Military Times NOW hosts the HomeOfHeroes  Awards & Citations Database

 

Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado

Colonel
Billy Mitchell


And His

Aerial Armada

starbar.gif (2352 bytes)

World War I had been over for three months when the Cunard liner Aquitania steamed for New York City.  Joining the hundreds of returning soldiers aboard was the famous industrialist J. Pierpont Morgan and his family, the new British ambassador to Washington, the sister of victorious General John J. Black Jack Pershing, and other well known dignitaries.  In this distinguished crowd, however, the man who seemed to stand out was little-known beyond the recent battlefields of France, a 39-year old brigadier general named William Mitchell.

Despite the fact he was authorized numerous medals, the breast of his tailored uniform was empty but for a pair of silver aviator's wings.  Peter Hammon of the Chicago Tribune wrote of him:   

"With the air of a conqueror, he personified war in much of its pristine grandeur.  He was better dressed than Pershing--a plumed fellow with the aura of banner, spear and shield.  No one ever had a better time being a general."

By the time World War I ended General Mitchell had:

  •  spent twenty-one years in the Army, 

  • become the youngest officer in one war, 

  • the highest ranking flier in another, and

  • had established an enviable record of success.  In France:

    • he had been the first American officer under enemy fire,

    • the first American pilot to fly over enemy lines,

    • the first American to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre, and 

    • commanded the largest aerial armada in history.

But in Mitchell's mind the war had ended a few months too soon!  

Germany gave in too quickly and the Allies have been too eager to agree to Armistice, he argued.  
Allied air power should have pressed its advantage, continued its destruction of the German factories and war machine until it was destroyed beyond repair.  
Because the war had ended a couple of months too soon, Germany would rebuild and, in time, the United States would have to return to finish the job.  When they did, the coup de grace would be delivered by American air power.

Amid the hoopla of the great American victory in France, General Mitchell's words echoed a sentiment few wanted to believe.  The Great War had been the costliest conflict in world history.  More than four million Americans had been called to service, many of them conscripted under the new Selective Service Act of 1917, with more than two million of them enduring the most bitter combat since the Civil War.  American casualties had numbered more than a quarter-million with a death toll exceeding 100,000.  The prevailing hope was that this war that had engulfed the world and introduced some of the most devastating weapons in history, would indeed be the LAST war in world history...the war to end all wars.

Who then, was the brash young general who dared to speak of a second world war even before the corpse of the First World War had been laid to rest?  In hindsight, biographers and historians would ultimately chronicle him as:  

  • a prophet without honor,

  • an antagonist at odds with military authority,

  • a man born before his time, 

  • an egomaniac with a penchant for the sensational.

Nearly a century after the seven-week trial that stripped him of his uniform, a trial that might be accurately characterized as the first Trial of the Century of the 20th Century, the man convicted of violating the 96th Article of War for his outspoken criticism of the post-World War I military leadership is still as controversial as he was in his lifetime.  

Was he a thorn-in-the-flesh or a guiding light to the future?

Perhaps the man best characterized himself in a letter home to his father in 1902 after four years of military service when he wrote:  "If I ever get a chance in the field, I think I can do something....

"I am naturally a sort of soldier."

starbar.gif (2352 bytes)

 

 

William Billy Mitchell

If Billy Mitchell's greatest flaw was a defiance of authority when he believed he was right, he came by that naturally.  His Scottish grandfather, Alexander Mitchell, had combined hard work and determination to leave a bank teller's job in 1839 to build one of the largest fortunes in the State of Wisconsin.  By the time civil war broke out, Alexander Mitchell owned the world's largest rail system and was worth millions of dollars.  He was also a man of intense principle. 

Later, when the Wisconsin legislature tried to fix rail road rates that Mitchell though were too low he petitioned no one.  Rather, he NOTIFIED the governor that the existing rates would remain in effect until the courts settled the case...a case that he ultimately won.  Senator Bob La Follette characterized the incident by saying:  "A more brazen defiance of law could scarcely be conceived."

But Alexander Mitchell DID have great respect for the law, and numbered among his closest friends the esteemed Judge MacArthur of Milwaukee.  Judge MacArthur's son was an acquaintance of Mitchell's son John Lendrum Mitchell, and both young men had served with Wisconsin Volunteers in the Civil War.  John Mitchell's war experience was of little note, serving for a time as chief of ordnance on the staff of a Union general before an eye ailment ended his military career.  MacArthur's son Arthur, on the other hand, went on to earn the Medal of Honor and become the Boy Colonel of the Civil War.  Both families remained close over the years so it was natural that their grandchildren too, would become friends.  They did, despite the fact that the nature of the careers of John Mitchell and Arthur MacArthur would often place them in opposite sides of the globe.

William Billy Mitchell was born in Nice, France on December 29, 1879, the first son of John Lendrum Mitchell and his second wife Harriet.  (Some authors still list Billy as William Lendrum Mitchell, though in fact, William Mitchell had no middle name.)  The following month Arthur MacArthur's wife Mary gave birth to her second son in Little Rock, Arkansas on January 26th.  The couple named this child Douglas. 

The Mitchell's remained in France for three years before returning to Milwaukee with a toddler who spoke French better than English.  Young Billy took a lot of teasing for his preference to his native French when he entered school, causing him to abandon the language (as well as the German, Spanish, and Italian he also spoke) for nearly forty years.  He revived it when he needed it, and could use it, to his best advantage.  

At home in Milwaukee, Billy Mitchell and Douglas MacArthur not only had occasion to meet, but to become childhood friends.  It was a friendship that would follow them all their lives, and years later present Douglas MacArthur with one of his most painful duties.

Mitchell was privy to a lifestyle without want: education at an Episcopal prep school, learning to ride carefully bred horses on the 400-acre family estate at Meadowmere, polo, and marksmanship.  In 1891 John Mitchell was elected to the United States Congress, then entered the Senate two years later.  The elder Mitchell's duties provided Willy, as the family called him at that time,  opportunity to live in the Nation's capitol where he enrolled in Washington's Columbian School (later George Washington University.)  It also gave him opportunity to study the workings and machinations of American politics.

Mitchell money and political clout (Grandpa Mitchell had also served in the United States Congress and turned down a bid to run for governor of Wisconsin), meant that neither Billy or his nine siblings would ever have to settle for common labor.  The greatest problem for the growing young Mitchells seemed to be simply deciding on what private vocational endeavors to embark.  When the USS Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba in 1898 and the United States declared war on Spain, Billy Mitchell decided perhaps the military would provide an answer to his own active personality.

"You're not going to let this little boy go to war, John?" asked General Fighting Joe Wheeler while he was in Washington before departing for Cuba as part of General Shafter's invasion force.  "Especially as he's your oldest child."

"He's eighteen," replied the Senator, one of the leading opponents to the war in the early days leading up to the loss of the Maine.  Then with a wit that was typical he noted, "I'd rather have them (soldiers) under twenty than over forty, if I were running a war."


 

Lieutenant Billy Mitchell

Despite the rumblings and calls for war against Spain that had been growing in the United States for years, when at last that war was declared, our nation was totally unprepared to field an army, or supply it.  The manpower problem was solved by raising an army of volunteers in the various states, usually a gathering of hometown boys who knew each other and were enamored with a potential adventure.  Officers were elected within the group, usually based on popularity rather than military training, experience, or ability...qualities almost none of the volunteers possessed.  It was in such a group, the First Wisconsin Volunteers, that Billy Mitchell gained his first military experience commission.

