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William “Billy” Mitchell

He Sacrificed His Military Career
to Fight for Air Power Preparedness

The dominant figure in American aviation from 1919 until his court martial in 1925 was Billy Mitchell. Revered by many as a martyr-patriot, he sharply criticized the military establishment for its refusal to recognize the importance of air power. The price Mitchell paid was high—a broken marriage, a wrecked career, alienation of many of his peers, and a court martial that found him guilty of insubordination. He had accused the armed services of “criminal negligence.” ■ Mitchell was born December 29, 1879, in Nice, France, where his parents were visiting. At age 21 his grandfather Alexander Mitchell was a clerk in an Aberdeen bank when he decided to emigrate to Milwaukee in 1839. By shrewd investments in banks, railroads, and real estate, he became a multi-millionaire. ■ Mitchell’s grandfather and his father John both represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Congress. Billy was an outdoors type but finished high school at 15. He left college to enlist for service in the Spanish-American War. He liked the military, was commissioned in 1901, and became the youngest staff officer in 1912. Convinced of the potential of the airplane, he learned to fly and commanded an armada of 1,481 Allied planes in France in 1918. ■ After the war he preached the need for a powerful air force, setting up examples of warships attacked and sunk by airplanes. But he met resistance in postwar public disillusionment. He predicted the rise of the German Luftwaffe and warned of the Japanese threat. ■ He died in New York on February 19, 1936, and is buried in Milwaukee. Ironically, he didn’t live to see his views vindicated by World War II. In 1946 Congress honored him posthumously with a special Medal of Honor.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546