The Aviation Section over which Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell was placed was a military unit in name only. In May while en route to France, General Pershing had noted the condition of America's air assets and the country entered war. In his diary General Pershing wrote:
"The situation as to aviation was such that every American ought to feel mortified to hear it mentioned. Out of 65 officers and 1,000 men in the Air Service Section of the Signal Corps, there were 35 officers who could fly. With the exception of five or six officers, none of them could have met the requirement of modern battle conditions...
"We could boast 55 training planes...all...valueless for service at the front. Of these 55 planes the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics advised that 51 were obsolete and the other 4 obsolescent. We could not have put a single squadron in the field."
With but one airplane, Mitchell's own French Nieuport, the task before the air chief was as formidable as had been his previous missions in the Philippines and Alaska. With the same ingenuity that had brought him success in both places, Mitchell tried to cut around the red tape and find a way to get the job done.
In August Mitchell's personal Mercedes, a vehicle in which he was known to travel through France at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour, broke down along the road. Behind Mitchell was Major Dodd and his driver. Dodd's driver raised the hood on Mitchell's car and had it running a few moments later. The chauffer was a former race driver and mechanic, another forward thinking fellow who months earlier had suggested that the Army create a flying squadron composed of race car drivers. The army had scoffed at the concept stating that it felt men who knew much about engines would be poor as pilots, fearful to fly when their engines didn't sound right. Mitchell believed otherwise, and proved so months later when he helped young Eddie Rickenbacker become a flier in one of the first American aerosquadrons.
As the summer turned to fall, the French became impatient with General Pershing's failure to commit American troops to the bloody stalemate that had existed along the Western Front for three years. As had been the case in previous wars however, the United States was totally unprepared for this new conflict, and Pershing patiently tried to establish his command in the field while awaiting the arrival of additional forces.
The Aviation Section of the A.E.F. was a confusing one in the fall of 1917. To try and bring some order General Pershing made Major General William Kenly Chief of the Air Service, (effectively removing the Aviation Section from Signal Corps control nearly a year before the U.S. Army Air Service was officially established in Washington, D.C.). General Kenly gave Mitchell the title of Chief of the Air Service Zone of Advance. In essence, it meant that Kenly would command from the rear, coordinating logistics and supplies, while Mitchell commanded from the front. It would have probably been a workable solution but for the arrival in November of a large group of Aviation officers. Mitchell's own words reflect the internal battle that was about to begin:
"Just as our organization began to work smoothly, a shipload of Aviation officers arrived under Brigadier General (Benjamin) Foulois. There were over one hundred of them, almost none of them had even seen an airplane...A more incompetent lot of air warriors had never arrived in the zone of active military operations...Foulois, I am told, has orders from the President to General Pershing to put him in charge of Aviation in Europe"
When General Foulois replaced General Kenly, civil war erupted in the Air Service. Fulois was one of the Army's earliest pilots and a had known Mitchell for years. In 1916 Foulois went with the 1st Aero Squadron to Mexico in the unsuccessful effort to capture Pancho Villa. During his absence from the Capitol, the chief of the Army's Signal Corps was forced to resign because of financial improprieties. The vacancy temporarily made Mitchell chief of the Signal Corps, and when the blame for the ill-fated effort in Mexico "rolled down hill" it fermented to become a rift between the two great proponents of air power that never healed. In Mitchell's memoirs he referred to Foulois as an incompetent "carpetbagger" who "no longer flew". In 1986 Foulois published his own story, referring to Mitchell as an inept braggart who was all talk and no action, a lousy pilot, and a prima donna who did more harm than good.
Almost immediately the two men clashed, and General Pershing found himself caught in the middle between two bitter enemies. Foulois complained to Pershing about Mitchell's extremely childish attitude and advised "(Mitchell is) incapable of working in harmony with myself."
Mitchell for his own part, had more than one heated discussion with Pershing about the internal problems in the Air Service. The strong-willed aviator pushed hard for a single American air commander, unfettered by the interference of the incoming staff officers. Pershing lost patience with Mitchell, even threatened to send him back to the United States.
With the impetuosity that marked this older Mitchell, he met the General eye to eye and threatened: "If you do, you'll soon come after me."