One week after joining the Army Billy Mitchell was a second lieutenant.  It was now just a few months after his 18th birthday which made him the youngest officer in the American military.  It was a position for which Mitchell was well suited.  Among a motley group of citizen-soldiers with almost no military bearing, Lieutenant Mitchell seemed almost naturally, a sort of soldier.  As an officer he was adept at bringing some order to the chaos.

In May 1898 the First Wisconsin Volunteers were sent to Florida where 30,000 troops were being staged for the invasion of Cuba.  Here the confusion and lack of preparedness for war was so bad that the assistant commander of the First United States Cavalry, arriving from Arizona, later wrote:  "We disembarked in a perfect welter of confusion.  Everything connected with both military and railroad matters was in an almost inextricable tangle."  Throughout the brief Spanish-American War, and for years afterwards, that same officer, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, continued his castigation of military and political leaders for their lack of foresight and preparation for the war.

Mitchell, as were most of the other young volunteers waiting in Florida, was excitedly anticipating action in Cuba.  His hopes were dashed when he was called to Washington, DC for assignment to the Army's Signal Corps under Genera Adolphus Greely, a friend of Senator Mitchell.  Perhaps the elder Mitchell was not as enthused about his young son's military service as he had echoed to General Wheeler.  Whatever effected the transfer, a protesting Second Lieutenant Mitchell found himself deprived of his chance for combat action.  In one of those unusual twists of fate, the transfer gave the young officer a chance to demonstrate his natural leadership abilities.

A Police Action

The young men who had volunteered for excitement and adventure in the Volunteer Army of the Spanish-American war quickly learned that the adventure would consist of trying to survive their assimilation into a poorly fed, under-equipped, and poorly organized Army.  They would have to CREATE their own excitement.  En route to Florida, seventy-five members of a New York regiment did just that, deserting their train in the Capitol City to scrounge for food and fun.  Their officers, traveling in a separate car and lax in supervision, continued the journey unaware they had lost their command.

On their own, the seventy-five AWOL soldiers captured a hotel and began treating themselves to all the free food, fun and booze they could find.  When the Capitol police sent word to Mitchell's barracks for help, Lieutenant Mitchell volunteered for the assignment.

Mitchell arrived with only fourteen men to quell a riot that had frightened local officials.  The proprietor, obviously none too confident in the redemption of his establishment by so young an officer with such a small rescue force, advised him not to enter the hotel.  "The soldiers are all drunk and dangerous, and anybody who goes in there will probably be killed," he warned.

In the first impossible mission of his long military career, Billy Mitchell demonstrated his keen perception and unusual abilities in a manner far beyond his youth and military inexperience.  He stationed his two largest soldiers at either entrance to the hotel, then ordered them to remove the bullets from their rifles.  Should the weapons be required, they were ordered to use only the butts...no American soldier would be killed on Lieutenant Mitchell's watch.

With but one man, Lieutenant Mitchell entered the room which was indeed filled with extremely drunken young soldiers...and then he did the unimaginable.  He called them to "Attention".  

Despite their inebriated condition, seventy-two men jumped to their feet and fell into order.  The three who did not comply, could not--they were passed out cold.  Mitchell then marched the lot for three miles, during which they carried their three comrades.  Along the march the remainder of Mitchell's squad stopped at fire hydrants to douse the motley formation with cold water.  By the march's end, all had been sufficiently sobered, sorry for what they had done, and returned to service.

 

Mitchell's handling of this incident gained the attention of General Greely and marked him for future service under the Signal Corps' commander.  Before summer ended, Mitchell returned to Florida in hopes of seeing action in Cuba.  By the time he did reach the Carribbean Island in the fall however, the war had ended.  When he did reach Cuba he proved his abilities during a brief foray to the interior of the island where he and his 40-man contingent strung 140 miles of telegraph wire.  His mission completed, he wrote and submitted a detailed report, a custom that marked his entire military career.  One of his commanders noted, "I have seen few reports giving so much information in clear-cut form on a technical subject of such range."

The two personal traits that marked the life and service of Billy Mitchell seem to have been:

  • keen observation and 

  • detailed reporting on what he had observed.  

Not always were his observations, however, as discretionary as his superiors might have wished.  In the Spanish-American war Mitchell was aware of the rivalry between the Army and Navy commanders at Santiago that had prevented a unified American response to the Spanish presence in the harbor.  In Florida he had seen a confusion that bordered on criminal ineptness in the use and deployment of U.S. military resources.  In a manner that reflected yet a third personal trait that marked the life of Billy Mitchell, he voiced his opinion based upon his observations.  Of the war in Cuba he wrote, "I really do believe that if we had been up against a first-rate power, they would have whaled the mischief right out of us."

Mitchell's status as the son of a United States Senator certainly enhanced the success of his early military career, but as young Lieutenant Mitchell pursued his duties well, he made his own mark through diligent and detailed effort.  At the turn of the century as Douglas MacArthur was entering the military academy at West Point, First Lieutenant Mitchell debarked for the Philippines for seven months of duty under his boyhood friend's father.  It was ironic as Senator Mitchell was one of the leading opponents of American expansionism.  Billy on the other hand, seemed to support the concept of the United States' Manifest Destiny with a patriotic fervor.

Mitchell arrived in the Philippines in November 1899 and saw action during the Philippine Insurrection where he proved both his courage and his initiative.  He strung miles of communication wire through the jungles despite the ever present threat of danger from the native insurgents.  The job was made nearly impossible because there were no supplies.  Mitchell accomplished his job by using wire unwound from captured cannon, fashioning insulators from bamboo or broken glass, and even creating his own batteries using common salt.  In a daring night raid he also led a small patrol of Black soldiers to capture Captain Mendoza, adjutant to the insurgent leader Aguinaldo.  His departure was hastened when he contracted Malaria, and Lieutenant Mitchell returned home after a six month tour of both the Orient and Europe, expecting to resign his commission, leave the Army, and pursue other as yet undefined interests.  But for the intervention of General Adolphus Greely,  Billy Mitchell's military career might have ended at the turn of the century.

The grizzled commander of the Army's Signal Corps was by now legendary, not only for his ill-fated adventure at the polar ice cap in 1882 and the unsubstantiated but sensational rumors of cannibalism, but also as one of the Army's forward thinking commander.  Since 1887 he had held the role as the Army's chief Signal Officer, responsible for communications, photography, and observation balloons.  He had also developed a sincere interest in the immense northwest territory of Alaska, purchased from Russia by the United States in 1867.  Alaska had remained secluded from American interest until 1997 when gold was discovered in the Klondike, sparking a furor reminiscent of the California Gold Rush of 1849.  Life in Alaska was full of the potential for riches...and also for death.  So many visitors were lost in the vastness of the region that the US Government was forced to send soldiers.  

These soldiers needed a means of maintaining communications back to the contiguous United States, and a concerted effort had been directed by private contractors to accomplish this.  The efforts had failed and the possibility of completing WAMCATS (Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph Systems) was deemed impossible.

With American expansion into the Pacific at the turn of the century, Greely had the foresight to see that one day Alaska would hold a great strategic position in world affairs.  In 1900 at the age of fifty-six, he personally went to Alaska to prove the job could be done.  Returning home convinced that WAMCATS could be built by the right person, he knew just the man to accomplish it.  When Billy Mitchell returned to Fort Meyer in 1901, General Greely asked him to take the Alaskan assignment.  Always open to adventure and a chance to take on the odds, Mitchell elected to remain in the Army and go north, departing Seattle for Alaska in July.

