He was a war hero who foresaw the future of warfare and the vital role of air power. But he was also a rebel who defied the military establishment and paid a heavy price for his outspokenness.
William “Billy” Mitchell was a US Army general who served in World War I and became a pioneer of aviation. He was court-martialed in 1925 for accusing the Navy and Army of negligence and incompetence after a series of fatal accidents.
Mitchell was born in Nice, France, in 1879 and grew up bilingual. He joined the Army in 1898 and fought in the Philippines and Alaska. He learned to fly in 1915 and became the commander of the Air Service in France during World War I. He led daring bombing raids against German targets and earned a reputation as an innovator and a leader.
After the war, Mitchell returned to the US and became the assistant chief of the Air Service. He campaigned for more funding and modern aircraft for his aviators, who he claimed were flying in “old flaming coffins”. He also warned that Japan was ahead of the US in air power and predicted that one day they would launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Mitchell’s views were not welcomed by the Army and Navy brass, who saw him as a threat to their authority and budgets. They also dismissed his ideas as unrealistic and impractical. Mitchell became frustrated and angry with the lack of support and vision from his superiors.
In 1921, he conducted a series of bombing tests against several target ships, including the German battleship Ostfriesland, which he sank with 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs. The tests proved that aircraft could sink warships, but the Navy was not impressed. They claimed that Mitchell had violated the rules of the test and that his bombs would not have penetrated the armor of a real battleship.
In 1925, Mitchell’s patience ran out when two aviation tragedies occurred. The first was a failed attempt by three Navy seaplanes to fly from California to Hawaii, which resulted in one crash and two forced landings. The second was the crash of the Navy airship USS Shenandoah while flying over Ohio on a publicity tour. Mitchell blamed both incidents on the incompetence and negligence of the Navy and Army leaders, who he accused of having “almost treasonable administration of the national defense”.
Mitchell’s remarks caused a public outcry and led to his court-martial for insubordination. He faced eight charges and a panel of 13 judges, most of whom were his enemies or rivals. He was defended by Frank Reid, a lawyer who took the case for free, hoping to gain fame and popularity. Mitchell used the trial as a platform to expose the flaws and dangers of the military system and to promote his vision of air power. He called many witnesses, including famous aviators like Eddie Rickenbacker and Hap Arnold, who testified in his favor.
The trial lasted seven weeks and attracted national attention. The public opinion was mostly on Mitchell’s side, as he was seen as a war hero and a prophet. He also had supporters like Will Rogers, who attended the trial and wrote columns praising him. However, the verdict was inevitable. Mitchell was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to five years of suspension from active duty without pay.
Mitchell refused to accept the sentence and resigned from the Army in 1926. He spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing about air power and national defense. He died in 1936 at age 56 from a heart attack. He never saw his predictions come true, but he was vindicated by history. In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in a surprise air raid that plunged the US into World War II. In 1946, President Harry Truman posthumously awarded Mitchell the Medal of Honor for his “outstanding pioneer service and foresight” in aviation.
Billy Mitchell was a man who was ahead of his time and paid a high price for his convictions. He was called crazy, but he was right all along.