By the end of World War II, air power had shown itself to be an absolutely essential element for victory in modern warfare. Strategic bombing could devastate the enemy’s war making capabilities as well as its morale, and tactical fighters established control of the air itself for offensive and defensive purposes. The overwhelming success and necessity of air power made it inconceivable, therefore, that in the U.S. the Air Corps should still remain under the purview of the Army. Seizing the moment, advocates pressed civilian and military leadership relentlessly for a separate branch of service, and in September 1947, their efforts gave birth to the United States Air Force. As airmen, past and present, celebrated across the country, they no doubt paused to honor the man who, more than any other, fought harder and longer, and at a higher cost, to achieve the very goal they had just secured. This officer was a visionary commander who early on grasped the merits of and possibilities of air power and sought to mold a small cadre of aviators into a corps worthy of defending a world power. His name was William “Billy” Mitchell. This is the story of how his experiences before and during World War I transformed him into the founding father of America’s modern Air Force.
Billy Mitchell’s military career began just as the United States was emerging as a truly global power. His father was continuing his education abroad when William was born in Nice, France in December 1879 to a prominent Wisconsin family. He grew up hunting and riding horses on the family’s estate outside Milwaukee. His grandfather had built wealth and political prominence which his father ultimately utilized to become a U.S. Senator. The Panic of 1893 and his father’s untimely passing when Billy was in his teens dramatically changed the Mitchell family’s lifestyle. Though he attended prestigious schools in his youth, Billy could not see a life ahead without “horses and guns.” The eruption of the Spanish-American War in 1898 provided the opportunity to pursue those passions. Although only eighteen, he insisted on enlisting, and, with his family’s connections, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Billy found he was well-suited to military life, and he quickly earned the trust of his superiors, most notably General Adolphus Greely, the Chief Signal Officer. Although he missed seeing action against Spain, he arrived in Cuba in time to witness the formal transfer of the island to American authority. He later wrote how this moment was “the beginning of a new policy on the part of the U.S., that of territorial expansion and showing [itself] to the world as one of the greatest of nations.” To help consolidate command and control in Cuba, Billy led his company in stringing up 136 miles of telegraph wire to allow for easier communication between American outposts. As part of the Signal Corps, he also made extensive use of the telephone and camera and watched as other fantastic inventions, like the automobile, made their first appearance on the national scene. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, he came to believe the Army needed to take advantage of these innovations in order to become a truly modern fighting force.
One of the most transformative inventions of all time was the airplane, and Captain Billy Mitchell became one of the forward thinking strategists who gave early consideration to the full potential of this breakthrough. He dived into studying aeronautics and explored the potential uses for lighter-than-air machines. He knew full well the army used balloons for reconnaissance during the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, but he foresaw dirigibles and airplanes providing offensive capabilities as well. In 1906 Billy penned an article detailing how ordinance could be dropped on enemy forces from above. He also suggested such machines could detect enemy submarines and alert friendly ships of the impending danger. The flying squadrons were placed under the auspices of the Signal Corps, so Billy naturally cultivated relationships with aviation officers. After joining the General Staff in 1913, he served as an adviser on aeronautical matters. Although aviation currently had only a limited role in military affairs, Mitchell shrewdly kept abreast of new developments in Europe and devoured books on aviation warfare. He became familiar with such concepts as “command of the air,” meaning the need to have superiority over enemy air forces. Billy saw the new strategies in action as Europe descended into war.
By 1915 Billy saw America’s entrance into World War I was imminent, so he undertook an investigation into the readiness of the air corps. He was appalled to discover only 23 aircraft, many of which were falling apart, and 289 officers and enlisted men fit for duty. He reported the need to immediately and dramatically increase both manpower and aircraft. Ultimately, Congress appropriated $13 million for new, better airplanes and overturned the ban on officers over thirty from flying. Seeing the need for a qualified officer to prepare the aviation division for war, Billy left the General Staff to become the assistant aviation section chief. The transfer presented him an opportunity to see combat. The repeal allowing older officers to fly meant he could undergo flight training. In late 1916 he began attending Curtiss Aviation School outside Newport News, Virginia. Interestingly, he did not graduate until September 1917 — six months after he arrived in France as an American aviation observer.
Mitchell arrived in France in early April 1917 and immediately sought out Allied pilots to learn all he could about current air operations. After two weeks of inspecting aircraft design and production, he left to observe the French army’s latest offensive against the Germans. While the ground offensive proved unsuccessful, Billy was awed by the French pilots’ audacity in actively seeking out and engaging enemy fighters. He learned the same mindset permeated the strategies of British air officers when he visited General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps. Trenchard told Mitchell he wanted to destroy Germany’s “means of supply, subsistence, and replacements,” but he did not have the air power to accomplish it. Billy determined America should assume responsibility for providing the means to carry out this bold new strategy. In his report conveying his observations, he informed his superiors the country should concentrate production on bombers and fighters. Unfortunately, the military leadership remained committed to traditional thinking. Mitchell’s views were dismissed, and production remained centered on reconnaissance aircraft. Although discouraged by this news, Billy remained adamant that “no decision on the ground would be reached before a decision in the air.” In other words, he knew air power had to “prove” itself. When told America’s top commander would soon arrive in France, Mitchell saw the opening to push for a greater role for aircraft.