From July to October, summer in Alaska, Mitchell observed both the terrain and the poor progress on the communications system.  His orders were to observe, then report back to Greely why all efforts on the project to date had failed. 

"I submitted a report of my observations in Alaska to General Greely...to the effect that the people trying to build telegraph lines stayed in the house too much in the winter, and that if they got out and worked when it was cold, the lines could be built.  Whereupon Gen. Greely ordered me to return to Alaska and build them and I was delighted with the prospect."

Over the next two winters the young Lieutenant strung wire to connect the farthest outposts of territorial Alaska to Washington State.  By the time he finished, WAMCATS linked military posts from Sitka to Seattle with more than 1,000 miles of undersea cable, and 210-foot antenna provided wireless communications across Norton Sound to Nome.   For the most part the mission had been hampered, as had his earlier mission, by lack of proper supply and equipment.  As he had in the jungles of the Philippines, in Alaska Mitchell improvised where he could, skirted the boundaries of procedure where he couldn't improvise.  He had been authorized $5,000 for completion of the task that ultimately cost $50,000, but in his typically pragmatic fashion, he bypassed the system and spent the necessary funds even without contracting an officer's warrant.  Under ordinary circumstances such a budget over-run might have ruined a career, but Mitchell had accomplished a task that the military had struggled for years without success to do.  The end not only justified the means, it exonerated the pragmatist.

When Mitchell returned home in 1903 it was to yet another promotion.  At age 23 he was the youngest Captain in the Army and a rising star in the Signal Corps.  That same year he married a young socialite from Rochester and honeymooned in Mexico.  New ideas played at Mitchell's ever inquiring mind, and military innovation was never far removed from his thought-process, taking precedence over home and family.

During the cold winter of 1902-03 Mitchell had developed interest in a new innovation while spending long weeks snowed in by 40-foot Alaskan drifts.  In his lonely cabin he had spent hours reading up on engineering and aeronautics with special interests in the experiments of Professor Samuel P. Langley.  Before 1903 came to an end, two brothers named Orville and Wilbur Wright gave the world the first successful airplane flight, and from that moment on, life would never be the same for Billy Mitchell.

The following year Senator Mitchell died.  Meanwhile Captain Mitchell continued to build his own resume while experimenting with new ideas for military communication and photography at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  His naturally inquisitive mind was constantly seeking to push the envelope, including one experiment in which he sent a kite nearly two miles into the air attached to a wire, which enabled him to receive a radio transmission from Puerto Rico nearly two thousand miles away.  With the birth of heavier than air flight, Mitchell was in the right place (Army Signal Corps) at the right time.  The Signal Corps was responsible for radio transmissions through the air, the use of lighter-than-air observation balloons, and similar projects all linked to the skies.

In 1906 when the airplane was less than three years old and the first military aircraft was still three years from delivery to the Army, Mitchell wrote an article for the Cavalry Journal.   In it he stated:

"Conflicts no doubt will be carried on in the future in the air, on the surface of the earth and water, and under the water."

It was the kind of essay one would have expected from someone like Jules Verne, certainly not a bright young Army officer.  The airplane was exciting but too infantile to even be considered as a weapon of war.  As he would be throughout his brief life, Mitchell's foresight was well ahead of his time.


 

 Billy Mitchell, American Spy

In the following three years the Mitchell family grew with the birth of two daughters, and Billy saw his career continue its impressive course when he was selected as the first Signal Corps officer to attend the Army's School of the Line, graduating with distinction.  By 1909 the Army had received its first airplane and trained its pilots...TWO of them.  Mitchell's own growing interest in aviation had to be placed on hold with assignment back to the Philippines however.  During the slightly more than three years that followed Mitchell became interested, or some would say "obsessed", with what was seemingly his only other interest in later life...a potential enemy to be faced in a future war.

The movements and activities of American troops in the Philippines were carefully monitored and reported on by the Japanese, certainly suspicious of the American presence in the Pacific.  During his first year in The Islands, Mitchell made it a practice to watch the watchers, noting with detail what THEY were doing and diligently transferring these notes to volumous reports back to Washington.  For a time he moved casually around the islands posing as a naturalist, observing birds and wildlife, while photographing or sketching Japanese activities.  By his own admission, he often purchased his way into the confidence of these Oriental spies, for the most part alone and isolated far from home, with conversation, beer and cigarettes.  Mitchell was an engaging guy who made friends easily, and was difficult to dislike.  It allowed him to get his way in most situations.

In the fall of 1911 Captain Mitchell toured Japan, Manchuria and China.  It was NOT a pleasure tour but a hard look at what was happening in these countries.  Mitchell was especially interested in Japan, its military training and weaponry, and particularly the Japanese interest in the budding field of aviation.  Again he took copious notes, photographed when he could and sketched when he could not photograph, and then compiled his observations in reports to Washington.  

As early as 1913 he wrote:

"Increasing friction between Japan and the United States will take place in the future there can be little doubt, and that this will lead to war sooner or later seems quite certain."

The original of the report containing this prophetic observation is a part of the War College papers in the National Archives.  Exactly how much attention was paid to Mitchell's reports on the Japanese in the period before World War I is quickly evident.  Penciled in the column next to the above paragraph is the word: "Arse."

While Mitchell's predictions raised little attention, in a military establishment that might sometimes be characterized as prioritizing paperwork over bullets, Mitchell's diligence and hard word was not unnoticed.  His first fifteen years of military service had been filled with glowing reports by superiors, successes in Alaska and Fort Leavenworth, and a drive to duty that was uncommon even among the most dedicated of Americans.  Mitchell returned home  with a selection to the General Staff.  At the age of thirty-two he was the youngest man every selected to this most prestigious of military assignments.   

In 1912 he was assigned to Intelligence, a suitable position for a man who had just spied out the Orient like few Americans had ever been privileged to do, and an opportunistic place to be with the brewing troubles in Europe.  His new role also returned him to Washington, D.C.; a city where the Mitchell name was well-known and remembered, and where the budding young officer had many friends.  The location also placed him close to Newport News, Virginia where Glenn Curtiss operated a flying school.


Billy Mitchell, The Pilot

Three things dominated the following three years of Mitchell's life and career:  

  • continued interest in aviation, 

  • Intelligence reports of the growing crisis in Europe,  and 

  • giving voice to his strong personal opinions about the first two of these interests.

In Washington Captain Mitchell became friends with a budding young pilot who had been one of the first military aviators trained at the Wright Brothers' flying school in 1911, an officer named Lieutenant Henry Arnold.  A 1907 West Point Graduate, Arnold was known as "Hap" at the point.  He had hoped to become a Cavalry officer but his poor performance as a cadet stymied that dream and sent him to serve as an Infantry officer in the Philippines.  After that tour of duty, he again applied for service with the Cavalry.  When he was again turned down he opted for the Signal Corps as at least a better place to serve than in the Infantry.  It was a fortunate assignment, both for Hap Arnold and for the future of American air power.

