What We Can Learn From Billy Mitchell, America’s Least Appreciated Military Visionary

Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in the cockpit of a Thomas Morse Pursuit Plane. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

As Russia’s last surviving aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, lumbered through the English Channel last month, belching black smoke on its way to Syria, it wasn’t the rusting hulls that caused the greatest glee among British bystanders, nor that it had to travel at all times with its own tugboat in case of a break down, it was the rumor that its toilets — for 2,000 crew members — didn’t work.

Back on the other side of the Atlantic, at Huntington Ingalls Industries shipyard in Virginia, the U.S. Navy is currently putting the finishing touches on the gleaming USS Gerald R. Ford, which will become the world’s most advanced aircraft carrier when its completed later this year, at a cost of $13 billion. When she takes to the seas, the vessel will become the 11th aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet, which has five times more carriers than any other country — Italy has two — and 11 times more than China and Russia, which have one each.

We need all those carriers for our roughly 13,000 military aircraft — Russia and China have around 3,000 and 2,000, respectively — and our more than 10,000 militarized drones. Which is all just another way of saying that America’s air dominance is absolute.

America’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, at the Newport News Shipyard. Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Brigadier General Billy Mitchell would be delighted. Mitchell, who first dreamed of aircraft carriers before the military even had planes to put on them, spent the better part of his life making the case to anyone who would listen that the wars of the future would be won in the air. And because of this perceived heresy, he was ridiculed, disgraced, demoted, and ultimately drummed out of the military. Mitchell died never knowing that he would one day be remembered as the father of the modern Air Force, perhaps the most vindicated figure in U.S. defense history.

Born 1879, Mitchell was in many ways the archetypical turn-of-the-century commander. An elite born to a wealthy senator and raised on an expansive estate in Wisconsin, he joined the military as soon as it would have him, signing on as a private at the age of 18, with his father’s influence all but guaranteeing a successful career.

By 27, he was already predicting that aircraft would play a decisive role on the battlefield — two years before he had even seen a real-life flying machine in person. That experience would come courtesy of the first man ever take to flight, Orville Wright, whom he saw in an early demonstration.

During World War I, Mitchell planned the first ever modern air offensive at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, leading nearly 1,500 aircraft into battle. After the war, he worked his way up to the most senior post for air service officers at the time, appointed Assistant Chief of Air Service by President Warren G. Harding in 1920. It was then that he became overwhelmingly convinced that the United States needed to develop floating naval bases from which planes could be launched, and that those aircraft could decisively win naval engagements. But military officials worried that his theories made the Navy seem weak. Mitchell begged to stage an experiment that could prove that for the price of one battleship, scores of bombers could be built — and sink any number of battleships.

In 1920, the Navy decided to host its own test designed to discredit Mitchell. But before the results were even released, newsmen had exposed the charade, showing the Navy had dropped fake sand bombs on the battleships and rigged up hidden explosions and pyrotechnics underwater.

Mitchell standing by V.E. 7 at Bolling Field Air Tournament, May 1920. Photo: US Air Force

Following the public embarrassment, Congress insisted on two new tests with strict controls. But even then, high-ranking military officials maneuvered behind the scenes to discredit them. In fact, the Navy did everything it could to ensure that the demonstrations would humiliate Mitchell, creating specific rules about which bombs could be used on which ships, forbidding the use of underwater torpedoes, and selecting a test area so far away from Army airstrips that his planes would only have the narrowest window to drop their payloads.

Yet despite all the restrictions, Mitchell’s planes easily sunk both a German destroyer and a German light cruiser. And on July 20, 1921, he set his sights on the Ostfriesland, a captured German battleship. Though it took three days, thanks to constant interference from the Navy, the Ostfriesland was decisively sunk.

The Navy immediately claimed that the planes had violated the rules of the demonstration, and President Harding was furious, believing the tests had made America’s Navy seem ineffectual. But Mitchell finally had the public’s support, and budgets and resources were gradually devoted to his cause. After the demonstration, his senior officer, the chief of the Air Service, opted to resign rather than serve with him, and his replacement made it a first order of business to send Mitchell far away, on a tour in Europe, then a second in Hawaii and Asia. Mitchell could not be deterred. In 1924, he returned with a new report that predicted a coming war with Japan and a potential surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands, likely to occur on a quiet Sunday morning.

Ex-German battleship Ostfriesland takes a gigantic blow from a 2,000 pound aerial bomb, minutes before sinking, the finale of Billy Mitchell’s demonstration, July 1921. Photo: U.S. Air Force

The War Plans Division filed his report with a note: “Since he so notoriously overestimates what could be done with air power by the United States, it is not improbable that he has likewise overestimated what Japan could do.”

When Mitchell’s term as Assistant Chief of the Air Service was up, they did not miss their chance, demoting Mitchell to his permanent rank of colonel and posting him to the ground corps in San Antonio, Texas. And finally, in 1925, after Mitchell criticized leaders in the Army and Navy for mishandling the crash of the airship Shenandoah, President Coolidge himself had Mitchell court martialed, claiming his statement had violated the articles of war. He was found guilty and suspended from military duties for five years. But one year into his suspension, he retired from the military for good.

Mitchell died in 1936, out of a job and mostly discredited. Had he lived just a few more years, he would have seen his vision writ large on the grandest battlefield the world has ever seen — one in which, for the first time, air-superiority decisively carried the day.

In 1946, ten years after his death, Mitchell was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his “outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American military aviation.”

Billy Mitchell, America’s Least Appreciated Military Genius