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Maj Gen William "Billy" Mitchell: a pyrrhic promotion.

NAME William "Billy" Mitchell brings many images to mind--for example, that of the gallant Airman who forcefully advocated the independence of the Army Air Service from its mother service. Mitchell's polarizing behavior in this endeavor endeared his allies and alienated his opponents. Another image depicts the first American air theorist, whose ideas--taught and fostered in the curriculum of the Air Corps Tactical School--laid the foundation of American airpower's employment in World War II. Indeed, such contributions deserve high praise, which Congress bestowed posthumously in the form of a special medal of honor in 1957, more than 20 years after Mitchell's death. (1) Evidently, however, this was not enough. In 2004 the 108th Congress authorized the president to promote him to the rank of major general, citing that as the rank Mitchell would have achieved had he served as chief of the Air Service in 1925. The president has not exercised that option, nor should he do so--for two reasons: (1) many leaders of that time ensured that Mitchell never held this title for reasons other than the oft-cited ones of personal bias and resentment, and (2) posthumous promotion does not vindicate Mitchell from the more questionable acts he committed during his military service. (2) It is better to remember Billy Mitchell at his highest attained rank of brigadier general than to confer a new, pyrrhic rank of major general.

The promotion option was created at the behest of Senator Charles Bass (R-NH), whose father, Rep. Perkins Bass (R-NH), nephew of Billy Mitchell, had introduced a bill in 1957 nominating Mitchell for the same promotion. The elder Bass noted that Mitchell clearly deserved to be chief of the Air Service, a permanent major-general billet. According to Senator Bass, that effort failed because "[his father's] efforts were successfully blocked by some of Mitchell's military adversaries." (3) Of course these so-called adversaries did not impede Mitchell's reception of a medal of honor, but the initial efforts to promote Mitchell posthumously did come to a standstill. (4) Senator Bass explained his motivation for reintroducing the bill years later: "He [Mitchell] was the father of the modern Air Force.... This should be done." (5) The promotion option, which applied to rank only (it excluded additional money or benefits), drew muted support from the US Air Force--the service that calls Mitchell its patriarch. (6) Nevertheless, the promotion opportunity appears harmless enough and seemingly appropriate, so why not lobby the president to use his legal authority to posthumously promote Billy Mitchell to major general?

To begin, the justification that motivated this presidential legal option is erroneous. One can rightly question Representative Bass's accusation of adversarial impropriety. The Army recognized Mitchell's hard work, rewarding him with promotions and added responsibility. But prior to and during the initial part of his Army service, he received many handouts from his father, a well-to-do senator who arranged for his son's attendance at a private school and later engineered a commission for him in the Army, where he began as a signals officer destined for the Spanish-American War. Unfortunately, it ended before Mitchell could participate. Frustrated, he used his father's leverage to obtain a reassignment to the occupation force in Cuba, arriving there in December 1898. (7) From that point on, however, Mitchell made his way through the Army based on his own merit, although financial aid from family members and friends became a lifelong crutch for him. (8)

Following Cuba, Mitchell served brief stints in the Philippines, China, Japan, India, and Europe. After his tour in Europe, Brig Gen Adolphus Greely, chief of the Signal Corps, ordered the 20-year-old officer to Alaska, where he would lay telegraph wire, allowing communication between Alaska's capital city and its major towns. (9) Mitchell proved more than capable, accomplishing this task in two years under harsh climatic conditions, and in 1912 he joined the 21-member Army General Staff as the lone Signal Corps representative--a position Mitchell earned legitimately. (10) As fate would have it, one of his staff responsibilities called for assessing the utility of a recent phenomenon--aviation.

Initially leery of aviation but intrigued by it, Mitchell authored a paper discussing its possibilities and shortly thereafter paid for his own flying training out of funds solicited from his mother. Perhaps because of this background, Mitchell was reassigned to Europe in 1916 as an aeronautical observer to glean lessons learned from World War I. (11) During this time, America entered the Great War in opposition to the Central Powers. Upon hearing this news, Mitchell immediately traveled to France and 14 days later began flying combat missions in French aircraft with French airmen. (12) During the war, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell rose to the rank of brigadier general, finishing as chief of the Air Service, Army Group. As with most things involving him, this did not occur without controversy.

While US forces marshaled in Europe in 1917, General of the US Army John "Blackjack" Pershing appointed Brig Gen Benjamin Foulois Air Service commander over Mitchell, who did everything possible to inhibit Foulois' ability to lead the service. (13) Despite this friction, Foulois recognized his own limitations and requested that Mitchell lead the combat forces while Foulois handled the training and equipping aspect of aerial warfare. That arrangement made Mitchell and Foulois coequals, both working for Maj Gen Mason M. Patrick, commander of the Air Service's American Expeditionary Forces. Despite Mitchell's antics towards Foulois, the latter's unselfish act allowed Mitchell to lead the combat portion of the Air Service in World War I, thus facilitating his promotion to the temporary rank of brigadier general (temporary because it related to Mitchell's wartime position).