Mitchell and Arnold spent many hours discussing the developing airplane, Mitchell saturating his mind with knowledge during these sessions.  Arnold later recalled:  "His questions about the air were intelligent and to the point; in fact, it was he who did most of the talking, asking questions only to get concrete facts."  So immersed in the subject was Captain Mitchell that, three years before he ever sat in a cockpit, he was recognized in Washington as an authority on the airplane.  In 1913 Mitchell, Arnold, and Ben Foulois (who had taught himself to fly in 1909 through correspondence with the Wright Brothers) were called to testify on the future of the airplane before a Congressional committee.  At that time military use of aircraft was assigned to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, and the question had arisen about a separate air arm.  Though it was this very concept that twelve years later would make Mitchell a thorn in the flesh of the Army, Navy and War Department, in 1913 Mitchell argued against removing aeronautics from the Signal Corps.  Perhaps remembering well how Army/Navy rivalries had led to tactical problems during the Spanish-American War, Mitchell admonished:

"If we are going to try to build up aviation in this country, what's the use of trying to create a separate branch...causing all sorts of complications?  I believe it would set aviation back to create a separate organization." 

It was a proclamation that would one day come back to haunt air power's greatest advocate.  When the hearings concluded the committee agreed with the policy advocated by Mitchell, Arnold and Foulois.  Army aviation would remain within the Signal Corps.  That the congressmen were impressed with Mitchell's understanding of the Army's air arm was further illustrated when the young Captain was asked to author the legislation himself.

It is of note that, in 1913, the airplane was still thought of as a tool to be used by ground commanders.  The airplane could be used to observe, to photograph, and to transmit communications--hence it was suitably placed within the Signal Corps.  Mitchell did have the foresight, even then however, to recognize the potential beyond the traditional role, stating:  "Some people think of the aeroplane (as) being an adjunct of the lines of information, (but) the lines of information may grow to be an adjunct to the aeroplane, and very probably will."

Mitchell's second passion developed almost unexpectedly, though quite naturally.  Throughout his military career, Mitchell had been recognized as an officer who was thorough in reporting, drafting pages of detailed reports of his various observations for submission through the channels.  When the budding young officer was bed-ridden due to a severe case of rheumatism (which had been developed as a result of his service in Alaska a decade earlier), he used his time to write.  Now, however, his words were penned for distribution beyond military channels.  Under a pseudonym he authored articles for the Chicago Tribune and even penned an anonymous piece on the brewing war in Europe for World's Work.  In July 1915 he wrote a controversial paper in which he advocated reorganizing the War Department with the creation of a Council of National Defense that would have authority over BOTH the Army and Navy stating:  "We would then have the whole national defense brains, so to speak, under one roof."

The diatribe was titled "Our Faulty Military Policy", and spoke to the threat of war looming on America's horizon, with an eye to preparedness.  Mitchell urged compulsory military service to raise an Army, an unpopular concept, two years before passage of the Selective Service Act that did become necessary to raise an army AFTER the United States did enter the war.  Mitchell's premise, for the most part more historically observant than prophetic, stated:

"The military policy of the United States is and has been to prepare for war after such war has actually broken out."

This doctrine may well explain Mitchell's actions at the end of World War I.  In 1898 and again just nineteen years later he had seen his nation enter two different wars, totally unprepared to field an effective army.  From history he developed a sincere and compelling drive to convince the United States to prepare for the NEXT war which, no one wanted to believe would ever come.  Indeed, the fact that history repeats itself coupled with Billy Mitchell's interest in American history and past wars, may reveal the man to have been less of a prophet and more of an astute historian.

By the time Mitchell's duty on the General Staff neared its completion late in 1915, the radically thinking young officer was already raising eyebrows and wearing out his welcome.  His assignment to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was welcomed by most of his superiors who saw him as more suited to field duty than staff duty.  Again Mitchell received promotion, attaining the rank of Major.

For three months Mitchell was totally confined by his rheumatism to bed rest, and the illness weakened his heart and nearly claimed his life.  Fighting back, he regained gradual movement and slowly recovered.  By mid-1916 he was able to travel and began to fulfill his dream of flying.  Every weekend for nearly six months he drove to Newport News, Virginia for flight lessons until he soloed.  Mitchell himself paid for two thirds of the $1,470 bill for flight lessons, as Army regulations allowed payment of no more than $500 to a civilian agency for services to one of its officers. 

 

 Billy Mitchell, The Firsts

Billy Mitchell's fifteen years of military service were marked by his youth--youngest officer in the Spanish-American Army, youngest officer selected the the General Staff.   In 1917, two years past the middle-age milestone, his career became marked by a series of firsts.  The catalyst for the new phase of his life was provided by the war in Europe, a war that had engulfed the old world and one that the United States was doing its best to ignore and stay out of. 

Mitchell was convinced that eventually the United States would be dragged reluctantly into the conflict, and in 1917 began requesting duty in Europe.  On March 3, 1917 he joined a group of five observers heading to France.  His orders called for him to report to the American ambassador in Paris "for the specific purpose of observing the manufacture and development of aircraft."    Major Mitchell arrived in Spain in March and was making his way to France when, on April 6th, the United States indeed entered the war.  The three-year old war in Europe had at last, as Mitchell expected, become a WORLD war.

Returning to his native French tongue for the first time since his youth, Mitchell was quickly welcomed in France.  The three years of bitter warfare had left the French with dour pessimism and a hopeless outlook. That had now been brightened by the anticipated arrival of millions of American soldiers, and Billy Mitchell became the symbol of the relief that was to come.

Months before the first soldiers of General Pershing's American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) arrived, Billy Mitchell became representative of a new phase in the war.  His character, his courage, and his sincere interest in the prosecution of the war was more than welcomed.

  • Even before the A.E.F. arrived, Major Mitchell toured the front lines with French soldiers, taking up a position in a trench beneath the guns in the distance and participating in an infantry attack.  He was the first American soldier under enemy fire in World War I.  (Several US citizens had prior combat experience flying with the British or in the Lafayette Escadrille or fighting in the French Foreign Legion, but Mitchell was the first under fire in the uniform of the United States.)
  • Mitchell's orders had been for him to observe and report on the manufacture and development of aircraft for the war in Europe.  He did more.  With a French pilot he winged his way over the battlefields, becoming the first American officer to fly over the enemy lines.
  • For his foray into the front lines, Mitchell was recognized by the French government.  He became the first American to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

All the while the Major continued his job of observation and reporting.  During the day he traveled the countryside, at night in his hotel room he typed pages of reports back to Washington.  In those early months Major Mitchell learned much of what would a year later contribute to his success.  French pilots echoed complaints of their own government's lack of understanding tactical aerial warfare.  At the time the French were flying regularly but in a scatter-gun approach to warfare...an occasional dog fight here or there, but no tactical organization.  These early pilots dreamed of massive air strikes, hundreds of airplanes, in a concerted attack on the German forces.

Mitchell quickly grasped the concept.  His flights over the lines had showed him the smallness of the area in which two armies had slugged it out to a bloody, stalemated trench war for three years.  The strip of land was no larger than sixty miles long, a mere bump in the terrain from the air, but real estate that that swallowed up ground soldiers of both sides without compromise.  He observed, "It looked as though the war would keep up indefinitely until either the airplanes brought an end to the war or the contending nations dropped from sheer exhaustion."

Major Mitchell didn't limit his observations to the French alone, however.  While awaiting the arrival of reinforcements from the United States, he took time to visit the Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) at the British compound.  Arriving unannounced, he wasted no time seeking the attention of Sir Hugh Boom Trenchard,  already legendary for building the R.F.C. into an effective flying arm of 2,000 airplanes.  A no-nonsense general officer, Trenchard was initially brusque at the young American officer's request to see his organization.

