The Case for Billy Mitchell

Sept. 9, 2008
Whereas, the pursuit of this policy by Col. William Mitchell in connection with the development of airpower as a potential weapon of national defense ultimately led to his court-martial and conviction; and

Whereas, subsequent events demonstrated the accuracy of Colonel Mitchell’s theories as to the organization and utilization of airpower; and

Whereas, the adoption of these theories contributed greatly to the successful accomplishments in air warfare during World War II, and

Whereas, the Secretary of the Air Force, acting through a board composed of civilian officers of the Department of the Air Force, is authorized to correct military records in order to correct an error or remove an injustice; and

Whereas, in the light of the circumstances surrounding the conviction of Colonel Mitchell, and, more important, his great contribution to the defense of the United States, to leave his conviction standing on the military records of Colonel Mitchell constitutes a grace injustice to the memory of a great airman,

Now, Therefore, Be It Resolved:

That the Air Force Association in the light of the foregoing take such steps as may be appropriate to have proper application made to the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records to void the court-martial proceedings, and to take further corrective action with respect to such records as may be considered appropriate.

This resolution was approved by delegates to the Air Force Association’s ninth annual Convention in San Francisco on August 13, 1955. The action called for by the resolution has been taken, and the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records has been asked to void the court-martial which convicted Billy Mitchell on December 18, 1925.

The case for Billy Mitchell was presented to the Air Force Board on March 15, 1956. On that date William Mitchell, Jr., son of the airpower prophet, and a Washington, D.C., lumber salesman, filed application to the board to “render null and void the proceedings, findings, and sentence of the general court-martial.” At the time he filed his motion, the twenty-eight-year-old petitioner designated the Air Force Association to act as his counsel in the proceedings and concluded on this note:

“I sincerely believe that a gross injustice was done my father. History has vindicated him. I believe the United States Air Force cannot do less.”

The Air Force Association, in support of the younger Mitchell’s appeal, filed a 5,000-word brief spelling out the arguments for voiding the court-martial. Because the official transcript was not available at that time, the brief was compiled from such varied sources as Congressional hearings, Library of Congress records, newspaper accounts of the trial, and numerous writings by Mitchell himself and about him.

The immediate chain of events ultimately culminating in the court-martial charge had its origin in a press release issued by Mitchell on September 5, 1925. The statement was issued while Mitchell was serving as Air Officer of the Eighth Corps Area at Fort Sam Houston, Tex., and was prompted by two almost simultaneous aircraft disasters that shocked the world.

The more tragic of the two was the breaking-up of the Navy dirigible Shenandoah on September 2, 1925, over Ava, Ohio. In this accident fourteen crew members, including the commander, lost their lives. The other tragedy was an ill-fated attempt at a transpacific crossing by Navy aircraft in which the only airplane that could become airborne crashed.

Mitchell’s statement of September 5, 1925, ran to approximately 7,500 words and was handed out to newsmen at Fort Sam Houston. In it, Mitchell made the following allegation:

“These accidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments. In their attempt to keep down the development of aviation into an independent department, separate from the Army and Navy and handled by aeronautical experts, and to maintain the existing systems, they have gone to the utmost lengths to carry their point. All aviation policies, schemes, and systems are dictated by the non-flying officers of the Army or Navy who know practically nothing about it.”

This allegation set the court-martial machinery in motion. Mitchell was charged specifically with conducting himself “to the prejudice of good order and military discipline”; of being “insubordinate to the administration of the War Department”’ and with “intent to discredit” both the War and Navy Departments.

Charges against Mitchell were investigated by Col. George A. Nugent, of the War Department’s Inspector General Division, and on October 19, 1925, Nugent recommended Mitchell be tried by court-martial.

The trial began October 28, 1925, in an old warehouse near the Capitol building in Washington. Fifty-two days later, after approximately 1,400,000 words of testimony had been taken, Mitchell was convicted. He was sentenced to “be suspended from rank, command, and duty with forfeiture of all pay and allowances for five years.” On January 25, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge approved the sentence with one modification. The President directed that Mitchell receive one-half of his monthly pay and his allowances—a total in those days of $397.67.

Mitchell received his copy of the decision reached by President Coolidge at 6:15 p.m. on January 25. The following day, he resigned. Ten years later—on February 19, 1936—at the age of fifty-six, Mitchell died.

The Air Force Association brief took issue with the court-martial’s finding that Mitchell was guilty of “intent to discredit” the War and Navy Departments. Proof of such intent, presumably a most important element of the accusation, seemed to those who prepared the brief to have been lost in the maze of proceedings and testimony.

