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Mitchell, Billylocked

(29 December 1879–19 February 1936)
  • William D. O’Neil

Billy Mitchell, c. 1920–1925.

Beside a pursuit plane.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114403).

Mitchell, Billy (29 December 1879–19 February 1936), army officer, air war pioneer, and air policy advocate, was born William Mitchell in Nice, France, where his parents, John Lendrum Mitchell and Harriet Danforth Becker, were on an extended sojourn. His father, a leisured gentleman, would later become a legislator and head of the family banking firm. In 1882 the Mitchells returned to their estate outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Willie, as he was called, was cared for by his nanny and governess but remained especially close to his mother until her death in 1922.

John Mitchell won a congressional seat as a Democrat, taking the family to Washington, D.C., in 1891. Willie was left behind in boarding school, seeing his family on some holidays and spending summers with them in Europe. He was notably bright and an outstanding athlete but too restless and undisciplined to achieve consistently high marks. In 1892 his father was elected to the Senate, and in 1896 Willie transferred to Columbian College in Washington. In 1898, less than a month after the outbreak of war with Spain, Willie enlisted. His father almost immediately arranged a commission for him in the Signal Corps.

Although Mitchell saw no wartime action, he was very active in developing communications in postwar reconstruction. He subsequently led efforts to establish telegraph networks for the army in challenging environments from Alaska to the Philippines.

In 1903 Mitchell married Caroline Stoddard, the daughter of family friends. Although both had family wealth, they consistently outspent their means, making ends meet through family gifts and loans. They had three children.

Mitchell's top performance at the Army School of the Line in 1908 and the Staff College in 1909 led to service in the War Department General Staff in 1913-1916. Many were attracted by his wit, high spirits, and athleticism. After learning to fly and serving with the new Aviation Section in June 1916, Mitchell was ordered to France to observe World War I operations. He arrived in March 1917, just as the United States entered the war.

The proud, swaggeringly aggressive Mitchell clashed hotly with the equally ambitious officers of General John J. Pershing's circle as well as with his fellow aviator Benjamin Foulois. Mitchell lost many bureaucratic battles over command arrangements for air forces and saw others advanced before him. But when Pershing at last attacked in September 1918, Mitchell was given air command under the corps commander General Hunter Liggett. Mitchell led his airmen from the air and employed them in effective mass. Pershing gave him a brigadier general's star. Insistent championing of his command and its needs won the loyalty of airmen but the enmity of senior officers, who saw him as arrogantly brash.

Mitchell returned to the United States in March 1919. While most officers reverted to their permanent ranks after the war, Mitchell kept his star as deputy Air Service chief under the nonflyer General Charles Menoher. Given wide latitude, Mitchell employed it imaginatively in initiatives to improve readiness and safety and to enhance the image of the service. Mitchell lobbied intensively with the public and Congress, seeking to unite all aeronautical activities--operational as well as technical, civil as well as military--under a single cabinet-level head with an experienced airman under him heading a third armed service, incorporating all air forces. He also advocated a unified department of national defense.

Mitchell argued stridently that air power was by far the dominant force in war and that it had rendered all other types of military forces either obsolete or of no more than auxiliary use. He later wrote that "[t]he performance of the ground armies in [World War I] is a perfect indication of what they will do in the future. … [N]o army can advance or drive the other from a prepared position. A war on the ground…will decide nothing" ("Building a Futile Navy," Atlantic Monthly, p. 413). He gathered a coterie, including many future air leaders, such as H. H. "Hap" Arnold, Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, and Ira Eaker. Mitchell also grew increasingly contemptuous of those, high and low, who failed to support him in every particular. Notably scathing were his attacks on the navy. He proclaimed that all surface ships (including aircraft carriers) were obsolete and battleships especially so. He clashed bitterly with the naval aviation chief William Moffett, who might otherwise have been a key ally. After intense lobbying, Mitchell gained a congressional mandate to do a demonstration bombing of an obsolescent ex-German battleship, the former Ostfriesland, which sank after intense attacks. It was a public sensation, and Mitchell was elated.

In 1921 Mitchell drove Menoher from office. Menoher was replaced by General Mason Patrick, a classmate of Pershing who had been Mitchell's chief in France. Although Patrick esteemed Mitchell and supported many of the same policies, he saw Mitchell's inflammatory tactics as counterproductive.

Mitchell's behavior seemed increasingly extreme and erratic, and his marriage was disintegrating under the strain. Caroline appealed to army leaders to moderate his heavy drinking and inflammatory public statements. But it was too late for the marriage, which in 1922 dissolved in public acrimony. Mitchell thereafter paid little attention to their children. Within a year he married Elizabeth Trumbull Miller, with whom he had two children. Combining his honeymoon with a Pacific inspection trip, Mitchell criticized Hawaiian air defenses under General Charles Summerall, an army star. Though Mitchell was largely right, his imperious style gained him a dangerous enemy.