"How many weeks have you got?" he asked with no small display of impatience.
"We could take in the equipment and supply today," Mitchell responded.  "Tomorrow we could start..."
"Just a moment here, young man.  Do you think I've nothing more to do than chaperon you and answer questions?"
Not intimidated, Mitchell's response reflects a tactful nature that many of his later detractors claimed he never possessed:  "Sir, I know you've got such an excellent organization that it shouldn't need your leadership for a day or so."
To the surprise of those who knew the explosive nature of the flying legend, Trenchard did not toss the upstart young Major out of his office.  Instead, with a laugh, he responded:  "Come along young man.  I can see you're the sort who usually gets what he wants in the end."

The three days that Mitchell spent with Trenchard may have been some of the most important days of his life.  Mitchell bombarded the British commander, who had himself been a pilot, in the same manner he had queried his friend Hap Arnold for information on flying.  In Trenchard Mitchell found not only a mentor, but a kindred spirit.  In later years detractors would claim Mitchell's concepts of aerial combat, strategic bombing, and military aviation had been stolen from Trenchard.  For his own part, Mitchell never denied his close association with the British pioneer and their impact on his thinking.  The two remained friends and collaborated on aerial theory even after the war.

Mitchell returned to Paris with dreams beyond the current use of aircraft for observation and an occasional dogfight.  Trenchard had boasted 2,000 aircraft, the French  nearly as many, and with American forces on their way to France it was easy to dream that the skies over the front lines might soon be darkened by the wings of massive aerial formations.  In Mitchell's developing dream of tactical aircraft deployment he envisioned two separate but coordinated approaches to the air war:

  1. The organization of fighter squadrons for offensive use against enemy aircraft and ground troops, and

  2. Systematic, strategic bombing of the enemy behind his own lines.

"This," he stated, "is the proper way to use air power and I am sure the future will see operations conducted this way by thousands of airplanes."

In May Mitchell received promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.  He spent his nights continuing to report back to Washington on his ideas for the use of air power once the American forces arrived.  Sir Trenchard followed his progress with a mix of feelings:  

  • the uneasy hope that somehow the upstart American officer would succeed in convincing his own government of aerial concepts the airmen of other countries had failed to convince their own, and

  • the belief that "Mitchell is a man after my own heart...if only he can break his habit of trying to convert opponents by killing them."

When General Pershing arrived in Paris on June 13, 1917 with the first elements of the A.E.F., Lieutenant Colonel Billy Mitchell was there to greet him.  In just a few short months Mitchell had observed the progress, or rather the lack of progress, of the war from both the ground and the air.  He had built important liaisons with French and the British airmen and commanders, established himself well in the Paris social circles that could be all important to a Staff officer, and had developed his own ideas about how the newly arrived American forces could best be used.  Of course, his primary interest was in the deployment of American air power.

Pershing had brought with him Major Townsend F. Dodd, a veteran pilot, to head the Aviation Section of the Army's Signal Corps.  Upon meeting Mitchell however, Pershing recognized the Lieutenant Colonel's superior rank and assigned Major Dodd to other duty.  The first American airmen of World War I would work under Lieutenant Colonel Billy Mitchell, new Chief of Aviation for the Signal Corps, American Expeditionary Forces.

For Mitchell it was time to "Put up or shut up!"   

 

The U.S. Army Air Service
starbar.gif (2352 bytes)

The Aviation Section over which Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell was placed was a military unit in name only.  In May while en route to France, General Pershing had noted the condition of America's air assets and the country entered war.  In his diary General Pershing wrote:

"The situation as to aviation was such that every American ought to feel mortified to hear it mentioned.  Out of 65 officers and 1,000 men in the Air Service Section of the Signal Corps, there were 35 officers who could fly.  With the exception of five or six officers, none of them could have met the requirement of modern battle conditions...

"We could boast 55 training planes...all...valueless for service at the front.  Of these 55 planes the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics advised that 51 were obsolete and the other 4 obsolescent.  We could not have put a single squadron in the field."

With but one airplane, Mitchell's own French Nieuport, the task before the air chief was as formidable as had been his previous missions in the Philippines and Alaska.  With the same ingenuity that had brought him success in both places, Mitchell tried to cut around the red tape and find a way to get the job done.  

In August Mitchell's personal Mercedes, a vehicle in which he was known to travel through France at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour, broke down along the road.  Behind Mitchell was Major Dodd and his driver.  Dodd's driver raised the hood on Mitchell's car and had it running a few moments later.  The chauffer was a former race driver and mechanic, another forward thinking fellow who months earlier had suggested that the Army create a flying squadron composed of race car drivers.  The army had scoffed at the concept stating that it felt men who knew much about engines would be poor as pilots, fearful to fly when their engines didn't sound right.  Mitchell believed otherwise, and proved so months later when he helped young Eddie Rickenbacker become a flier in one of the first American aerosquadrons.

As the summer turned to fall, the French became impatient with General Pershing's failure to commit American troops to the bloody stalemate that had existed along the Western Front for three years.  As had been the case in previous wars however, the United States was totally unprepared for this new conflict, and Pershing patiently tried to establish his command in the field while awaiting the arrival of additional forces.

The Aviation Section of the A.E.F. was a confusing one in the fall of 1917.  To try and bring some order General Pershing made Major General William Kenly Chief of the Air Service, (effectively removing the Aviation Section from Signal Corps control nearly a year before the U.S. Army Air Service was officially established in Washington, D.C.).  General Kenly gave Mitchell the title of Chief of the Air Service Zone of Advance.  In essence, it meant that Kenly  would command from the rear, coordinating logistics and supplies, while Mitchell commanded from the front.  It would have probably been a workable solution but for the arrival in November of a large group of Aviation officers.  Mitchell's own words reflect the internal battle that was about to begin:

"Just as our organization began to work smoothly, a shipload of Aviation officers arrived under Brigadier General (Benjamin) Foulois.  There were over one hundred of them, almost none of them had even seen an airplane...A more incompetent lot of air warriors had never arrived in the zone of active military operations...Foulois, I am told, has orders from the President to General Pershing to put him in charge of Aviation in Europe"

When General Foulois replaced General Kenly, civil war erupted in the Air Service.  Fulois was one of the Army's earliest pilots and a had known Mitchell for years.  In 1916 Foulois went with the 1st Aero Squadron to Mexico in the unsuccessful effort to capture Pancho Villa.  During his absence from the Capitol, the chief of the Army's Signal Corps was forced to resign because of financial improprieties.   The vacancy temporarily made Mitchell chief of the Signal Corps, and when the blame for the ill-fated effort in Mexico "rolled down hill" it fermented to become a rift between the two great proponents of air power that never healed.  In Mitchell's memoirs he referred to Foulois as an incompetent "carpetbagger" who "no longer flew".  In 1986 Foulois published his own story, referring to Mitchell as an inept braggart who was all talk and no action, a lousy pilot, and a prima donna who did more harm than good. 

Almost immediately the two men clashed, and General Pershing found himself caught in the middle between two bitter enemies.  Foulois complained to Pershing about Mitchell's extremely childish attitude and advised "(Mitchell is) incapable of working in harmony with myself."  

Mitchell for his own part, had more than one heated discussion with Pershing about the internal problems in the Air Service.  The strong-willed aviator pushed hard for a single American air commander, unfettered by the interference of the incoming staff officers.  Pershing lost patience with Mitchell, even threatened to send him back to the United States.  