Surprisingly, the sometimes ill-tempered General laughed and the two men parted amicably. Despite Mitchell's tendency to be a thorn in the side of General Pershing, the two men generally had a mutual respect for each other. More than once in the months that followed Pershing would go out on a limb for Billy Mitchell, and Mitchell seemed to always come through for his commander. But Pershing also understood authority, and had a sincere respect for General Foulois who had been placed in his position by the President. He summed up his predicament by saying: "In all of this Army, there is but one thing causing me real anxiety, and that's the Air Service. There are a lot of good men in it, but they're running around in circles. Somebody has got to make them go straight."
That "somebody" was a surprising choice, and one of Pershing's great decisions. He called upon an old friend and fellow West Point classmate, Major General Mason Patrick.
Early in 1918 the man who had been an Army engineer for 30 years became the first real commander of the American Air Service, a post he would hold until after the war ended, and a role to which he would return in 1921 when once again Billy Mitchell clashed with a superior. Though he had never flown and was even dubious at first about the field of aviation, General Patrick was a well qualified organizer and administrator. He was also a quick learner and a man willing to change his views. In the end he became one of the great advocates for a separate American Air Force, influenced in no small degree by Billy Mitchell's own ideas, but possessed with a patience and tact his protégé seemed not to understand.
Over the years that followed, Mitchell and General Patrick had their own share of harsh disagreements, but Patrick became the one person it seemed, that could control Billy Mitchell. Without Patrick's stern guidance, Mitchell seemed to self-destruct, under Patrick's control Mitchell seemed capable of achieving almost anything. Patrick recognized Mitchell's tactical genius as well as his unique foresight for machines and events that were too distant for others to deem believable. For the next year Patrick became the glue that held the factions of the new Air Service together, administrating from the rear where General Foulois was in charge of equipment and supply. In the field, Mitchell began building a combat arm and promoting aerial tactics designed to win a world war. His diary gives a glimpse of the observations, made in flights over the trenches of the Western Front, that ultimately pushed him to prove his own theories for aerial warfare:
"(The World War) is a slaughterhouse performance from beginning to end on the ground. Maybe one side makes a few yards or maybe a mile and thousands of men are killed. It is not war, it is simply slaughter.
"War is decided by getting at the vitals of the enemy, that is, to shoot him in the heart. This kind of war is like clipping off one finger, then a toe, then an ear, then his nose and gradually eating into his vitals."
As morbid as it sounded, Billy Mitchell's observation had been borne out by three years of deadly warfare along the narrow 60-mile strip of land separating France from Germany near St. Mihiel. (Similarly stalemated warfare had stretched north through the Argonne Forrest and then further north along the nearly impregnable Hindenburg Line.) This was a true war of attrition, one side pushing the other backward until thrown back itself, and then the seesaw tug-of-war would repeat itself again with great loss of life, but no progress made by either side. Mitchell saw relief possible only if he could field an armada of airplanes to attack behind the German lines and to bomb and destroy supply depots, isolating enemy ground troops.
To accomplish this goal, early in 1918 Mitchell brought over to his Air Service some of the experienced American pilots who had flown with the Lafayette Escadrille, organizing them with newly arriving fliers from the U.S. into effective fighter squadrons. Throughout the winter months combat had slowed along the front, but with the melting snows of spring the bloodshed would resume in earnest and Mitchell wanted to be ready. Even General Foulois grudgingly spoke of Mitchell's "Most efficient service...in the organization, battle training, general supervision and guidance of the Air Service units."
In the early spring the new American Air Service combat arm was ready for its first test; it was well organized, and led at last by a cohesive command structure. The only thing the young pilots needed were airplanes. After weeks of waiting the first airplanes began arriving...not American planes but cast-off French Nieuports. Though eagerly welcomed by the American pilots, the wait was not over. It would be yet weeks before any of the airplanes were fitted with machine guns.
On March 21 the Germans were the first to strike, pushing a line forward along the Western Front. Behind a massive force of artillery the German army broke through the British Fifth Army to push within 56 miles of Paris. Though it had been nearly a year since the United States had entered the war, fewer than 300,000 American troops had arrived in France and few of them were in combat positions. Germany's spring offensive, an all-or-nothing gamble to end the stalemate in Europe, had all the markings of a huge success. Paris trembled in fear and military commanders could foresee a second Battle of the Marne in the offing.
