- Category : Military
- Type : PE
- Profile : 4/6 - Opportunistic / Role Model
- Definition : Triple Split
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Service 4
William "Billy" Mitchell (29 December 1879 – 19 February 1936) was a United States Army general who is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force.
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 people in the Army with his arguments and criticism and, in 1925, was returned from appointment as a brigadier general to his permanent rank of Colonel. Later that year, he was court-martialed for insubordination after accusing Army and Navy leaders of an "almost treasonable administration of the national defense" 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 Roosevelt as a Major General. He is also the only individual after whom a type of American military aircraft, the North American B-25 Mitchell, is named.
Born in Nice, France, to John L. Mitchell, a wealthy Wisconsin senator 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, was the wealthiest person in Wisconsin for his generation and established what became the Milwaukee Road along with the Marine Bank of Wisconsin. Mitchell Park and the important shopping precinct Mitchell Street were named in honor of Alexander.
Billy Mitchell graduated from Columbian College of George Washington University. He then enlisted as a private at age 18 during 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. 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 instruction at the Curtiss Aviation School at Newport News, Virginia.
In March 1912, after assignments in the Philippines and Alaska Territory 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 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, Lt. Col. George O. Squier, arrived from attaché duties in London, England, where World War I was in progress, then became his permanent assistant. He took private flying lessons at the Glenn Curtiss Aviation School because he was proscribed by law from aviator training by age and rank, at an expense to himself of $1,470 (approximately $31,000 in 2012).
World War I
On 6 April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, and Mitchell, by then a lieutenant colonel, was in Spain en route to France as an observer. He immediately went to Paris 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. He made the first flight by an American officer over German lines on April 24, 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 and was promoted to the temporary rank of colonel on 10 October 1917 to rank from 5 August.
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. He was elevated to the rank of (temporary) Brigadier General on 14 October 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 in France.
Post-war advocate of air power
Return from Europe
Returning to the United States in January 1919, it had been widely expected throughout the Air Service that Mitchell 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.
Mitchell received appointment on 28 February 1919, as Director of Military Aeronautics, 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 18 June 1920, when he was reduced to lieutenant colonel, Signal Corps (Menoher was reduced to brigadier general in the same orders).
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 permanent rank of colonel, Signal Corps, but also received a recess appointment (as did Menoher) to become Assistant Chief of Air Service with the rank of brigadier general. On 30 July 1920, he was transferred and promoted to the permanent rank of colonel, Air Service, with date of rank from 1 July, placing him first in seniority among all Air Service branch officers. On 4 March 1921, Mitchell was appointed Assistant Chief of Air Service by new President Warren G. Harding with consent of the Senate.
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."
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 and Navy, primarily legislation introduced in August 1919 by Senator Harry New (Rep-Indiana), 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
Mitchell believed that the use of floating bases was necessary to defend the nation against naval threats, but Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William S. Benson had dissolved Naval Aeronautics as an organization early in 1919. 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 3 April, 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. Convinced that within as soon as ten years strategic 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.
His relations with superiors continued to sour as he began to attack both the War and Navy Departments for being insufficiently farsighted regarding airpower. He advocated the development of a number of aircraft innovations, including bombsights, 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, and encouraged the staging of a transcontinental air race, a flight around the perimeter of the United States. He also encouraged Army pilots to challenge speed, endurance and altitude records. In short, he encouraged anything that would further develop the use of the aircraft, and that would keep aviation in the news.
Project B: Anti-ship bombing demonstration
In February 1921, at the urging of Mitchell, who was anxious to test his theories of destruction of ships by aerial bombing, Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus 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. 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 1 November 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.
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.
1st Provisional Air Brigade
On 1 May 1921, Mitchell assembled the 1st Provisional Air Brigade, an air and ground crew of 125 aircraft and 1,000 men at Langley, Virginia, using six squadrons from the Air Service:
Air Service Field Officers School, Langley Field, Virginia, (SE-5 fighters)
50th Squadron (Observation) (later 431st Bomb Squadron)
88th Squadron (later 436th Bomb Squadron)
2d Bombardment Group (later 2nd Bomb Group), Kelly Field, Texas (SE-5 fighters, Martin NBS-1, Handley-Page O/400, and Caproni CA-5 bombers)
49th Squadron (Bombardment)
96th Squadron (Bombardment)
7th Observation Group (Second Corps Area), (now the 7th Operations Group), Mitchel Field, New York (DH-4 and Douglas O-2 observation planes)
1st Squadron (Observation)
5th Squadron (Observation)
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, Air Force, 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.