With the impetuosity that marked this older Mitchell, he met the General eye to eye and threatened:  "If you do, you'll soon come after me."    

Surprisingly, the sometimes ill-tempered General laughed and the two men parted amicably.  Despite Mitchell's tendency to be a thorn in the side of General Pershing, the two men generally had a mutual respect for each other.  More than once in the months that followed Pershing would go out on a limb for Billy Mitchell, and Mitchell seemed to always come through for his commander.  But Pershing also understood authority, and had a sincere respect for General Foulois who had been placed in his position by the President.  He summed up his predicament by saying:  "In all of this Army, there is but one thing causing me real anxiety, and that's the Air Service.  There are a lot of good men in it, but they're running around in circles.  Somebody has got to make them go straight."

That "somebody" was a surprising choice, and one of Pershing's great decisions.  He called upon an old friend and fellow West Point classmate, Major General Mason Patrick.

Early in 1918 the man who had been an Army engineer for 30 years became the first real commander of the American Air Service, a post he would hold until after the war ended, and a role to which he would return in 1921 when once again Billy Mitchell clashed with a superior.   Though he had never flown and was even dubious at first about the field of aviation, General Patrick was a well qualified organizer and administrator.  He was also a quick learner and a man willing to change his views.  In the end he became one of the great advocates for a separate American Air Force, influenced in no small degree by Billy Mitchell's own ideas, but possessed with a patience and tact his protégé seemed not to understand.  

Over the years that followed, Mitchell and General Patrick had their own share of harsh disagreements, but Patrick became the one person it seemed, that could control Billy Mitchell.  Without Patrick's stern guidance, Mitchell seemed to self-destruct, under Patrick's control Mitchell seemed capable of achieving almost anything.  Patrick recognized Mitchell's tactical genius as well as his unique foresight for machines and events that were too distant for others to deem believable.  For the next year Patrick became the glue that held the factions of the new Air Service together, administrating from the rear where General Foulois was in charge of equipment and supply.  In the field, Mitchell began building a combat arm and promoting aerial tactics designed to win a world war.  His diary gives a glimpse of the observations, made in flights over the trenches of the Western Front, that ultimately pushed him to prove his own theories for aerial warfare:

"(The World War) is a slaughterhouse performance from beginning to end on the ground.  Maybe one side makes a few yards or maybe a mile and thousands of men are killed.  It is not war, it is simply slaughter.

"War is decided by getting at the vitals of the enemy, that is, to shoot him in the heart.  This kind of war is like clipping off one finger, then a toe, then an ear, then his nose and gradually eating into his vitals."

  

As morbid as it sounded, Billy Mitchell's observation had been borne out by three years of deadly warfare along the narrow 60-mile strip of land separating France from Germany near St. Mihiel.  (Similarly stalemated warfare had stretched north through the Argonne Forrest and then further north along the nearly impregnable Hindenburg Line.)  This was a true war of attrition, one side pushing the other backward until thrown back itself, and then the seesaw tug-of-war would repeat itself again with great loss of life, but no progress made by either side.  Mitchell saw relief possible only if he could field an armada of airplanes to attack behind the German lines and to bomb and destroy supply depots, isolating enemy ground troops.

To accomplish this goal, early in 1918 Mitchell brought over to his Air Service some of the experienced American pilots who had flown with the Lafayette Escadrille, organizing them with newly arriving fliers from the U.S. into effective fighter squadrons.  Throughout the winter months combat had slowed along the front, but with the melting snows of spring the bloodshed would resume in earnest and Mitchell wanted to be ready.  Even General Foulois grudgingly spoke of Mitchell's "Most efficient service...in the organization, battle training, general supervision and guidance of the Air Service units."  

In the early spring the new American Air Service combat arm was ready for its first test; it was well organized, and led at last by a cohesive command structure.  The only thing the young pilots needed were airplanes.  After weeks of waiting the first airplanes began arriving...not American planes but cast-off French Nieuports.  Though eagerly welcomed by the American pilots, the wait was not over.  It would be yet weeks before any of the airplanes were fitted with machine guns.  

On March 21 the Germans were the first to strike, pushing a line forward along the Western Front.  Behind a massive force of artillery the German army broke through the British Fifth Army to push within 56 miles of Paris.  Though it had been nearly a year since the United States had entered the war, fewer than 300,000 American troops had arrived in France and few of them were in combat positions.  Germany's spring offensive, an all-or-nothing gamble to end the stalemate in Europe, had all the markings of a huge success.  Paris trembled in fear and military commanders could foresee a second Battle of the Marne in the offing.

On May 28 the green American ground forces got their first taste of a major battle.  Amazingly they threw back the German advance at Montdidier, then pushed forward to capture the strategically located town of Cantigny.    On June 6, nearly 30,000 Americans launched a counteroffensive at Belleau Wood, driving the Germans from the square mile stronghold.  American soldiers were pursuing the war as men of battle had for years, personal combat in a slug-fest that saw a an American casualty rate of more than 50%.  Mitchell's earlier observation of this kind of warfare as being nothing more than a slaughterhouse performance appeared on the mark.

The German infantry struck again in mid-June, delivering a smashing blow along the 27-mile front between Montdidier and Noyon northeast of Paris.  Again the Allied line held, setting the stage for Germany's last great drive of the war.  On July 6, in desperation, the enemy struck on both sides of Rheims in the Second Battle of the Marne.  Allied positions were bombarded with artillery as the Kaiser poured all of his reserves into the effort.  By July 18 the offensive was over, and the German advance turned into a retreat.

The failure of Germany's spring offensive can only be credited to the sheer determination and valor of the doughboys and the other Allies on the ground in those fateful and bloody months.  Airmen flew, shot down German planes and lost planes of their own.  In May Mitchell was crushed at the loss of two in particular.  The death of the great ace Raoul Lufbery, one of Mitchell's close friends, was a bitter loss.  Mitchell fully believed that had his pilots been supplied with parachutes, Lufbery would have survived.  

Less than a week after admiring and mourning comrades laid Lufbery to rest, Mitchell received word of another fatal crash.  This time it was a young pilot, 15 years his junior, named John Mitchell after his father.   It was two months before Billy could bring himself to break the news to his family back home.  When he did he wrote:

"John's loss I suppose was the hardest thing that ever happened to me.  To begin with he was my only brother, he was so much younger that he was like a son, and in addition he was the same as a great friend.  He had every quality that I wanted in a brother and admired in a man.  I suppose he was very nearly the dearest living thing in the world to me."

  Throughout the summer Mitchell continued to visit his squadrons, watch their progress, and ponder the limited role his airmen had played in the earlier German offensive.  Early in the offensive Mitchell had flown over enemy-held territory and observed the ground movements as the enemy broke through the British lines.  "The hole in the British Army is twenty or thirty miles broad," he noted.  More importantly, the mission gave him a full realization of what could happen if airmen and infantry could work together, communicate, and assist each other.  But the problem in achieving such a coordinated effort lay not only in convincing infantry officers, but in winning over the foot soldier himself.  "It is practically impossible to impress the men in the ranks, through their own officers, as to the value of aviation," he noted in his diary.

From the American Scrappers in the Air
To the American Scrappers on the Ground

DOUGHBOYS
While you are giving the Boche hell on the ground, we are helping you to the limit in the air.

Headquarters is trying to keep in touch with you and to render aid whenever you are checked or outnumbered.

