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Fight For Survival

The Battle at Home

&

The Court Martial Of

Billy Mitchell

 

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When The Great War ended on November 11, 1918 there was a great rush to bring America's young soldiers home in time for Christmas.  Despite the admonition of Major Henry Hap Arnold to General William Billy Mitchell to join the quick exodus from Europe to build an American air force, Mitchell opted to go into Germany with the Allied occupation forces.  There he remained throughout the rest of the year, speeding across Europe's highways in his Mercedes and luxuriating in the tremendous success of his Air Service in helping to end the war.  He almost waited too long to return home.

As a new year dawned in 1919, the patriotic fervor that welcomed the returning doughboys with parades, dances and other celebrations began to dim.  Thousands of conscripted soldiers from around the nation were quickly discharged to return to civilian life, the war-time army and navy dwindling rapidly to a small, peace-time force.

When General Mitchell returned to the United States late in February to assume his assigned position as Director of Military Aeronautics, it was to find that the title and the office specified in his orders long longer existed.  In fact, the American Air Service that during the war had numbered 20,000 officers and 150,000 enlisted men had shrunk dramatically.  By the end of the year it numbered only 1,300 officers and 11,000 men--a meager 7% of the force that had served during the war.  It was certainly NOT the Air Service Mitchell expected to find.

En route from Germany to New York, Mitchell had obtained orders sending him home through England in order to visit with General Hugh Boom Trenchard and to observe what Great Britain was doing with its new peace-time air forces and, according to the communiqué to Washington from General John J. Pershing, "To see what the result of  creating a separate branch of aeronautics has been."  The British again impressed General Mitchell, who reported:

"Everywhere the British are, there is system and this is shown distinctly in their air force.  It is the best organized force of its kind in the world.
"If we could have the air organization in the U.S. that the British have we would be so far ahead of the rest of the world that there would be no comparison."

While still in London collaborating with General Trenchard, Mitchell took some spare time to visit his sister Ruth who was living in the city at that time.  Her account of that visit gives an unusual insight into her brother, often not found in the detractors of Billy Mitchell who saw him as a grandstanding egotist.

The most frequently recognized photographs of Billy Mitchell are usually those showing him in uniform with a chest full of medals.  Certainly, though he did not earn the big one...he received more than his share of high awards--and from virtually all of the Allied nations.  Aboard the Aquitania during the voyage home however, this was not the General Mitchell other passengers saw.  Mitchell's tailored uniform sported only the silver star of his temporary rank as a brigadier general, the extra hash marks on his sleeve that marked him as one of the longest-serving American soldiers in Europe during World War I, and the distinctive wings on his chest that marked him as an aviator.

Mitchell was thus attired when he visited Ruth and she quickly asked, "Where are all those medals we've been hearing about?"

Mitchell looked sheepishly at Ruth, then dug into his pocket and pulled out the Legion of Honor he had received.  "Is that all?"  asked Ruth.  Again Mitchell reached into his pocket to pull out a Croix de Guerre with Palm (the first of the war awarded to an American soldier), followed by the Italian Order of Sts. Maurice and Lazarus, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Victory Medal with clasps denoting his participation in campaigns at Cambrai, the Somme, Meuse-Argonne, and Champagne-Marne.  

General Mitchell certainly had every right to be proud of his achievements throughout a long and distinguished career, but his uniform on the return home should have served notice to any who met him that but one thing really mattered--aviation.

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S.N.A.F.U.

The  acronym "S.N.A.F.U." is one of the military's most recognized terms; roughly translated its means "Situation Normal, All Fouled Up!"  It has come to be used to define a sudden mistake, but traditionally it meant that the errors in process are were not new, but simply part of a TRADITION of errors.  The post-World War I army returned to its pre-war modus operandi, operating on tradition and with little view of the lessons learned in the war or the prospects of the future.  Colonel Thomas Milling, one of the early Army aviators who also rose to the rank of General once summed up the traditional philosophy of the old soldiers that ran the military by saying:

"Their minds went only as far as their men could go.  The infantry officer's horizon was at the end of a day's march.  The cavalryman saw a little further, a little faster.  The artilleryman could see to the end of his trajectories.  But non of them could see into the air."

So it was that the new Chief of the now nearly non-existent Army Air Service came from the camp of the old soldiers.  He was General Charles Menoher, former commander of the famous Rainbow Division in France, hero of the Infantry, and a stern disciplinarian in the traditional sense.  He had never flown and was destined to become Air Chief in title only--Colonel Billy Mitchell, now having reverted back to his permanent rank, became the visible symbol of America's military aviators.  It would make for some troublesome years for both men.

Initially, Mitchell seemed to accept the role dealt him to serve as Menoher's G-3 officer.  His area of responsibility was primarily the training and operations of the few remaining American pilots, and he approached his task with vigor.  He surrounded himself with like-minded men, World War I aces and commanders like Reed Chambers, Harold Hartney, Tom Milling, and Carl Tooey Spaatz.  America's top ace of the war Eddie Rickenbacker took leave of military duty upon his return home, to first build a race track at Indianapolis and later to build an airline.

The exploits of these early Army aviators and the publicity surrounding them makes it easy to forget that the Navy too, had its own aeronautics section.  (One Naval and one Marine Corps aviator had each earned Medals of Honor during World War I.)  In the first decade of military aviation, the Navy had already successfully fitted airplanes with pontoons for take-offs and landings from water, as well as designed airplanes to take off and land on ships at sea.  In the peace-time Navy of 1919 it seemed only natural to compare notes with the Army's air forces.  Early in the year Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt extended an invitation for an Army Air Service representative to speak to the Navy General Board about future air policy.  The invitation went not to the Army's Chief of Aviation, but his G-3 officer and the man considered the foremost authority on Army aviation, Colonel Billy Mitchell.

Colonel Mitchell's first meeting with the Navy was a cordial one despite the fact that he said little of what the Navy anticipated, and much of what it would later resist.   The Navy, like the Army's old-line command, still considered aviation to be an adjunct of the service--an asset to be utilized but a small portion of the whole.  By now Colonel Mitchell was beginning to advocate a pivotal role for aviation, one that would make it America's first line of defense and a leader in offensive actions.  Such a role would, he argued, necessitate that aviation be formed as a separate branch of service, equal to that of the Army and Navy.  "You have to have a combination of the three," he stated.  Then he displayed the degree to which his thinking had already progressed, announcing, "If we look forward, there will be a Ministry of Defense, combining Army, Navy and Air Force under one direction."

Colonel Mitchell, perhaps encourage by occasional nods and the serious interest of the Board's spokesman Admiral Albert Winterhalter, pulled no punches.  He advised the Navy to arm its fleets against the aircraft of a potential enemy.  "My opinion is," he announced boldly, "that you can make a direct attack on ships from the air in the future."  He told how a powerful American air force could protect our nation's shores from invasion by sea.  How?  By destroying the enemy's warships and transports before they could reach the coast.   The idea of an airplane attacking a ship was ominous--one that could cause serious casualties.  Of course, no one in the Navy at that time believed that aircraft could sink a battleship, but the threat of serious damage alone was worth consideration.

After listening to Mitchell for three hours Admiral Winterhalter announced, "We shall have to tackle both sides of the question.  We shall have to find out what your methods of attack are so that we can find a means to meet them.  There isn't anything that has appeared to me more important than cooperation in this new service."  For Billy Mitchell it had been a good day...until the doors were closed and the impact of what he had said fully sank in and raised the barnacles on the backs of the Naval high command.  

There was nothing in that meeting that, in reflection, can be seen as a declaration of war that would pit Billy Mitchell against the Navy, or the Army Air Service against its own higher command in the coming years.  If indeed war began on the homefront in the spring of 1919, it was started at a level in the military structure far above the G-3 officer that spoke to the Navy's General Board, and would claim as its first victim a man other than the aviation hero of the first world war.

The great aerial success of the United States during World War I can be attributed to but one thing, the men themselves who fought in the air.  They flew without parachutes, fought with temperamental machineguns that frequently jammed, and performed their duty with valor until they fell in battle--or as the result of their own faulty airplanes.  The most industrialized nation in the world that promised 100,000 airplanes for the war effort could claim no credit for these men's success--only 740 American-made aircraft ever reached the front lines of France.  Fewer than one third of these flew in combat, and almost all were DH-4s, commonly called "Flaming Coffins", that were as dangerous to the men who flew them as they were to the enemy.  The United States of America had been totally unprepared for war, and vastly unsupportive of a new means of combat.

It was this history that motivated Colonel Mitchell to come home and try and build a viable air force for the next war--the war no one wanted to believe would ever happen.  Following his presentation to the Navy General Board, Colonel Mitchell carried his message around the country in stirring speeches that did not yet contain the volatile remarks that would come to mark the last years of his career.  He waged most of his campaign on paper, sending hundreds of requests and recommendations to General Menoher:

  • Foot soldiers trained to parachute behind enemy lines to wage war.

  • Bombers capable of carrying explosive ordnance across the ocean.

  • Aircraft carriers with 900 foot decks to deploy flights of airplanes.

  • Torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs for airplanes to attack ships at sea.

  • Air raid protection should be established in American cities.

  • Air routes should be set up across America, Canada and Mexico.

  • Commercial aviation should be expanded to provide a pool of trained pilots.

Few of Mitchell's crazy ideas drew more than a chuckle from the Army command.  There was said to have been an unofficial opinion that the war had deranged Colonel Mitchell's mind--filled his head with a multitude of strange ideas.  But Billy Mitchell was a war hero and a popular man with veterans groups and the general public.  Thus in the spring of 1919 the Army adopted a tolerant attitude of these strange requests, many marked "Emergency Measures", and filed them away in a special cabinet at the War Department called The Flying Trash Pile.  The fact is, few of these ideas were original.  Billy Mitchell had learned well from men like General Trenchard, from observing the emphasis on aviation in other nations, and by directing combat air operations in the Great War.

