General William 'Billy' Mitchell

Aviation Pioneer (1879-1936) – 17-04-1998

The most famous US aviator of World War l...

a pioneer of air-power...

court-martialled for his prophecy that Japan might cripple the US navy at Pearl Harbor...

a voice in the wilderness...

whose reputation was restored by Congress after World War ll...

and immortalised by Gary Cooper in the film of his life.

Compiled by Christopher Long
an English cousin of Billy Mitchell

Mitchell Family Genealogy

General William 'Billy' Mitchell (1879-1936) was the renowned pioneer of US air power and generally regarded as one of the most far-sighted military leaders of his age. He also happened to be my cousin! Immediately after World War l, he predicted that air bombardment would dominate warfare in the future. In the early 1920s he horrified and angered US military strategists with his claim that bombs could sink ships and predicted the attack on Pearl Harbour 20 years later. When they refused to believe him he successfully bombed and sank warships to prove his point. Furious at his outspoken criticism of out-dated military thinking, he was court-marshalled for 'insubordination'. He never lived to see his predictions proved correct but was posthumously awarded a special Congressional Medal of Honour in 1948. Sadly too, he never saw the 1956 Gary Cooper film which restored his reputation as a national hero. Of Scottish origin, he grew up in Milwaukee with my grandmother, Christian Mitchell Croil, whose faith in him never wavered. Mitchell's skills may well have influenced her brother (and Mitchell's cousin), the Canadian World War 1 'ace', Air Marshal George Mitchell Croil who, in World War ll, was in charge of the training, in Canada, of thousands of British and other Allied pilots. Mitchell gave his name to Mitchell Air Base (now the General Mitchell International Airport) in the USA, just as Croil is remembered by Croil Air Force Base in Canada.

See below for full and thumbnail images of Billy Mitchell. For an exhibition celebrating the achievements of General 'Billy' Mitchell (with photographs of him before, during and after World War l; with his friend Orville Wright; with his aircraft; the test-bombing of warships; and as portrayed in 1956 by Gary Cooper in 'The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell') see: The Billy Mitchell Exhibition.

Brief Biography

(From 'Webster's American Military Biographies' (Merriam Co., 1978 – Billy Mitchell, pp 284-285) plus additional information from other sources:
WILLIAM 'BILLY' MITCHELL is the most famous and controversial figure in American air power history. He was the son of the wealthy Wisconsin senator Colonel John Lendrum Mitchell and his second wife Harriet Becker – and a grandson of millionaire railroad maker Alexander Mitchell of Milwaukee. He was born in Nice, France, on December 28 [29?], 1879, while his parents were on an extended tour of Europe. When he was three the family returned to Milwaukee where he was educated at Racine College and at Columbian University (now George Washington University, Washington, DC). He left Columbian in 1898 before graduating to enlist in the 1st Wisconsin Infantry as a junior lieutenant in the Spanish-American war, receiving a field commission in the Signals Corps that same year. He was an outstanding junior officer, displaying a rare degree of initiative, courage and leadership.

He served in Cuba and the Philippines and distinguished himself in 1901-1902, under the most difficult conditions, by establishing a communications system for the Army throughout the wilderness of Alaska. After various duties he attended the School of the Line and the Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1907-1909.

After duty on the Mexican border, he was attached in 1912 to the General Staff – at the time its youngest member – and in 1915 was assigned to the aviation section of the Signal Corps. As a 38 year-old major in the US Army Air-Service he learned to fly in 1916, training with Walter E. Lees and taking his first solo flight in a Curtiss JN4 at the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station, Virginia, in the spring of 1917. At this time he became a close friend of Orville Wright who, with his brother, had pioneered aviation in the USA and from whom many of Mitchell's military aircraft were obtained. Thus began Mitchell's twenty years' advocacy of the use of military air power.

He was already in Europe as an observer when the United States entered World War I in 1917. In April 1917, only a few days after the United States had entered the war, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell met extensively with British and French air leaders and studied their operations. He quickly took charge and began preparations for the American air units that were to follow. The story of American aviation mobilisation in World War I was not a glorious one. It took months before pilots arrived in France and even longer for any aircraft. Nonetheless, Mitchell rapidly earned a reputation as a daring, flamboyant, and tireless leader. As the first American to fly over enemy lines in combat, he also proved to be a highly effective air commander, advancing rapidly in rank and responsibility to become Air Officer of the American Expeditionary Forces and Air Officer of I Corps (a combat post more to his liking). He then established and headed the US Air Service. In 1918 he was appointed Commander of all Allied Air Services – the same year that his brother, John Mitchell, was killed on the Western Front in France.

