alexander seversky

Billy Mitchell

For other people with the same name, see Billy Mitchell (disambiguation).

William Lendrum "Billy" Mitchell (December 28, 1879February 19, 1936) was an American general who is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force. He is one of the most famous and most controversial figures in the history of American airpower.

Early life

Born in Nice, France to John L. Mitchell, a wealthy Wisconsin senator and his wife, Mitchell grew up on an estate in what is now the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, Wisconsin. Alexander Mitchell, his grandfather, was the wealthiest person in Wisconsin for his generation and established what became 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.

Billy Mitchell attended Columbian College, where he was a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. He then 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 U.S. Army Signal Corps. He predicted as early as 1906, while an instructor at the Army's Signal School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, that future conflicts would take place in the air, not on the ground.

After tours in the Philippines and Alaska Territory, Mitchell was assigned to the General Staff—at the time, its youngest member at age 32. He became interested in aviation and was assigned to the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps, a predecessor of the Army Air Service. In 1916 at age 38 he took private flying lessons because the Army considered him too old and too high-ranking for flight training.

World War I

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, and Mitchell, by then a lieutenant colonel, was immediately deployed to France. He collaborated extensively with British and French air leaders such as Lord Hugh Trenchard, studying their strategies as well as their aircraft. Before long, Mitchell had gained enough experience to begin preparations for American air operations. 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 air 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, one of the first coordinated air-ground offensives in history.

Recognized as one of the top American combat airmen of the war alongside aces such as Eddie Rickenbacker he was probably the best-known American in Europe—he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and several foreign decorations, while nonetheless alienating most of his superiors—both flying and non-flying—during his 18 months in France.

Post-war advocate of air

Returning to the United States in early 1919, Mitchell was appointed the deputy director of the Air Service, retaining his one star rank. It had been widely expected throughout the Air Service that Mitchell would receive the post-war assignment of Director of Air Service. Instead General Pershing chose a classmate, Maj. Gen. Charles T. Menoher, an infantryman who had commanded the Rainbow Division in France, to maintain operational control of aviation by the ground forces.

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.

Project B: Anti-ship bombing demonstration

In February 1921, at the urging of Mitchell, who was anxious to test his theories of destruction of ships by aerial bombing, Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels agreed to a series of joint Army-Navy exercises, known as Project B, to be held that summer in which surplus or captured ships could be used as targets.

Mitchell was concerned that the building of dreadnoughts was taking precious defense dollars away from military aviation. He was convinced that a force of anti-shipping airplanes could defend a coastline with more economy than a combination of coastal guns and naval vessels. A thousand bombers could be built at the same cost as one battleship, and could sink that battleship. 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.

The Navy reluctantly agreed to the demonstration after news leaked of its own tests. To counter Mitchell, the Navy had sunk the old battleship Indiana near Tangier Island, Maryland, on November 1, 1920, using its own airplanes. Daniels had hoped to squelch Mitchell by releasing a report on the results written by Captain William D. Leahy stating that, "The entire experiment pointed to the improbability of a modern battleship being either destroyed or completely put out of action by aerial bombs." When the New York Tribune revealed that the Navy's "tests" were done with dummy sand bombs and that the ship was actually sunk using high explosives placed on the ship, Congress introduced two resolutions urging new tests and backed the Navy into a corner.

In the arrangements for the new tests, there was to be a news blackout until all data had been analyzed at which point only the official news report would be released; Mitchell felt that the Navy was going to bury the results. The Chief of the Air Corps attempted to have Mitchell dismissed a week before the tests began, reacting to Navy complaints about Mitchell's criticisms, but the new Secretary of War John W. Weeks backed down when it became apparent that Mitchell had widespread public and media support.

1st Provisional Air Brigade

On May 1, 1921, Mitchell assembled the 1st Provisional Air Brigade, an air and ground crew of 125 aircraft and 1,000 men at Langley, Virginia, using six squadrons from the Air Service:

Mitchell took command on May 27 after testing bombs, fuzes, and other equipment at Aberdeen Proving Ground and began training in anti-ship bombing techniques. Alexander Seversky, a veteran Russian pilot who had bombed German ships in the Great War, joined the effort, suggesting the bombers aim near the ships so that expanding water pressure from the underwater blasts would stave in and separate hull plates. Further discussion with Captain Alfred Wilkinson Johnson, Commander, Air Force, Atlantic fleet aboard USS Shawmut, confirmed that near-miss bombs would cause more damage than direct hits by causing an underwater concussive effect against the hull.

Rules of engagement

The Navy and the Air Service were at cross purposes regarding the tests. Supported by General Pershing, the Navy set rules and conditions that enhanced the survivability of the targets, stating that the purpose of the tests was to determine how much damage ships could withstand. The ships had to be sunk in at least 100 fathoms of water (so as not to become navigational hazards), and the Navy chose an area 50 miles off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay rather than either of two possible closer areas, minimizing the effective time the Army's bombers would have in the target area. The planes were forbidden from using aerial torpedoes, would be permitted only two hits on the battleship using their heaviest bombs, and would have to stop between hits so that a damage assessment party could go aboard. Smaller ships could not be struck by bombs larger than 600 pounds, and also were subject to the same interruptions in attacks.