 

The Crowell Report

What the War Department couldn't ignore was the outcry from Congress over the expenditure of a billion dollars during the war to produce a small number of defective DH-4s that saw little use.  In response, Secretary of War Newton Baker dispatched his Assistant Secretary Benedict Crowell to lead an 8-man fact-finding mission.  The panel was assigned to study the problems confronting aviation, to observe European programs, and report their findings.  Secretary Baker specified that the mission of the project was to observe three things:  organization, technical development, and commercial development.  Under no circumstances was the committee to recommend policy.

The well-rounded Crowell commission included three aircraft manufacturers, a Navy captain, and two Army colonels.  Two months later on July 19, 1919 they turned in their findings.  Almost immediately the report seemed to mysteriously become lost somewhere between the trash bin and The Flying Trash Pile.

The following month, almost as mysteriously, Naval aviation vanished.  Upon submission of the Crowell Report, the Assistant Secretary and Howard Coffin who had been one of the eight men assigned to observe and report for it, visited the Chief of Naval Operations.  Admiral Charles Benson had seen the report and was visibly hostile.  "I cannot conceive of any use that the fleet will ever have for aircraft," he told the two men.  "The Navy doesn't need airplanes.  Aviation is just a lot of noise."

To emphasize this belief, on August 1 Admiral Benson issued a confidential order abolishing the Navy's Aviation Division.  The edict was so confidential, in fact, that word of the move never reached the office of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt.  It was NOT so confidential that it did not reach the ears of Colonel William Mitchell.  (It is suspected that some unknown Naval aviator, upon being removed from his cockpit and assigned to a traditional Navy job, somehow leaked word of this move to Mitchell.)

Colonel Mitchell was still highly regarded on Capitol Hill and spent much of that fall testifying before Congress as it probed the problems of aviation and considered legislation that would impact the new peace-time military called the "Army Reorganization Act.  At his next appearance before the Senate Military Affairs Committee Colonel Mitchell testified with the demeanor that would mark most of his speeches in the years to follow:

"In this country, our Army aviation is shot to pieces and our naval aviation does not exist as an arm, under their new organization.  They are even worse off than they were."  Colonel Mitchell paused for the impact of what he had just said to sink in, then met the startled gaze of the senators to announce, "They have stopped having a separate bureau for aviation and have distributed those duties among six or seven different departments."

Perhaps it was in that moment, that war broke out between Billy Mitchell and the United States Navy.  He had certainly not endeared himself to the CNO, who was already openly hostile to airmen in general.  

A few days later Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt refuted Mitchell's testimony, leaving the senators confused as to whom was telling the truth.  Mitchell responded by producing a copy of Admiral Benson's order which was specifically titled:  Discontinuance of Aviation Division".  Mitchell explained to his boss General Menoher, "It is believed that Mr. Roosevelt has been hoodwinked in his own office and that naval aviation has been disintegrated without his knowledge or consent."

While the battle was going on in the Senate, in the U.S. House of Representatives the young Congressman from New York began to wonder what had happened to the Crowell Report that had vanished the previous summer.  Fiorello H. La Guardia had a personal interest in military aviation, having served as an air officer on the Italian front during the war.  Congressman La Guardia opened hearings on December 4, calling Assistant Secretary of War Crowell himself to testify.  "What," the congressman wanted to know, "did your report conclude?"

"It recommended," the Assistant Secretary replied, "the concentration of the air activities of the United States--military, naval, and civilian--within the scope of a single government agency, coequal in importance with the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Commerce."

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Crowell Commission's report was that all eight members, privately conducting separate investigations in France, England, and Italy, came to the same conclusion.  The unanimous opinion was diametrically opposed the the policy being advocated by the leadership of the War Department and the Navy Department, and had actually been rendered in violation of Secretary Baker's implicit instructions that the report not contain any conclusions dealing with air policy.  (While some historians accuse Secretary Baker of intentionally keeping the report from Congress, this is a basically false accusation.  Secretary Baker DID refuse to endorse the report and withheld it from public dissemination, but the report was already common knowledge on Capitol Hill.  Secretary Baker also did nothing to prevent Crowell's testimony before Congress.

There were indeed some heated words before the La Guardia hearings, directed at the old traditionalists who were doing all in their power to keep the upstart Air Service from taking the limelight.  One daring airman threw caution to the winds to speak his mind:

"The General Staff, either through lack of vision, lack of practical knowledge, or deliberate intention to subordinate the Air Service...has utterly failed to appreciate the full military value of this new weapon (air power)."
 "I can frankly say that in my opinion the War Department has earned no right or title to claim future control over aviation or the aircraft industries of the United states."
"Is it any wonder that a few of us dare to risk the charge of insubordination?"
"I am ready to stand before any military court in the land...to take my chances of punishment in a cause which, in my opinion, will develop and go ahead in spite of every effort to impede its progress."

So testified, not Colonel William Mitchell, but old foe and former boss Benjamin Foulois.  For his own part, Mitchell's testimony in December 1919 was quite tame, despite some earnest prompting from his friend Hap Arnold regarding the need for an independent air force.  Years later Foulois recalled, "Mitchell very carefully avoided the controversial issues on this.  I opened up all the way through on this stuff and they wanted to court-martial me.  They could, all right, but I had the facts."

The spirited debate of 1919 may have saved the Army Air Service.  Certainly, for a time its future was so tenuous that even General Menoher became incensed and joined in the battle to preserve his command.  It was, perhaps, the only time he and Billy Mitchell agreed on anything.  The upshot of it all ended with the National Defense Act of 1920, establishing a peace time Army of 280,000 and a National Guard of nearly half a million men.  The victory for air power was quite small--allocation of 1516 officers and 16,000 men--all to be retained under the command of the Army.  Though there would be no separate air force, and though what remained was a barebones organization, it was better than NO air force at all.  In protest against the meager $25 budget allotted to the Army's air arm, Secretary Crowell resigned, becoming the first casualty of the hotly brewing war for air power's place in the American military.

Perhaps of equal importance to events over the coming years, these hearings gave Colonel William Billy Mitchell, son of a former Congressman and Senator from Wisconsin, high visibility on Capitol Hill.  In all, Mitchell testified in uniform twenty-seven times before various committees of the Congress in those early days.  Through these he formed friendships that would be critical in the years to come.

  

Transcontinental Reliability Test

Colonel Mitchell's unusually patient demeanor in his testimony before the La Guardia hearings may have been prompted more by his activity in the months preceding it, than in any change in personality.  During the summer of 1919 Mitchell had been brainstorming ways to put the new peace-time Air Service more in the public eye.  Aviation was still less than two decades old, and most of America still saw flight as a spectator sport, not a way of life.  Colonel Mitchell saw some positive PR in playing into that.  It was officially called the "Transcontinental Reliability And Endurance Test" but it was in fact, more accurately described by the New York Times which called it "the greatest air race ever attempted."

Through the race, Colonel Mitchell hoped to demonstrate how quickly America's military pilots could be mobilized.  The race would feature some of aviation's best known names, heroes of the war just one year past.  Lieutenant Colonel Harold Hartney, who had commanded the 1st Pursuit Group on the Western Front, was one of the early favorites.  So too was Captain Field Kindley who, with 12 victories, had emerged as America's fourth-ranking ace of the Great War.  These would fly out of New York, pass through Cleveland, Chicago, and then arrive in Omaha.   From Omaha the pilots would navigate their way to San Francisco by following the route of rail road tracks, called the iron compass.  Twenty refueling points were established along the 2701-mile route and contestants were required to make a 30 minute stop at each point. 

Meanwhile, another group of pilots, a group that included Major Carl Spaatz, would fly east out of San Francisco.  Initially it was planned as a one-way race but, with contestants flying in opposite directions, it was felt that one group might benefit from prevailing winds. The rules were changed to require a round trip.  

The race began on October 8 as Assistant Secretary of War saw the west-bound group of pilots off from Long Island after pronouncing this "the greatest aerial contest in the world."  Nevertheless, the race almost ended the day it began.  Eighteen of the westbound pilots never got beyond Buffalo.  On the west coast, of the fifteen pilots that left San Francisco the same morning, only eleven reached Salt Lake City.

The first three days of the race, projected to see each group reach the opposite coast, were plagued with mishap and tragedy.  There was at least one fatal crash in each day, the American landscape was littered with the wreckage of other non-fatal crashes, and not a single contestant had reached their destination.  On the fourth day of the race Lieutenant Belvin W. Maynard, who had earlier won the New York-to-Toronto air race, landed in San Francisco at 1:12 in the afternoon to become the first to complete the first leg of the journey.  Dubbed "the flying parson" by the media because he had left the ministry to join the Army Air Service in 1917, Maynard flew with an impromptu passenger.  As he had prepared to take off from New York on October 8 his dog Trixie ran onto the field.  Without missing a beat and to the delight of the crowd of spectators, Lieutenant Maynard scooped up his Belgian police dog and the two of them took off into the wind.

Later that same day, October 12, the first pilots from the east-bound group began landing at Roosevelt field in New York.  Lieutenant Emil Kiel was first, beating Major Spaatz by a mere twenty seconds.

Contest rules called for each pilot to rest for forty-eight hours before resuming his return leg of the contest.  Lieutenant Kiel had already had enough, proclaiming, "No one can make me race back to California...the train will be good enough for me."

Major Spaatz responded to a reporter's question about how he felt with a blunt, "I feel like a drink of whiskey!"

The New York Times  made note of the heavy toll exacted in just the first leg of the race, a tragic record that included five deaths, and editorialized:  "Man is compelled to pay the toll to a nature which is jealous of his progress." 