Keep us posted at all times as to where your front lines are, either with Bengal lights, panels, or--if nothing else is available--wave a white towel or any white cloth.

Your signals will enable us:
To take news of your location to the rear.
To report if the attack is successful.
To call for help if needed.
To enable the artillery to put their shells over your head into the enemy...

Do not think that we are not on the job when you cannot see us--most of our planes work so far to the front that they cannot be seen from the lines.

Some of the enemy planes may break through our airplane barrage in front of you, and may sometimes bomb and machinegun you, but in the last month we have dropped ten tons of bombs for every one the Boche has dropped.  For every Boche plane that you see over you, the Boche sees ten Allied planes over him.

After reading this, pass it on to your buddie (sic).

To remedy this Mitchell prepared a letter, addressed to the men on the ground.  Without consulting anyone, the pragmatic Billy Mitchell had thousands of the letters printed, then had his pilots fly over Allied camps and trenches along the Western Front to deliver his message.

Mitchell's other key observation coming out of the failed German spring offensive was the substantiation of his his belief that "War is decided by getting at the vitals of the enemy, that is, to shoot him in the heart."  

During the battle at Chateau Thierry Mitchell had commanded a small contingent of British as well as American airmen.  As the infantry fought it out on the ground, British bombers hit German supply depots in the rear, cutting off needed supplies for the advancing Germans, and forcing ground commanders to pull needed soldiers from the front lines to guard their rear.

As the German army retreated back to the St. Mihiel salient in August of 1918, Allied war planners were preparing the first major American offensive.  Colonel Billy Mitchell had ideas of his own, concepts nurtured through a year of observing the tactics of others and substantiated in a limited way by the successes of his pilots in their first months of combat.

 

St. Mihiel and an Aerial Armada

World War I ended on August 18, 1918 with the failed final German push at the Marne.  The Kaiser's chancellor later remarked, "On the 18th even the most optimistic among us knew that all was lost."  It is doubly tragic then, that combat continued for another 90 days.  Those last three months would prove to be among the bloodiest of the war--for both sides.

By mid-August more than a million American doughboys had reached the front lines, and General Pershing was plotting an assault on the formidable St. Mihiel salient.  In their retreat the Germans themselves tried to straighten the line, fully aware that it would be more defensible than the horse-shoe shaped bulge they now held.  As Pershing and the other Allied general's plotted an offensive that would throw more than a half-million doughboys against the salient, Mitchell was quick to lay out his own blueprints for the aerial side of the battle.

The St. Mihiel offensive was more than the greatest success of Mitchell's distinguished career, it was perhaps, his finest moment as a politician/commander.  It was the one time that he tempered his strong will and firm beliefs with a taciturn diplomacy that kept the long meetings from turning hostile.  With the confidence of General Pershing, the glowing support of First Army commander General Hunter Liggett (one of the few who truly appreciated air power), and the sympathy of the air-minded French, Billy Mitchell got the chance he wanted.

The first week of September was filled with secret movements, Mitchell's airmen moving forward to advance aerodromes from which their commander would direct the first-ever, united aerial attack on an enemy force.  The armada included American, French, and British aircraft--both fighters and bombers--all at the direction of a single commander.  Mitchell would coordinate the effort with the commanders on the ground leading the infantry advance, another historical first overshadowed perhaps only by the sheer number of aircraft involved--nearly 1,500 in all.  It was the largest aerial armada in history.

Mitchell was proud of his airmen, men who loved him and would fly through hell for him.  Now he called upon them to accomplish what had never been done before.  These were a rare breed of fighting men, brash young cowboys like Frank Luke from Arizona, daring race drivers like Eddie Rickenbacker, West Point graduates like Major Carl Tooey Spaatz, efficient squadron commanders who had sat in a cockpit and traded bullets with the Flying Circus like Harold Hartney.  With the addition of the British air assets, even the legendary Sir Hugh Thenchard would fly his pilots at the direction of Billy Mitchell.   It was a defining moment in military history, perhaps the exact moment in time for which Billy Mitchell was born...until the weather intervened.

During the weeks of preparation Colonel Mitchell averaged only three hours of sleep each night.  When night fell he read reports of the day's activities until 2 A.M., rested his eyes briefly, and then arose to personally observe practice maneuvers and preparations at 5 A.M.  Running on sheer adrenaline, Mitchell was in no mood to hear news on September 11 that the generals wanted to postpone the anticipated next-day launch of the St. Mihiel offensive because of the rain and the fog that had set in early.  The previous day Mitchell had flown over the German lines with his French friend Paul Armenguad as an observer, and witnessed lines of enemy infantry pulling back in retreat.  The enemy was anticipating an offensive push against the salient and were withdrawing quickly.

As promptly as news of the postponement reached Colonel Mitchell he headed for Pershing's Headquarters, where a meeting of the generals was already in progress.  Colonel Mitchell was the youngest, and lowest ranking man in a room that was about to decide the fate of his moment in time.

"Pretty bad weather we're facing," stated an engineering officer.  Around the room heads nodded in ascent...engineers usually knew what could and could not be accomplished.

"What's the weather got to do with it?"  Snapped Colonel Mitchell.  

"The rain always holds up our light railways that we use to get ammunition to our artillery.  That goes for our water supply too.  I think its best if we hold off on this thing for a few days."  Again heads nodded in agreement around the table, and Mitchell could see his moment slipping away.

Earnestly, but with a patience and uncharacteristic demeanor for the man Boom Trenchard had once said would go far if he could "break his habit of trying to convert opponents by killing them," Colonel Mitchell pleaded his case.  He told of his flights over the salient, of witnessing columns of German soldiers in full retreat.  He predicted that the battle for the St. Mihiel salient wouldn't be much of a battle.

"We must jump the Germans now!"  he admonished.  "I've seen their movement to the rear with my own eyes.  Forget the artillery if it means delay.  If we advance fast, the artillery would probably shoot a lot of our own men anyway."

Colonel Mitchell's words seemed to fall on deaf ears, and around the room all eyes were on the engineering officer who was calling for a postponement.  Mitchell had lost his most important debate with everyone in the room...except for the one man that mattered.  General John J. Pershing looked up at his staff and pronounced:

"We will attack, without delay!"

 

Prior to the St. Mihiel offensive American pilots had indeed been fair-weather fliers.  With the decision to proceed on September 12th, the brave young men took to the air in spite of the fog and the rain.

Mitchell organized his assets into two attack brigades of 400 or more planes each, one assigned to attack the right side of the salient while the other penetrated to the enemy rear to cut off all communication and supply.  It was an impressive air show that inspired men on the ground and amazed even the airmen themselves.  Pilot Kenneth Littauer spoke of the massive formation and said:  "I didn't believe my eyes, because we'd never seen such a thing before.  I happened to be standing on the air field when this damned thing started to go over.  Then it went and it went...it was awfully impressive."

The ground war was over on the first day, and the air war became almost nonexistent.  Mitchell's pilots swept the skies over the Western Front clean almost immediately, then patrolled them continuously to demonstrate their mastery of the heavens.  In three days the combined forces took back a formidable enemy redoubt that had been held for four years, captured 16,000 Germans, 443 artillery pieces, and created a new threat to the enemy stronghold at Metz.  General Pershing couldn't have been more pleased and wrote Colonel Mitchell

"Please accept my sincere congratulations on the successful and very important part taken by the Air Force under your command in the first offensive of the American Army.  The organization and control of the tremendous concentration of air forces...is as fine a tribute to you personally as is the courage and nerve shown by your officers a signal proof of the high morale which permeates the service under your command.

