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Defining Billy Mitchell: A History Book Club Wrap-Up

History Book Club

At the most recent History Book Club, we discussed Douglas Waller’s A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial That Gripped the Nation and the legacy of the brash Milwaukeean, General Billy Mitchell.  Mitchell was a pioneering military officer whose viewpoints on the future of military aviation ultimately led him to being court-martialed and eventually found guilty for speaking his mind and undermining American military procedure (violation of the catch-all 96th Article of War).

In a time when airplanes were very little more than wood, cloth, and an engine, Mitchell understood the potential importance of air-power on the battlefield unlike any other of his time.  He predicted the importance of the Hawaiian Islands and the rise of Asia, particularly Japan, as one of the countries that the world needed to be concerned of post-World War I.  He in fact predicted that the Japanese would strike at Pearl Harbor years before the eventual attack in 1941, and actually predicted the time of the attack within 20 minutes.  He had successfully proven that air-power could sink a battleship, a thought once noted as preposterous, during a flight test in 1921; a result that made manly naval admirals weep at the test.

Unfortunately, as smart and prophetic as he was militarily and aeronautically, two things that he could not control ultimately did Mitchell in: his social class and his mouth.  Born the grandson of an eminent Milwaukee banker and the son of a Congressman, Mitchell lived a life of excess and privilege that many in the military never dreamed having.  Though he was a very ambitious and promising soldier, Mitchell could not help how his lineage perhaps took away from the successes he had earned.  His wealthy family may have also shaped his ego.  When he asked his family for money, often overspending his bounds, the loans were lent easily, and there was always more money from where that loan came from.  Having money often allows people to be more public, more outspoken, fear repercussions less. 

Mitchell had the military know-how of airplanes unlike very few in the United States Military.  He flew every model of plane that the US Army acquired.  He flew scouting missions in France as a General.  If anybody had the right to acknowledge the direction of aviation in the military, it was Billy Mitchell.

However, sometimes you just need to put your foot in your mouth.  In response to the Navy dirigible Shenandoah crashing in a storm in 1925 that killed 14 on board, an enraged, ignored (in his opinion), and recently demoted Mitchell fired a scathing 6000+ word document at a press conference that accused leaders in both the Army and the Navy of incompetence and “almost treasonable administration of the national defenses.”  While the average person may be able to get away about saying some of this about their superiors, in the military atmosphere, such speech could not go undisciplined.

The result was a seven-week media-circus court-martial which was the O.J. Simpson trial of the 1920s, or at least a similar equivalent.  Mitchell was tried amongst a jury of his peers (fellow generals including childhood playmate and future Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur) that either loved him or hated him for a variety of reasons.  Mitchell was eventually found guilty of his breach of the 96th Article of War and was suspended for five years without pay or title. 

The question remains why the US military did not kick Mitchell out outright.  Did they value his opinions but not his gabbiness?  Mitchell certainly thought so, but it didn’t matter in the end.  Though President Coolidge altered the sentence and eventually allowed for Mitchell to receive half-pay, the flamboyant Mitchell resigned from the Army in February 1926.  He tried to rally around Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential election in 1932, hoping to get a valuable military or possibly a cabinet position, but nothing materialized.  Within ten years of the court-martial, Mitchell was dead at 56.

Unfortunately, Billy Mitchell never got to see most of his ideas come into fruition.  His death preceded the beginning of World War II by just three years and he never saw how powerful airpower became on the battlefront, especially with the dropping of the ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb, from an airplane.  He never saw the formation of an independent air force, co-equal to the army and navy that he lobbied for for so many years.  He never got to see the direction of today’s modern aviation or its advancement to the point of creating drone technology where airplanes do not even need pilots.  Compare this to some planes in his time being called “flying coffins” and the term ‘suicide mission’ being an apt and common concept in early aviation.

Despite his military downfall, Billy Mitchell and his legacy are stronger today than ever.  Wherever there is an airplane, the legacy of Mitchell is right behind.

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