Military Aviation: Brigadier General Billy Mitchell

Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell, US Army
Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Brigadier General William "Billy" Lendrum Mitchell was an early advocate for air power and is generally considered the father of the US Air Force. Entering the US Army in 1898, Mitchell developed an interest in aviation and progressed through the ranks to oversee American air operations in Europe during World War I. In the years after the war, he continued to advocate for air power and demonstrated that aircraft could sink warships. Mitchell was extremely outspoken and frequently clashed with his superiors. In 1925, he made remarks that led to his court-martial and resignation from the service.

Early Life & Career

The son of wealthy Senator John L. Mitchell (D-WI) and his wife Harriet, William "Billy" Mitchell was born on December 28, 1879 at Nice, France. Educated in Milwaukee, he later enrolled at Columbian College (present-day George Washington University) in Washington, DC. In 1898, prior to graduating, he enlisted in the US Army with the goal of fighting in the Spanish-American War. Entering the service, Mitchell's father soon used his connections to obtain his son a commission. Though the war ended before he saw action, Mitchell elected to remain in the US Army Signal Corps and spent time in Cuba and the Philippines.

An Interest in Aviation

Sent north in 1901, Mitchell successfully built telegraph lines in remote areas of Alaska. During this posting, he began studying Otto Lilienthal's glider experiments. This reading, combined with further research, led him to conclude in 1906 that future conflicts would be fought in the air. Two years later, he witnessed a flying demonstration given by Orville Wright at Fort Myer, VA.

Sent to the Army Staff College, he became the only Signal Corps Officer on the Army General Staff in 1913. As aviation was assigned to the Signal Corps, Mitchell was well placed to further develop his interest. Associating with many early military aviators, Mitchell was made deputy commander of the Aviation Section, Signal Corps in 1916. At age 38, the US Army felt that Mitchell was too old for flying lessons.

As a result, he was forced to seek private instruction at the Curtiss Aviation School in Newport News, VA where he proved a quick study. When the US entered World War I in April 1917, Mitchell, now a lieutenant colonel, was en route to France as an observer and to study aircraft production. Traveling to Paris, he established an Aviation Section office and began connecting with his British and French counterparts.

Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell

  • Rank: Brigadier General
  • Service: US Army
  • Born: December 29, 1879 in Nice, France
  • Died: February 19, 1936 in New York City, NY
  • Parents: Senator John L. Mitchell and Harriet D. Becker
  • Spouse: Caroline Stoddard, Elizabeth T. Miller
  • Children: Harry, Elizabeth, John, Lucy, William (Jr.)
  • Conflicts: World War I
  • Known For: Saint-Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne

World War I

Working closely with the Royal Flying Corps' General Sir Hugh Trenchard, Mitchell learned how to develop aerial combat strategies and plan large-scale air operations. On April 24, he became the first American officer to fly over the lines when he rode with a French pilot. Quickly earning a reputation as a daring and tireless leader, Mitchell was promoted to brigadier general and given command of all American air units in General John J. Pershing's American Expeditionary Force.

In September 1918, Mitchell successfully planned and orchestrated a campaign using 1,481 Allied aircraft in support of ground forces during the Battle of St. Mihiel. Gaining air superiority over the battlefield, his aircraft aided in driving back the Germans. During his time in France, Mitchell proved a highly effective commander, but his aggressive approach and unwillingness to operate in the chain of command made him numerous enemies. For his performance in World War I, Mitchell received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and several foreign decorations.

Billy Mitchell standing next to an aircraft.
Brigadier General Mitchell standing by V.E. 7 at Bolling Field Air Tournament, May 14 -16, 1920. US Air Force

Air Power Advocate

Following the war, Mitchell expected to be placed in command of the US Army Air Service. He was blocked in this goal when Pershing named Major General Charles T. Menoher, an artilleryman, to the post. Mitchell instead was made Assistant Chief of the Air Service and was able to retain his wartime rank of brigadier general.

