William “Billy” Mitchell
William Mitchell, famously known as Billy, was a United States Army general considered the father of the United States Air Force (Cooke 1). He was born in 1879 on the 29th day of December in the French town of Nice to a wealthy Wisconsin Senator of Scottish descent, John L. Mitchell, and his wife, Harriet. He grew up in the present West Allis suburb of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His grandfather Alexander Mitchell was the wealthiest person in Wisconsin for his generation and established what was to become 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. At 18, following his graduation from the Columbian College of George Washington University, Billy enlisted in the 1st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment as a Company M Private on May 14, 1898, early in the Spanish-American War and quickly gained a commission due to his father’s influence and joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Mitchell remained in the army even after hostilities had ceased and predicted, while an instructor at the Army’s Signal School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, that future conflicts would take place, be won in the air, not on the ground. In 1908, Mitchell, a young Signal Corps officer, observed Orville Wright’s flying demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia and was probably the first person with ties to Wisconsin to see the Wright Brothers plane fly. Fascinated by aircrafts but prohibited by law from Aviator training by age and rank, Mitchell later took flight lessons as the permanent assistant to Lieutenant Colonel George O. Squier at the Curtiss Aviation School at Newport News, Virginia at personal expense receiving a rating as a junior military aviator. In March 1912, at age 32, he became the youngest of 21 officers selected to serve on the General Staff after assignments in the Philippines and Alaska Territory that saw him tour Russo-Japanese War battlefields and conclude the inevitability of war with Japan. He ironically testified against a bill to make Army aviation a branch separate from the Signal Corps in August 1913 at legislative hearings and was appointed as temporary head of the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps being the only Signal Corps officer on the General Staff in may of 1916.
Billy Mitchell is considered by most a hero, whose efforts and warnings served to ensure the United States was able to field the world’s largest air force in time to fight World War II (Waller 65). He argued that the aeronautical advances being made were drawing the US closer to its potential enemies and that soon distance would be a factor of time and not miles. Others, however, saw him saw him as overly ambitious and egotistical zealot who bullied anyone opposing his views on air power. The 1920s saw Billy Mitchell voice the need for strong air defenses by vigorously advancing the theory that airplanes would replace the fleet as America’s first line of defense long before anyone else. He also made a case as to the flying machines offensive strategic advantage over an enemy’s industrial resources, submarines, and ships as well as for reconnaissance and counter-espionage missions.
In April 1917, Mitchell, a Lieutenant Colonel, was assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces in France, which was one of the first Americans on the scene after the United States declared war on Germany. He was brisk to advocate the creation of local American air units but was frustrated by delays in getting American planes and pilots into the war. This he viewed as reducing their control and effectiveness, as they had to rely on the French for air support. On meeting British General Hugh ‘Boom’ Trenchard, Billy quickly convinced him to his thesis on the strategic advantages of airpower to a relentless and incessant offensive in wartime and its potential over sea power (Mitchell 1). American pilots were assigned to squadrons on arrival were put in the air in French planes. In March 1918, Mitchell was placed in charge of all American aviation units at the front as the Germans begun a desperate push against the Allies. He proved his combat leadership prowess at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel coordinating a 1,481 strong British, French, and Italian air force to support American ground forces earning him a promotion to brigadier general where he increased his advocacy of the importance of a strong military air arm. His vigor, flamboyance, and ability to gain the media’s attention led him to build airfields, hangars, and other facilities quickly and unhampered gaining him notoriety among his non-flying peers and making him the best-known American in Europe.
He was appointed an assistant chief of the U.S. Army Air Service on his return in 1919 and was appalled at the speed with which the organization he had helped to build in war disintegrated in peacetime and soon provoked the Navy admirals into open hostility through his tirades against their super-dreadnought concepts. The hero soon turned the agitator as he tried to prove that airplanes could accomplish the things he forecast. He made some daring innovations for the Air Service that stunned the non-flying Army generals including troop carriers, a specialized mechanics squadron, standby reserve civilian pilots, long-range fighter planes, and armor-piercing ammunition. He urged bombsight development, supercharged engines, aerial torpedoes, and ski-equipped aircraft (Schwarzer, Drapala, and Rezeli 35). He encouraged Army pilots to set speed, endurance, and altitude records to keep aviation in the news. He died aged 55 while undergoing treatment in New York on February 19, 1936. He had elected to be buried in Milwaukee, his hometown, where he enlisted in 1898, rather than at Arlington National Cemetery.
Cooke, James J. Billy Mitchell. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner, 2002. Print.
Mitchell, William. Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power-Economic and Military. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009. Print.
Schwarzer, William, Robert V. Drapala, and Debra D. Rezeli. The Lion Killers: Billy Mitchell and the Birth of Strategic Bombing. Mt. Holly, N.J: Aerial Perspective, 2003. Print.
Waller, Douglas C. A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial That Gripped the Nation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. Print.