In September 1918 he successfully attempted a mass bombing attack over German positions with nearly 1,500 planes as part of the attack on the St. Mihiel salient. As commander of the combined air service of the army group, he engaged in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, leading a large bombing force in a behind-the-lines air strike. But his plans for strategic bombing of the German homeland and for massive parachute invasions were cut short by the Armistice. Recognised as the top American combat airman of the war (he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and several foreign decorations), Mitchell, nevertheless, managed to alienate most of his superiors – both flying and non-flying – during his 18 months in France. Returning to the US in early 1919, Mitchell was appointed the deputy chief of the Air Service, retaining his one-star rank under Gen. Charles T. Menoher and later Mason Patrick.

In the early 1920s he outspokenly advocated the creation of an air force independent of the army and continued working on improvements in aircraft and their use. But his great crusade was his claim that aircraft were capable of sinking ships – even rendering the battleship obsolete. To the fury of his superiors and the Navy Department, he proved his point at Chesapeake Bay in 1921 and again in 1923, by test-bombing and sinking several captured and elderly battleships (among them Ostfriesland) which were sent to the bottom of the Atlantic.

In April 1925 he was transferred to the minor post of Air Officer of the VIII Corps area in San Antonio, Texas, and reversion to the rank of colonel. Although such demotions were not unusual at the time – Mason Patrick himself had gone from major general to colonel upon returning to the Corps of Engineers in 1919 – the move was nonetheless widely seen as punishment and exile.

He was persistently critical of the low state of preparation of the tiny Air Service and of the poor quality of its equipment. Clearly there was a streak of arrogance and intolerance in his nature and he was one of the first to recognise the power of harnessing media attention. Frequently photographed with friends and acquaintances such as the Prince of Wales, Will Rogers, Henry Ford, and Orville Wright, he easily upset colleagues and superiors. Thus it was when the Navy dirigible (a gas-filled air-ship) Shenandoah crashed in a storm, killing 14 of the crew, Mitchell issued his famous 1925 statement to the press accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defence." He was, as he expected, court-martialled and used the December 1925 trial as a platform for his views. He was found guilty of insubordination and suspended from active duty for five years without pay. (Note: The conviction vote was not unanimous. A single dissenting vote was cast by Col. Douglas MacArthur)

Mitchell elected to resign instead, as of 1 February 1926, and retired to a farm near Middleburg, Virginia. He continued to promote air power and to warn of the dangers of being outstripped by other nations, particularly Japan. In the early 1920s he had already hypothesised a possible attack by Japanese aircraft launched from great carrier ships and directed at the Hawaiian Islands (twenty years before the Pearl Harbor attack) but from 1926 onwards he continued to write and preach the gospel of air power to all who would listen. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Navy man, was viewed by Mitchell as advantageous for air power. In fact, he believed the new president would appoint him as assistant secretary of war for air or perhaps even secretary of defence in a new and unified military organisation. Such hopes never materialised.

Mitchell died in New York City on February 19, 1936, of a variety of ailments, including a bad heart and influenza. His plea for an independent air force was met to some degree by the creation of GHQ Air Force in March 1935. While subsequent events, including the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, proved the validity of many of his prophesies and many of his ideas were adopted by the Army Air Force in World War II, the utter decisiveness he claimed for air power had not by then materialised.

In 1946, a grateful Congress posthumously promoted him to the rank of Major General and authorised a special Congressional Medal in his honour, which was presented to his son John in 1948 by Gen. Carl Spaatz, chief of staff of the newly established independent air force.

In 1970, Billy Mitchell was invested among 'These We Honor' at the International Aerospace Museum's 'Hall of Fame' in San Diego, California.

Among Mitchell's published works were 'Our Air Force: The Keystone of National Defense', 1921; 'Winged Defense', 1925; and 'Skyways: A Book of Modern Aeronautics', 1930.