A relentless advocate for aviation, he encouraged US Army pilots to challenge records as well as promoted races and ordered aircraft to aid in fighting forest fires. Convinced that air power would become the driving force of war in the future, he pressed for the creation of an independent air force. Mitchell's vocal support of air power brought him into conflict with the US Navy as he felt the ascent of aviation made the surface fleet increasingly obsolete.

Convinced that bombers could sink battleships, he argued that aviation should be the US' first line of defense. Among those he alienated was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Failing to achieve his goals, Mitchell became increasingly outspoken and attacked his superiors in the US Army, as well as the leadership of the US Navy and White House for failing to understand the importance of military aviation.

Project B

Continuing to agitate, Mitchell managed in February 1921 to convince Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to hold joint Army-Navy exercises in which his aircraft would bomb surplus/captured ships. Though the US Navy was reluctant to agree, it was compelled to accept the exercises after Mitchell learned of their own aerial testing against ships. Believing that he could succeed in "wartime conditions," Mitchell also held that a thousand bombers could be built for the price of one battleship making aviation a more economical defense force.

Dubbed Project B, the exercises moved forward in June and July 1921 under a set of rules of engagement that greatly favored the survivability of the ships. In the early tests, Mitchell's aircraft sank a captured German destroyer and light cruiser. On July 20-21, they attacked the German battleship Ostfriesland. While the aircraft did sink it, they violated the rules of engagement in doing so. In addition, the circumstances of the exercises were not "wartime conditions" as all of the target vessels were stationary and effectively defenseless.

A ship is hit with a bomb while a plane flies over.
A white phosphorus bomb explodes on USS Alabama (BB-8), while the ship in use as a target in Chesapeake Bay, 23 September 1921. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Fall from Power

Mitchell repeated his success later that year by sinking the retired battleship USS Alabama (BB-8) in September. The tests incensed President Warren Harding who wished to avoid any show of naval weakness immediately prior to the Washington Naval Conference, but did lead to increased funding for military aviation. Following a protocol incident with his naval counterpart, Rear Admiral William Moffett, at the beginning of the conference, Mitchell was sent overseas on an inspection tour.

Returning to the US, Mitchell continued to criticize his superiors regarding aviation policy. In 1924, the commander of the Air Service, Major General Mason Patrick, sent him on a tour of Asia and the Far East to remove him from the limelight. During this tour, Mitchell foresaw a future war with Japan and predicted an aerial attack on Pearl Harbor. That fall, he again blasted the Army and Navy leadership, this time to the Lampert Committee. The following March, his term of Assistant Chief ended and he was exiled to San Antonio, TX, with the rank of colonel, to oversee air operations.

Billy Mitchell stands at his court-martial surrounded by lawyers.
Brigadier General Billy Mitchell at his court-martial. US Air Force

Court Martial

Later that year, following the loss of the US Navy airship USS Shenandoah, Mitchell issued a statement accusing the military's senior leadership of "almost treasonable administration of the national defense" and incompetence. As a result of these statements, he was brought up on court-martial charges for insubordination at the direction of President Calvin Coolidge. Beginning that November, the court-martial saw Mitchell receive broad public support and notable aviation officers such as Eddie Rickenbacker, Henry "Hap" Arnold, and Carl Spaatz testified on his behalf.

On December 17, Mitchell was found guilty and sentenced to a five-year suspension from active duty and loss of pay. The youngest of the twelve judges, Major General Douglas MacArthur, called serving on the panel "distasteful," and voted not guilty stating that an officer should not be "silenced for being at variance with his superiors in rank and with accepted doctrine." Rather than accept the punishment, Mitchell resigned on February 1, 1926. Retiring to his farm in Virginia, he continued to advocate for air power and a separate air force until his death on February 19, 1936.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Military Aviation: Brigadier General Billy Mitchell." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Military Aviation: Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Military Aviation: Brigadier General Billy Mitchell." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).