US Army General William “Billy” Mitchell (1879-1936) was the commander of the Army Air Services in WWI. After the war, Mitchell lobbied to the top brass of the Army for an increase in air combat planes and support. However, the commanders of the Army and Navy were convinced of their superiority at sea with their battleships, and Mitchell’s arguments fell on deaf ears.
Instead, Mitchell contended that “air power” would be a vital force in the next war and the likely key to victory. At last, in February 1921, the Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels agreed to a series of tests to prove or disprove Mitchell's theory that aerial bombings could cause the destruction of battleships. Secretary of War Baker thought it was a waste of time and money and reportedly said, "That idea is so damned nonsensical and impossible that I am willing to stand on the bridge while that nitwit tries to hit it from the air.” That same year, the then assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, told the Kiwanis Club of New York, "It is highly unlikely that an airplane, or fleet of them, could ever successfully sink a fleet of Navy vessels under battle conditions."
The 1921 test bombing of the
retired battleship, Alabama.
"Billy" Mitchell; or, how to sink a battleship
Leonardo da Vinci
Design for a Flying Machine, c. 1488
It was a good thing neither man was on the bridge of the German battleship Ostfiesland when Mitchell's aviators hit it from above. The ship sank 22 minutes after the first bomb was dropped. Mitchell repeated the performance in September sinking the battleships Alabama, Virginia and New Jersey, all obsolete ships.
In 1924 Mitchell wrote a 324 page report predicting war with Japan including an air attack on Pearl Harbor. Later that same year he accused senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." These statements caused him to be reduced to his permanent rank of Colonel and a direct order from President Calvin Coolidge to court martial him for insubordination. Found guilty, he was suspended from active duty for five years without pay. Mitchell resigned instead and spent the rest of his life arguing his case for Air Power.
Billy Mitchell died in 1936, six years later President Franklin Roosevelt elevated him to the rank of major general on the Army Air Corps retired list and petitioned Congress to award him the Congressional Gold Medal.
It is interesting to note that in April 1942, B-25 Mitchell bombers – the only aircraft named for a person – took off from an aircraft carrier to raid Japan. These were the forerunner of the giant air armadas that would rain death and destruction on the home islands of Japan.
Resident philatelist, Herbert Wignall
Billy Mitchell Stamp