Despite proclamations like that made by Lieutenant Kiel, and other admonitions to end the race with the completion of the first leg, the War Department insisted that the second leg be completed.  On Tuesday, October 14 Lieutenant Maynard departed San Francisco to return home the eventual winner of the contest when he arrived at Roosevelt Field on October 18.

Major Spaatz lead the now-westbound competitors on the return trip on October 15, a day that saw two more pilots die in a crash near Evanston, Wyoming.  The Chicago Tribune finally spoke honestly about the race, referring to it as "rank stupidity".  The greatest air race of all time had, in the minds of all too many Americans, turned into a great air disaster.  Congressman La Guardia stated:  "The same gang that disregarded war in order to develop their own industries now sends boys across the continent with an obsolete, discarded machine (the DH-4 Flaming Coffins) in a vain hope to save their face."

Like La Guardia, Billy Mitchell tried to blame the tragedies of the race on the aged DeHavillands.  Certainly the race had failed to demonstrate the reliability of the American air force, which suffered only one fewer American fatality in the course of the race than the Lafayette Escradille had suffered during 22 months of World War I combat.  Years later however, Hap Arnold who had been at San Francisco to see the first pilots off and to welcome Lieutenant Maynard's arrival, saw the positive side of the effort.  "It was the foundation of commercial aviation in the United States," Arnold wrote.  In establishing the race course and creating refueling points, Mitchell had almost inadvertently established the same air routes that would later be flown by mail carriers and eventually, commercial airlines.


The great air race of 1919 was not the only military competition of the first post-war year.  Sandwiched in between the official ending date of the air race on October 31 and the beginning of the La Guardia hearings of December 7 was the November 29 Army-Navy football game.  It was the first time the rival Academies had met since the pre-war days of 1916.  (During 1918, when more than a million soldiers were facing combat in Europe, West Point had engaged in only one gridiron match up--against Mitchell Field.)

In 1919 Navy avenged their 1916 loss, defeating Army 6 - 0, and setting up a three year string of defeats for the West Point team.  Not until November 25, 1922 would Army rebound to beat their rivals from Annapolis.  Before that welcomed victory on the football field, Billy Mitchell would score one for the Army in the Navy's own territory--in the waters off Chesapeake Bay.

 

Army vs. Navy
February 7, 1921

 

An unusual Army/Navy match up had been brewing on Capitol Hill.  Colonel Billy Mitchell had tossed the Army's hat in the ring a year earlier during a January 1920 Congressional hearing.  Finally now, after a month of hearings in this new year, the Navy had finally accepted the challenge.

Readers of the New York Times chuckled as they read the response of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels:

"I'm so confident that neither Army nor Navy aviators can hit the Iowa when she is under way that I would be perfectly willing to be on board her when they bomb her!"

 This was the kind of talk Billy Mitchell had been seeking to hear from the Navy for a year.  

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It all started the previous year when, in January 1920, Mitchell visited West Point at the invitation of his friend and the Academy's superintendent, General Douglas MacArthur.  For more than an hour Mitchell spoke to the cadets about his experiences in France and his predictions for the future of air power.  Young future leaders like Maxwell Taylor and Hoyt Vandenberg hung interestingly in his every word, then thanked him with a standing ovation.  It was an encouraging sign from the Army's leaders of the future.

The following month Mitchell appeared before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives ready to lay down the gauntlet.  He laid out a possible invasion of the United States by a potential enemy, and vividly illustrated how America's shores could be best defended by aircraft instead of ships.  With sketches, diagrams, and charts he laid out a visual war game wherein airplanes and dirigibles would locate and destroy an invading navy before they could reach the coast line of the United States.  His diagrams were interesting, his scenarios unique but for one major problem.  Mitchell's hypothesis was based upon the implication that war ships could be sunk by airplanes.  The old Admirals laughed in scorn--until some of the congressmen began taking Mitchell seriously.

Mitchell added fuel to the brewing war with flamboyant and inflammatory proclamations that made him the Navy's most hated enemy:  

  • A few Army pilots could destroy the most powerful Naval fleet afloat!

  • A moving ship at sea was easier to detect from the air than an object on land!

  • Advancements in aerial warfare would one day render the battleship obsolete!

It is understandable that Mitchell's claims, despite their preposterousness, would resonate with some on Capitol Hill.  Every Congress since the birth of the United States has been inundated with funding requests from the military.  When Colonel Mitchell claimed, "One thousand bombardment airplanes can be built and operated for about the price of one battleship," it certainly raised eyebrows.

It is also understandable that Mitchell's message would be perceived as a major threat to the admirals who struggled each budget cycle to to obtain the millions of dollars they needed for new warships.  Mitchell had placed the Navy in its own battle for survival.  But Mitchell's charges were more than just a threat to the funds needed by the Navy, it was a threat to some of its long-esteemed traditions.  Every Naval commander dreamed of commanding a battleship, the Queens of the Seas.  The claim that such powerful creations could be sunk by an airplane bordered on blasphemy.

Secretary of the Navy Daniels sent a vehement letter of protest to Secretary of War Newton Baker claiming, "It would seem most unfortunate that the efforts of the great majority of the officers of the Army and Navy should be interfered with ban an individual (Mitchell)."  Baker in turn gave Mitchell a strong warning against interfering in the affairs of the Navy.

Despite the fact that the Army had recently returned Mitchell's star and given him the new title Assistant Chief of the Air Service, Mitchell was falling out of favor with the War Department as well as that of the Navy.  In 1920 his campaign began turning into a lone-wolf struggle, fighting the traditionalists of both the Army and the Navy.  Mitchell began turning his attention to the one arena where his message seemed to capture the imagination, the American public.  As he had before the war, Mitchell began writing for publications and taking his message to veterans groups and the people.  The media covered his every move...Billy Mitchell was NEWS!

The other news in 1920 was the presidential election that pitted Senator Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge against Democrat Jerry Cox and his vice presidential running mate, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The old admirals knew that, following the election and before a new Congress in 1921, General Mitchell was sure to return in his bid go gain an independent air force, even at the cost of scuttling the Navy.  It was time for some pre-emptive damage control.

In the fall of 1920 Captain Chester Nimitz was tasked with overseeing some bombing tests on the old Spanish-American War ship, the U.S.S. Indiana.  The Navy wanted to learn just how much damage bombs dropped from the air could wreak on its warships.  An ancillary benefit would be the ultimate rebuttal of any claims that a warships could be sunk by these bombs.  Few military men beyond Mitchell and a few old admirals like Admiral Winterhalter believed such a feat possible.

The tests were conducted under the most secret of conditions...no media coverage and results would be divulged only as necessary.  Navy airplanes attacked the old vessel with dummy bombs while Naval technicians assessed the probable damage real bombs might have inflicted.  Then underwater charges were exploded near the ships hull.  The concussion split seams and ruptured the old ships hull, giving evidence to a concept in bombardment that would later become important to Mitchell--near misses could wreak more damage than a direct hit.  As the testing neared its completion, the still floating Indiana was run aground where bombs were affixed to her deck to finish the destruction.

When the testing was done the Navy released an innocuous statement, not widely publicized, that it was improbable that a modern battleship could be sunk from the air.  With that, the admirals hoped the question would go away.

Unfortunately for the Navy, somehow two pictures of the ruptured deck of the Indiana found their way into the London Illustrated News.  Still the Navy tried to downplay the results of their tests--until Billy Mitchell showed up to testify before Congress in January, 1921.  

Mitchell brought with him charts, diagrams and even photographs of the Navy's secret tests on the Indiana, information that raised the interest of a committee friendly to Mitchell.  (The Navy had enlisted the aid of armament specialist Captain C.H.M. Roberts for the tests.  Roberts was an early proponent of air power, it managed to get these documents into the hands of the man he believed could use them to their best advantage, General Billy Mitchell.)  In the testimony that followed, Mitchell pulled few punches...though even at this point his remarks were spoken with some restraint or at least respect.

MITCHELL:  "(Our airplanes) can destroy or sink any ship in existence!"

CONGRESSMAN BASCOM SLEMP (VA):  "If that's true, why aren't you able to convince high-ranking officers of the Army who have the consideration of these problems?"

MITCHELL:  "We are presenting the situation to you, and we're ready to demonstrate this thing.  If you allow no air force, not only will an opposing fleet land at will, but their aircraft will fly all over our country."

SLEMP:  "What do you mean?  They're intelligent individuals, and they want to get the best defense they can for their country."

REPRESENTATIVE LOUIS CRAMTON (MI):  "Isn't it for the same reason that confronted Ericsson, in that after he had demonstrated the success of the Monitor, still he couldn't get the ear of the high-ranking officers of the War Department?"

MITCHELL:  "We can show right straight down through the beginning how this thing has been held down."

REPRESENTATIVE THOMAS SISSON (MS):  "Should the British example in carriers and a unified air force serve as a model for our country?"

MITCHELL:  "Yes Sir."
"I do not consider that the air force is to be considered as in any means supplanting the Army.  You have always got to come to manpower as the ultimate thing, but we do believe that the air force will control all communications, that it will have a very great effect on land troops and a decisive one against a navy."

SLEMP:  "Your argument really leads up to the advocacy of a combined air service."

MITCHELL:  "There is no other efficient solution of the air problem.  If you scatter the air force around it leads to double overhead, and to a double system of command, and many other difficulties.  It has been proven wrong everywhere."

SLEMP:  "It seems to me that the principal problem is to demonstrate the certainty of your conclusions."

MITCHELL:  "Give us the warships to attack and come and watch it!"

Mitchell's challenge to the Navy captured the attention of both Congress and the media much like his earlier transcontinental air race had.  Even before Mitchell was called to testify before the House Naval Affairs Committee, Congress had passed two resolutions urging the Navy Department to provide Mitchell with battleships to use as targets.  The moment had at last arrived and Mitchell wrote:

"We are going to smoke these people oput that do not believe in the air business and either make them 'fish or cut bait'."

