By Edward T. O’Donnell
Eighty years ago this week, on July 21, 1921, Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell scored a direct hit in his effort to prove the importance of air power. As the nation’s leading expert in aviation, he’d spent several years trying to convince the skeptical brass of the Army and Navy that air power would play a vital role in any future war. They laughed at his bold claim that a warship on the high seas would be defenseless against one of his planes. Now in the summer of 1921, he had a chance to prove it. With reporters from all the major papers on hand, Mitchell’s bombers homed in on a German destroyer seized during World War I and sent it to the bottom.
William "Billy" Mitchell was born in Nice, France, in 1879, the son of Sen. John L. Mitchell. He joined the Army at the outbreak of the Spanish American War and decided to make a career of it. Assigned to the Army Signal Corps, the branch of the military with authority over the novel science of aviation, Mitchell was quickly drawn to flight. Even after the Army deemed him too old to fly, he took private lessons and soon proved himself a skilled pilot.
When World War I broke out, Mitchell was sent to Europe to observe military aviation. By the time the U.S. entered the war in 1917, no one knew more about the subject than Mitchell and he became the key figure in building the American air program. As a colonel he led the allied air forces in the pivotal offensives at Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. His exploits were carried in the popular press and he ended the war a brigadier general and a national hero.
Following the war, Mitchell was named assistant chief of the Air Service. From this position he became an outspoken advocate for increased air power and an Air Force separate from the Army and Navy. Future conflict, he warned, would be dominated by the airplane. Indeed, an aggressor nation with a large air force could dominate the world in less time that it took to overrun a single continent. The conservative military establishment in the U.S., however, dismissed Mitchell’s claims as ridiculous and pressed on with their plans to develop larger tanks and ships. They saw little use for the airplane beyond reconnaissance and limited bombing.
Undeterred, Mitchell used his position to promote aviation and raise its profile with the American public. He initiated research into bombsights and plane-launched torpedoes and submitted reports to Army officials recommending development of flying troop transports and long-range bombers. To build public support for his programs, Mitchell staged high-profile aviation events, including a race across the United States and several record-breaking speed and altitude exhibitions. And he traveled the country, giving speeches and interviews in which he criticized the narrow-mindedness of the country’s military leadership when it came to aviation development.
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Not surprisingly, top military officials grew to detest him — especially when he declared that his planes could sink any Navy vessel. They flatly refused his challenge to let him demonstrate his point with German ships seized during World War I. But Mitchell waged a skillful media campaign and eventually won approval. In the months leading up to the test, he created an air brigade and had them engage in exhaustive bombing practice using a newly developed 2,000-pound bomb capable of sinking a warship.
On July 21, with the target ships assembled in the waters off Virginia, Mitchell’s bombers made good on his promise. They sank three ships on the first day, including the massive battleship Ostfriesland. Several more ships, including several obsolete American vessels, went down in the next few days. "No surface vessels can exist," declared Mitchell, "wherever air forces acting from land bases are able to attack them." The press concurred.
Only the Navy seemed to disagree.
Emboldened by his success, Mitchell stepped up his campaign for an independent Air Force and more money devoted to air defense. The Army eventually exiled him to Hawaii, but that only provided him with the opportunity to publish a detailed report on the poor state of air defenses there. In a later report published after an extensive trip throughout Asia and Europe, he correctly predicted the rise of Japan as a military power and the likelihood of a Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor. For his efforts, Mitchell lost his position at the Air Service in 1925 and was transferred to Texas.
It was there in September 1925 that Mitchell’s zeal got the better of him. Reacting to the news that a Navy seaplane and dirigible crashed in the span of three days, he fired off to the press a blistering statement condemning what he termed "incompetency" and "the almost treasonable negligence" of the U.S. Navy and War Department. Mitchell was quickly charged with insubordination and brought before a court-martial.
Found guilty and sentenced to a five-year suspension, Mitchell resigned and took to the lecture circuit. He spent the next decade speaking and writing on the subject of aviation and the need for a modernized air defense and died in 1936.
Some visionaries like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison withstand the derision of their contemporaries and eventually live long enough to reap the praise of a grateful society. Others die too soon and are appreciated only after they are gone. For Billy Mitchell, vindication came during World War II, when virtually all his warnings and predictions were shown to be correct. In 1946, 10 years after his death and 20 since his forced retirement, Billy Mitchell received a posthumous medal from Congress in recognition of his contributions to military aviation. The message was clear: Billy Mitchell may have been arrogant and insubordinate, but he also happened to be right.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
July 21, 1873: Jesse James and his gang stage the first train robbery in the U.S., nabbing $3,000 from the Rock Island Express at Adair, Iowa.
July 23, 1803: Robert Emmet begins his ill-fated uprising of United Irishmen in Dublin.
July 24, 1997: Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, one of the court’s most liberal voices, dies.
July 18, 1874: Revolutionary Cathal Brugha is born in Dublin.
July 22, 1890: Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy, mother of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy is born in Boston.
July 23, 1936: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is born in Sacramento, Calif.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.