William Mitchell

William Mitchell : First World War

William Mitchell, the son of the US Senator for the State of Wisconsin, was born in 1879. As a teenager he served as a soldier in the Spanish-American War. Mitchell remained in the army after the war and was sent as a military observer with the Japanese army during the Russo-Japanese War.

In 1914 Captain Mitchell was the youngest member of the War Department General Staff. During the next two years he became involved in the affairs of the Aviation Section. At 36 Mitchell was considered too old to attend the US Army Air Service training school at San Diego, and so he learnt to fly at his own expense.

On the outbreak of the First World War it was decided to send three officers to Europe to observe developments in aviation. Although Mitchell had only had fifteen hours of flying and no practical experience in military aviation, he was one of the three men chosen. Mitchell visited General Sir Hugh Trenchard at the headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps. The two men got on well together and Mitchell learnt a great deal from this experience.

General John Pershing arrived in France as leader of the American Expeditionary Forces in May 1917. Lieutenant-Colonel William Mitchell went to see Pershing and convinced him that he should become senior aviation officer on his staff.

Mitchell was given responsibility for the training and organization of the US pilots in France. The first US fighter patrols over German lines began in March 1918 and played an important role during action at St Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.

In 1921 Mitchell was appointed Assistant Chief of the US Air Service. Mitchell disapproved of the air policies being pursued by the US Army and Navy Departments. In September 1925, he published an article in Aviation Magazine , where he criticized War and Navy Department mismanagement of the aviation service. Mitchell was court-martialled and convicted of insubordination. Sentenced to a 5-year rank suspension he left the Army in 1926.

Mitchell spent the rest of his life lecturing on subjects such as the future importance of strategic bombing. Mitchell also wrote several books on aviation including Winged Defence (1925) and Skyways - A Book On Modern Aeronautics (1930). After his death in 1936, William Mitchell was posthumously promoted and decorated.

Most of Mitchell's arguments were borne out during the Second World War and most of his suggestions were eventually adopted by the United States Air Force.

Primary Sources

(1) William Mitchell, Military Aviation and National Defense, Aviation Magazine (14th September, 1925)

I have been asked from all parts of the country to give my opinion about the reasons for the frightful aeronautical accidents and loss of life, equipment, and treasure that have occurred during the last few days. This statement, therefore, is given out publicly by me after mature deliberation and after a sufficient time has elapsed since the terrible accidents to our naval aircraft, to find out something about what happened.

About what happened, my opinion is as follows: 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. In their attempts to keep down the development of aviation into an independent department, separate from the Army and Navy and handled by aeronautical experts, and to maintain the existing systems, they have gone to the utmost lengths to carry their point. All aviation policies, schemes, and systems are dictated by the nonflying officers of the Army or Navy, who know practically nothing about it. The lives of the airmen are being used merely as pawns in their hands.

The great Congress of the United States, that makes laws for the organization and use of our air, land, and water forces, is treated by these two departments as if it were an organization created for their benefit, to which evidence of any kind, whether true or not, can be given without restraint.

Officers and agents sent by the War and Navy departments to Congress have almost always given incomplete, miserable, or false information about aeronautics, which either they knew to be false when given or was the result of such gross ignorance of the question that they should not be allowed to appear before a legislative body.

The airmen themselves are bluffed and bulldozed so that they dare not tell the truth in the majority of cases, knowing full well that if they do they will be deprived of their future career, sent to the most out-of-the-way places to prevent their telling the truth, and deprived of any chance for advancement unless they subscribe to the dictates of their nonflying, bureaucratic superiors. These either distort facts or openly tell falsehoods about aviation to the people and to the Congress.

Both the War and Navy departments maintain public propaganda agencies which are supposed to publish truthful facts about our national defense to the American people. These departments, remember, are supported by the taxes of the people and were created for the purpose of protecting us from invasion from abroad and from domestic disturbances from within. What has actually happened in these departments is that they have formed a sort of union to perpetuate their own existence, largely irrespective of the public welfare, and acting, as we might say about a commercial organization that has entire control of a public necessity, "as an illegal combination in restraint of trade."

The conduct of affairs by these two departments, as far as aviation is concerned, has been so disgusting in the last few years as to make any self-respecting person ashamed of the clothes he wears. Were it not for the patriotism of our air officers and their absolute confidence in the institutions of the United States, knowing that sooner or later existing conditions would be changed, I doubt if one of them would remain with the colors - certainly not if he were a real man.

The story is a long one, beginning practically with the inception of aviation in this country, so I shall mention only a few things in connection with the disgraceful performances which have occurred this summer.

Seeing no progress in our efforts, which had been continued for years, to convince or even seriously interest the governing bodies of the War and Navy departments to better our aeronautical condition, we were stirred to further action by the killing of Lieutenant Pierson -and Captain Skeel in the dilapidated racing airplanes during last October's air meet. This was caused by an arrangement between the Navy and Army that the Navy should take the races one year and the Army should take them the next year, thereby equalizing propaganda, not service. Instead of building new airplanes, our men were given the old crates to fly at those terrific speeds. Of course, they came to pieces, as they were designed for only one race two years before. This was done, in spite of the fact that we had sufficient money to build new ships according to entirely advanced patterns and new safety factors.