PROPHET WITHOUT HONOR IN
HIS OWN LAND"
by Stan Griffin
William "Billy" Mitchell believed deeply in the importance of air power in Americaís future. He battled his superiors "tooth and nail" until he died. Only after a world war proved him right was he recognized as the prophet he was. Unfortunately, he didnít get to enjoy his exoneration. He died, still thought of as a maverick army officer who refused to follow orders.
Academy Award-winner Gary Cooper starred in a 1955 film, "The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell." It brought Mitchell to the attention of many who likely had never heard of him.
William Lendrum Mitchell was born on December 29, 1879 in Nice, France where his family was living temporarily. At the age of three, they moved back to their home near Milwaukee, Wisconsin where "Billy" grew up. His father was John Mitchell, U. S. Senator.
Billy attended George Washington University until 1898 when he enlisted as a private to fight in the Spanish-American War. As a member of the Signal Corps, he served in Cuba, the Philippines, and later in Alaska. By 1901 he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. Once the airplane was developed, the Signal Corps controlled what aviation there was in the armed forces.
Mitchell became interested in flying in 1908 when he was at Fort Myers, Virginia when the Wright Brothers gave their first military airplane demonstration. The following year he graduated from the Army Staff College at Leavenworth, Kansas; and after three years, he was appointed to the U. S. Army General staff, the youngest officer ever to serve in that position. Orville Wright taught him to fly in 1916.
Mitchell played a large part in the development of the U. S. Air Service during World War I (1917-1918). He was air adviser to General John Pershing, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) Mitchell helped organize their air service in Europe and served as commander of the air force in France. He commanded several large combat air units and was the first U.S. officer to fly over enemy lines.
Mitchell was in command of the largest concentration of Allied war power (1,481 planes) in a successful attack on the St. Mihiel-salient. By the end of World War I, he had been promoted to brigadier general.
In 1919 Mitchell was appointed assistant chief of the U. S. Air Service. He campaigned vigorously for an improved air arm, one that was independent from the other military branches. Also Mitchell favored a single defense department to coordinate air, sea, and ground forces in wartime and for improved military preparedness.
Mitchell encountered resistance from leaders of the armed forces who said his claims for air power were exaggerated, branding him an "extremist" and an "insurgent." Mitchell constantly criticized them for not developing air power.
When he was stymied in his efforts to work within the "system," Mitchell took his case to the American public. He gave interviews to journalists who published stories in magazines and newspapers. Mitchell also spoke to groups throughout the country and wrote several books on the subject.
In 1921 Mitchell got permission from his superiors to conduct some demonstrations of air power. He and some of his fliers sank three captured German warships with aerial bombs (a destroyer, a cruiser, and a battleship). His "squadron" also sank an obsolete battleship, the U.S.S. Alabama. Two years later the pilots sank the U.S.S. New Jersey and U.S.S. Virginia, two more outdated battleships. This seemed irrefutable proof that Mitchellís bombers could sink the largest navy vessels.
Even with this overwhelming evidence, Mitchell failed to convince the military hierarchy, partly because his arguments were sometimes "violent" and "bitter in condemnation of those who disagreed ..."
Then in 1925 a U.S. Navy dirigible, the U.S.S. Shenandoah, crashed in a storm, killing all of its crew. Mitchell publicly attacked the military, calling the incident "immoral negligence," "incompetency," and the "almost treasonable administration of national defense." Strong language! He also testified before several congressional committees in the same tone.
The military struck back, relieving him of his post as assistant chief of the Air Service, reducing his rank to colonel, and transferring him to ground duty in San Antonio, Texas. They also courtmartialed him for his attacks, finding him guilty of insubordination. His punishments were: (1) suspension from duty for five years; and (2) loss of pay and allowances (one-half of these were later returned). But instead of accepting the suspension, Mitchell resigned from the Army to become a stock farmer. (1926)
He never gave up on his quest for an improved air force, continuing to write and giving interviews and speeches. Mitchell died in New York City on February 19, 1936.
World War II (1941-1945) showed the world that Billy Mitchell was "right on target." Air supremacy did indeed play an important part in winning that war with strategic bombing, mass airborne operations, and airplanes eclipsing battleships. He also predicted that Japan would be a major opponent and that they would eventually attack our navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Before the war was over, the Senate voted to restore Mitchell posthumously to active duty as a major general. However, this action was never officially certified. In 1948 he was awarded the Medal of Honor, presented to his son by chief of the new U. S. Air Force. Ten years later Secretary of the Air Force rejected a recommendation that Mitchellís courtmartial ruling be reversed because " ... he violated military law by attacking his superiors ..."
Obviously, many in high echelons of the military are reluctant to admit their errors.
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