On May 28 the green American ground forces got their first taste of a major battle. Amazingly they threw back the German advance at Montdidier, then pushed forward to capture the strategically located town of Cantigny. On June 6, nearly 30,000 Americans launched a counteroffensive at Belleau Wood, driving the Germans from the square mile stronghold. American soldiers were pursuing the war as men of battle had for years, personal combat in a slug-fest that saw a an American casualty rate of more than 50%. Mitchell's earlier observation of this kind of warfare as being nothing more than a slaughterhouse performance appeared on the mark.
The German infantry struck again in mid-June, delivering a smashing blow along the 27-mile front between Montdidier and Noyon northeast of Paris. Again the Allied line held, setting the stage for Germany's last great drive of the war. On July 6, in desperation, the enemy struck on both sides of Rheims in the Second Battle of the Marne. Allied positions were bombarded with artillery as the Kaiser poured all of his reserves into the effort. By July 18 the offensive was over, and the German advance turned into a retreat.
The failure of Germany's spring offensive can only be credited to the sheer determination and valor of the doughboys and the other Allies on the ground in those fateful and bloody months. Airmen flew, shot down German planes and lost planes of their own. In May Mitchell was crushed at the loss of two in particular. The death of the great ace Raoul Lufbery, one of Mitchell's close friends, was a bitter loss. Mitchell fully believed that had his pilots been supplied with parachutes, Lufbery would have survived.
Less than a week after admiring and mourning comrades laid Lufbery to rest, Mitchell received word of another fatal crash. This time it was a young pilot, 15 years his junior, named John Mitchell after his father. It was two months before Billy could bring himself to break the news to his family back home. When he did he wrote:
"John's loss I suppose was the hardest thing that ever happened to me. To begin with he was my only brother, he was so much younger that he was like a son, and in addition he was the same as a great friend. He had every quality that I wanted in a brother and admired in a man. I suppose he was very nearly the dearest living thing in the world to me."
Throughout the summer Mitchell continued to visit his squadrons, watch their progress, and ponder the limited role his airmen had played in the earlier German offensive. Early in the offensive Mitchell had flown over enemy-held territory and observed the ground movements as the enemy broke through the British lines. "The hole in the British Army is twenty or thirty miles broad," he noted. More importantly, the mission gave him a full realization of what could happen if airmen and infantry could work together, communicate, and assist each other. But the problem in achieving such a coordinated effort lay not only in convincing infantry officers, but in winning over the foot soldier himself. "It is practically impossible to impress the men in the ranks, through their own officers, as to the value of aviation," he noted in his diary.
From the American Scrappers in the Air
To the American Scrappers on the Ground
While you are giving the Boche hell on the ground, we are helping you to the limit in the air.
Headquarters is trying to keep in touch with you and to render aid whenever you are checked or outnumbered.
Keep us posted at all times as to where your front lines are, either with Bengal lights, panels, or--if nothing else is available--wave a white towel or any white cloth.
Your signals will enable us:
To take news of your location to the rear.
To report if the attack is successful.
To call for help if needed.
To enable the artillery to put their shells over your head into the enemy...
Do not think that we are not on the job when you cannot see us--most of our planes work so far to the front that they cannot be seen from the lines.
Some of the enemy planes may break through our airplane barrage in front of you, and may sometimes bomb and machinegun you, but in the last month we have dropped ten tons of bombs for every one the Boche has dropped. For every Boche plane that you see over you, the Boche sees ten Allied planes over him.
After reading this, pass it on to your buddie (sic).
To remedy this Mitchell prepared a letter, addressed to the men on the ground. Without consulting anyone, the pragmatic Billy Mitchell had thousands of the letters printed, then had his pilots fly over Allied camps and trenches along the Western Front to deliver his message.
Mitchell's other key observation coming out of the failed German spring offensive was the substantiation of his his belief that "War is decided by getting at the vitals of the enemy, that is, to shoot him in the heart."
During the battle at Chateau Thierry Mitchell had commanded a small contingent of British as well as American airmen. As the infantry fought it out on the ground, British bombers hit German supply depots in the rear, cutting off needed supplies for the advancing Germans, and forcing ground commanders to pull needed soldiers from the front lines to guard their rear.
As the German army retreated back to the St. Mihiel salient in August of 1918, Allied war planners were preparing the first major American offensive. Colonel Billy Mitchell had ideas of his own, concepts nurtured through a year of observing the tactics of others and substantiated in a limited way by the successes of his pilots in their first months of combat.
