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Billy Mitchell - FU Hero

Posted by admin on July 12, 2008

Billy Mitchell defined what it means to be a "fighter pilot."  He was a future thinking, superior cussing, non-conforming, middle fingering, Navy sinking, bullshit calling, non careerist being, Air Power advocating, Army bashing, beer drinking (FU assumption), song singing (read previous), All American fighter pilot.  With the fighter pilot mafia being destroyed within the Air Force, sounds like we could use a guy like Billy Mitchell today.  Hey I’m sure we’ll get through the “Heavy” and “Space Dudes” running the Air Force, there’s no need to panic, all is well---NOT!  Let’s stop thinking about the future and just continue to plan for fighting the current War---it’s worked in the past right?  But I digress, let’s get back to our FU Hero Billy Mitchell.

He enlisted as a private during the Spanish American War. He quickly gained a commission and joined the Signal Corps. He was an outstanding junior officer, displaying a rare degree of initiative, courage, and leadership. After challenging tours in the Philippines and Alaska, Mitchell was assigned to the General Staff-at the time its youngest member. He slowly became excited about aviation and its possibilities, and in 1916 at age 38, he took private flying lessons.

Arriving in France in April 1917, only a few days after the United States had entered the war, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell met extensively with British and French air leaders and studied their operations. He quickly took charge and began preparations for the American air units that were to follow. The story of American aviation mobilization in World War I was not a glorious one. It took months before pilots arrived in France and even longer for any aircraft. Nonetheless, Mitchell rapidly earned a reputation as a daring, flamboyant, and tireless leader. He eventually was elevated to the rank of brigadier general and commanded all American combat units in France. In September 1918 he planned and led nearly 1,500 allied aircraft in the air phase of the Saint Mihiel offensive. Recognized as the top American combat airman of the war (he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and several foreign decorations), Mitchell, nevertheless, managed to alienate most of his superiors-both flying and non flying-during his 18 months in France.

Pearl Harbor attackReturning to the US in early 1919, Mitchell was appointed the deputy chief of the Air Service. His relations with superiors continued to sour as he began to attack both the War and Navy Departments for being insufficiently farsighted regarding airpower.  In 1922 Mitchell met the like-minded Italian air power theorist Giulio Douhet on a trip to Europe and soon afterwards an excerpted translation of Douhet's The Command of the Air began to circulate in the Air Service. In 1924, Mitchell's superiors sent him to Hawaii to get him off the front pages. Mitchell came back with a 324-page report that predicted future war with Japan, including the attack on Pearl Harbor.  

His fight with the Navy climaxed with the dramatic bombing tests of 1921 and 1923 that sank several battleships, proving-at least to Mitchell-that surface fleets were obsolete. Within the Army he also experienced difficulties, notably with his superiors Charles Menoher and later Mason Patrick, and in early 1925 he reverted to his permanent rank of colonel and was transferred to Texas. Not content to remain quiet, when the Navy dirigible "Shenandoah" crashed in a storm and killed 14 of the crew, Mitchell issued his famous statement accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." 

Mitchell court martial

He was court-martialed, found guilty of insubordination, and suspended from active duty for five years without pay. Mitchell elected to resign instead as of 1 February 1926 and spent the next decade continuing to write and preach the gospel of airpower to all who would listen. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt was viewed by Mitchell as advantageous for airpower. In fact, he believed the new president would appoint him as assistant secretary of war for air or perhaps even secretary of defense in a new and unified military organization. Such hopes never materialized. Mitchell died of a variety of ailments including a bad heart and influenza in 1936.

Mitchell B-25 departs for JapanMitchell's concept of a battleship's vulnerability to air attack under "war-time conditions" would be vindicated after his death; a number of warships were sunk by air attack alone during World War II. The battleships Conte di Cavour, Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Prince of Wales, Roma, Musashi, Tirpitz, Yamato, Schleswig-Holstein, Impero, Limnos, Kilkis, Ise and Hyoga were all put out of commission or destroyed by aerial attack including bombs, air-dropped torpedoes and missiles fired from aircraft. Some of these ships were destroyed by surprise attacks in harbor, others were sunk at sea after vigorous defense. 

Billy Mitchell received many honors after his death including:

  • The North American B-25 bomber, utilized by Jimmy Doolittle to bomb Tokyo in 1942, was nicknamed the "Mitchell," after Billy Mitchell. The B-25 "Mitchell" is the only American military aircraft type that has been named after a specific person.

  • In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, in recognizing Mitchell's contributions to air power, elevated him to the rank of major general on the Army Air Corps retired list and petitioned the U.S. Congress to authorize a special gold medal for his services to the United States, which was awarded in 1946.

  • Hap Arnold told reporters shortly after Mitchell's death, "People would often say Billy Mitchell was years ahead of his time but many would forget how it was also true."

  • Immortalization as FU Hero in July, 2008.



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