When General Mitchell appeared before the House Naval Affairs Committee, he found some surprising allies.  One of the most impressive was the President of the Naval War College, Admiral William S. Sims.  Sims was a man as blunt as Mitchell, perhaps even as unconventional.  In earlier battles to improve Naval gunnery he had taken on the high command, and even turned Congress against him by stating that Britain was so far ahead of the United States Navy in gunnery, one of their ships could outshoot four or five American ships.  A grizzled Naval veteran who won a Pulitzer Prize in history in 1920, he embodied the modern term, politically incorrect.  When told he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the United States Army, Admiral Sims advised Secretary Daniels that he would refuse the award because it had been diminished by being over-awarded, largely to men who didn't deserve it.

Admiral Sims wasn't afraid to go against the grain of his own high command, or to speak his mind.  Before the Naval Affairs Committee, he did both.   After a series of war games at the Naval War College, he told committee members, "It was easy to see that the question of the passing of the battleship was not an agreeable one to various members."  

Sims testimony set the stage for that of Mitchell who, despite common misconceptions about the events of 1920s aviation, never had to stand alone.  Throughout the six-year battle Mitchell fought to preserve and build an American air force, he had many such allies, friends and admirers.  Despite this, old ways die hard and Admiral Sims may well have summed up the opposition best when he wrote: "It is a singular thing that you can present irrefutable arguments to officers on this subject and they will still defend the old methods and the old surface ships.  I know, of course, something of the psychology of opinion, but this seems to go beyond the theories of psychological experts.

"Can it be that the Navy is reluctant to give up the big ships to live in?"

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The ships that were finally granted were already slated for destruction, so in the final analysis the Mitchell Experiment gave the United States government a means of fulfilling its post-war obligations to the world.  In the treaty that ended the Great War, Germany had been stripped of much of its military machinery.  Several German warships had been confiscated by the United States at the Armistice.  In that act however, the United States agreed that these ships would be destroyed.  (No other world power wanted the United States Navy to build up its own war machine with the captured spoils of the Great War.)

The deadline for destruction, agreed to by President Wilson, was July 24, 1921.  With pressure from Congress, the Navy finally agreed to provide a German submarine, a destroyer, a light cruiser, and finally the huge German battleship Ostriesland.  Additional tests would be conducted using the USS Iowa, a moving target under radio control to see if aircraft could find the ship at sea, and hit it with dummy bombs.  It was this latter test that prompted the remark, reported in the New York Times but never fully verified (though he also did not deny it), by Secretary Baker that:  "I would be perfectly willing to be on board her when they bomb her!"

 

The Pre-Game

If the Army/Navy War Games of the summer of 1921 were viewed in the parlance of the gridiron, one would have to say that the Navy provided the play-book for both sides, and then enlisted its own referees to insure the outcome.  While grudgingly acquiescing to the call for targets to prove or refute the theory that airplanes could sink ships, the Navy set strict guidelines according to its own standards.  These rules were justified by the Navy's claim that the tests be conducted under a clinical setting that would enable proper documentation of each attack, each bombardment, and every step of the process.  While Mitchell vehemently protested many of these without success, during the spring of 1921 he absorbed himself with a few trick plays of his own.

Mitchell began preparations by putting his team together.  Nearly stripping the Army Air Service, he pulled pilots from all over the country into Langley Field, Virginia, a short distance from the Chesapeake Bay area destined for the bombing tests.  Almost overnight the small field that boasted only about a dozen airmen, mostly either trainers or trainees, into a bustling air base with 250 airplanes and nearly 1,000 men.  His long-time friend Clayton Bissell was already working at Langley as an instructor, and the World War I combat pilot become one of Mitchell's key assistant coaches.  His team was the newly organized First Provisional Air Brigade.

In the months that followed, all activity at Langley Field operated under a great cloud of secrecy that only added to the hype for the coming event.  General Mitchell knew that sinking a battleship would be difficult, though not impossible, under ideal circumstances.  The Navy's rules were making the conditions far from ideal.  Though he continued his complaints to no avail, he proceeded with an air of confidence and a foresight previously unseen in any air war.

  • Though funds had not yet been allocated, Mitchell constructed a battleship target by February and had his airmen practicing for the main event.  His actions drew a nasty response from General Menoher, but Mitchell ignored the memorandum that pointed to his unauthorized actions and continued to prepare.

  • He sat up throughout one long night with his chief draftsman to design the largest bombs ever made, 2,000 and 4,000 pound monsters, and then ordered Captain C.H.M. Roberts (who had witnessed the test bombings of the Indiana) to have them built by June.

  • Mitchell brought in George Goddard, a photographic expert, to handle the public relations when the tests got underway.  "I need you to handle the newsreel and movie people," he told Goddard.  "They're temperamental, and we've got to get all we can out of them.  I want newsreels of those sinking ships in every theater in the country, just as soon as we can get them there."

  • Down to the smallest detail, every issue was addressed.  Those four months of preparation may well have been the most important in the history of combat aviation and aerial bombardment.  Bomb sites were designed, refined, tested and installed.  The largest bombs ever built were manufactured, fitted with a foolproof detonation system, and then tested.  The first artificial horizon was installed on airplanes utilizing a gyroscope to help pilots orient themselves in the endless blue where sky and water meet.

The Army team itself was a dedicated and eager group of fliers.  For months the preparations for the tests consumed their every waking moment.  While the rest of the country, in fact the entire world, wondered if Mitchell's airman had even the smallest chance, they honestly believed they would succeed.  Their espirit de corps almost almost ended the game before it began.

Following practice bombings on targets in the swamps near Langley Field, Mitchell had his pilots begin practice bombings on the rusting hulk of the old USS Indiana.  Somehow, a canister of film made its way to the hands of the Fox newsreel company.  Shortly thereafter the public was amused to see pictures of the Army airmen in a bombing run on the old Indiana.  What upset the Navy more than the fact that the film leaked out (of course they blamed General Mitchell) was a series of frames showing one airman's bomb with the words "Regards to the Navy" printed on the side.

 

To counter the challenge being mounted by General Mitchell, the Navy turned to Admiral William Moffett.  (Some later accounts of the Mitchell Experiment erroneously attribute the quote printed by the New York Times, purportedly by Secretary Daniels.)  Moffett was himself, something of an air enthusiast, though his interest lay primarily in the big airships.

Admiral Moffett was as close to the mold of Billy Mitchell as the Navy could find at the time.  The veteran who had commanded the battleship Mississippi from 1918 to 1920 had earned a Medal of Honor during the Vera Cruz campaign in 1914.  Though Moffett became the Navy's antidote to Billy Mitchell during the bombing tests of 1921, Moffett himself would play an important role in developing Naval aviation until his death, ironically enough in the crash of an airship, in 1933.

The trend continued throughout the spring with all the traditional exchanges of a pre-game locker room.  It got especially nasty towards the end of May when a large Curtiss Eagle plane crashed in a thunderstorm en route from Langley to Washington.  General Mitchell called a press conference and pointed to the disaster and resulting loss of seven lives to support his calls for a unified air service.  He pointed to the disaster as an example of why aviation should have routes, weather reports, and proper landing fields.  The only way to achieve this, he stated, would be to unify all the air services under one roof.

Admiral Moffett took off the gloves and quickly and publicly rebuked Mitchell with the statement that:  "General Mitchell used the recent disaster which resulted in the deaths of five brother officers and two civilians as an argument in favor of a unified air service."

Mitchell's fight with the Navy began hitting too close to home.  Incidents like the leaked newsreel, his press conference after the fatal crash at the end of May, skirting authority to spend money before it was authorized, and the release of his first book titled Our Air Force began taking its toll on General Menoher.  To the outside observer it certainly seemed that the Air Chief could not control his own subordinate.  Only weeks before the bombing was commence, General Menoher reached the end of his patience and wrote to Secretary of War John Weeks:

"It is recommended and requested that Brigadier General William Mitchell be relieved of duty as Assistant Chief of the Air Service.

"Unfortunate and undesirable publicity given to his individual exploits at the time immediately following the fatal accident of the Curtiss Eagle ambulance plane has caused a very great revulsion of feelings.

"He has given serious offense to the Navy Department by his public utterances and publicity.  He has enhanced his own prestige at the expense of and to the detriment of the prestige of his immediate commanding officer.  This publicity, if not carried on by him personally, is at least known to him and subject to his control.

The situation presented a major dilemma to Secretary Weeks.   Protocol dictated that he side the Air Chief and fire the Assistant who could not get on the same page as his supervisor.  Mitchell's popularity in the public, however, made this a dangerous decision.  To complicate matters, while Weeks struggled to find a course of action, work of the rift between Mitchell and Menoher leaked to the press.  At last Secretary Weeks met with both men to work out a solution.  A short time later Weeks called a press conference to announce that the problem was resolved, and the two men would continue to work together. 

The media hailed the decision amid comments that Mitchell had received little more than a slap on the wrist.  It was, in fact, the first real reprimand of the General's distinguished career.  The incident would never truly heal between the two men.  The Detroit Free Press summed up the resolution by saying:  "Menoher is advised to go way back and sit down, while Mitchell will get a chance to show whether a dreadnought is obsolete in the presence of a modern bombing plane." 

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Kickoff
June 21, 1921

Billy Mitchell had is own distinctive airplane from which to observe and direct his portion of the bombing tests that began in the summer of 1921.   His old but reliable DH4B was called Osprey and it trailed a blue pennant to mark the presence of General Mitchell over the site of the action.

As the tests began, more than a dozen planes and three blimps hovered over the field to watch the opening plays.  The Navy won the coin toss to see who would go first.  They had the home field advantage and the tests would be conducted according to the Navy's rule book and under the watchful gaze of the Navy's referees.  It didn't seem fair but then, the Navy owned the football so it was left to the Army to accept the situation or call the game.  