Mitchell held to the Navy's restrictions for the tests of June 21, July 13, and July 18, and successfully sank the ex-German destroyer G102 and the ex-German light cruiser Frankfurt in concert with Navy aircraft. On each of these demonstrations the ships were first attacked by SE-5 fighters strafing and bombing the decks of the ships with 25-pound anti-personnel bombs to simulate suppression of antiaircraft fire, followed by attacks from twin-engined Martin NBS-1 (Martin MB-2) bombers using high explosive demolition bombs. Mitchell observed the attacks from the controls of his own DH-4, nicknamed The Osprey.

Sinking of the Ostfriesland

On July 20, 1921 the Navy brought out the ex-German WWI battleship, Ostfriesland, considered unsinkable. One day of scheduled 230, 550 and 600 lb. bomb attacks by Marine, Navy and Army aircraft settled the Ostfriesland three feet by the stern with a five degree list to port; she was taking on water. Further bombing was delayed a day, the Navy claiming due to rough seas that prevented their Board of Observers from going aboard, the Air Service countering that as the Army bombers approached, they were ordered not to attack. Mitchell's bombers were forced to circle for 47 minutes, as a result of which they dropped only half their bombs, and none of their large bombs.

On the morning of July 21, in accordance with a strictly orchestrated schedule of attacks, five NBS-1 bombers led by 1st Lt. Clayton Bissell dropped a single 1,100 lb bomb, scoring three direct hits. The Navy stopped further drops, although the Army bombers had nine bombs remaining, to assess damage. By noon, Ostfriesland had settled two more feet by the stern and one foot by the bow.

At this point, 2,000 lb bombs were loaded and a flight was dispatched consisting of two Handley-Page O/400 and six NBS-1 bombers. One Handley Page dropped out for mechanical reasons, but the NBS-1s dropped six bombs in quick succession between 12:18 p.m. and 12:31 p.m., aiming for the water near the ship. There were no direct hits but three of the bombs landed close enough to rip hull plates as well as cause the ship to roll over. The ship sank at 12:40 p.m., 22 minutes after the first bomb, with a seventh bomb dropped by the Handley Page on the foam rising up from the sinking ship. Nearby the site, observing, were various foreign and domestic officials aboard the USS Henderson.

Although Mitchell had stressed "war-time conditions", the tests were under static conditions and the sinking of the Ostfriesland was accomplished by violating rules agreed upon by General Pershing that would have allowed Navy engineers to examine the effects of smaller munitions. Navy studies of the wreck of the Ostfriesland show she had suffered little topside damage from bombs and was sunk by progressive flooding that might have been stemmed by a fast-acting damage control party on board the vessel. Mitchell used the sinking for his own publicity purposes, though his results were downplayed in public by General of the Armies John J. Pershing who hoped to smooth Army/Navy relations. The efficacy of the tests remain in debate to this day. Nevertheless, the test was highly influential at the time, causing budgets to be redrawn for further air development and forcing the Navy to look more closely at the possibilities of naval airpower. Despite the advantages enjoyed by the bombers in the artificial exercise, Mitchell's report stressed facts repeatedly proven later in war:

...sea craft of all kinds, up to and including the most modern battleships, can be destroyed easily by bombs dropped from aircraft, and further, that the most effective means of destruction are bombs. [They] demonstrated beyond a doubt that, given sufficient bombing planes—in short an adequate air force— aircraft constitute a positive defense of our country against hostile invasion.

The fact of the sinkings was indisputable, and Mitchell repeated the performance twice in tests conducted with like results on obsolete U.S. pre-dreadnought battleship Alabama in September, 1921, and the battleships Virginia and New Jersey in September, 1923. The latter two ships were subjected to teargas attacks and hit with specially designed 4,300 lb demolition bombs.

Promoting air power

In 1922 Mitchell met the like-minded Italian air power theorist Giulio Douhet on a trip to Europe and soon afterwards an excerpted translation of Douhet's The Command of the Air began to circulate in the Air Service. 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, published in 1925 as the book Winged Defense, foretold wider benefits of an investment in air power:
Those interested in the future of the country, not only from a national defense standpoint but from a civil, commercial and economic one as well, should study this matter carefully, because air power has not only come to stay but is, and will be, a dominating factor in the world’s development.
The book was little read outside the air power community.

Friction and demotion

Mitchell experienced difficulties within the Army, notably with his superiors Charles T. Menoher and later Mason Patrick, when he appeared before the Lampert Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and sharply castigated Army and Navy leadership. The War Department had endorsed a proposal to establish a "General Headquarters Air Force" as a vehicle for modernization and expansion of the Air Service, but then backed down before objections by the Navy, incensing Mitchell.