Rules of engagement
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.
Mitchell held to the Navy's restrictions for the tests of 21 June, 13 and 18 July, 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 twin-engined Martin NBS-1 (Martin MB-2) bombers using high explosive demolition bombs. Mitchell observed the attacks from the controls of his own DH-4, nicknamed The Osprey.
Sinking of the Ostfriesland
On 20 July 1921, the Navy brought out the ex-German World War I battleship, Ostfriesland. One day of scheduled 230, 550 and 600 lb (270 kg) bomb attacks by Marine, Navy 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.
On the morning of 21 July, 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, 2,000 lb (910 kg) bombs were loaded and a flight was dispatched consisting of two Handley-Page O/400 and six NBS-1 bombers. 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, aiming for the water near the ship. There were no direct hits but 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. 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 Armies John J. Pershing who hoped to smooth Army/Navy relations. 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. 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."
The fact of the sinkings was indisputable, and Mitchell repeated the performance twice in tests conducted with like results on obsolete U.S. pre-dreadnought battleship Alabama in September 1921, and the battleships Virginia and New Jersey in September 1923. The latter two ships were subjected to teargas attacks and hit with specially designed 4,300 lb (2,000 kg) demolition bombs.
Aftermath of the bombing tests
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 10 July 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 Sen. William Borah heightened official anxiety. Both services tried to defuse the results by reports from the Joint Board and Gen. Pershing dismissing Mitchell's claims, and suppressing Mitchell's report, but the latter was leaked to the press.
Gen. Menoher in September forced a showdown over Mitchell as the bombing tests continued. He confronted Secretary Weeks and demanded that either he relieve Mitchell as Assistant Chief of Air Corps or accept Menoher's resignation. Weeks allowed Menoher to resign on 4 October and return to the ground forces "for personal reasons". A reciprocal resignation offer from Mitchell was refused.
Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick was again chosen by Pershing to sort out a mess in the Air Service and became the new Chief on 5 October. 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 R/Adm. William A. Moffett at the start of the naval arms limitation conference, Patrick assigned him to an inspection tour of Europe with Alfred Verville and Lt. Clayton Bissell that lasted the duration of the conference over the winter of 1921–22.
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. 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, 25 August to 2 September 1921. On 26 August, 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 30 August 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 3 September, 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.
Promoting air power
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
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 as:
not only can they not operate efficiently on the high seas but even if they could they cannot place sufficient aircraft in the air at one time to insure a concentrated operation.
Rather he believed a surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands would be conducted by land-based airpower operating from islands in the Pacific. His report, published in 1925 as the book Winged Defense, foretold wider benefits of an investment in air power:
Those interested in the future of the country, not only from a national defense standpoint but from a civil, commercial and economic one as well, should study this matter carefully, because air power has not only come to stay but is, and will be, a dominating factor in the world’s development.
Winged Defense sold only 4,500 copies between August 1925 and January 1926, the months surrounding the publicity of the court martial, thus Mitchell did not reach a widespread audience.
Friction and demotion
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. 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 his 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. 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, 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 dirigible Shenandoah crashing in a storm, 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." 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. 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." 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. Among those who testified for Mitchell were Eddie Rickenbacker, Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz and Fiorello La Guardia. The trial attracted significant interest, and public opinion supported Mitchell.
However, the court found the truth or falseness of Mitchell's accusations to be immaterial to the charge and on 17 December 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. The generals ruling in the case wrote, "The Court is thus lenient because of the military record of the Accused during the World War." MacArthur later claimed he had voted to acquit, and Fiorello La Guardia claimed that MacArthur's "not guilty" ballot had been found in the judges' anteroom. MacArthur felt "that a senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors in rank and with accepted doctrine."
Mitchell resigned instead on 1 February 1926, and spent the next decade writing and preaching air power to all who would listen. 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 that 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.
In 1926, Mitchell made his home with his wife Elizabeth at the 120-acre (0.49 km2) Boxwood Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, which remained his primary residence until his death. He died of a variety of ailments including a bad heart and an extreme case of influenza in a hospital in New York City on 19 February 1936, and was buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Mitchell's son, John, served in the Army as a First Lieutenant, dying in 1942. 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.