"I am proud of you all!"

 

Mitchell was elated, not so much in the praise but in the validation of everything he had argued for over the previous year.  At last he was convinced that his Air Service would be recognized for what it was, the powerful war-winning military arm of the future.  Mitchell himself was a hero in France, both among his own men and among the populace.  His favor with General Pershing was evident in October when he received promotion to the temporary rank of Brigadier General.  (Temporary promotions such as this during wartime had a long history in the Army, and it was expected that after the war Mitchell would return to his earlier rank of Colonel.  When the return to his permanent rank occurred a few years later it was misinterpreted by many as a disciplinary move.  In fact, Mitchell maintained his rank much longer than most other officers who received temporary promotions during the war.)

Following his tremendous success in the St. Mihiel offensive, Mitchell committed his forces to a nearly independent role in the Argonne Offensive.  His fighter pilots flew daily and, as Mitchell reported, "There is nothing to beat them in the world!"  Meanwhile he pursued his theories of tactical bombing, raining tons of explosives on German bridges, airdromes, railroads and supply depots.  The psychological impact of the Air Service's supremacy on the German morale demonstrated just one more powerful advantage of a massive air force.  

Mitchell's men further endeared themselves to the weary infantrymen by continuing to coordinate their efforts with the ground war.  Big 2-seat DeHavillands dropped supplies to beleaguered units and pursuit airplanes flew low over infantrymen to shield them from German airplanes.  As the advance turned into a rout, the quick pace could lead to confusion and dangerous situations.  Once Mitchell became aware of a large congestion of trucks at a village crossroads that could have become instantly susceptible to a damaging attack from the German Air Force.   Without pause he sent a flight of 320 Allied aircraft to patrol the area and protect the forces on the ground until the traffic jamb could be cleared.

Ever looking to the future, in late October General Mitchell came to General Pershing with a bold new idea.  The Allied advance would certainly slow with the onset of winter, but an Allied offensive was already being planned for the spring of 1919 to finish the job started at St. Mihiel and at last end the war.  Mitchell's idea was preposterous at the time to all who heard it, yet General Pershing gave it an attentive ear.  He had learned that when Billy Mitchell saw the future, he had a habit of making it come to pass.  Mitchell's new concept was never employed because the war ended long before anyone would have believed possible the previous summer, and there would be no spring offensive necessary.

Mitchell's last great scheme of World War I is however of note, despite the fact that he would not see it employed in his lifetime.  

In the fall of 1918 there were a few big Handley-Page airplanes in the Allied arsenal that were capable of carrying a dozen or more men.  Mitchell hoped to build up this part of his command throughout the winter so that during the spring offensive that never came, they could fly deep into Germany to drop American soldiers behind enemy lines by parachute.   It was indeed a preposterous idea, but now when Billy Mitchell had an idea, nobody ruled it out.

 

 

 

World War I ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918 and weary doughboys and airmen were anxious to return home.  In the months that followed a steady stream of victorious young soldiers passed through New York to a hearty, patriotic welcome.  Heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Whittlesey, Sergeant Alvin York, Samuel Woodfill, and the impressive General John J. Pershing were feted with parades, festivals, banquets, and media requests.

General Billy Mitchell chose to see Germany first despite the insistence of his friend Major Hap Arnold that his presence was needed at home, that "we needed him back in Washington."  

In Major Arnold's own vision of the future, General Pershing would return a great American hero to become the Army's Chief of Staff.  (He did, serving from July 1, 1921 to September 13, 1924).  He could also foresee General Billy Mitchell, "clearly the Prince of the Air now," assuming an important role as the new Air Chief.  (He didn't.)  It was important to Major Arnold because he honestly believed that the wartime success of the Army Air Service would not secure its future, that a new war was brewing at home.  (It was.)

For Major Arnold, two out of three when predicting the future wasn't too bad.  It would almost however, not be enough for the struggle that lay ahead.

 

Coming Next

Fighting For Survival
The Battle at Home

 

Sources:

Ault, Phil, By the Seat of Their Pants, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1978
Burlingame,  General Billy Mitchell - Champion of Air Defense, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, NY, 1952
Davis, Burke, The Billy Mitchell Affair, Random House, New York, NY, 1967
Manning, Robert, Above and Beyond, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1985
Meilinger, Col. Phillip S.,  Airmen and Air Theory, Air University Press, Maxwell AFB, AL, 2001 
Rickenbacker, Edward V.,  Rickenbacker, An Autobiography, Prentice Hall, 1967

 


Part I

All the above pages can now be printed as a single MS WORD or Adobe PDF file in a single, full-color book complete with attractive cover, Table of Contents and appendixes.  To go to our download page, click on the book cover below.

Part II
World War Two
Coming in Summer 2006


Part III
US Air Force

 

 

Copyright © 1999-2014 by HomeOfHeroes.com
     2115 West 13th Street - Pueblo, CO 81003

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Unless otherwise noted, all materials by C. Douglas Sterner

Home Page

Hall Of Heroes

MOH Community 

NEWS

Kidz Page

FEATURE STORIES
  Profiles In Courage | Wings of ValorThe Brotherhood of Soldiers At War | Go For Broke
 Pearl Harbor  | A Splendid Little War | Shinmiyangyo-Korea 1871 | Quick Links to MOH Stories

RECIPIENT WEB SITES
Barney Barnum  |  Jack Lucas  |  Mitch Paige  |  Wesley Fox  |  Sammy Davis
Roger Donlon
Peter Lemon  |  Drew Dix  |  Mike Novosel

Medal Of Honor Calendar  |  Books By MOH RecipientsSteve Ryan MOH Posters

What Does 
A Hero Look Like?

Click on Superman To Find out


FOOTNOTES
In
HISTORY

NEW
Looking for a Hero or trying to verify awards? We have posted the names of more than 120,000 recipients of the highest awards in a BRAND NEW FREE SECTION
DECORATIONS 1862 - Present
.

Military Medals & Awards 

Information and Images of ALL Military Medals
The Purple Heart 
How to Request Records/Medals Earned
  How to Obtain Military Records of a Family Member 

Honor Roll of America's Military Heroes


Brevet Medal


DSC 


Navy Cross 


Air Force Cross 

Distinguished Service Medals

Defense - Army - Navy - Air Force - Coast Guard - Merchant Marine



Silver Star

U.S. History and Information
The History Room | U.S. Flag HistoryHistory of the Flag |
How to Display the Flag
| The National Anthem | The Pledge of Allegiance The American Creed | The Seal of our Nation | Our National Symbol
Arthur MacArthur's Flag | William Carney's Flag | FDR's Flag of Liberation]

FLAG DAY           STATE FLAGS
American Presidents
U.S. Presidents | Inaugural Addresses

God & Country
ROOM

MY HERO Web Page Creator 
(Create a Tribute to the Hero in Your Own Life)

SEARCH
bn_search.jpg (3967 bytes)
OUR SITE

EDUCATIONAL

GAME ARCADE

OR
Quick Quiz

***
Electronic Post Cards
Talking Points 

Remembering 911
The Binch
Citizens Speak Out

BEYOND THE MEDAL

This 5 Disc DVD Education Program has been distributed to over 17,500 Public & Private High Schools and is now available to the public!


 

HomeOfHeroes.com now has more than 25,000 pages of US History for you to view.