'The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell' (100 min.) – 1955 motion picture.
CAST: Gary Cooper, Rod Steiger, Ralph Bellamy, Elizabeth Montgomery, Darren McGavin, Charles, Bickford, Jack Lord, Peter Graves.
CREDITS: Writers, Milton Sperling, Emmet Lavery; Producer, Milton Sperling; Director, Otto Preminger.
SUMMARY: Brigadier General Billy Mitchell has devoted his life to the military, and to developing a superior air defense force for the U.S. When top army brass fail to recognize the importance of air power following its crucial role in winning WWI, Mitchell initiates a campaign to change their minds a campaign that will ultimately lead to his demotion and the most controversial military trial in U.S. history.

Biographies of General 'Billy' Mitchell

There are several biographies of Mitchell and the most balanced and useful treatment of this important airman is unquestionably Alfred F. Hurley's, 'Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power', revised ed. (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1975). Hurley deals sparingly with the general's early career and personal life, concentrating instead on his war experiences, the post-war years, and his theories of air power employment. Mitchell was the first prominent American to espouse publicly a vision of strategic air power that would dominate future war. He believed that aircraft were inherently offensive and were strategic weapons that revolutionised war by allowing a direct attack on the "vital centres" of an enemy country. These vital centres were the mighty industrial areas that produced the vast amount of armaments and equipment so necessary in modern war. He did not see this as either illegal or immoral. In fact, given the trench carnage of the First World War that slaughtered millions, he argued that air power provided a quicker and more humane method of waging war. To carry out effectively this mission of strategic attack, he argued that it was necessary to separate aviation from the Army and Navy because they were too traditional and surface-oriented. Mitchell's persistent jibes at the Navy were especially nasty, and Hurley argues they not only fostered bitter inter-service rivalry but also spurred the Navy to greater efforts in developing carrier-based aviation – the precise opposite of what Mitchell intended. Nonetheless, Hurley concludes these shortcomings were more than balanced by a vision and foresight regarding the future of war, later proved substantially correct, that sustained the fledgling air force during its early and difficult years.

There are several other published accounts of Mitchell's life. Most are hagiographies written during or soon after World War II depicting him as a prophet without honour and as a martyr for air power. Surprisingly, few even discuss his air power theories and concentrate instead on the sensational aspects of his career. Of this genre, the best is Isaac Don Levine's 'Mitchell: Pioneer of Air Power' (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943; revised in 1958 but without significant new material). Levine reveals Mitchell's personal life, including his early years as a junior officer, basing his story largely on letters and interviews. Although no footnotes or bibliography are included, Levine obviously did a great deal of research. Unfortunately, besides employing an overly breathless prose, the book suffers from a strong bias: Mitchell is glorified and his very real character flaws are ignored. Mitchell was vain, petulant, racist, overbearing and egotistical. Although his aggressive advocacy of air power was entertaining and won much publicity, it is questionable if his antics actually swayed public opinion or that of Congress. Indeed, it could even be argued that his incessant and vicious attacks on the Navy did more harm than good and induced an animosity between sailors and airmen that has never really abated.

Three biographies that are, frankly, of little value are Emile Gauvreau and Lester Cohen's 'Billy Mitchell: Founder of Our Air Force and Prophet Without Honor' (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1942); Roger Burlingame's 'General Billy Mitchell: Champion of Air Defense' (New York: McGrawHill, 1952); and Ruth Mitchell's 'My Brother Bill: The Life of General "Billy" Mitchell' (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1953). This last does, however, quote heavily from Mitchell's unpublished manuscript describing his tour in Alaska from 1901 to 1903. This little-known story of the Signal Corps's efforts to string a telegraph line across the territory is quite interesting. Another work that is a cut above those just mentioned is Burke Davis's 'The Billy Mitchell Affair' (New York: Random House, 1967). This treatment is unique in that it covers in some detail Mitchell's famous report of his visit to Hawaii in 1924 in which he predicted a future war with Japan that opened with a carrier-based air attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, Davis had access to the transcript of Mitchell's court-martial. His coverage of that event is fairly extensive, and although his treatment is even-handed, it tends to put the airman in a favourable light and as a victim of Army conservatism.

A doctoral dissertation that takes a different view of the court proceedings is Michael L. Grumelli's 'Trial of Faith: The Dissent and Court Martial of Billy Mitchell' (Rutgers University, 1991). This is an interesting and detailed account of Mitchell's 1925 trial for insubordination arguing that the general was convicted not only because he was guilty as charged but also because his defence lawyer was woefully inept. Bungled cross-examinations and a clever prosecutor produced testimony from expert witnesses that revealed virtually all of Mitchell's charges of military incompetence and negligence to be unfounded. Grumelli concludes that Mitchell's decision to provoke a public court-martial was a serious miscalculation that quickly revealed his "tremendous arrogance, extreme self-righteousness, gross exaggerations and blatant inaccuracies". He further concludes that Mitchell, who was surprised at his conviction, spent the rest of his life vainly seeking vindication, but instead found himself fading quickly into obscurity, devoid of either influence or importance. His rejection by Roosevelt for a senior post in the administration was the last straw.

