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The father of the U.S. Air Force

Posted 9/19/2008   Updated 9/19/2008 Email story   Print story


by Michael Byrd
90th Missile Wing Historian

9/19/2008 - F.E. WARREN AFB, Wyo. -- As the Air Force moves back to basics, some service members may think of heritage, traditions and heroes. With respect and honor, most turn back the pages of time and look to the forefathers of the Air Force. 

The accounts of their bravery remind people of the tradition they blazed: a tradition of courage and vision that created controversy and also inspired dreams. 

Controversy, dreams and opinions made up the stormy career of the Air Force's first visionary, Army Brig. Gen. William 'Billy' Mitchell. From his first introduction to air power in 1906, he saw capabilities and strategies that most people in his time never imagined. 

In 1910, Mitchell traveled overseas to review the Japanese, Chinese, Russian and Filipino armies. He returned after two years to Fort D.A. Russell, where he reported his findings to the Army Staff College. Mitchell pointed out the high probability of a United States war with Japan and the perilous defenses found in the Philippines. 

His accounts were dismissed. 

During World War I, Mitchell demonstrated both extraordinary administrative and war strategy skills. He first solved the problems of purchasing combat aircraft and the construction of a huge aviation complex in France, all in advance of American aviation involvement in the war. When Army Brig. Gen. Benjamin Foulois and the first wave of American aviators arrived unprepared, Mitchell confronted them by calling them an "incompetent lot of air warriors," a sentiment that bristled his new commander and fellow aviators alike. 

At the same time, Mitchell observed Army Maj. Gen. Hugh Trenchard's British aviation tactics that convinced him of aircraft offensive abilities. Mitchell added to this belief a strategy of overwhelming force in combat aircraft numbers. 

In September, Mitchell planned, organized and commanded 1,481 combat aircraft in the battle of St. Mihiel. During this battle, American aviators lead the offensive with interdiction, reconnaissance and, for the first time, strategic bombing of airfields, railway stations, bridges, ammunition dumps and troop concentrations. This proved to be air power's most successful operation during the war and galvanized in Mitchell's mind airpower offensive capabilities. 

Following the war, Mitchell fully committed himself to an independent air force and aircraft as an offensive weapon system. He believed the war ended too soon and a larger global war was in the future. 

But the U.S. Army and Navy officials viewed airpower as a purely support function.  Despite looming military budget cuts, Mitchell voiced his concerns to no avail. 

Frustrated, Mitchell took his complaints to newsprint when he wrote, "to entrust the development of aviation to either the Army or the Navy is just as sensible as entrusting the development of the electric light to a candle factory." 

The Army sent Mitchell abroad in 1922 and 1923, possibly as a means to silence him. 
He and his wife toured Hawaii, the Philippines, India, China and Japan. On his return to the states he outlined a very probable blue print of the next Pacific war. 

The blue print included a first strike by a maturing Japanese air fleet. 

The Army rejected his comments. This added fuel to his resolve, concern and outspokenness. 

He embarked on a campaign that lead him before the Lampert committee, a Congressional subcommittee. Here Mitchell said, "It is a very serious question whether airpower is auxiliary to the Army and the Navy, or whether armies and navies are not actually auxiliary to airpower." Soon thereafter, the Army moved Mitchell out of Washington, D.C., to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. 

Mitchell knew his career was over. 

Instead of self pity, Mitchell turned to a subject more important to him: military readiness and airpower development prior to the next war. 

During this time, the dirigible Shenandoah crashed killing 14 men. Three Navy aircraft crashed while attempting a crossing from San Francisco to Hawaii. 

In both instances weather warnings and aircraft maintenance were largely ignored by Navy Headquarters. To Mitchell, the blame started at the top. 

Mitchell called news reporters to make a statement that read, "These accidents are the result of the incompetency, the criminal negligence and the most treasonable negligence of our national defense by the Navy and War Departments." 

Not surprisingly, Mitchell received court martial action on the grounds of "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline and in a way to bring discredit upon the military service." Four months later, Mitchell resigned from the Army. 

Billy Mitchell's courage and integrity lead to his stand for something bigger than himself. 
This lead to a passion that grew larger than his own personal self-regard and eventually cost him his career. 

Today, Airmen may see dangers on the horizon and troubles from within the Air Force as well. 

The question is, where are the Billy Mitchell's of today? 

For further reading, visit http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj97/fal97/kline.html.

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