In March 1925 he reverted to his permanent rank of Colonel and was transferred to San Antonio, Texas, as air officer to a ground forces corps. 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, since Mitchell had petitioned to remain as Assistant Director of the Air Service when his term expired, and his transfer to an assignment with no political influence at a relatively unimportant Army base had been directed by Secretary of War John Weeks.

Court-martial and later life

When the Navy dirigible Shenandoah 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. In 1925 he was court-martialed at the direct order of President Calvin Coolidge, 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. However his departure from the service sharply reduced his ability to influence either policy or public opinion.

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, but neither prospect materialized. Mitchell died of a variety of ailments including a bad heart and a massive and extreme case of influenza in a hospital in New York City on February 19, 1936 and was buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Posthumous recognition

Mitchell's concept of a battleship's vulnerability to air attack under "war-time conditions" would be vindicated after his death; a number of warships were sunk by air attack alone during World War II. The battleships Conte di Cavour, Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Prince of Wales, Roma, Musashi, Tirpitz, Yamato, Schleswig-Holstein, Impero, Limnos, Kilkis, Ise and Hyūga were all put out of commission or destroyed by aerial attack including bombs, air-dropped torpedoes and missiles fired from aircraft. Some of these ships were destroyed by surprise attacks in harbor, others were sunk at sea after vigorous defense. Most of the sinkings were carried out by aircraft carrier-based planes, not by land-based bombers as envisioned by Mitchell. The world's navies had responded quickly to the Ostfriesland lesson.

  • The North American B-25 bomber, utilized by Jimmy Doolittle to bomb Tokyo in 1942, was nicknamed the "Mitchell," after Billy Mitchell. The B-25 "Mitchell" is the only American military aircraft type that has been named after a specific person.
  • In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, in recognizing Mitchell's contributions to air power, elevated him to the rank of major general (two stars) on the Army Air Corps retired list and petitioned the U.S. Congress to authorize a special gold medal for his services to the United States, which was awarded in 1946.
  • In the 1943 classic World War II movie A Guy Named Joe the unnamed "General" who gives the deceased pilot his "new assignment" strongly resembles General Mitchell.
  • In 1946, Mitchell was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, "in recognition of his outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American military aviation."
  • In 1955, the Air Force Association passed a resolution calling for the voiding of Mitchell's court-martial. His son petitioned in 1957 to have the court-martial verdict set aside, which the Air Force denied while expressing regret about the circumstances under which Mitchell's military career ended.
  • The 1955 motion picture The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, directed by Otto Preminger, portrays Mitchell's plight in a dramatic yet vindicating light.
  • In 1971, Pipes and Drums, the Billy Mitchell Scottish, was created in Milwaukee the honor Mitchell and his ties to Scotland and Milwaukee.
  • General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is named after him, as is the much smaller Billy Mitchell airstrip in Cape Hatteras, NC.
  • The cadet dining hall at the United States Air Force Academy is named after him.
  • William (Billy) Mitchell High School (Colorado) in Colorado Springs, Colorado is also named after him, as is Mitchell Hall at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
  • The Civil Air Patrol cadet program includes an award called the General Billy Mitchell Award.
  • The U.S. Air Force Pipes and Drums, which existed as a free-standing unit within the U.S. Air Force Band between 1960 and 1970, wore the Mitchell family tartan, in honor of Billy Mitchell.
  • In 1999, General Mitchell's portrait was put on an US airmail postage stamp.

  • In 2004, Congress voted to reauthorize the President to commission Mitchell as a Major General in the Army, posthumously, which the President did in 2005 although President Franklin Roosevelt previously did this in 1942.
  • On May 18, 2006, the US Air Force unveiled two prototypes for new service dress uniforms, referencing the service's heritage. One, modeled on the United States Army Air Service uniform, was designated the "Billy Mitchell heritage coat" (the other was named for Hap Arnold).
  • Hap Arnold told reporters shortly after Mitchell's death, "People would often say Billy Mitchell was years ahead of his time but many would forget how it was also true."
  • In 2007, the Air Force first awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal, which is based on the insignia painted on Billy Mitchell's own aircraft during World War I.


Further reading

  • American Airpower Biography: Billy Mitchell
  • Cooke, James J. Billy Mitchell (2002)
  • Cooke, James J. The U. S. Air Service in the Great War: 1917-1919. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 1996. ISBN 0-275-94862-5.
  • Davis, Burke. The Billy Mitchell Affair. New York: Random House, 1967.
  • Henrotin, Joseph. L'Airpower au 21e siècle: Enjeux et perspectives de la stratégie aérienne. Bruxelles: Emile Bruylant (RMES), 2005. ISBN 2-8027-2091-0.
  • Hurley, Alfred H. Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power (revised edition). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. ISBN 0-253-31203-5, ISBN 0-253-20180-2.
  • Kennett, Lee. The First Air War, 1914–1918. New York: Free Press, 1991. ISBN 0-684-87120-3.
  • Mitchell, William. Memoirs of World War I: From Start to Finish of Our Greatest War. New York: Random House, 1960.
  • Sanders, William (1998). Billy Mitchell's Overt Act (fictional short story in Alternate Generals). Baen.

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