Indeed, the Association argued, the intensity to which Mitchell held to his beliefs that the country’s security depended upon the development of airpower and that the leaders of the War and Navy Departments needed to be aroused to its importance, offered ample testimony to the converse: that Mitchell’s intention was not to discredit the departments but rather to keep the controlling groups in the services from bringing discredit upon their own services by stubborn indifference to the significance of this new weapon of warfare.

It is not generally understood that Mitchell discovered aviation after long experience as a ground soldier. He enlisted in the infantry in 1898, one day after the American declaration of war on Spain. He served eighteen years with great distinction in Cuba, the Philippines, Alaska, and on the Army General Staff before he ever flew an airplane. In 1912 he was the youngest major in the Army. He was a recognized expert on wire communications, and his reports on this subject have been converted into military textbooks.

Mitchell did not invent airpower. Other nations were far ahead of the United States in aviation when World War I broke out. In the period between 1908 and 1913, for example, US aviation expenditures were only $435,000 and the country had a total of twenty-eight aircraft on hand. Germany and France had spent more than $20 million each in the same period and each country had 400 aircraft on hand. Even such smaller countries as Bulgaria, Greece, and Japan had spent from $500,000 to $1,500,000, and each of these countries had four times as many aircraft on hand as the United States.

In 1916, Mitchell took up flying—at his own expense. He was sent to France considerably in advance of the American Expeditionary Forces and was attached to French aviation. When General Pershing arrived in France, he placed Mitchell in charge of American aviation at the front.

Mitchell won numerous decorations for his outstanding ability to organize and employ aircraft in battle. These were awarded, not for daredevil exploits, but for his contributions to military strategy and tactics.

When Mitchell returned from France in 1919, he was designated Assistant Chief of Military Aviation. He was then forty years old and had behind him twenty-one years of outstanding Army service. His experience and stature were of such proportions that he was appointed to a job carrying the rank of brigadier general.

The events leading up t the court-martial actually began after Mitchell’s return from France. On September 30, 1919, by order of the Secretary of War, the Air Service was reduced from 10,000 pilots to 149. Six thousand of these were discharged in nine days. Aircraft production came to a virtual standstill, despite the fact that airpower had become a recognized element of warfare and despite the fact that other nations were turning to the air as the future primary medium of combat.

As early as 1920, Mitchell, the former ground soldier, began to raise his voice for airpower. In his search for the most effective ways to use airpower, Mitchell considered bombardment of surface vessels. He had his tiny air force engage in exercises that would demonstrate the effectiveness of airpower. When he was certain that the job could be done, he announced that aircraft could sink battleships by bombardment. The remark was taken to be an open declaration of war on the Navy.

But Mitchell persisted in his efforts and, in 1921, Congressional pressure became so strong that the tests were ordered. Captured German ships were used as targets, and Mitchell’s bombers sent them to the bottom of the sea off Hampton Roads, Va., in conclusive proof of Mitchell’s arguments that ships could be sunk by aerial attack.

In 1924, Mitchell received permission from his commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, and from the President of the United States to publish a series of articles on airpower. In these he pressed his fight for recognition of the effectiveness of bombardment, for an Air University, and for a separate Department of Aeronautics. In 1925, Mitchell’s appointment as Assistant Chief of Military Aviation expired and was not renewed. He was reduced to the rank of colonel and ordered to Fort Sam Houston. At the time, twenty-six Air Service officers called on him and told him that they intended to resign in protest. Mitchell forbade them to carry out this intention.

Officially, there is nothing to indicate the reason for Mitchell’s transfer. There is a clue, however, in a statement made to a Congressional committee by Secretary of War Weeks. Weeks said that he grew “tired of the complaints from the Navy Department” and hauled Mitchell on the carpet.

Later, the Lampart Committee of Congress conducted an exhaustive inquiry into the air services. Mitchell was questioned on the subject of muzzling of military officers. He stated that despite announced policy to the contrary, officers were not permitted to give Congress their views without permission of the War Department.

Mitchell thereupon was transferred to Fort Sam Houston, and two pieces of legislation followed, which serve to prove that Mitchell had begun to interest Congress in his beliefs. The first provided that “no Army or Navy officer shall be transferred, demoted, or sent away” as a result of testimony he might give before Congress. Another bill called for the promotion of “William Mitchell by special act of Congress to the rank of major general.”

In September 1925, President Coolidge convened the Morrow Board to investigate the air services. The resulting testimony fills six volumes. Pertinent to the Mitchell case is the comment of Acting Secretary of War Davis, who said:

“There has not been, is not now, and will not be any ‘muzzling’ of Army officers in the expression of their individual views.”

During the hearing, Mitchell took these words at face value. He testified openly and frankly. Among other things, he testified that the Air Force consisted of about twelve outmoded pursuit planes and twenty-two worn-out bombers; that the United States had no more than 450 pilots.