Raymond R. Flugel's PhD dissertation, 'United States Air Power Doctrine: A Study of the Influence of William Mitchell and Giulio Douhet at the Air Corps Tactical School, 1921-35' (University of Oklahoma, 1965) argues that there was a direct link between the two air theorists. Flugel even argues that Mitchell's writings owed a heavy debt to Douhet, a debt never acknowledged. He bases this charge on the discovery of a partial translation of 'Command of the Air' (published in Italian in 1921) in the Air Service archives, dated 1922. This was at least a decade prior to the translation of a French edition done for the Air Corps by Dorothy Benedict and George Kenney. Unfortunately, this discovery, which is indeed an important one, is totally wasted by the author's flawed methodology. Flugel attempts to show plagiarism by a textual analysis of 'Command of the Air', Mitchell's writings of the mid-1920s, and the textbooks of the same era. He actually reproduces several paragraphs, underlining similar words and phrases to show their similarity. However, instead of using the newly discovered 1922 translation – which presumably would have been available to Mitchell – Flugel instead relies on the Dino Ferrari translation of 1942! Because the two versions have significant differences, Flugel's charges remain unproven.

Published over two decades after his death are Mitchell's 'Memoirs of World War I: From Start to Finish of Our Greatest War' (New York: Random House, 1960; parts of the diaries were serialised in Liberty magazine in 1928). This is a compilation of his experiences in France from April 1917 to the Armistice based on the diaries he kept at the time (now lost). As with any such work, it is not clear how many of the opinions and predictions presented here were of later device. Not surprisingly, Mitchell comes across looking quite prescient as to the unfolding of the war. There are, however, some notable aspects to this book. The distaste and low regard Mitchell held for Benjamin Foulois, his nominal superior, is apparent. It is a pity that two of the most senior and most important American airmen, who should have been close allies in their advocacy of air power, were bitter enemies. Also apparent is Mitchell's remarkable curiosity about all things regarding air warfare. This book is replete with descriptions of myriad and diverse details such as what time weather reports arrive at a fighter squadron and in what format, the construction of the shock absorbers on a captured German aircraft, and the type of parachutes used by balloon observers. One other revealing aspect of this memoir is Mitchell's already emerging disdain for "non-flying officers" in Washington who "know nothing about air power," yet try to direct its course. According to this book, Mitchell returned to the United States in 1919 already convinced of the need for a separate service liberated from the control of narrow-minded surface officers.

Another of Mitchell's own works that should be noted is his 'General Greely: The Story of a Great American' (NY: Putnam's, 1935). Adolphus W. Greely was one of the more interesting characters of his era. He fought in the Civil War, strung telegraph wire across the south-west United States, and was an internationally known Arctic explorer. In 1887 he was promoted to brigadier general and named Chief Signal Officer of the US Army, a post he held until his retirement in 1906. During those two decades he modernised the Signal Corps dramatically, but perhaps most significantly by pushing for a rejuvenation of the Balloon Crops and by encouraging experimentation in heavier-than-air flight. Although he had retired before the Wright Brother's had sold their first plane to the Army's Signal Corps, Mitchell credits him for creating an atmosphere of innovation that made such a contract possible. Of importance, Mitchell uses this biography as a vehicle for recounting some of his own experiences as a junior officer in Greely's Signal Corps. As a result, Mitchell gives us some insights into his activities during the Spanish-American War, his tour in the Philippines during the insurrection there, and of his rugged adventures in Alaska. Mitchell wrote this biography in 1935, the year Greely died. It came out in print the following year, soon after Mitchell's own death.

