Was his court-martial and subsequent guilty verdict deserved? Absolutely. He was openly insubordinate to his superiors—who, by the way, were great men, American heroes.
But he was absolutely right.
Without him, we may not have been prepared to fight WWII in the air. “Many of his observations were proven during WWII, and his ultimate goal of an independent air force was realized in September 1947, over 11 years after Mitchell’s death,” wrote Lt. Col. Johnny R. Jones, USAF, in the Foreword of his compilation of Mitchell’s unpublished writings.
He was decades ahead of other airpower theorists of his time, and without him, who knows what the state of air services would have been in WWII? The answer to that questions…and so many others…would never be known.
Billy Mitchell was a fine commander, an exceptional coordinator, and, above all, a man of great courage who knowingly sacrificed his career to challenge the status quo and to educate politicians, policy-makers, and the public on matter of aviation. He was a visionary who saw the future of airpower so clearly that his words still ring true now. We owe him a debt we can never properly repay.
Today, we honor Billy Mitchell, as we honor so many others for their sacrifices in serving our great nation. Thank you, Billy, and thank you to all those who serve and have served.
- In limiting the scope of this article, I’ve done a major disservice to two men who contributed a great deal to aviation in Mitchell’s time. The first is General Benjamin Foulois, Mitchell’s chief rival and an aviator who learned to fly the first military planes purchased from the Wright Brothers. The second is Major General Mason Patrick, whose steady hand brought about the establishment of the Army Air Corps in 1926 — and who often had to clean up the messes left behind in the constant sparring between Mitchell and Foulois.
- It would be disingenuous to claim that everyone in senior leadership positions disagreed with Billy Mitchell. Admiral William S. Sims once said “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 airplane carriers will inevitably knock the other fleet out.”
- A by-product of my decision to focus on Mitchell’s great courage in sparring with his superiors is that I haven’t done justice to his exceptional training and organizational skills. There’s a wealth of information on the subject out there on the internet; my favorite was “Billy Mitchell and the Great War, Reconsidered,” by James J. Cooke, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Mississippi.
- Mitchell was a gifted writer, and his output was prodigious: more than 60 articles for publication, several newspaper series, and five books, all of which aimed to provide a “public understanding of the promise and potential of air power.” – “William ‘Billy’ Mitchell: Air Power Visionary,” C.V. Glines, Historynet.com
- During the court-martial, Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur voted “not guilty” on the basis that a senior officer should not be silenced for disagreeing with his superiors in rank and with accepted doctrine. MacArthur later said that the order to sit on the court-martial was one of the most distasteful he ever received.
Just one more note…I’ve never served, and as hard as I have tried to get my terminology correct and not be disrespectful, I admit that I may have made a misstep. Please feel free to correct me. – Thanks