The first target was the U-117, a German submarine that had been surrendered to the United States ten days after the Armistice.  Under the command of Otto Droscher the 1,200-ton U-boat had patrolled the Atlantic coast line after its December 10, 1917 launching.  In its sole patrol of the war the U-117 sank 24 Allied ships.  Now, according the the dictates of International Law and the agreement with the Allied nations of World War I, the sub would be destroyed in peace time, anchored not far from where it had patrolled in war.

According the the playbook, the Navy would get first shot.  Three waves of Navy F-5-Ls would pound the small submarine with 165-pound bombs.  These would be followed by attacks from Navy Martins and Marine Corps De Havillands.  If, after all that the U-117 was still afloat, the Army would get its chance.   Mitchell had his bombers loaded and ready back and Langley just in case.

The Navy's pilots opened the show with great enthusiasm.  Indeed, though General Billy Mitchell was perceived to be the Navy's most dangerous enemy, in saving Army aviation from extinction he might well be saving the Navy's airmen as well.  It took only two waves to score direct hits on the small, 267-foot submarine.  Two 165-pound bombs fell from 1,000 feet to split the hull of the U-117 and send her to the bottom.

The transport ship Henderson, which had served as the reviewing stand for a small party of dignitaries, headed back to Washington after an all-too-brief opening day.  There seemed to be some surprise that the submarine had succumbed to the aerial bombardment so quickly, but any implication that a modern warship would suffer the same fate was quickly dispelled.  The U-117 was unarmored and quite small.  By no stretch of the imagination could its durability be compared to a battleship.

Though General Mitchell's pilots missed the entire first quarter, they used the planned one-week interim before the next test to continue training.  The day after the sinking of the U-117 General Mitchell led a flight of 53 airplanes in a bombing run on the ruins of the old U.S.S. Texas.  Tragedy stuck when two of Mitchell's pilots collided over the Chesapeake and fell to their deaths into the waters below.  On June 23 Mitchell led three flights over the same spot to drop flowers where their comrades had died.  Then each pilot saluted his fallen friends by dropping 25-pound bombs.

If one was to consider the opening plays of the game a score for the Navy, it must be remembered that the U-117 became the first ship in history to be sunk from the air.  It was, despite the disclaimers relating to its size and lack of armor, a small victory for air power.  The second play of the game would also be the Navy's, not by design but by default.

On June 29 the USS Iowa began movement across a 25,000 square mile area between Cape Henlopen and Cape Hatteras to test the ability of aerial observation in detecting a moving ship at sea.  The American veteran of the Spanish-American War was being remotely controlled in its movements from the USS Ohio, five miles behind it.

In May General Mitchell had declined to participate in this test, citing the fact that the Navy had moved the test at a distance so far from his base at Langley that his airplanes would face dangerous fuel shortages.  He would commit only three air ships to the hunt for the Iowa.  At the last minute Mitchell changed his mind and tried to get his airplanes back into the game.  The Navy refused.  Even so, in the end it was the Army dirigibles that first sighted the Iowa.  One hour later the Navy seaplanes caught up to drop eighty dummy bombs on the Iowa.  The Navy was not dismayed when only two of these hit their target.  Such lack of accuracy served only to reinforce their belief that when the Army pilots finally got their chance, they too would find it difficult to hit their own targets.

The Army's last chance before half time came two weeks later.  The target was only slightly larger than the small U-117 submarine.  The G-102 had been an Argentine destroyer, commandeered by the German Navy during the war.  This time the Army had an unrestricted opportunity to demonstrate its ability, and General Mitchell attacked the 312-foot destroyer like he had attacked the salient at St. Mihiel.  Eighteen pursuit planes led the way in three flights, followed by DeHavillands with 100-pound bombs, and then the heavy Martin bombers with their 300-pound orbs.  The sky seemed to be filled with aircraft as the pursuit planes swept the deck with machinegun fire and dove within 200 feet of the deck to drop their light bombs.  In minutes the deck had been swept from stem to stern...had it been a combat situation any ability a crew aboard the G-102 had to fight back would have been crushed.

Mitchell waved off the light bombers and brought in his Martins.  Twenty minutes later the destroyer had completely disappeared from the surface of the ocean.  General Mitchell recorded:  

"In less time than it takes to tell, their bombs began churning the water around the destroyer.  They hit close in front of it, behind it, opposite its side and directly in its center.  Columns of water rose hundreds of feet into the air.  For a few minutes the vessel looked as if it were on fire.  Smoke came out of its funnels and vapors along its deck.  Then it broke completely in two in the middle and sank out of sight."

"Their (Mitchell's pilots) rejoicing was tremendous.  They knew now that unless something most unusual happened it would be proved for all time that aircraft dominated the sea craft."

Half-time lasted but five brief days, and then the competition began again in earnest.  This time the target would be the 5,100 ton light cruiser Frankfurt, shielded with armor plating and built with numerous watertight steel compartments.  To simulate battle conditions and determine the effectiveness of the firepower from above, numerous small cages littered the Frankfurt's deck, filled with goats and other small animals.  

The Navy, Marines and Army aviators attacked in ten waves that comprised nearly five dozen planes, each wave dropping increasingly larger bombs.  Between each wave there would be an intermission during which inspectors would board the ship from the tender Shawmut to view, photograph, and report on the damage.  The first waves with their 100-pound, then 250-pound, and finally the 300-pound bombs attacked the Frankfurt.  The deadly explosions proved fatal to the small animals on the deck, and the light cruiser suffered some visible damage topside, but below the decks she remained watertight and capable of steaming away from the battle under war-time conditions.

By the time the last wave of six Martins carrying 600-pound bombs departed Langley, Naval inspectors had already concluded that the Frankfurt would survive destruction from the air and called for the South Dakota to prepare a time bomb to finish the job.  Flight leader Captain W. R. Lawson was forced to circle for half an hour as the inspectors finished their work.  With fuel running low, the first aerial defeat of the project seemed imminent. 

When the "clear" signal was finally given, Lawson and his pilots wasted no time going to work.  Mitchell described the scene.  "The bombs fell so fast that the attack could not be stopped before mortal damage had been done to the ship."

The Naval control ship signaled for the bombardment to stop so the inspectors could go aboard to assess the damage from this last wave of bombers.  It was too late; the 600-pound bombs had opened gaping holes in the cruiser including one from a direct hit on the forward compartment.  Soon afterward the Frankfort sank beneath the waves and George Goddard's photographic planes were heading for Bolling Field with the canisters of photographic evidence.

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The fourth quarter opened with the outcome of the Army/Navy War Game of 1921 still very much in doubt.  While indeed the airmen had proven they could sink small ships, the real test lay ahead.  After one day of rest the attacks would commence on the German battleship Ostfriesland.  The mighty warship displaced 27,000 tons in comparison to the Frankfort's 5,100 tons, or the U-117's 1,200 tons.  Here indeed was a warship worthy of an Admiral's praise and a Navy's pride.  During the Great War the Ostfriesland had taken eighteen hits from big shells at Jutland, even struck a mine, yet remained afloat to return home proudly for repair.  With a four-layer hull and scores of water-tight compartments, the great battleship was considered unsinkable.

General Mitchell fully realized what was riding on this last attack.  If his airmen failed to sink the Ostfriesland, the mighty battleship's victory would make all of the other small victories of the summer meaningless and:  "The development of air power might be arrested....

"We had to kill, lay out and bury this great ship!"

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July 20, 1921

It seemed as if the entire United States Navy had taken position in the grandstands to watch the fourth quarter of this great war game.  Surrounding the anchored Ostfriesland some seventy miles east of Cape Charles Lightship was the pride of the Navy's Atlantic fleet, more than a half-dozen of the Navy's great battleships.  The fleet's flagship, the new U.S.S. Pennsylvania, provided a vantage point for many important dignitaries: Commandant of the Marine Corps Major General John Lejeune, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Admiral Richard Byrd, eight Senators, twice as many members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Secretaries of the Navy, War, and Agriculture. 

Literally scores of reporters stood at the railings of the Pennsylvania and Henderson, joined by observers from other nations of the world.  They came from England, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Brazil.  All knew their history, knew how Naval dynasties through the centuries had risen and fallen.  Each time preeminence in sea-power had shifted in the past however, the dominant armada had fallen to an opposing sea-going fleet.  This time the battle for preeminence was different--waged on the great Queens of the Seas by upstart and puny pests from the sky.

Among those who watched and waited were two foreign dignitaries who absorbed themselves in the process, contemplating all that was happening around them and making copious notes while recording every action with four different cameras.  They were Captain Nagano, House of Peers statesman G. Katsuda, and Kobe Chamber of Commerce representative G. Shibuta, all of Japan.

Billy Mitchell's bombers stood by throughout the morning at Langley Field, awaiting the order to begin.  The Navy's playbook called for the first bombs to be dropped her own pilots in successive runs after each of which inspectors would board the Ostfriesland to observe and record the damage inflicted.  General Mitchell stood by at the radio, requesting information and wondering what was happening.  Finally, when by one o'clock his bombers hadn't been ordered into the air, he took off in the Osprey to find out what was happening.  He was surprised and angered by what he found.  Even as he approached the test site, the Navy ships were returning to shore with its host of reporters and dignitaries.  Not a single bomb had been dropped.

The early morning had seen 20-knot winds and high seas, and the Navy had determined that the airplanes would be unable to deliver their payload in the adverse weather.  General Mitchell believed it was instead, a trick play to end the war game prematurely.  He later wrote:  "I believe to this day that the officer controlling the air attacks had orders from the Admiral not to let us sink the Ostfriesland."

Mitchell signaled the Navy that he intended to proceed, and the fleet turned back towards the targets.  For more than an hour thereafter, Navy and Marine pilots bombarded the Ostfriesland with salvos of 250-pound bombs.  The effort showed little effect on the giant warship, and the admirals began to sigh with relief.