Billy Mitchell Solos At Newport News

"Jimmie Johnson was assigned to teach Major Mitchell to fly and Walter Lees gave him some dual instruction also. They found him a very apt pupil who was ready to solo after a few hours – four, I believe – of dual instruction. I well remember that fall day when Jimmy turned him loose for his solo. As was customary at that time, when a student was making his first solo flight, all other pilots would land and taxi their planes to the side of the landing strip for the safety of all concerned and a white handkerchief was tied to the plane about to solo. Mitchell's take-off was uneventful, but when he circled the field and came in to bring his plane into a landing position, he found that he had gained more altitude than on previous turns, because he was minus the accustomed weight of the instructor in the airplane with him, so when he approached the previously arranged spot, he came in too fast for the three-point landing and the momentum of the machine was sufficient to take him off the ground again. He pulled the plane up, making a half loop and landed and nosed over. There hung Billy Mitchell upside down, strapped in his seat by his safety belt. Paul, (Culver) who was standing nearby, ran over to him, then released his belt, and helped him to his feet. No doubt his pride was hurt, but he wasn't and when Paul assured him of that he took a snap shot of the plane, turned turtle, with the small Argus camera which he often wore strapped to his belt for just such occasions. Forever after whenever an airplane turned turtle on landing it was called a "Mitchell." Paul gave a copy of this picture to Brigadier General Mitchell at one of the aircraft shows in Detroit and recalled with him many memories of those days at Newport News. At the same time, Walter Lees, then chief test pilot of the Packard Aircraft Co. presented him with the wheel of the airplane in which he had soloed." From 'The Day The Airmail Began' by Edith Dodd Culver Cub Flyers Enterprises Inc.

Walter Remembers The Day

"Billy was a grand guy – and the first thing he told Jimmie when he started training was to forget that he was an army major and to treat him as we did anyone learning to fly. One day Jimmy was sick and Captain Baldwin assigned Mitchell to me and I soloed him. "Mitchell was very erratic. One day he would be OK and the next lousy. I just happened to catch him on one of his good days. He made two perfect flights this day". From Walter's Journal

Loa Lees & Edith Culver At Curtiss School

"Teed Culver and I used to walk to the field where the men were flying. Pops taught Canadians first, then our men when the 1st World War started. It was here that Pops soloed William Mitchell. Jimmie Johnson taught Mitchell, but was sick one day and Pops soloed him. It was quite a feather in his cap. Pops earned $10 per hour there at the last. Pops was sent to a field in Illinois and I went to his parents in Mazomanie (June 16) by train..." Interview with Loa Lees, 1983

General 'Billy' Mitchell: Bibliography

la Jun 1989, kmg Apr 95

A Brief Biography of George Hardie

(Hardie's archive on Billy Mitchell establishes him as the premier chronicler of Mitchell's life)

George Hardie was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1912 and became interested in aviation as a boy. By 1946, he had begun collecting materials related to aviation and airline models. In 1954, Hardie received an award from the Milwaukee County Historical Society for his work on a photo display of General Billy Mitchell at Mitchell Air Field and began to collect materials related to that early air power proponent. Working in the Milwaukee Post Office, Hardie began a lifetime of researching topics in aviation, as well as collecting items related to flight. By the 1950s, Hardie's work in aviation had earned him an award from the Milwaukee County Historical Society. He also received the General Billy Mitchell Award for Air Power Achievement from the Air Force Association for his research on Wisconsin aviation. Hardie served on the Board of Directors of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) from 1955 to 1960 (a group formed by Milwaukeeans interested in building their own planes) and served as managing editor of Sport Aviation, EAA's magazine, from 1958 to 1960. From 1973 to 1983, Hardie continued his participation in the EAA by serving as display designer and historian. On the board of directors of the American Aviation Historical Society, he was elected president of the organisation in 1961, serving two years. In 1984, Hardie became a charter member of the Friends of the Mitchell Gallery of Flight at the General Mitchell International Airport, serving as its secretary, exhibit designer and historian as well as editor of the organisation's newsletter, Flightlines. In 1991 Hardie was inducted in the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame.

A founding member of the Friends of the Mitchell Gallery of Flight, at the General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Hardie has donated his archives to the Golda Meir Library, giving an excellent overview of flight from its origins to the space shuttle launchings. Dominating the George Hardie papers is his collection on General Billy Mitchell, consisting mainly of photographs documenting the general's career, including his famous 1921 bombing of captured German warships in an effort to prove to his superiors the value of air power. Other photographs show General Mitchell with celebrities during the 1920s, such as the Prince of Wales, Will Rogers, Henry Ford, and Orville Wright. The collection has a substantial amount of news clippings, scrapbooks, papers and other memorabilia chronicling the rise and fall of this controversial general, including his service in the Philippines and Alaska, his childhood, his planes and his family.

© (1998) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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