While Mitchell got good press, his increasingly pointed attacks on authority evoked their natural reactions. After he scorned cautions and even direct orders, his appointment as deputy chief of the Air Service was allowed to lapse and with it his brigadier general's rank. An embittered Colonel Mitchell was sent to command skimpy air forces in San Antonio, Texas.

Early in September 1925 a navy airship on a publicity tour crashed in Ohio with heavy loss of life. Incensed that flyers should perish on a mission ordered by nonflyers, convinced that he knew the fault, and seeking publicity for his cause and his new book, Mitchell released a lengthy tirade to the newspapers. Filled with vituperatively speculative analyses of a wide variety of aviation-related issues, it denounced the leaders of the army and navy for "incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration."

Under pressure from President Calvin Coolidge to bring order, Secretary of War John W. Weeks and his assistant and successor Dwight F. Davis moved to court-martial Mitchell. Coolidge impaneled a commission under Dwight W. Morrow to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of aviation policies, effectively forestalling politicized congressional hearings that could provide Mitchell with a sounding board.

Charged with "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline and in a way to bring discredit upon the military service," Mitchell tried to turn the issue into one on the truth of his statements. After hearing his lengthy defense of his statements and an even lengthier government rebuttal, the court returned a guilty verdict without addressing the issue of truth or falsity. The judges sentenced Mitchell to five years deprivation of rank and pay but left open the possibility to resume his service and qualify for his pension. Coolidge, as reviewing authority, allowed Mitchell half pay during the five years of limbo. Mitchell's pride forbade him to accept the verdict, and he resigned his commission.

Retiring to his wife's Virginia estate, Mitchell bred horses and dogs, wrote, and lived as a foxhunting squire. The Mitchells traveled widely. From time to time he appeared at hearings on aviation matters, always bitterly denouncing official policy. He dabbled in Democratic Party politics nationally and locally but never with much success. His writings offered little new and lost their market. Spending freely, as always, Mitchell kept afloat with borrowings and help from family but sank increasingly into debt. He died in a New York City hospital.

The major U.S. Army Air Forces leaders in World War II were Mitchell protégés and admirers. They and those who supported them invoked his memory in conjunction with their triumphs in war and the creation afterward of the independent U.S. Air Force. Later generations of air force officers and supporters continued the tradition.

Mitchell's specific influence is difficult to pinpoint. His theory of air power was diffuse, unsystematic, and largely unoriginal. His key program of unification of all air efforts under central control of airmen has at most been partly fulfilled. His wide-ranging predictions were far from consistently accurate and did little to guide development. His advocacy of military unification was undercut by his own strident divisiveness. Mitchell's real gift was as a leader and a man of action rather than as a thinker. In this sense he did much to influence the mind-set of the modern U.S. Air Force, for better and worse both. He left the service a legacy of charismatic leadership, decisive action, technological imagination, and a sense of mission bordering on the messianic.


The Library of Congress holds the principal collection of Mitchell's papers. Other papers are with the Milwaukee County and Wisconsin Historical Society, and the National Air and Space Museum has the court-martial papers. Various papers are also in his family's collections.

Mitchell's own writings are extensive. His books include Our Air Force: Keystone of National Defense (1921); Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power--Economic and Military (1925); Skyways: A Book of Modern Aeronautics (1930); and two posthumous works--General Greely: The Story of a Great American (1936), a biography of Adolphus Greely, a chief of the Signal Corps who had taken Mitchell as a protégé; and Memoirs of World War I (1960). Representative articles include "America in the Air," National Geographic, Mar. 1921, pp. 338-52; "When the Air Raiders Come," Collier's, 1 May 1926, pp. 8-9, 35; "Building a Futile Navy," Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1928, pp. 408-13; "Are We Ready for War with Japan?" Liberty, 30 Jan. 1932, pp. 7-12; and "Will Japan Try to Conquer the United States?" Liberty, 25 June 1932, pp. 6-11. The statement he issued on 5 Sept. 1925, around which his court-martial revolved, was distributed nationally by Associated Press and printed in its entirety in most major newspapers; see, for example, the New York Times, 6 Sept. 1925, pp. 1, 6. Most biographies are hagiographic and error-ridden. A thoroughly researched critical biography is James J. Cooke, Billy Mitchell (2002). A popular book about the court-martial, Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial That Gripped the Nation (2004), is also well researched and interweaves the story of Mitchell's life throughout, filling in some details. For a résumé of Mitchell's military service with specific places and dates, see Robert P. Fogerty, "Mitchell, William," in Biographical Data on Air Force General Officers, 1917-1952, vol. 2, L-Z (1953). An obituary in the New York Times, 20 Feb. 1936, p. 19, is marred by a variety of inaccuracies and omissions. A more accurate obituary is by Associated Press; see Washington Post, 20 Feb. 1936, pp. 1, 11.