To be fair, Mitchell distinguished himself as a leader deserving of this wartime rank. His bravery and flying acumen earned him the Distinguished Service Cross for valor in the air, and he demonstrated his combat mettle through his leadership of the air portion of the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives.14 Historian Robert White concludes that "regardless of the official chain of command, it was Mitchell who made the vast majority of the operation decisions in the two major [American Expeditionary Forces] campaigns of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, and this is the way that Patrick, and especially Pershing, wanted it."15 Finally, Mitchell's subordinates and peers held a deep respect for him.16 Even after the war, Foulois said of his rival, "General Mitchell had few superiors in Europe, as regards the tactical use and actual operation of the Air Service in action." (17)

At the end of World War I, Mitchell did not receive the customary reduction in rank as the United States transitioned from wartime to peacetime, even though an officer such as General Patrick, Mitchell's wartime superior, returned to his peacetime rank of colonel in 1919 and rejoined the Corps of Engineers--the unit from which he had emerged.18 Mitchell managed to retain his rank because Maj Gen Charles T. Menoher, the first chief of the Air Service, asked that Mitchell serve as assistant chief of the service. Although Mitchell retained his rank of brigadier general, it remained in a temporary capacity since this rank was associated with the job--not the person. (19)

Unsurprisingly, Mitchell also had disagreements with General Menoher. Historian Robert Futrell attributes much of this to a personality conflict stemming from Menoher's status as a nonflying officer. (20) Regardless, the fact remains that the Menoher-Mitchell combination proved tumultuous--so much so that Lt Col Oscar Westover, Menoher's executive officer, recommended that he obtain a statement of loyalty from Mitchell. Menoher never did so--but in retrospect he perhaps wished he had. (21)

Menoher's term as Air Service chief came to an abrupt end because of his inability to control Mitchell. After the sinking of the captured German battleship Ostfriesland in 1921 as part of an experiment to gauge the effectiveness of air attacks against ships, Mitchell authored a report claiming that "the problem of the destruction of seacraft by Air Forces had been solved and is finished." (22) Despite Menoher's order to Mitchell not to release this report until approved by higher authority, Secretary of War John W. Weeks read it in a printed article in the New York Times. Furious, Menoher demanded that Weeks either allow him to discipline Mitchell or accept his resignation. Unfortunately for Menoher, Weeks was reluctant to do so because of Mitchell's popularity and influence. Menoher resigned, and Mitchell, feeling insulated from repercussions because of his celebrity-like status, proceeded to utilize the political freedom that popularity brings. (23)

Following Menoher's untimely departure, the natural order of events seemed to forecast Mitchell's ascension to chief of the Air Service; however, Pershing, who respected Mitchell but understood his limitations, would not hear of it. Robert White adds that "based on the 'team player' concept that characterized Pershing's way of doing business, Mitchell was never a serious contender for the top job in the Air Service." (24) Instead of Mitchell, Pershing selected Col Mason Patrick, his former commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. He did so, hoping that Patrick would lead the Air Service and, more importantly, corral Mitchell. (25) Patrick would prove successful at both.

To no one's surprise, this sequence of events did not please Mitchell. Still sitting as the assistant chief of the Air Service and believing Patrick malleable, Mitchell attempted to coerce him into subservience by threatening to resign if he did not allow Mitchell a disproportionately large say in running the Air Service. Much to Mitchell's surprise, Patrick did not acquiesce to these pressure tactics. Even more surprisingly, Patrick had the support of his superiors, an advantage Menoher did not seem to enjoy. Faced with this response, Mitchell's only option if he wished to maintain his position as assistant chief was to withdraw his resignation. He did so, and from this position Mitchell continued his quest for Air Service independence. (26)

History inaccurately portrays Mitchell in a heroic light as the sole proponent of airpower's independence. From 1919 to 1920, Congress introduced no fewer than eight bills concerning the creation of a separate military-aviation establishment. (27) Two of them, one from Senator Harry New (R-IN) and one from Rep. Charles Curry (R-CA), specifically sought to create an executive department of aeronautics. (28) Additionally, the Crowell Commission, an around-the-world investigatory effort headed by Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell, further promoted the case for a separate Air Service. The Crowell Report recommended the establishment of a single department of the air coequal to the Departments of War, Navy, and Commerce. (29) Secretary of War Newton Baker, however, did not support this conclusion, maintaining that the commission served in an informative, not advisory, capacity; the conclusion remained on the record nevertheless. (30)

