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General William "Billy" Mitchell

 

 

Born of American parents in Nice, France, on December 28, 1879, Billy Mitchell, grew up in Milwaukee. He was educated at Racine College and at Columbian University (now George Washington University in Washington, DC); he left Columbian in 1898 before graduating to enlist in the 1st Wisconsin Infantry for service in the Spanish-American war.

He served in Cuba and the Philippines, and in 1901 was attached to the Signal Corps. He served in various duties, attended 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. In 1915 he was assigned to the aviation section of the Signal Corps. He learned to fly the following year, and began his twenty-year's advocacy of the use of military air power.

He was already in Europe as an observer when the United States entered World War I, and as the war progressed, he advanced rapidly in rank and responsibility as he proved a highly effective air commander. In June 1917 he was named air officer of the American Expeditionary Forces, and air officer of I Corps, a combat post more to his liking. He was the first American airman to fly over enemy lines, and throughout the war he was regularly in the air. In September 1918 he successfully attempted a mass bombing attack with nearly 1500 planes as part of the attack on St. Mihiel salient.

As commander of the combined air service of the army group engaged in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he led a large bombing force in a behind-the-lines air strike. His plans for strategic bombing of the German homeland and for massive parachute invasions were cut short by the armistice, and in march 1919 he returned home to become assistant chief of the Air Service under Gen. Charles T. Menoher.

He outspokenly advocated the creation of a separate air force and continued working on improvements in aircraft and their use. He claimed that the airplane had rendered the battleship obsolete and, over the vociferous protests of the Navy Department, carried his point in 1921 and 1923 by sinking several captured and overage battleships by air.

He was persistently critical of the low state of preparation of the tiny Air Service and of the poor quality of its equipment. His harrying of his superiors and of upper military echelons won him only a transfer to the minor post of air officer of the VIII Corps area in San Antonio, Texas, and reversion to the rank of colonel in April 1925. He used the press to fight his case. When, in September 1925, the navy's dirigible Shenandoah was lost in a storm, he made a statement to the press charging “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the War and Navy Departments.” He was, as he expected immediately court-martialed. He made the trial a platform for his views, was convicted in December of insubordination and sentenced to five years' suspension from rank and pay. (Note: The conviction vote was not unanimous. A single dissenting vote was cast by Col. Douglas MacArthur.)

On February 1, 1926, he resigned from the army and retired to a farm near Middleburg, Virginia. He continued to promote air power and to warn against the danger of being outstripped by other nations, particularly Japan. He hypothesized a possible attack by Japanese aircraft launched from great carrier ships and directed at the Hawaiian Islands.

He died in New York City on February 19, 1936, Mitchell's plea for an independent air force was met to a degree in the creation of GHQ Air Force in March 1935. 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 that he claimed for air power never materialized, however. In 1946, Congress authorized a special medal in his honor that was presented to his son two years later by Gen. Carl Spaatz, chief of staff of the newly established independent air force.

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.

From Webster's American Military Biographies, Merriam Co., 1978. 497 p., Billy Mitchell, pp 284-285.


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