St. Mihiel and an Aerial Armada
World War I ended on August 18, 1918 with the failed final German push at the Marne. The Kaiser's chancellor later remarked, "On the 18th even the most optimistic among us knew that all was lost." It is doubly tragic then, that combat continued for another 90 days. Those last three months would prove to be among the bloodiest of the war--for both sides.
By mid-August more than a million American doughboys had reached the front lines, and General Pershing was plotting an assault on the formidable St. Mihiel salient. In their retreat the Germans themselves tried to straighten the line, fully aware that it would be more defensible than the horse-shoe shaped bulge they now held. As Pershing and the other Allied general's plotted an offensive that would throw more than a half-million doughboys against the salient, Mitchell was quick to lay out his own blueprints for the aerial side of the battle.
The St. Mihiel offensive was more than the greatest success of Mitchell's distinguished career, it was perhaps, his finest moment as a politician/commander. It was the one time that he tempered his strong will and firm beliefs with a taciturn diplomacy that kept the long meetings from turning hostile. With the confidence of General Pershing, the glowing support of First Army commander General Hunter Liggett (one of the few who truly appreciated air power), and the sympathy of the air-minded French, Billy Mitchell got the chance he wanted.
The first week of September was filled with secret movements, Mitchell's airmen moving forward to advance aerodromes from which their commander would direct the first-ever, united aerial attack on an enemy force. The armada included American, French, and British aircraft--both fighters and bombers--all at the direction of a single commander. Mitchell would coordinate the effort with the commanders on the ground leading the infantry advance, another historical first overshadowed perhaps only by the sheer number of aircraft involved--nearly 1,500 in all. It was the largest aerial armada in history.
Mitchell was proud of his airmen, men who loved him and would fly through hell for him. Now he called upon them to accomplish what had never been done before. These were a rare breed of fighting men, brash young cowboys like Frank Luke from Arizona, daring race drivers like Eddie Rickenbacker, West Point graduates like Major Carl Tooey Spaatz, efficient squadron commanders who had sat in a cockpit and traded bullets with the Flying Circus like Harold Hartney. With the addition of the British air assets, even the legendary Sir Hugh Thenchard would fly his pilots at the direction of Billy Mitchell. It was a defining moment in military history, perhaps the exact moment in time for which Billy Mitchell was born...until the weather intervened.
During the weeks of preparation Colonel Mitchell averaged only three hours of sleep each night. When night fell he read reports of the day's activities until 2 A.M., rested his eyes briefly, and then arose to personally observe practice maneuvers and preparations at 5 A.M. Running on sheer adrenaline, Mitchell was in no mood to hear news on September 11 that the generals wanted to postpone the anticipated next-day launch of the St. Mihiel offensive because of the rain and the fog that had set in early. The previous day Mitchell had flown over the German lines with his French friend Paul Armenguad as an observer, and witnessed lines of enemy infantry pulling back in retreat. The enemy was anticipating an offensive push against the salient and were withdrawing quickly.
As promptly as news of the postponement reached Colonel Mitchell he headed for Pershing's Headquarters, where a meeting of the generals was already in progress. Colonel Mitchell was the youngest, and lowest ranking man in a room that was about to decide the fate of his moment in time.
"Pretty bad weather we're facing," stated an engineering officer. Around the room heads nodded in ascent...engineers usually knew what could and could not be accomplished.
"What's the weather got to do with it?" Snapped Colonel Mitchell.
"The rain always holds up our light railways that we use to get ammunition to our artillery. That goes for our water supply too. I think its best if we hold off on this thing for a few days." Again heads nodded in agreement around the table, and Mitchell could see his moment slipping away.
Earnestly, but with a patience and uncharacteristic demeanor for the man Boom Trenchard had once said would go far if he could "break his habit of trying to convert opponents by killing them," Colonel Mitchell pleaded his case. He told of his flights over the salient, of witnessing columns of German soldiers in full retreat. He predicted that the battle for the St. Mihiel salient wouldn't be much of a battle.
"We must jump the Germans now!" he admonished. "I've seen their movement to the rear with my own eyes. Forget the artillery if it means delay. If we advance fast, the artillery would probably shoot a lot of our own men anyway."