Even if the Crowell Commission's recommendations had been accepted, practical considerations would have hampered the creation of an independent Air Service. Fiscal restraints during a postwar military reduction in 1920 denied the General Staff the resources needed to increase the size of the service. Noted historian Bernard Nalty cogently surmises that "any expansion of the air arm--whether an increase in the number of enlisted men, admission of Regular officers to flight training, or the granting of Regular commissions to reservists--could come about only at the expense of the other arms of the Army which had demonstrated their importance during the recent war." (31) Gen Henry "Hap" Arnold agreed, noting that "economics and technology probably were the limiting factors and that Mitchell did not help the cause of airpower." (32)

Interestingly, Mitchell had personal fiscal restrictions to deal with despite his affluent background. Poor stewardship of his finances, coupled with his living well beyond his means, required him to seek other sources of income--for example, the writing of articles advocating airpower. (33) Despite the debacle of the Ostfriesland final report, senior leadership still permitted Mitchell to write, albeit with conditions. After Secretary of War Weeks warned Mitchell about publishing for profit as a service member in uniform, he allowed him to write articles, contingent upon the promise that he publish no article prior to War Department review. (34) Mitchell failed to keep this promise and suffered the consequences.

The position of assistant chief of staff of the Air Service required periodic renomination and approval. When Mitchell's first tour as assistant chief ended in 1925, Chief of the Air Service Patrick, who liked Mitchell despite his shortcomings, recommended him for a second tour. Secretary Weeks, however, refused this recommendation because of Mitchell's broken promise. Lt Col Mark Clodfelter notes that "Mitchell had recently angered Secretary Weeks by publishing an explosive series of aviation articles, unreviewed by the War Department, in The Saturday Evening Post.... [This] caused Weeks to shun Mitchell's reappointment as assistant chief of the Air Service when it came up for renewal in March 1925." (35) Mitchell's biographer quotes Weeks as saying that Mitchell's "course had been so lawless, so contrary to the building up of an efficient organization, so lacking in teamwork, so indicative of a personal desire for publicity at the expense of everyone with whom he associated that his actions render him unfit for a high administrative post such as he now occupies." (36) No longer assistant chief of the Air Service, "Mitchell reverted to his permanent grade of colonel and was transferred to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, as aviation officer for the Army's VIII Corps Area." (37)

Soon after his arrival in Texas, the unfortunate crash of the airship Shenandoah occurred, killing the entire crew, including Mitchell's friend and the ship's captain, Lt Cdr Zachary Lansdowne. Mitchell immediately convened a press conference, during which he uttered the infamous words that motivated Pres. Calvin Coolidge to call for his court-martial: "These accidents are the result of the incompetency, the criminal negligence, and the almost treasonable negligence of our national defense by the Navy and War Departments." (38)

The court-martial may well have been the second event in Mitchell's life that he misjudged. (39) Compared to the previous ruckus he had created, the court-martial was almost muted, largely as a result of the Morrow Board, which President Coolidge had convened for two reasons: to resolve the dominant aviation issues and, more importantly, to prevent Mitchell's court-martial from having a significant impact on either aviation or politics. The president calculated correctly. Although the proceedings enjoyed a large following, its effect proved minimal. (40)

The court-martial found Mitchell guilty, but his lenient sentence denied him martyr status, ironically removing Mitchell from the limelight. The court sentenced him to five years' suspension from active duty without pay, which Coolidge amended to allow half pay. Regardless, the reduced income crippled Mitchell's already financially stressed lifestyle, and he resigned from the Army Air Service on 26 February 1926. (41) Afterward Mitchell sought vindication, continuing to publish books and articles, but he would never regain his influence. (42) Noted airpower historian Phillip Meilinger asserts that "Mitchell was vain, petulant, racist, overbearing, and egotistical. Although his aggressive advocacy of airpower proved entertaining and won much publicity, his antics probably had little effect on swaying either public opinion or Congress." (43)

Objectively, one can understand the motivation to get Mitchell promoted to major general. But despite the best efforts of those dedicated historians who discover and analyze every bit of information, history is not objective. As more years pass between an event's occurrence and its study, different interpretations often emerge. It is better to preserve the memory of Billy Mitchell for what he was, a boisterous airpower advocate who endorsed contrarian techniques to make his points, than for what some people hoped he should have been--a heroic leader in peacetime as well as combat who did not falter in his quest for the independence of airpower, an impossible happenstance considering the subject at hand. No one can take away Mitchell's achievements, which the Army recognized and rewarded throughout his military career, but neither can anyone erase the questionable actions that proceeded from his passionate advocacy of airpower's independence. Mitchell's familial acolytes have gained him an opportunity that he would exploit--one for which he would be forever grateful. For his legacy, however, if the president approves this promotion, it would be only a pyrrhic victory.

