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A nOT e On Bi LLy MiTChe LL And h is B OOk William “Billy” Mitchell was and continues to be one of the most controversial airmen in our history. Alternately lionized and vilified by military officers and civilian academics, Mitchell was undeniably one of the pivotal figures in the development of American air power. Although he began his 27‑year military career in the infantry, serving in the s panish‑American War and along the turbulent Mexican border, he took to airplanes, and to the air, with great zeal, learning to fly in 1916 on his off‑duty time. Upon America’s entry into the f irst World War, he was the first U.S. officer to participate in a ground attack with the French in 1917, the first to fly an aircraft over German lines, and the first to earn the War Cross for combat duty. g eneral Pershing, Commander in Chief of American forces in f rance, knew Mitchell’s talents and placed him in charge of Air s ervice forces, culminating with Mitchell’s command of the combined f rench, British, Italian, and American air assets that for the first time operated with significant battlefield effect under the principle of centralized control during the Meuse‑ Argonne offensive in the war’s closing months. Mitchell’s experiences as the senior American airman in f rance made a deep impression on him because he saw not only the carnage of the war firsthand but also, he believed, a way to avoid it in future armed conflicts. Always the activist, Mitchell pushed hard for an independent air force and a d epartment of Aeronautics within the federal government to give the United s tates a A n ote on Billy Mitchell and h is Book iv global lead in the development of air power—in short, to make it an “air‑going nation.” As Assistant Chief of the Air s ervice and d irector of Military Aviation from 1919 to 1925, Mitchell argued that air power had eclipsed other kinds of military power and would win future wars by attacking an enemy’s “vital centers” (industrial centers), breaking both the adversary’s ability and will to resist. Although this was the vital core of his message, Mitchell took more direct aim at the n avy, contending that aircraft had made naval vessels obsolete and incapable of defending the United s tates from invasion. h is bombing trials against the Ostfrieland, New Jersey, and several other g erman and obsolete American ships in 1923, which sank both of the capital ships involved and several others, electrified the public and, in the process, made Naval officers his mortal enemies. The increasingly acrimonious debate between Mitchell, the d epartment of the n avy, and several other government agencies following the bombing trials led ultimately to Mitchell’s removal as Assistant Chief of Air s ervice. When he then attacked what he viewed as “the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the n ational d efense by the n avy and War d epartments,” his court‑martial followed in October‑december 1925. f ound guilty on several charges, including insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer, Mitchell resigned from the Army Air s ervice. yet this was by no means the end of his public advocacy of air power. Mitchell had already published Winged Defense A n ote on Billy Mitchell and h is Book v before his court‑martial, and he continued to speak, write, and travel with an almost frenetic energy to share his ideas with the American public and influential members of government and industry. By the time he died on f ebruary 17, 1936, at the age of 57, Mitchell had convinced many Americans that both military and civil aviation would be vital to their country’s future fortunes. h e proved right on both counts. While Mitchell got several things wrong, particularly regarding his belief in the decisive role of air power as a war‑winning instrument in its own right, he got a great deal more right. Air power did prove to be an indispensable contributor to Allied victory in the s econd World War and has remained a vital guardian of America’s national security since the Air f orce achieved independence in 1947. Mitchell’s views of civil aviation’s importance also proved prescient as the United s tates became—and remains—the world’s premier air power nation. When viewed in this light...


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