Colonel Mitchell's words seemed to fall on deaf ears, and around the room all eyes were on the engineering officer who was calling for a postponement. Mitchell had lost his most important debate with everyone in the room...except for the one man that mattered. General John J. Pershing looked up at his staff and pronounced:
"We will attack, without delay!"
Prior to the St. Mihiel offensive American pilots had indeed been fair-weather fliers. With the decision to proceed on September 12th, the brave young men took to the air in spite of the fog and the rain.
Mitchell organized his assets into two attack brigades of 400 or more planes each, one assigned to attack the right side of the salient while the other penetrated to the enemy rear to cut off all communication and supply. It was an impressive air show that inspired men on the ground and amazed even the airmen themselves. Pilot Kenneth Littauer spoke of the massive formation and said: "I didn't believe my eyes, because we'd never seen such a thing before. I happened to be standing on the air field when this damned thing started to go over. Then it went and it went...it was awfully impressive."
The ground war was over on the first day, and the air war became almost nonexistent. Mitchell's pilots swept the skies over the Western Front clean almost immediately, then patrolled them continuously to demonstrate their mastery of the heavens. In three days the combined forces took back a formidable enemy redoubt that had been held for four years, captured 16,000 Germans, 443 artillery pieces, and created a new threat to the enemy stronghold at Metz. General Pershing couldn't have been more pleased and wrote Colonel Mitchell
"Please accept my sincere congratulations on the successful and very important part taken by the Air Force under your command in the first offensive of the American Army. The organization and control of the tremendous concentration of air forces...is as fine a tribute to you personally as is the courage and nerve shown by your officers a signal proof of the high morale which permeates the service under your command.
"I am proud of you all!"
Mitchell was elated, not so much in the praise but in the validation of everything he had argued for over the previous year. At last he was convinced that his Air Service would be recognized for what it was, the powerful war-winning military arm of the future. Mitchell himself was a hero in France, both among his own men and among the populace. His favor with General Pershing was evident in October when he received promotion to the temporary rank of Brigadier General. (Temporary promotions such as this during wartime had a long history in the Army, and it was expected that after the war Mitchell would return to his earlier rank of Colonel. When the return to his permanent rank occurred a few years later it was misinterpreted by many as a disciplinary move. In fact, Mitchell maintained his rank much longer than most other officers who received temporary promotions during the war.)
Following his tremendous success in the St. Mihiel offensive, Mitchell committed his forces to a nearly independent role in the Argonne Offensive. His fighter pilots flew daily and, as Mitchell reported, "There is nothing to beat them in the world!" Meanwhile he pursued his theories of tactical bombing, raining tons of explosives on German bridges, airdromes, railroads and supply depots. The psychological impact of the Air Service's supremacy on the German morale demonstrated just one more powerful advantage of a massive air force.
Mitchell's men further endeared themselves to the weary infantrymen by continuing to coordinate their efforts with the ground war. Big 2-seat DeHavillands dropped supplies to beleaguered units and pursuit airplanes flew low over infantrymen to shield them from German airplanes. As the advance turned into a rout, the quick pace could lead to confusion and dangerous situations. Once Mitchell became aware of a large congestion of trucks at a village crossroads that could have become instantly susceptible to a damaging attack from the German Air Force. Without pause he sent a flight of 320 Allied aircraft to patrol the area and protect the forces on the ground until the traffic jamb could be cleared.
Ever looking to the future, in late October General Mitchell came to General Pershing with a bold new idea. The Allied advance would certainly slow with the onset of winter, but an Allied offensive was already being planned for the spring of 1919 to finish the job started at St. Mihiel and at last end the war. Mitchell's idea was preposterous at the time to all who heard it, yet General Pershing gave it an attentive ear. He had learned that when Billy Mitchell saw the future, he had a habit of making it come to pass. Mitchell's new concept was never employed because the war ended long before anyone would have believed possible the previous summer, and there would be no spring offensive necessary.
Mitchell's last great scheme of World War I is however of note, despite the fact that he would not see it employed in his lifetime.
In the fall of 1918 there were a few big Handley-Page airplanes in the Allied arsenal that were capable of carrying a dozen or more men. Mitchell hoped to build up this part of his command throughout the winter so that during the spring offensive that never came, they could fly deep into Germany to drop American soldiers behind enemy lines by parachute. It was indeed a preposterous idea, but now when Billy Mitchell had an idea, nobody ruled it out.