In mid-June 1917 Lieutenant Colonel Billy Mitchell reported to General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Upon arriving at the general’s Paris headquarters, Billy learned Pershing had already embraced the idea of air superiority over enemy forces. The general told Mitchell an army without an established air arm would be at a severe disadvantage when confronting an army with one. Billy exulted at the realization that here was a commander receptive to his radical ideas. Before the meeting ended, Mitchell found himself the AEF’s aviation officer. As he settled into his new assignment, Billy proposed a series of reforms that would overhaul military aviation. Most significant was his division of the air corps into two wings — tactical and strategic. Tactical planes would observe and fight off enemy pilots while strategic bombers and fighters attacked military targets inside enemy territory. Billy became so committed to strategic aviation he predicted it would have a “greater influence on the ultimate decision of the war than any other arm.” With the help of American intelligence officers, he selected potential bombing targets, mostly industries along the Ruhr River. At the same time, he oversaw the final phase of training for airmen near the front in the “Zone of the Advance.” Sadly, many pilots, including his brother John, died in accidents. Still, he pressed on, and as spring 1918 approached, Mitchell prepared to personally lead his pilots into combat.
In the final months of the war, Billy Mitchell finally received the opportunity to put his beliefs about air power into practice. In late May 1918 he and his pilots helped repel the German army’s Ludendorff offensive. Despite having limited aircraft, Billy showed tenacity time and again as he led air offensives against enemy forces. Then in mid-September he learned the U.S. was preparing to attack German troops at St.-Mihiel, and the air corps was expected to provide support. As he studied the layout of enemy forces, Billy saw it was imperative for his men to gain control of the skies early. To do so, however, required a larger number of planes than he had on hand. He petitioned British, French, and Italian commanders for support, and a coalition of over 1,400 Allied pilots and planes was assembled. This overwhelming advantage allowed Mitchell to defeat 243 German aircraft and prevent disruption of the American ground attack. Both General Pershing and Air Service General Mason Patrick applauded Billy’s efforts and recommended his promotion to brigadier general. Simultaneously, Mitchell received command of the Air Service for the Army Group mobilizing for the Meuse-Argonne offensive. As the offensive commenced, Billy sought to validate his theories on strategic bombing. On his orders American, French, and British bombers dropped an unheard of 79 tons of explosives on German troops located around Damvillers, France. Billy did not stop there, however. He proposed outfitting the American First Division with parachutes and landing them behind enemy lines. He also advocated using British Handley-Page bombers to allow for American penetration into Germany itself. The war ended before he secured support for all his plans, but Mitchell was still impressed by everything which aviation had shown itself capable. He returned to the United States in March 1919 and dedicated himself to advocate for radical changes in military thinking.
Convinced air power under an independent, unified command was essential to victory, Billy launched a one-man campaign in late 1919 to persuade Americans of the value of military aviation. The war proved aerial combat was as vital to national defense as was sea and ground warfare. The U.S., therefore, should fully develop an independent Air Service with strong offensive capabilities, namely bombers, utilizing tactical aircraft to clear the skies and should include a newly developed navy ship — the aircraft carrier. He foresaw carriers accompanying army and navy forces in their military operations and carrier planes protecting ships and their personnel from enemy aircraft. To his astonishment, however, dozens of Army and Navy brass, including Billy’s one-time commander John J. Pershing and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, derided Mitchell for his ostentatious proclamation that air power would be a decisive factor in future military conflicts. Unwilling to admit defeat, Billy took his case to the American people by publishing articles on America’s vulnerability to air attacks in the New York Times and other newspapers. He preached the same theme in his book, Our Air Force. The public was so aroused the government finally ordered a series of aerial combat tests performed off Virginia’s coast in June and July of 1921. The climactic event was Mitchell’s attack on a captured German battleship, the Ostfriesland, on July 22nd. Leading a flight of Martin bombers, Billy and his men dropped six 2,000-pound bombs on the stationary battleship. In twenty-one minutes, the Ostfriesland disappeared beneath the waves.
The operation solidified Mitchell’s belief that air power was “the first line of offense” — on land and sea. Acting on that conviction, Mitchell provided tactical and doctrinal contributions to the Air Service, most notably a manual on strategic bombardment outlining what targets were suitable and the need to coordinate with tactical fighter aircraft. Despite intense opposition from higher ups, he remained an unrelenting and confrontational advocate. By 1925, however, Billy’s continuous attacks on army and navy administrators spurred his superiors to act against him. Following his criticism of administration officials before Congress, he was court-martialed. Steadfast to the last, Billy used his trial as an opportunity to present a final defense for the cause he held so dear. His conviction and subsequent resignation did nothing to dampen his zeal, however. He pursued a career as an author and lecturer championing the merits of air power. Billy Mitchell died in February 1936, but his life’s work was eventually vindicated with the establishment of the U.S. Air Force eleven years later.
Seldom do big changes occur without an individual of great vision, and oftentimes visionary leaders pushing for transformational change incur the wrath of those who cannot or will not open their eyes to a new world and a new way. William “Billy” Mitchell caught a glimpse of the possibilities for the airplane soon after its invention and particularly during World War I, and he never gave up on his quest to have the air forces attain equal status with that of the land and naval forces. He faced continual opposition from those who simply failed to see the future of air power, but he held true to his convictions. Although it cost him his career and reputation, Mitchell set the United States on course to becoming a true superpower — in the air, as well as on land and at sea. None but Billy Mitchell could ever be the Air Force’s “founding father.”