At three o'clock Lieutenant Clayton Bissell arrived with his flight of Martin bombers.  The appearance caught the Navy by surprise...the Air Service pilots had left Langley without orders and were thus unanticipated.  Mitchell contacted the control ship to advise that Bissell's  bombers would have to attack within 40 minutes because they were low on fuel.  The test controllers advised Mitchell to return his airplanes to Langley if they were low on fuel.  Mitchell refused and Lt. Bissell and his airplanes circled until 3:30 p.m. when the inspection crews were clear and permission to attack was given.  Mitchell was elated by what he saw:

"Lt. Bissell's flight of five planes deployed into column and fired five (600-pound) bombs in extremely rapid succession.  It looked as if two or three bombs were in the air at the same time.  Two hits alongside and three on the deck or on the side, causing terrific detonations, and serious damage....."

"SERIOUS DAMAGE" -- if that said it all, it wasn't enough.  As Lieutenant Bissell's Martins headed back to Langley the Ostfriesland bore evidence of the heavy pounding it had sustained from the air for more than two hours.  But the mighty battleship still rode the crest of the waves, and under war-time conditions, certainly would have returned to port for repairs so that it would sail--and fight--once again.  The Navy's umpires pronounced the great warship "absolutely intact and undamaged", and reporters began filing their stories indicating the battleship's victory.  The New York Times wrote poignantly that the Ostfriesland was still "riding smugly at anchor on the high seas tonight".

With the game down to its last day of tests the outcome seemed so certain that many of the dignitaries, including Secretary of War Weeks and General John J. Pershing, left the stadium early.  In the minds of almost everyone, the game was over.

 

Two-Minute Warning
July 21, 1921

General Mitchell was up before dawn to inspect his bombers and give one last pep-talk to his men.  He reminded them that the greatest damage would be inflicted, not by direct hits on the Ostfriesland, but by near misses.

Early in the planning for the tests when Mitchell had assigned Captain Roberts to create the largest bombs ever manufactured, the ordnanceman took great pains to help Mitchell understand what he called a hammer effect.  A bomb hitting a target would rip metal and spread shrapnel, he explained, but do very little damage to the all-important water-tight ships hull.  A bomb that exploded in the water near the ship, he continued, would be intensified by the compressed expansion of and rip the ships hull apart.  The scientific process was simply much like putting your head underwater, then  clicking two rocks together beneath the surface.  The sound exploded with the under-water magnification.

It was a hard theory to sell to the airmen, many of whom were World War I fighter pilots who had been trained to hit what they aimed at.  Major Alexander de Seversky, one of the great pioneers in aerial engineering, helped to convince General Mitchell of the concept.  Mitchell in turn, pressed the matter to his men.  Before taking off from Langley field at 7:00 a.m. General Mitchell again reminded his pilots to try for near misses in addition to direct hits.

Behind Mitchell came a flight of Martins let by Lieutenant Bissell, this time loaded with 1,000-pound bombs.  As the airmen circled over the Ostfriesland, it was obvious the previous day's smaller bombs had in fact, caused more damage than the Navy referees had reported.  The battleship was sitting lower in the water and during the Night the Navy had flooded enough compartments to level the giant warship.

At eight-thirty the Shawmut deployed the white panel with a red cross on it that signaled "All Clear".  Five minutes later Lieutenant Bissell dropped the first 1,000-pound bomb, a direct hit on the forecastle.  Quickly the referees on the Shawmut removed the "All Clear" panel and headed towards the Ostfriesland to assess the damage.  The Shawmut was within a mile of the stricken battleship when the next of Bissell's flight began dropping bombs.  Four fell around the Ostfriesland before the attack was halted.  The Navy was livid...certain that Bissell's men had ignored the call to cease the attack and endangering the Shawmut without regard for the consequences.  Bissell later claimed that the attack had commenced so quickly that his men did not see the signal.  The pilots of the last planes in the flight returned to Langley equally upset, having been denied their chance.

En route to Langley Bissell ordered his men to jettison the remaining bombs, as the huge Martins could not safely land with their deadly payload.  His seething pilots dutifully obeyed, with a twist of their own choosing.  Returning to Langley they sought out and found a line of Naval destroyers at seven-mile intervals.  One by one they jettisoned their bombs, some falling within a half-mile of the ships to rattle sailors and cascade them with tons of salt water.

The inspection crew spent an hour combing the ruined deck of the Ostfriesland.  The damage was apparent and considerable, but the German warship still floated and was pronounced sea-worthy.  While the inspectors did their work, Mitchell returned to the huddle at Langley to call his final play of the game.  The airmen were loading six Martins and two Handley Page bombers with the big 2,000-pound bombs Mitchell had designed and ordered built under Captain Roberts.

At sea there was still an air of skepticism, not only at the ability of these airmen to sink the big battleship, but at their very ability to deliver the payload.  No one had ever seen a 2,000-pound bomb before, and the idea that an airplane could even take off with one nestled beneath it stretched the 1921 concept of aerodynamics.  Still, the Navy would take no chances and threw up a quick prevent defense.  When Captain Johnson radioed Mitchell to begin his last attack in the series of tests, he threw in an unexpected new rule.  The bombers would be allowed to bring out only three of the large bombs.

General Mitchell exploded but it was to no avail.  He protested that the Navy had promised his pilots they would be allowed to make at least two direct hits on the Ostfriesland's deck with his heaviest bombs.  Finally, in complete disregard for this new order, he waved all eight bombers off the field at Langley.  As he took off behind them he radioed the Shawmut:

"Martin bomber and Handley Page formation with 2,000-pound bombs have taken off."

"In case of failure to secure two direct hits, subsequent attacks will be made until we have secured the two hits the Army is authorized to make."

It was near noon when the observers slightly more than a mile from the target heard the drone of airplane engines as the last flight of bombers began their approach.  Soon everyone could see the distinctive Osprey with its trailing blue pennant signaling the presence of General Billy Mitchell as he prepared for the last play of the game.

Minutes later someone shouted and pointed as an airplane approached the Ostfriesland and a dark object dropped from its belly.  A ripple of laughter followed as it plunked harmlessly into the water, 150 feet from the big warship, raising little more than a small fountain of water.

While admirals, dignitaries and reporters smiled and laughed, in the darkening skies high above Captain Lawson noted the trajectory of the sand-loaded marking bomb and ordered his airplanes into the attack.  Again someone pointed to the sky as one of the big bombers came in high over the Ostfriesland.  It was now seventeen minutes past noon.  This time the object that dropped from its belly was unlike anything any of them had seen.  The sparse sunshine glinted off the long, seamless steel tube as it plummeted downward.  Its ascent alone hushed the crowd.

Suddenly it hit the water, sending a small geyser upward and a ripple of waves outward in a circular pattern.  A millisecond later the geyser became a roaring fountain of smoke, steam and 30,000 tons of salt water.  Even at its distance, the Henderson shook under the water-hammer effect causing the distinguished crowd to grip the rails with nervous fingers.  The Ostfriesland momentarily disappeared in the wall of water, only its masks and funnels visible.  Then, as the torrent settled, the gallant old battleship settled to rest still riding the waves.  The admirals breathed a sigh of relief.

Within minutes sunlight was glinting off a second steel orb as it fell from the heavens to be followed by another tremendous explosion.  The seas seventy miles east of Cape Charles Lightship shook like no natural storm of nature had ever shaken them.  A third explosion erupted as the bombs came in on two-minute intervals, the fourth making a direct hit on the forecastle at 12:21.  The fifth big bomb bathed the battleship in a cascade of sea water one reporter later likened to Niagara Falls, and water began to rush across the stern of the mighty warship.  Within minutes the sixth and final bomb exploded only fifty feet from the ruptured stern, and the battle was over.

  • At 12:33 p.m. the Ostfriesland's stern sank beneath the waters.  

  • Four minutes later she rolled completely over on her port side.

  • At 12:38 the mighty German battleship was nearly perpendicular in the water, standing abnormally erect for nearly two minutes.

  • At 12:40 p.m. the mighty Ostfriesland disappeared from the surface of the of the ocean.

At 12:41 p.m. the Navy wept!

 Four months later on November 26, 1921 the Navy managed to eke out a 7-0 win over the Army in its string of three straight Army/Navy Game victories since the end of World War I.  It was of little comfort.  Thanks to General Billy Mitchell and a handful of dedicated pilots, Army had already won The Big One!

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Though Billy Mitchell's crusade is often viewed as a war against the Navy, it was more a campaign for an air force.  The old generals of the Army were no more open to this new means of warfare than were their counterparts of the sea-going persuasion.  The rift between Mitchell and General Menoher led to the Air Chief's resignation in 1925 and there was considerable speculation that at last, General Mitchell would be assigned the post.

In a surprising move General Pershing once again turned to his old West Point comrade, General Mason Patrick.  Though like Menoher, Patrick had never sat in a cockpit, the man who had commanded the Air Service in France had a unique ability to both control Billy Mitchell, and yet allow him enough room to get the job done.  General Mitchell accepted the decision with considerable aplomb, though his friend Eddie Rickenbacker characterized the decision with the comment:  "General Patrick is a capable soldier but he knows nothing of the Air Service.  His appointment is as sensible as making General Pershing Admiral of the Swiss Navy!"

In September Mitchell conducted more tests, bombing the old USS Alabama in a spectacular, though almost anti-climactic series of attacks.   In November, amid a brewing new series of problems on the domestic front, Mitchell was dispatched to Europe for an inspection tour.  His travels not only gave him opportunity to witness the progression of aviation in England, France and Italy, but to also visit his foe from the previous war, the German war machine.  Due his celebrity and the great respect with which airmen of all nations viewed General Mitchell, he got the kind of comprehensive pre-World War II afforded to only one other American, Eddie Rickenbacker (in 1933).