In essence, Mitchell made the same charges before the Morrow Board that he did in the statement he released to the press, which led directly to his trial. Yet no effort was made by his superiors to discipline him for his Morrow Board testimony, nor to demonstrate that he was in error.

The beliefs which Mitchell expressed both before, during, and after his trial have been adopted. He sought the emergence if airpower as an instrument of national policy; development of military aviation in the US to the point where this country would lead the war in airpower; creation of a single Department of Defense, with a separate Air Force having equal status with the Army and Navy; and an Air Force academy for the training of air officers.

Today, it is difficult for most students of Mitchell to understand how he could have harbored the “intent” specified in the court-martial charges when the concepts he advocated have been adopted.

It would appear that Congress itself vindicated Mitchell as long ago as July 26, 1946, when it adopted a bill authorizing a special Congressional medal honoring Mitchell for his contributions to military aviation. The bill became law with the signature of President Harry S. Truman on August 8, 1946. The act stated that the medal was being awarded “in the name of the people of the United States, in recognition of his [Mitchell’s] outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American military aviation.”

From time to time, other bills have been introduced to honor Mitchell. None has been successful. One reason advanced several years ago was that enactment of legislation honoring Mitchell would be embarrassing to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, only surviving member of the court which convicted Mitchell.

In 1945, Sen. Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin, long a Mitchell champion, wrote to General MacArthur and raised this issue. “I never heard that argument before,” the Senator stated, “because it was my understanding that yours was the one vote against the court-martial verdict which cashiered Billy Mitchell.”

MacArthur replied:

“Your recollection of my part in his trial is entirely correct. It was fully known to him, and he never ceased to express his gratitude for my attitude. It would have been ridiculous for anyone to say that any posthumous honors that might be granted him would be embarrassing to me. He was a rare genius in his profession and contributed much to aviation history.”

The Air Force Association’s case for Billy Mitchell culminated at 9:30 a.m. on May 14 in Room 5C883 at the Pentagon when three representatives of the Association and Billy Mitchell, Jr., appeared before the Board to make a verbal request that it recommend to the Secretary of the Air Force voiding of the court-martial.

The three representatives were Stephen F. Leo, a National Director of AFA; William R. Sweeney, member of the faculty at George Washington where Mitchell received his bachelor’s degree in 1899; and this writer.

As counsel for the younger Mitchell, the AFA representatives questioned the nature of the sentence which would have made a military vegetable of Mitchell had he remained in service, and reaffirmed the belief that the court-martial is a blot, not only on the name of Mitchell, but on the country as a whole.

Mr. Leo concluded the presentation on this note:

“Regardless of the eminent position to which history has raised Billy Mitchell, the cold fact remains that there is a court-martial conviction against him.

“By declaring this conviction null and void, the Air Force does no more—nor any less—than provide Mitchell with the official recognition that is his just due.”

As this report was written, the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records was considering the application.

The procedure established by law and policy quires that the Board’s recommendation—for or against a reversal of the court-martial—be forwarded to the Secretary of the Air Force, who has full authority to make the final decision.

One of the least known boards in the Air Force is its Board for the Correction of Military Records. It has its origin in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.

This law gives the Secretary of the Air Force, acting through a board composed of civilian officials of the Department of the Air Force, authority to correct any military record where in his judgment such action is necessary to right an error or remove an injustice. The broad authority conferred by this law has been recognized by ruling of the Attorney General, the Comptroller General, and the General Counsel of the Air Force.

The Board has been functioning since 1949. It has taken favorable action in more than 1,000 cases since that time.

Jurisdiction of the Board extends to all active and inactive members of the Air Force and to personnel who, at the time of their separation form the service or at the time of the court-martial sentence by which they were discharged from service, were members of the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, Air Service, Air Corps, Army Air Force, or the US Air Force.

The Board, therefore, is competent to review the court-martial of Billy Mitchell.

Board action is not final. The Board merely recommends action to the Secretary, who is the final authority.

If an application for the correction of a military record is rejected, the action usually is final. A new application can be made—but only based on new evidence.

A partial listing of the types of corrective action the Board can take might include:

Remove from the record of an individual reference to trial and conviction by court-martial; show discharged personnel restored to the active list; remove derogatory data from an individual’s file; declare efficiency reports void; show an earlier date of appointment in the Reserve of the Air Force to remove a break in service.

Members of the Board are: George S. Robinson, chairman, John J. McLoughlin, Joseph F. Cunningham, Ralph P. Dunn, and Herbert R. Wildman. Frank D. Hardin is the executive secretary and Norman A. Compton the Board Examiner.