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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Billy Mitchell Born, December 28, 1879

Today in 1879, William "Billy" Mitchell was born in Nice, France. During his nearly 30 years of service to the United States, Mitchell became one of the most famous and controversial aviation pioneers in history. Mitchell's foresight, mostly disregarded during his lifetime, today seems prophetic.

Mitchell grew up in Wisconsin, the son of a wealthy senator. He attended George Washington University, but joined the Army as a private at the age of 18 when the Spanish-American War began in 1898. His father intervened on his behalf and he was soon commissioned as an officer and assigned to the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

After assignments in the Philippines and Alaska, Mitchell received orders to the Army General Staff. He was only 32, by far the youngest officer to ever be given the position. During his time in Signal Corps, he had learned much about aviation. Until 1918, the Army's air command was the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps. Eager to fly, Mitchell went back to the Signal Corps after his General Staff duty and took private flying lessons to bring himself up to speed.

Now a lieutenant colonel, Mitchell was sent to France soon after the United States entered the First World War in April, 1917. He was given the opportunity to see the British and French military aviation communities up close. He studied their tactics and their aircraft, which were superior to the American hardware of the time. He was bold and forthright, for he had little time to prepare his pilots for combat operations. For his work, he was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of all American squadrons in France. He became one of the top pilots of the war and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal.

It was during his time in Europe that Mitchell gained the reputation for not getting along with his superiors. He was outspoken and did not believe that tradition should stand in the way of technological advancement. After the war, he was made the Deputy Director of the Air Service, now a separate command in the Army command structure. His boss had no aviation experience, ensuring that operational control of the Army's planes would remain with the ground forces. To the General Staff, however, the future of airpower was an academic discussion because most believed that the World War had been "the war to end all wars." Mitchell knew better.

It didn't take long for Mitchell to begin publicly attacking the Army and Navy's top brass for ignoring the potential of airpower. The pilots under his command were encouraged to set records and participate in civilian air competitions, all in the name of sharpening their skills and keeping military aviation in the mind of the American public. In 1921, Mitchell claimed that his pilots could sink any navy's precious battleships. When given the opportunity to bomb the German battleship Ostriesland, seized by the US at the end of the war, they sent her to the bottom along with several other ships. To Mitchell's way of thinking, large surface fleets had been rendered obsolete.

After several years of enduring Mitchell's verbal barrages, his commanders sent him to Asia in the hope that he would stay out of public view. Instead of hiding in the shadows, however, Mitchell took the opportunity to study Japan's budding military aviation community. He wrote a report predicting a war with the island nation and even mapped out a theoretical attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor. His report fell on deaf ears.

Mitchell landed in hot water with his superiors when he testified before the House of Representatives and slammed the leadership of the Army and Navy for not taking aviation more seriously. He was sent to San Antonio, Texas to serve as an air officer to an infantry corps. Mitchell saw the assignment as an attempt to exile him.

Perhaps going a step too far, Mitchell issued a statement after the crash of the Navy dirigible Shenandoah in which he accused the leaders of the Army and Navy of being guilty of "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." This time, his accusations were not brushed aside. President Calvin Coolidge directly ordered that Mitchell be court-martialed. He was found guilty of insubordination and was suspended from active duty for five years. Instead of accepting his punishment, Mitchell resigned on February 1, 1926.

Mitchell spent the last ten years of his life preaching the gospel of air power. Some in the military began to listen to his impassioned pleas for modernization and re-organization, but post-war budgets and an economy shattered by the Great Depression offered little in the way of opportunity for growing the Air Service. Suffering from a bad heart and the flu, Billy Mitchell died in a New York City hospital on February 19, 1936.

It took the Second World War to convince US war planners that air power would play a crucial role in all future wars. But old grudges die hard. Mitchell's son petitioned the Air Force in 1957 for a dismissal of his father's court-martial, but was denied. The Air Force merely expressed regret for what had happened.

In 2005, President George W. Bush posthumously promoted Mitchell to the rank of Major General.

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