Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell

Born December 29, 1879

Died February 19, 1936

 

He was a United States Army General who is regarded as the Father Of The United States Air Force.

Mitchell served in France during World War I and, by the conflict’s end, commanded all American air combat units in thatyounger billy mitchell country. After the war, he was appointed deputy director of the Air Service and began advocating increased investment in air power, believing that this would prove vital in future wars. He argued particularly for the ability of bombers to sink battleships and organized a series of bombing runs against stationary ships designed to test the idea.

He antagonized many people in the Army with his arguments and criticism and, in 1925, was returned from appointment as a brigadier general to his permanent rank of Colonel. Later that year, he was court-martialed for insubordination after accusing Army and Navy leaders of an “almost treasonable administration of the national defense” for investing in battleships instead of aircraft carriers. He resigned from the service s
hortly afterward.

Mitchell received many honors following his death, including a commission by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a Major General. He is also the only individual after whom a type of American military aircraft, the North American B-25 Mitchell, is named.

Born in Nice, France, to John L. Mitchell, a wealthy Wisconsin senator and his wife Harriet, Mitchell grew up on an estate in what is now the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, Wisconsin. His grandfather Alexander Mitchell, a Scotsman, was the wealthiest person in Wisconsin for his generation and established what became the Milwaukee Road railroad and the Marine Bank of Wisconsin. Mitchell Park and the shopping precinct of Mitchell Street were named in honor of Alexander.

Billy Mitchell graduated from Columbian College of George Washington University. He then enlisted as a private at age 18 in Company M of the 1st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment on May 14, 1898, early in the Spanish–American War. Quickly gaining a commission due to his father’s influence, he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Following the cessation of hostilities, Mitchell remained in the Army. He predicted as early as 1906, while an instructor at the Army’s Signal School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, that future conflicts would take place in the air, not on the ground.

A member of one of Milwaukee’s most prominent families, Billy Mitchell was probably the first person with ties to Wisconsin to see the Wright Brothers plane fly. In 1908, when a young Signal Corps officer, Mitchell observed Orville Wright’s flying demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia. Mitchell took flight lessons at the Curtiss Aviation School at Newport News, Virginia.

In March 1912, after assignments in the Philippines and Alaska Territory that saw him tour battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War and conclude that war with Japan was inevitable one day, Mitchell was one of 21 officers selected to serve on the General Staff—at the time, its youngest member at age 32. Ironically, he appeared in August 1913 at legislative hearings considering a bill to make Army aviation a branch separate from the Signal Corps and testified against the bill. As the only Signal Corps officer on the General Staff, he was chosen as temporary head of the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps, a predecessor of the United States Air Force, in May 1916, when its head was reprimanded and relieved of duty for malfeasance in the section. Mitchell administered the section until the new head, Lieutenant Colonel George O. Squier, arrived from attaché duties in London, England, where World War I was in progress, then became his permanent assistant. He took private flying lessons at the Glenn Curtiss Aviation School because he was proscribed by law from aviator training by age and rank, at an expense to himself of $1,470 (approximately $33,000 in 2015).