Death of Billy Mitchell 

Death of Billy Mitchell 

U.S. #3330 pictures Mitchell and his personal SPAD XVI biplane.

On February 19, 1936, Billy Mitchell, often considered the father of the United States Air Force, died in New York City.

William Lendrum “Billy” Mitchell was born on December 29, 1879, in Nice, France. Mitchell was the son of a wealthy Wisconsin family with political connections. His grandfather had been the wealthiest man in Wisconsin during his lifetime and founded the Milwaukee Road railroad.

After graduating from college at age 18, Mitchell enlisted and served in the Spanish-American War, where he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps. As early as 1906, he was one of the first to predict that future wars would take place in the skies, as well as on the ground. Mitchell also saw the Wright Brothers fly and soon took flight lessons at the Curtiss Aviation School.

U.S. #5065 – The Distinguished Service Cross is the second highest military award for the Army.

A lieutenant colonel when the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, Mitchell went to Paris and organized the Aviation Section. On April 24, he became the first American to fly over German lines and earned a reputation for bravery. Mitchell quickly gained the experience needed to lead American air operations and was promoted to the temporary rank of colonel.

In September 1918, Mitchell planned and commanded almost 1,500 aircraft in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which was one of the earliest air-ground offenses in history. By the end of the war, Mitchell commanded all American air combat units in France and was famous across Europe, earning the Distinguished Service Cross and Medal, the World War I Victory Medal, and many foreign awards.

Following the war, Mitchell was made deputy director of the Air Service. He believed air power was the key to winning future wars and would spend the rest of his life promoting the idea of air power in warfare.

Mitchell’s prediction that airplanes would make naval vessels obsolete created hard feelings among military branches, which were compelled to defend their very existence. Mitchell demonstrated his point by sinking a captured German battleship in 1921.

Item #113266 – French commemorative cover honoring Mitchell.

In 1925, Mitchell pointed out the vulnerability of U.S. bases to aerial attack – specifically Pearl Harbor. He described the method of attack and even the time of day (although not the actual date). Sadly, Mitchell would be proven correct.

Item #20029 – Mitchell was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1946.

Also in 1925, Mitchell spoke out against senior leaders in the Army and Navy following the crash of the helium-filled rigid airship Shenandoah. He accused them of incompetence and “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” The following court martial lasted for seven weeks and Douglas MacArthur was among his judges. Mitchell had several people testify on his behalf, including Eddie Rickenbacker (his driver during World War I), Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Robert Olds, and Fiorello La Guardia. Though the public and even some of the judges supported Mitchell, he was found guilty and suspended for five years. However, he chose to resign instead and spent the last decade of his life promoting air power.

U.S. #3167 was issued for the 50th anniversary of the Air Force.

Mitchell died from a variety of ailments on February 19, 1936. Though he didn’t live to see it, his ideas about aviation were implemented during World War II and the U.S. Air Force was established as its own separate branch in 1947.

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12 responses to "Death of Billy Mitchell "

12 thoughts on “Death of Billy Mitchell ”

  1. After World War II and I had come home from the we had a couple coming to our church. One day
    he was a Major General in the air force. He grduated from West oint in 1924 the year I was born.
    He was asked where he would like to serve so he said I have hear of Billy Mitchell. So he work with
    Mitchell in the developmeny of Air Force. In the thirties Col Jack Mills put together the way you do
    low level bombing and making of the B 25 and the At25 that was used in World War II. His last
    assignment was to see how carry the atom Bomb. He told us that Billy Mitchell taught him all of
    his success in Air Force. He told us that his nightly prayer was never get into Atomic War.

    Reply
  2. The big problem with the U.S. Military was how short sighted the two branches of the
    Military were. The Army did not believe air power was as important as Infantry and
    Artillery were (the Army was also short sighted about armor) and the Navy was stuck
    on the idea that the Battleship was the main sea weapon and Aircraft Carriers were merely
    used for Reconnaissance and support. Turned out that Air Power was at least as important
    as Infantry and Artillery to the Army and Japan showed us that the Aircraft Carrier was
    the NEW Capital Ship.

    Reply
  3. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Mr. Williams. Thank you for your service.
    My father, Louis K. Harper, entered WWII late in the war. After tank training at Fort Knox, he was shipped to Manila. Thankfully WWII ended before his ship arrived. I have all his letters that he wrote to my mother. Very interesting.

    Reply
  4. This is what true patriotism is all about: The ability to question and challenge the Powers That Be. Thus, a man like Billy Mitchell had looked forward, and he proved to be right!

    Reply
  5. With no desire to criticize the importance of Mitchell’s insistence on the importance of air power, it should be pointed out that the sinking of the Ostfriesland (the “captured German battleship” mentioned above) probably wasn’t as probative as it might seem. Bombing on the first day of trials, with near misses, probably sprung leaks in the shop’s hull, & of course there was no one aboard to man pumps &c. So what was sunk on the next day was a ship that was already crippled to some extent.

    Reply
    • True and at the time that was seen as a negative. The technology was primitive at best but his insight was ahead of it’s time. It’s sad that like so many others he didn’t receive true recognition until after his death.

      Reply
  6. A great read on Mitchell’s raid – “The First Heroes” by Craig Nelson, Penguin Books (paper pack) . . . Good first hand recounts by all 16 crews.

    Reply

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