William "Billy" Mitchell
Outspoken American General during World War Iby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
In his short 28 years in the military, General William “Billy” Mitchell became one of the most outspoken and well-known servicemen in history. This highly effective air commander fully embraced air power and became one of its most forthright supporters. Billy Mitchell served his country in Cuba, the Philippines and, most notably, as one of the first air commanders in World War I. With airpower only in its infancy, Mitchell realized its incredible potential and, among a sea of doubt, fought hard to advance its role in the United States military. Mitchell’s highly critical view of his superiors eventually led to a court martial, making Mitchell a military legend.
Born in Nice, France on December 28, 1879, Billy Mitchell grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was born into a very wealthy family. His grandfather was the wealthiest man in Wisconsin. Mitchell’s father carried on the wealth and became a Wisconsin senator. As a result, Mitchell received an excellent education. He attended both Racine College and Columbian University, now known as George Washington University. In 1898, however, Mitchell left Columbian to enlist as a private in the 1st Wisconsin Infantry during the Spanish-American War. This humble beginning in the military marked the start of a great and controversial career.
Mitchell advanced up the ranks rapidly and, with the intervention of his father, quickly received an officer commission. Shortly thereafter, in 1901, Mitchell joined the Signal Corps. He excelled rapidly as a junior officer impressing his superiors with his great courage and leadership. He performed various duties in the Signal Corps and served tours of duty in the Philippines and Alaska. His service there resulted in him becoming the youngest person at the time to receive a promotion to the Signal Corps General Staff. At the time, the military placed its small aviation program under the control of the Signal Corps. This was a major turning point in Billy Mitchell’s career because this was his first exposure to air power.
Four years after the first powered aircraft flight, the United States Signal Corps established an Aeronautical Division to put this exciting new field into military use, and Mitchell decided he wanted to fly in 1916. After only a few hours of flight training he was ready to solo. On his first solo landing, however, he came in too fast, did a half loop, and landed the aircraft upside down.  He walked away with nothing hurt but his pride. After this eventful first flight, Mitchell kept at it and became a top notch aviator.
Mitchell quickly learned all he could about aviation as the United States launched itself into World War I in the spring of 1917. American air resources were not utilized until much later in the war, but Mitchell immediately went to Europe and began learning. He worked extensively with the leaders of the British and French air forces to learn their strategies and tactics. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell was ready to begin planning and mobilizing the first ever American air presence in battle. However, this proved to be a slow and tedious process for Mitchell. Months passed before any American pilots or aircraft arrived in France. This did not discourage Mitchell, and he soon began planning the first coordinated air and ground attack ever undertaken.
As the United States became more involved in the war effort, aircraft still had not seen their full potential reached in the war. However, one of the first major battles fought by the United States in World War I, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, marked a new era in warfare by introducing aircraft as an offensive weapon. Planned by none other than General Billy Mitchell, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel utilized the aircraft in numbers not imaginable a few years earlier. In order to push the Germans out of the Saint-Mihiel salient, Mitchell led nearly 1500 allied aircraft into enemy lines to clear the way for the ground troops. His efforts in this battle and the rest of the war earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. The bold use of airpower in World War I cemented Mitchell’s strong views of the aircraft as a vital weapon in war.
Upon returning from the war, Mitchell became the deputy chief of the United States Air Service. He held firmly to the belief that the United States needed a separate air force and openly criticized the military for not doing enough to advance America’s airpower. Mitchell attempted to prove his point through a military exercise called Project B. The Navy allowed him to use aircraft to sink the Ostfriesland, a captured German battleship. The aircraft succeeded in sinking the ship and, while some downplayed its significance, caused many people to rethink airpower. Throughout this process, many military leaders became even more upset with Mitchell, but the final nail in the coffin occurred after the crash of a Navy dirigible. Mitchell used this event to publicly accuse military leaders of “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” President Calvin Coolidge promptly issued a court martial, and Billy Mitchell was found guilty of insubordination and suspended from duty for five years. Instead of taking the suspension, Mitchell resigned on February 1, 1926, and ended his well-known military career.
Mitchell didn’t let the court martial stop him, and he continued to preach the necessity of airpower for the rest of his life. General Billy Mitchell died on February 19, 1936 in New York City from a variety of health problems including influenza and a bad heart. Mitchell’s reputation continued to be plagued after his death by his well publicized court martial. However, the great impact of airpower in World War II proved everything he so fervently believed regarding airpower. In 1943, President Roosevelt elevated Mitchell back to his rank of Major General, acknowledging his great service to America. Congress also recognized Billy Mitchell in 1946 when they awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of his outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American military aviation."  These great awards honor a man that truly showed great insight and believed passionately in the future of military aviation.
Not much is known about Mitchell’s religious views. Based on interviews and letters, his biographers report that he was "vain, petulant, racist, overbearing, and egotistical".From a Biblical perspective some may question his disrespect for his superiors, but Mitchell also had many admirable traits. He stood up for what he believed in and never backed down in the face of adversity, and did it all in the name of the country he loved. General Billy Mitchell served his country with distinction and fought hard to protect and defend it.
 American Airpower Biography. “Billy Mitchell.” 19 Sept. 2008.
 Wikipedia. “Billy Mitchell.” 19 Sep. 2008. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Mitchell>
 Civil Air Patrol. Leadership: 2000 and Beyond, p 7-17 and 7-18.
 The Early Birds of Aviation, Inc. “William ‘Billy’ Mitchell.” 19 Sept. 2008.