Mitchell's last stop was in Holland where he met with the great airplane designer Anthony Fokker.  The man who had built the great airplanes used by Baron von Richthofen and his Flying Circus during World War I spoke to Mitchell of moving to the United States.  Mitchell encouraged the move and became instrumental in bringing the great aviation pioneer to America.

General Mitchell came home in March 1922 to report on his tour.  As was with the case in any Mitchell report, it was detailed and lengthy.  But Mitchell's observations could be summed up in two brief points:

  1. The United States lagged far behind the rest of the world in developing and air force, and

  2. Germany was building an air force capable of giving it tremendous advantage in the rematch Mitchell, but few other Americans, believed would come in the not-too-distant future.

"All the great nations have assigned definite missions to their air forces, to their armies, and to their navies.  In the United States we have not done this, and, at this time, if we should be attacked, no one can tell what the duties of these three arms."

That philosophy would dominate the theme of Billy Mitchell for the remaining years of his life.  To meet the challenge he would become what many claimed was unnaturally obsessed with two goals:  development of a separate air arm of the United States military and preparations for a second world war that would most probably come from either or both Germany and Japan.

During that same year Billy Mitchell's marriage collapsed, and he consumed himself with his work and his friendships.  He spent much time with his close friends the Arnolds, continued to write about air theory, speak before various groups, and continued to testify before Congress.  

His relationship with General Patrick was amicable, the Air Chief keeping the reins on his assistant while Mitchell pushed the boundaries but with some restraint.  The man who had served more than three decades as an Army Engineer found himself increasingly interested in the airplane, and though now in his 60s, took of flying lessons.

Those who record the life of Billy Mitchell often categorize those around the indefatigable general as either friends or bitter enemies.  General Patrick is often unfairly listed among the latter.  Such historians overlook a third category of Mitchell acquaintance--the critics.  These were those men who grudgingly respected, perhaps even admired the boisterous airman but believed he could have found a more acceptable way of accomplishing his goals.  General Patrick, the first REAL Air Chief of today's United State's Air Force would perhaps be better numbered among this third group.  Certainly he and Mitchell clashed repeatedly, in France in 1918 and in Washington from 1922 to 1925.  But General Patrick also had a way of bringing out the best in General Billy Mitchell.

General Patrick himself stated:  "Little or nothing was known of what aircraft or airmen could do.  This lack of understanding was most notable in the War Department itself, where a certain jealousy of the Air Service was markedly in evidence."

 

During the summer of 1923 a much needed ray of sunshine smiled on Billy Mitchell when he met Elizabeth (Betty) Trumbull Miller, daughter of a prominent Detroit attorney.  The two courted for a year that friend Hap Arnold would later describe as perhaps the happiest year of Billy Mitchell's life.  If anyone thought however, that love would damper the spirit of the tireless aviation pioneer, they would have been sorely disappointed.  Miss Miller was a unique woman, strong of will yet understanding in a way that made Billy her own personal hero.  The two of them rode horses together, flew in the sky together, and later even hunted tigers in India together.

In the fall of 1923 Mitchell received orders to make an inspection tour of the Pacific.  There were those who believed it was the Army's way of getting the bothersome American hero with his now-constant demands for an independent air force out of their hair at least for a while.  General Pershing's 1923 efficiency report on General Mitchell stated:  "This officer is an exceptionally able one, enthusiastic, enefgetic and full of initiative (but) he is fond of publicity, more or less indiscreet as to speech, and rather difficult to control as a subordinate."

For Mitchell the timing was perfect.  He and Betty were married in October and would use the trip to mix work with a honeymoon.

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It was General Mitchell's six-week end-of-the-year inspection of both Army and Naval aviation in Hawaii that would later cause much of his problems, and create powerful enemies in his own branch of service.  At the same time he told reporters that Wheeler Field was the finest airfield he had inspected in a long time, he was writing pages of critical observations in the report he would submit on his return home.  In that report he would criticize the preparedness of both services in Hawaii, noting that there was no cooperation or coordination between the services.  "Our defense is based on a land army, coast defense guns and battleships, all of which are uncoordinated.  A modern boy fifteen years old, who knows about air power and had a simple military training in high school, could work out a better system."

The stinging critique would not sit well with the Army commander at Schofield Barracks, General Charles P. Summerall, and would net General Mitchell a powerful antagonist in the years to come.  Even as the Mitchell's departed Hawaii to visit Guam, General Summerall wrote General Patrick that Mitchell's "assumptions as to the action of the enemy"  were unsound and preposterous.

As the Thomas carried the Mitchells through the Pacific, Billy sketched the layout of the islands, plotted potential strategic air fields, and tried to anticipate the tactics of any potential enemy.  He took note of one small island 200 miles outside his course, previously ignored as having any strategic importance, to note in his report:

"Before coming to this conclusion (of no strategic value), a careful reconnaissance should be made of it.  Wake Island lies about 300 miles north by west of Taongi Island of the Marshall group, which is now in the hands of the Japanese.  From the vicinity of Wake Island westward our course everywhere lay within aircraft operation of Japanese Islands."

The notation indicated Mitchell's newest obsession, the potential threat of attack from Japan.  Though the insightful officer had recognized it, even written of the threat in 1913, his Pacific tour in 1923-24 brought it to the foreground of his reporting and eventually, his speaking.

When the Mitchells arrived in Manila on New Year's eve, they were met by Billy's old friend, General Douglas MacArthur.  During the two week tour of the Philippine Islands that followed, Mitchell flew frequently and, as was always true of him, was quick to provide others their first flight above the ground.  In the Philippines Mitchell's passenger was none other than the now-elderly but still spry former guerilla commander, Emilio Aguinaldo.  As Mitchell flew over the village where the revered Philippine hero had been born, Aguinaldo dropped his calling cards to the crowds below to the delight of all.

From the Philippines the Mitchells sailed to India, this time at their own expense as that portion of the trip had not been included in Billy's orders.  While they were there they saw historic sites and played well the role of honeymooning tourists.  The newlyweds also went on a tiger hunt as guests of the maharajah, Billy recording the adventure and selling an article on it to National Geographic Magazine.  Amid the fun and frolic however, and despite the fact that India was not included in the list of countries he was to report on, General Mitchell still took time to view India's progress in aviation and note the nature of its military operations.

Mitchell's love for China was evident in his remarks after the visit there as he wrote: "The Chinese themselves are extremely virile, democratic, industrious and very strong physically.  Biologically they are undoubtedly superior to any people living.  They are extremely intelligent and capable of carrying out any development that is desired."

Mitchell's praise was tempered with an observation on the deterioration of the Chinese military preparedness:  "From being a nation that dominated everything around them, as was the case about a century ago, the Chinese have lost their military and political power and are an easy mark for the European nations and the Japanese."  The great Asian nation, in Mitchell's opinion, had misplaced its emphasis for the future, and was now vulnerable.  It was a lesson he earnestly hoped his own country would recognize and learn from.

The last stop on the Mitchell honeymoon was Japan, General Mitchell's primary interest in the tour.  He found the Japanese far more secretive than Germany had been, and most restrictive of his movements during the tour.  Even so, when he departed the Island for the voyage home, he had seen enough to raise deep concerns.  En route to San Francisco, he used the long trip to compile all of his notes into what would be a 323 page treatise on the Pacific situation:

July, 1924

 

"Japan knows full well that the United States will probably enter the next war with the methods and weapons of the former war...It also knows full well that the defense of the Hawaiian group is based on the island of Oahu and not on the defense of the whole group."

*

"The Japanese bombardment, (would be) 100 (air) ships organized into four squadrons of 25 (air) ships each.  The objectives for attack are:

  1. Ford Island, airdrome, hangers, storehouses and ammunition dumps;

  2. Navy fuel oil tanks;

  3. Water supply of Honolulu;

  4. Water supply of Schofield;

  5. Schofield Barracks airdrome and troop establishments;

  6. Naval submarine station;

  7. City and wharves of Honolulu."

"Attack will be launched as follows:  bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island at 7:30 a.m.

*

"Attack to be made on Clark Field (Philippine Islands) at 10:40 a.m."

"Japanese pursuit aviation will meet bombardment over Clark Field, proceeding by squadrons, one at 3000 feet to Clark Field from the southeast and with the sun at their back, one at 5000 feet from the north and one at 10,000 feet from the west.  Should U.S. pursuit e destroyed or fail to appear, airdrome would be attacked with machineguns."

*

"The (Japanese) air force would then carry out a systematic siege against Corregidor."

*

"The United States must not render herself completely defenseless on the one hand thinking that a war with Japan is an impossibility, and on the other by sticking to methods and means of making war as obsolete as the bow and arrow is for the military rifle."

 

Perhaps the most striking quote was one that was not in Billy Mitchell's 1924 report:

"Our people will cheer your great Mitchell and, you may be sure, will study his experiments."

This was the response of Messr. G. Katsuda to a correspondent for the Hartford Courant after the sinking of the Ostfriesland in 1921.  Added the Japanese House of Peers statesman:

"Should there be such a war America would have to fight it a long way from home...It would be gravely embarrassing to the American people if the ideas of your General Mitchell were more appreciated in Japan than in the United States."

Nothing could have been closer to the truth...or more tragic for the United States of America.  Mitchell's report disappeared somewhere near the Flying Trash Bin and General Patrick later claimed he did not see it until a year after Mitchell submitted it.  Not until seventeen years later would anyone put any credence in the scenario it played out.  Then it would be studiously re-examined by a shattered Nation desperately seeking to find out what the predominant Japanese forces would do next in their Pacific War.

 

Kill the Messenger 

After nine months abroad General Mitchell returned to find the situation at home was normal--all fouled up.  The old admirals had done their best to contrive arguments to explain away the sinking of battleships by airplanes.  Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. pointed out:  "I once saw a man kill a lion with a 30-30 caliber rifle under certain conditions, but that doesn't mean that a 30-30 rifle is a lion gun."