Langley AFB, Virginia


(1.) Roger G. Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel of the Air" (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 2004), 55.

(2.) Currently, the president has the legal authority, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to issue a posthumous commission to make Billy Mitchell a major general. To date, neither the White House nor the Office of the Secretary of Defense has utilized that authority, a fact verified in e-mail correspondence with SAF/LL on 7 September 2006. See also Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005, Public Law 108-375, sec. 564, 108th Cong., 2d sess., 28 October 2004.

(3.) "House Votes to Posthumously Commission Billy Mitchell as Major General," Charlie Bass' Capitol Link 4, no. 28 (6 October 2003), (accessed 11 May 2005).

(4.) The medal of honor presented to Mitchell was not the nation's highest military award for heroism in combat. Instead, it was a special medal that recognized his contributions to airpower. George Washington received this kind of recognition for his military successes against the British in 1776. The country has honored three other Airmen with this award: Col Charles Lindbergh, Gen Ira Eaker, and Brig Gen Chuck Yeager. See Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 55; and Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court Martial That Gripped the Nation (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), 357.

(5.) John Bresnahan, "Bass Picks Up Family Fight to Honor Mitchell," 11 August 2003, http:// (accessed 11 May 2005).

(6.) Dissemination of information concerning Mitchell's promotion to major general through Air Force publications was minimal at best.

(7.) Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 3.

(8.) Waller, Question of Loyalty, 103.

(9.) Ibid., 80.

(10.) Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 3.

(11.) Lt Col Mark A. Clodfelter, "Molding Airpower Convictions: Development and Legacy of William Mitchell's Strategic Thought," in The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory, ed. Col Phillip S. Meilinger (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997), 83.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, vol. 1, 1907-1960 (1971; new imprint, Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1989), 22.

(14.) James J. Cooke, Billy Mitchell (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), 95-100.

(15.) Robert P. White, Mason Patrick and the Fight for Air Service Independence (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 23.

(16.) Ibid., 101.

(17.) Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 20.

(18.) Col Phillip S. Meilinger, Airmen and Air Theory, A Review of the Sources (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001), 8. Clodfelter also notes that Foulois returned to the rank of major after World War I. "Molding Airpower Convictions," 91.

(19.) The National Defense Act of 1920 established the Air Service as a permanent branch, separate from the Signal Corps. The act also authorized that the service be led by an officer in the permanent rank of major general and a deputy in the temporary rank of brigadier general. See Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 22.

(20.) Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine, vol. 1, 28.

(21.) Ibid., 32. Dr. Roger Miller states that after four months on the job, Westover recommended that Mitchell be fired. See Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 22.

(22.) Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine, vol. 1, 37.

(23.) This account coincides with Dr. David Mets's assessment of Mitchell as a "showboater, one who was not at all averse to going outside channels. He used public relations extensively to try to advance his cause and published frequently in national media while on active duty." See David R. Mets, The Air Campaign: John Warden and the Classical Airpower Theorists, rev. ed. (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1999), 33.

(24.) White, Mason Patrick, 44.

(25.) Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 27.

(26.) White, Mason Patrick, 60.

(27.) Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine, vol. 1, 29.

(28.) Bernard C. Nalty, ed., Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force, vol. 1, 1907-1950 (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997), 74. See also White, Mason Patrick, 45.

(29.) Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine, vol. 1, 30.

(30.) Nalty, Winged Shield, Winged Sword, vol. 1, 75.

(31.) Ibid., 79.

(32.) Mets, Air Campaign, 44.

(33.) Cooke, Billy Mitchell, 161.

(34.) Ibid., 162.

(35.) Clodfelter, "Molding Airpower Convictions," 102. See also Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 39; and White, Mason Patrick, 116.

(36.) Alfred F. Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power (New York: Franklin Watts, 1964), 98.

(37.) Clodfelter, "Molding Airpower Convictions," 102. See also Waller, Question of Loyalty, 314. Furthermore, the Army did not view this as a demotion since Mitchell was still responsible for the area stretching from Texas to the West Coast. Waller, Question of Loyalty, 2.

(38.) Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 42. See also White, Mason Patrick, 5.

(39.) The first event was becoming chief of the Air Service. The third was being nominated as Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's secretary of war.

(40.) Miller, Billy Mitchell: "Stormy Petrel," 42-43.

(41.) Ibid., 44.

(42.) Meilinger, Airmen and Air Theory, 11.

(43.) Ibid., 10.


* Lieutenant Colonel Ott is chief, Senior Leader Management, Langley AFB, Virginia.
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Author:Ott, William J.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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