William "Billy" Mitchell became an untiring advocate for air power between the two world wars. His name remains synonymous with military aviation during the 1920s.
The son of a wealthy United States senator from Wisconsin, Mitchell was born in Nice, France, on Dec. 29, 1879, while his parents were on vacation. He grew up in Milwaukee and attended Racine College and Columbian University (now The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.). Before graduation, however, he enlisted in the 1st Wisconsin Infantry in 1899 as a private to fight in the Spanish American War. Because of his father's status, Mitchell quickly received a comission, but the war ended before he could get into the fight. Nevertheless, he stayed in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and served in Cuba and the Philippines during the Philippine Insurrection. Sent to Alaska in 1901, Mitchell distinguished himself by successfully laying a telegraph line through some of the most remote parts of that territory. While stationed in Alaska, Mitchell studied Otto Lilienthal's glider experiments, and he wrote an article in 1906 predicting that wars would soon be fought in the air and under the sea.
After attending the Army Staff College, Mitchell became the only Signal Corps officer on the Army General Staff in 1913. Since Army aviation was assigned to the Signal Corps, Mitchell became familiar with the early military aviators. Made the deputy commander of the aviation section in 1916, he took private flying lessons at the age of 38.
With the growing possibility of war, Mitchell went to France to study the production of military aircraft, and he arrived just after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. Mitchell met with many Allied air commanders, but Sir Hugh Trenchard, the Royal Air Force commander who advocated using independent air power as an offensive weapon, had the greatest impact.
Promoted to brigadier general and put in command of all American aerial combat units in France, Mitchell put Trenchard's ideas into practice during the battle of St. Mihiel in September 1918. Commanding 1,481 American and Allied airplanes, Mitchell won complete aerial superiority and devastated German ground forces. For his wartime efforts, Mitchell received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and several foreign decorations, but his brash methods and unwillingness to work within the chain of command had alienated his superiors.
After the Armistice, Mitchell returned to the United States expecting to command the Army Air Service, but instead, he became the deputy chief under Maj. Gen. Charles Menoher. Nevertheless, Mitchell steadfastly advocated the creation of an independent air force, and he promoted the small Army Air Service with border patrols, forest fire patrols, aerial mapping missions and any other activity that demonstrated the value of aviation. When these efforts failed to bring about the changes he sought, Mitchell became increasingly vocal in his arguments, and he publicly attacked superiors in the Army, Navy and even the White House.
Mitchell's agitation eventually brought about the famous series of airplane versus battleship tests from 1921-1923, when his Martin MB-2 bombers proved the vulnerability of warships to air attack by sinking the captured German battleship Ostfriesland. Afterward, Mitchell made an inspection tour of the Pacific and the Far East, after which he made his famous prediction that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning.
Returning to the United States in early 1925, Mitchell reverted to his permanent rank of colonel -- a common practice at the time but many people saw it as a punishment. When he was assigned to a post in San Antonio, Texas, Mitchell refused to remain quiet. After the Navy dirigible USS Shenandoah crashed in a violent storm killing 14, Mitchell accused the Army and Navy leadership of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." Court-martialed and convicted of insubordination, he was suspended from active duty for five years without pay. Instead of accepting this punishment, Mitchell chose to resign in February 1926. As a private citizen, Mitchell continued his campaign for an independent air force, but on Feb. 19, 1936, he died from heart problems and influenza. In 1946 Congress posthumously awarded Mitchell a special Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition for his "outstanding pioneer service and foresight" in the field of American military aviation.
Billy Mitchell the Prophet
During World War II, some of Billy Mitchell's warning came through, none more so than his famous prediction of war with Japan. In an official report submitted after his trip around the Pacific Ocean in 1924, Mitchell warned that Japan's expansionism would lead to conflict with the United States, and he foretold how a war would start. He stated that the war would begin with a surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in conjunction with an assault on the Philippines.
Attack will be launched as follows:
Bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island (in Pearl Harbor) at 7:30 a.m. ... Attack to be made on Clark Field (Philippines) at 10:40 a.m.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m. and Clark Field just hours later.
Mitchell's Awards and Decorations
After his resignation from the U.S. Army Air Service in 1926, Mitchell displayed his awards and decorations in this frame at his home. He wore the miniature medals for special occasions.
Uppermost: French Pilot Badge; U.S. Pilot Badge; Expert Rifleman Qualification Badge; Miniature Medal Bar with 14 Medals
First Row: U.S. Distinguished Service Cross; U.S. Distinguished Service Medal; U.S. Spanish War Service Medal; U.S. Philippine Campaign Medal; U.S. Army of Cuban Pacification Medal; U.S. Army of Cuban Occupation Medal; U.S. Victory Medal with eight Battle Stars (World War I); French Croix de Guerre with Star, 4 Palms; Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra (War Merit Cross) (World War I)
Second Row: French Commandeur Légion d'Honneur (Commander of the Legion of Honor); Italian Ordine dei Santi Maurizio e Lazzaro (Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus); British Order of St. Michael and St. George; Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Membership Medal; Italian Ordine della Corona d'Italia (Order of the Crown of Italy) Grand Officer (neck badge); Italian Ordine della Corona d'Italia (Order of the Crown of Italy) Grand Officer (breast star).
Third Row: Post Commander of the American Legion; Military Order of the Carabao; French Verdun Medal; Liberty Weekly Magazine Medal for Bravery; National Society of the Army of the Philippines; Military Order of Foreign Wars of the United States.
While flying, aircrews had to constantly turn their heads to look for other aircraft, and the regulation high collar uniform worn by the U.S. Army made it very difficult. The wool collars chafed their necks. Since most officers ordered their uniforms from a tailor, many Army Air Service pilots adopted the non-regulation lapel collar worn by the Royal Air Force during World War I. Gen. Mitchell started wearing the non-regulation lapel collars instead of the regulation uniform after he returned from France. In 1926, the uniform officially changed from the high-collar to the lapel collar.
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