1999 55¢ General William “Billy” Mitchell stamp
US #3330 pictures Mitchell and his personal SPAD XVI biplane.

On December 17, 1925, the seven-week court-martial of World War I aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell came to an end.  He was charged for his public criticism of the military in its rejection of the importance of air power.

Mitchell had planned and commanded almost 1,500 aircraft in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel during World War I and commanded all American air combat units in France.  After the war, he was made assistant chief of the Army Air Service.  Mitchell spoke often about the importance of air power and said it was the key to winning future wars.  Mitchell’s prediction that airplanes would make naval vessels obsolete put him at odds with the Navy and War Departments.  Mitchell demonstrated his point by sinking a captured German battleship in 1921.  However, his boss, John J. Pershing, and the Navy dismissed the importance of the demonstration.

1995 60¢ Eddie Rickenbacker stamp
US 2998 – Rickenbacker had been Mitchell’s driver during WWI and testified on his behalf.

When Mitchell’s term as assistant air chief expired in 1925, he wasn’t reappointed.  Instead, he was made the aviation officer of the Army’s Eighth Corps Area at Fort Sam Houston and reverted to colonel.  Mitchell felt he had been demoted.  Also in 1925, there were two navy aircraft accidents.  Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur stated these incidents showed the limitations of airpower.  Mitchell was enraged by his comments and called a press conference on September 5.  In a 5,000 word statement, Michell said “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.”

1972 14¢ Fiorello H. LaGuardia stamp
US #1397 – In his testimony, La Guardia said, “Billy Mitchell is not being judged by his peers, he is being judged by nine dog robbers of the general staff.”

He went on to say, “All aviation policies, schemes, and systems are dictated by nonflying officers of the Army or Navy who know practically nothing about it…  Officers and agents sent by the War and Navy Departments to Congress have almost always given incomplete, misleading, or false information about aeronautics.”  Four days later he issued another statement, challenging the department that if they didn’t like his statement, they could take disciplinary action.  But, he said, the War and Navy Departments should be investigated for “their conduct in the disgraceful administration of aviation.”

1988 65¢ H. H. 'Hap' Arnold stamp
US #2191 – In his memoirs, Arnold admitted that while his defense was putting airpower on trial, Mitchell was guilty of making such comments.

Mitchell was then called to Washington, DC, and was charged under the 96th Article of War that covered “disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline [and] all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service.”  Between his two September statements, there were eight specifications to the charge.

1971 6¢ General Douglas MacArthur stamp
US #1424 – Mitchell’s boyhood friend Douglas MacArthur was on the court and is believed to have voted in his favor.

Mitchell’s court-martial began on October 29.  The prosecution presented its evidence on November 2, arguing that the only fact that mattered was that Mitchell made these statements.  Mitchell’s defense however, planned to call 73 witnesses and present thousands of Army documents, intending to show that Mitchell’s statements were valid.   They showed that Mitchell had made 163 recommendations over the past seven years, and most of them were ignored.

Among those who testified on Mitchell’s behalf were Eddie Rickenbacker, Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Robert Olds, and Fiorello La Guardia.  The public largely supported Mitchell.  The court deliberated for three hours on December 17, 1925, and found Mitchell guilty on the charge and all specifications.  They found that the validity of his statements was irrelevant, only that he had made the statements.  Mitchell was suspended from rank, command, and duty, and took away his pay for five years.  President Calvin Coolidge approved the conviction on January 25, but he reduced his punishment to taking half his pay.  Mitchell then resigned from the Army on February 1.

1997 32¢ US Department of the Air Force stamp
US #3167 – Mitchell eventually became known as the Father of the US Air Force.

Mitchell continued to speak out about the importance of air power until his death in 1936.  When the Air Force became independent from the Army in 1947, it was proclaimed, “The Day Billy Mitchell Dreamed Of.”  In 1955, Gary Cooper portrayed Mitchell in the film, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.   Then in 1956, Mitchell’s son petitioned the Air Force to overturn the court-martial, which they did in 1957.  The board stated, “The conclusion is inescapable in the board’s opinion that Mitchell was tried for his views rather than a violation of Article 96.”

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8 responses to "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell"

8 thoughts on “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell”

    • Absolutely! I wish he would have lived to witness his vindication. I hope todays military isn’t as short sighted as they were back then. Afghanistan is an example of such short sight. Biden and his political Generals are to blame.

      Reply
      • Oh sure, Frencis, blame Biden. Did he send troops to Afghanistan? Did he keep them there for 20 years? Trump set a deadline of May 31 to withdraw all American troops, and Biden extended the deadline to September 30. It is much easier to start a war than it is to end one. This was an American war and an American tragedy, not Biden’s.

        Reply
  1. Thank you for the excellent article about Billy Mitchell. Although it was too late for Billy to appreciate, it’s gratifying the record was eventually set straight in later years. Regarding Afghanistan… when it’s your choice to end an unending war honorably or dishonorably, the president should always choose the honorable way. Sad to say, that definitely was not the case with the untimely surrender to the enemy in Afghanistan.

    Reply
  2. The Army & Navy wanted ALL the defense $$$. They knew airplanes were the future, My Father flew a Mitchell B-25 in WWII. Thank God the War Department/Pentagon came to their senses or we might be speaking German.

    Reply
  3. Thank you all for your comments. The sinking of the two massive Japanese Battleships: Yamato and Musashi, was the blow which should that airpower would be the key in future military engagements. Particularly when the conflicts occur over water. One of my uncles manned the antiaircraft cannon that was located under the B17 Flying Fortresses. He flew under the: 452 Bomb Group 8th Army Air Corp., during WWII

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