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Billy Mitchell

Image from Photos of the Great War (http://raven.cc.ukans.edu/~kansite/ww_one/photos/greatwar.htm)
William L. (Billy) Mitchell (December 28, 1879 - February 19, 1936) was an American general and is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force. He is the most famous and controversial figure in American airpower history. Born in Nice, France to a wealthy Wisconsin senator and his wife, Mitchell enlisted as a private at age 18 during the Spanish-American War. Quickly gaining a commission due to his father's intervention, he joined the Signal Corps. He predicted as early as 1906 that future conflicts would take place in the air, not on the ground.

After tours in the Philippines and Alaska, Mitchell was assigned to the General Staff--at the time its youngest member at age 32. He became interested in aviation--then assigned to the Signal Corps--and in 1916 at age 38, took private flying lessons because the Army considered him too old and too high-ranking for flight training.

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World War I

Arriving in France in April 1917, a few days after the United States had entered World War I, Mitchell, by then a Lieutenant Colonel, 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. Mitchell rapidly earned a reputation as a daring, flamboyant, and tireless leader. He eventually was elevated to the rank of brigadier general and commanded all American combat units in France. 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[?]. It was the first coordinated air-ground offensive in history.

Recognized as the top American combat airman of the war--and, indeed, the best-known American in Europe--he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross[?], the Distinguished Service Medal, and several foreign decorations, but nevertheless, alienated most of his superiors--both flying and non-flying--during his 18 months in France.

Post-War Demotion

Returning to the United States in early 1919, Mitchell was appointed the deputy chief of the Air Service, retaining his one star rank. Mitchell did not share in the common belief that World War I would be the war to end all wars. "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."

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 bombsights, ski-equipped aircraft, engine superchargers and aerial torpedoes. He ordered the use of aircraft in fighting forest fires and border patrols and encouraged a transcontinental air race, a flight around the perimeter of the United states, and encouraged Army pilots to challenge speed, endurance and altitude records--in short, anything it took to keep aviation in the news.

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. In 1921, he successfully sank numerous ships, including one of the world's largest war vessels, the German battleship Ostfriesland and the U.S. battleship Alabama. This proved--at least to Mitchell--that surface fleets were obsolete.

In 1924, Mitchell's superiors sent him to Hawaii, then 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. His report was mostly ignored.

He also experienced difficulties within the Army, notably with his superiors Charles Menoher and later Mason Patrick, and in early 1925 he reverted to his permanent rank of colonel and was transferred to Texas. Although such demotions were not unusual at the time--Patrick himself had gone from major general to colonel upon returning to the Army Corps of Engineers in 1919--the move was nonetheless widely seen as punishment and exile.

Courtmartial

When the Navy dirigible Shenandoa crashed in a storm, killing 14 of the crew, Mitchell issued a statement accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." He was courtmartialed, found guilty of insubordination, and suspended from active duty for five years without pay. Mitchell resigned instead, as of February 1, 1926, and spent the next decade writing and preaching air power to all who would listen.

Mitchell viewed the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Navy man, as advantageous for airpower. He believed the new president might even appoint him as assistant secretary of war for air or perhaps even secretary of defense in a new and unified military organization. Neither ever materialized. Mitchell died of a variety of ailments including a bad heart and influenza in a hospital in New York City on February 19, 1936.

Posthumous recognition

The North American B-25 bomber, utilized by James Doolittle to bomb Tokyo in 1942 in retaliation for Pearl Harbor, was nicknamed the "Mitchell," after Billy Mitchell.

In 1946, President Harry Truman posthumously bestowed a special medal on Mitchell in recognition of his foresight in aviation. In 1955, the Air Force voided Mitchell's courtmartial. His son petitioned in 1957 to have the courtmartial verdict set aside, which the Air Force denied while expressing regret about the circumstances under which Mitchell's military career ended.

See also



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