World War I, also known as the Great War or the War to End All Wars, began in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. His murder catapulted into a war across Europe.
During the conflict, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States (the Allied Powers).
Four years later, when Germany, facing dwindling resources on the battlefield, discontent on the homefront and the surrender of its allies, was forced to seek an armistice on November 11, 1918, ending World War I. (The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919.)
At the dawn of WWI, aviation was a relatively new field; the Wright brothers took their first sustained flight just eleven years before, in 1903. WWI was the first major conflict to use the power of planes, though not as impactful as the British Royal Navy or Germany’s U-boats.
The use of planes in WWI presaged their later, pivotal role in military conflicts around the globe. During WWI, there was no ‘Air Force’ as we identify it today; the aviation forces were under the US Army Air Service, created during WWI by executive order of President Woodrow Wilson after America entered the war in April 1917.
Later, Congress created the Air Corps on July 2, 1926, and it was abolished with the National Security Act of 1947, establishing the United States Air Force on September 18, 1947.
Gen. William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, a staunch advocate and visionary of air power, became regarded as the ‘Father of the United States Air Force,’ because he was instrumental in bringing to the forefront the need for air superiority.
“Mitchellism” was coined by the press to symbolize the concept that airpower was now the dominant military factor and that sea and land forces were becoming subordinate.
In the intervening years, the correctness of his thinking, the accuracy of his predictions, the risks he took, the sacrifices he so willingly made of his health and his career, and, by far the most important, the influence he had on his successors have conferred a new, higher, and entirely contemporary meaning on “Mitchellism.” (AF Mag, Boyne)
Born Dec. 29, 1879 in Nice, France, Mitchell was the eldest of John and Harriet Mitchell’s ten children. John Mitchell was a representative and a senator from Wisconsin.
Billy Mitchell grew up in Wisconsin and enlisted in the Army in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. He served in Cuba, the Philippines, Alaska and in Europe. In 1913, Mitchell was promoted to captain and became the youngest officer to serve on the general staff.
In 1916, he transferred to Virginia to become interim commander of Army Aviation, which at that time was a division of the Army Signal Corps. After the new commander arrived, Mitchell was promoted to the rank of major, and assumed the position of deputy commander of Army Aviation.
Army Aviation is where Mitchell got his first taste of flying, and where his passion for aviation began to grow, so much so that he decided to become an Army pilot; he enrolled in a civilian flying school and paid for flying lessons.
In 1917, Mitchell was already in France studying the production of military aircraft, when the US declared war on Germany. He was promoted to the war-time rank of Brigadier General and given command of all of the American aerial combat units in France.
Putting his knowledge into practice at the Battle of St. Mihiel, Mitchell commanded 1,481 American and Allied airplanes. There he demonstrated what air power could do by massing an assault that sent wave after wave of planes to attack the Germans across battle lines destroying their ground power.
His strategy proved to be successful. Mitchell was the first American Army aviator to cross enemy lines and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor. In 1919, Mitchell was awarded the Legion of Honor by France.
After World War I, Mitchell returned to the US and despite his achievements was reverted back to his permanent rank of colonel, due to Air Service drawdown in manpower.
Mitchell became an advocate of an independent Air Force, and promoted the small Army Air Service with border patrols, forest fire patrols, aerial mapping missions and any other activity that demonstrated the value of aviation.
Mitchell asked to do a test/demonstration to confirm that airplanes could bomb ships. Congress and the Navy gave in and on July 20 and 21, 1921, Mitchell and the 1st Provisional Air Brigade demonstrated to the world the superiority of air power.
He and his unit sank the famous, ‘unsinkable,’ Ostfriesland, a captured German battleship. That proved that battleships were vulnerable to bombing attacks by aircraft (the enemy’s and your own).
Then, the Navy began developing aircraft carriers.
Mitchell was transferred to Fort Sam Houston, where he was assigned as the aviation officer of the Eighth Corps in 1925. He lived on Fort Sam and resided in Quarters 14 (now designated as the Billy Mitchell House) on Staff Post Road. His office was in the Quadrangle.
He was concerned about the lack of priority to air power. Mitchell’s frustration climaxed after the Navy’s airship Shenandoah crashed due to weather in September 1925. Mitchell publicly accused the Navy and War Departments of “incompetence and criminal negligence.”
In November 1925, Mitchell was called to Washington D.C. and court-martialed on the charge of “Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline and in a way to bring discredit upon the military service.”
Mitchell was convicted of insubordination, but rather than serve a five-year suspension, Mitchell decided to resign his commission. During retirement in Virginia, he continued to be outspoken on the importance of air power. He wrote books, newspaper and magazine articles, and gave lecture tours until his death, Feb. 11, 1936.
Mitchell received several honors following his death including a posthumous promotion to major general by President Harry Truman. A military aircraft bomber, the B-25 Mitchell, was named after him. In 1979, Mitchell was inducted in the International Hall of Fame.
Mitchell predicted that one day rockets would travel across continents and oceans and people would zip between New York and London in as few as six hours on fast commercial airliners.
He foresaw air forces attacking targets with unmanned aerial vehicles – he didn’t call them drones – and cruise missiles. He predicted that someday planes would be used for firefighting, evacuating the sick and wounded, photographing terrain, crop dusting and spying on enemies. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
One notable action by Mitchell was his prediction that a war between Japan and the US was inevitable. After visiting Japan while stationed with the Army in the Philippines, Mitchell wrote in 1910, “That increasing friction between Japan and the US will take place in the future there can be little doubt, and that this will lead to war sooner or later seems quite certain.”
In 1924, Mitchell toured Hawaii and Asia to inspect America’s military assets. After touring China, Korea, Japan, Siam, Singapore, Burma, Java, the Philippines and India, Mitchell wrote a 340-page report warning that the Asia-Pacific Rim could soon rival Europe in military might and America’s security depended on its foothold in the region.
To Mitchell, Japan was the country that posed the greatest threat because of its growing military strength and its quest for external sources of oil and iron for Japanese industries.
In a report he submitted after a trip to Japan in 1924 Mitchell predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor. He discussed Japanese expansionist ambitions and his belief that a Pacific War would begin with an attack at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines.
He wrote in 1924, “The Japanese bombardment, (would be) 100 (air) ships organized into four squadrons of 25 (air) ships each. The objectives for attack are: Ford Island, airdrome, hangers, storehouses and ammunition dumps; Navy fuel oil tanks …”
“… Water supply of Honolulu; Water supply of Schofield; Schofield Barracks airdrome and troop establishments; Naval submarine station; City and wharves of Honolulu.”
“Attack will be launched as follows: bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island at 7:30 a.m.” “Attack to be made on Clark Field (Philippine Islands) at 10:40 a.m.”
“Japanese pursuit aviation will meet bombardment over Clark Field, proceeding by squadrons, one at 3000 feet to Clark Field from the southeast and with the sun at their back, one at 5000 feet from the north and one at 10,000 feet from the west. Should U.S. pursuit be destroyed or fail to appear, airdrome would be attacked with machineguns.” (Mitchell; City on a Hill)
On December 7th, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at 7:55 A.M. and the Philippines’ Clark field at 12:35 P.M.
Mitchell’s claims about naval power being vulnerable to air power were ultimately proven true at Pearl Harbor when Japan sank or severely damaged nineteen U.S. warships, including eight battleships.
The minor differences include the actual number of aircraft (110 instead of 100), their launch from carriers instead of from Niihau, and the reduction of Wake Island instead of Midway. (Billy Mitchell Court-Marshal-Mulholland) (Information here is from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; US Army; NC Historical Marker Program; American Heritage; Air Force Museum; Air Force Magazine.)