To the credit of Admiral Moffett, the Navy was now looking seriously at the construction of air craft carriers.  General Patrick too was advocating fiercely for increases in his small Air Service.  Calvin Coolidge now sat in the Oval Office after the untimely death of President Harding, and the new President was concentrating on domestic policy and pushing the United States further and further into an isolationist view of world events.  While a future war might be possible, once again it would be a foreign affair and this time the United States would stay out of it and let the chips fall where they may.  It was a time of frustration for the forward-thinking Billy Mitchell.

Mitchell fought back through speeches and open criticism of the higher command.  He was unabashed in his pronouncement that Japan could quickly take the Philippines and Hawaii in a military attack, then stunned even his own believers by saying the Japanese would also attack Alaska.  "Alaska is far more important than the Philippines or Hawaii," he announced, "and should be protected by air as well as on land."

Close friends like Hap Arnold tried to reason with Mitchell.  "We need you," he admonished towards the end of 1924 as Mitchell's antics had almost pushed his career to certain doom.  "Don't throw away everything just to beat out some guy who doesn't understand.  Air power IS coming!"

"I'm doing it for the good of the air force, for the future air force, for the good of you fellows.  I can afford to do it.  You can't!"  What General Mitchell implied with this statement was the very thing that he had denied before Congress in prior testimony, that the line-soldiers of the military were afraid to speak the truth for fear of reprisal from the superior officers in the command structure.  When this charge was printed in the Saturday Evening Post, Mitchell had all but sealed his own fate.

The generals, of course, denied that soldiers under their command were muzzled under threat of assignment to some forlorn post for speaking the truth.  Yet the following March when Mitchell's term as Assistant Air Chief expired, he was not reappointed.  Secretary Weeks wrote: "General Mitchell's whole course has been so lawless, so contrary to the building up of an efficient organization, so lacking in any reasonable team work, so indicative of a personal desire for publicity at the expense of everyone with whom he is associated, that his actions render him unfit for a high administrative position."

With those words and the loss of his position, Mitchell gave up his single star and reverted again to his regular rank of Colonel.  Mitchell asked General Patrick to assign him to Chicago where he could oversee the work of the engineers at McCook Field.  Patrick refused, sending Colonel Mitchell about as far from Washington as he could--to the small outpost at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

While the departure of Mitchell was greeted with great joy among those he had offended, he still had a strong circle of friends in Congress, in the media, and in the general public.  His transfer was preceded by much ado, including a visit by Mitchell friend Will Rogers who asked Billy to give him an aerial tour of the Capitol.  Mitchell was happy to oblige, providing the renown humorist with his first adventure above the earth.  "Have you got cotton in your ears?" Billy asked his friend as he climbed into the cockpit.

Despite his nervousness at his first flight, Rogers smiled back and answered, "I only use that in the Senate gallery."  Later remarks by Rogers further reflected his opinion of the matter:

  • "France gave Mitchell the Croix de Guerre, England the Order of the King, and the Republican Administration gave him the Order of the Tin Can."

  • "(Billy Mitchell) is the only man ever connected with high-up- aviation in Washington to use the air for anything but exhaling purposes."

Before Colonel Mitchell departed a group of his pilots surprised him with a farewell party at Bolling Field.  The group elected one man to speak for the group and he advised the colonel, still addressing him by his previous rank: "General, we're all going to apply for transfer to go with you.  If they deny the applications, and of course they will, we're all going to resign."

"Sit down, every damn one of you," Mitchell ordered.  "This is insurrection.  Not one of you will resign...and that's an order!"

Recalled one of the officers there that day, "We obeyed him.  We obeyed him the rest of our lives--and long after he was dead."

As the defiant man who saw the future and spoke incredible things, then defended them regardless of the consequences departed for Texas, the Cleveland Press noted:

"We may wait a hundred years before another such display of Courage!"

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Perhaps an Explosion

While the Texas transfer removed Mitchell from his platform and his crowds, it couldn't still his voice.  In the spring his newest book titled Winged Defense was published.  Quickly discounted by Mitchell's adversaries, and criticized for the inclusion of cartoons lampooning the now gravely ill Secretary Weeks, the publisher described the book as  "a bomb in the lap of American complacency".

The cartoons, Mitchell tried to explain, had been added by the publisher and "Made Secretary Weeks laugh as much as anybody else.  I think they made everybody laugh."

Any levity in the Navy quickly vanished in the wake of two tragedies in September.  

The first was a highly publicized attempt by the Navy to fly three PN-9 airboats from California to Hawaii.  The previous year Army pilots had captured the nation's attention with a flight around the world (a project Mitchell had urged years before).  In response, the Navy tackled the Pacific only to confront multiplied disaster.  One airplane never made it off the ground, the second landed in the ocean not long after take-off, and all hopes of success hinged on the remaining PN-9.

Mitchell was no fan of the experiment, believing the Navy pilots lacked the training, did not possess adequate equipment to safely accomplish the mission, and had poorly planned the route and its support.  Still, when it was announced on September 1 that the last radio call from the remaining PN-9 had announced it was running out of gas 300 miles from Hawaii, Mitchell was respectful.  That night in a radio broadcast he urged all who heard his voice to remember the Navy airmen in their prayers.  "They are just as much martyrs to the progress of civilization as Columbus would have been had he perished in his voyage to America."  (On September 10 Commander John Rodgers and his crew of the missing PN-9 were rescued at sea after nine days helplessly drifting in their out-of-gas airplane.  Before the welcomed happy ending to the Navy's first disaster that September, an even greater tragedy would occur...and there would be no happy ending.)

That tragedy involved one of the Navy's newest and largest ships--689 feet long from stem to stern and numbered "ZR-1".  It was one of the few few ships not measured in tonnage for it was lighter than air.  It was christened the...

 

USS Shenandoah 

In 1925 the Navy had two of the big airships, one of which was the USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) that was built at the Zeppelin works in Friedrichshafen, German and appropriated after the war as part of the war-debt compensation.  The USS Shenandoah was home grown, christened on October 10, 1923 and assigned to the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Admiral Moffett was partial to the airships and considered him among the pride of Naval aviation.  The huge Shenandoah had also become the darling of the media, despite its high price tag, and in the summer of 1925 the Navy decided to show off their wonderful new asset.  August and September marked the traditional state fair season throughout the mid-west, and the airships commander Commander Zachary Lansdowne was ordered to prepare his ship for a tour of these fairs.  The Navy hoped that the sight of the two-block-long balloon floating over fair crowds would impress the public with the military might purchased with their dollars, and add positive publicity to the annual winter lobby for appropriations from Congress the following year.

Commander Lansdowne was regular Navy and was not too happy with his orders.  He envisioned his airship working at sea in cooperation with the fleet, not flying over inland fairgrounds as part of a propaganda sideshow.  In Texas Colonel Billy Mitchell, who was a friend of the Lansdownes agreed, and expressed his opinion bluntly:  "What business has the Navy over the mountains anyway."

The Navy couldn't care less was Billy Mitchell thought, and Commander Lansdowne was a good officer the admirals knew would accept and fulfill his orders regardless of his opinion regarding them.  On September 2 as the Navy prayed and searched for the crew of the missing PN-9 in the Pacific, Commander Lansdowne was piloting his large airship inland towards Des Moines, Iowa where it would hover above the crowds the following day.  He comforted himself with the knowledge that this was his last mission in the airship.  In two more weeks he would return to sea duty on a traditional Navy vessel.

In the darkness of night the Shenandoah rose over the Alleghenies into the plains, and into the face of an approaching storm.  At three in the morning the edges of the storm were buffeting the slow moving airship and Lieutenant Joseph Anderson advised Commander Lansdowne that he might wish to change course further south to skirt the high winds and building lightening.  Lansdowne was unshaken.  He had weathered storms before at sea and replied, "We've been ordered to fly over a certain course, and I want to keep that course as long as I can."

At 5:00 a.m. two of the airships engines began sputtering and the airship began to climb and roll, unable to fend off the heavy winds.  Forty-five minutes of furious activity followed as all hands struggled to regain control.  Two engines failed completely and the airship continued to rise.  After crossing the Alleghenies Lansdowne had cruised over Ohio at 2,000 feet.  By 5:45 the storm had pushed the large balloon up to 6,200 feet, where is suddenly began to come apart--then broke into three pieces.

The tail section drifted away and began to fall to earth.  It contained eighteen men, all but three of whom survived.  Four more crewmen safely descended in the ruptured mid-section, while the bow section climbed as high as 10,000 feet before the navigator, Charles Rosendahl, slashed the gas cells.  Slowly the last section of the Shenandoah drifted earthward, some of the crew including Rosendahl surviving.  Among the dead was Commander Lansdowne.  In all the USS Shenandoah went to its demise, joined by fourteen of her crew, including the captain.

As the story broke, the media became quickly aware of Commander Lansdownes opposition to this mission, and began speaking of the Navy's misuse of the great airship for public relations, not military, purposes.  Reporters eagerly sought for opinions, focusing particularly on two men, the top man in the Navy and the foremost authority in the world on aerial matters.

The first to respond was Secretary of the Navy Dwight Wilbur.  His comments may have been the final straw for the man who would respond next.  Said the Secretary: "In view of...the failure of the Hawaiian flight and the Shenandoah disaster we have come to the conclusion that the Atlantic and the Pacific are still our best defenses.  We have nothing to fear from enemy aircraft that is not on this continent." 

Back in Houston, Colonel Billy Mitchell did not immediately respond to the calls of reporters and telegrams from around the world to give his own opinion.  When at last he did speak, many who heard his words believed that Colonel Billy Mitchell made the gravest mistake of his life.  IT WAS NOT MISTAKE!

A "mistake" is something one does when they speak or act without thinking, an error in judgment one looks back on afterwards and says, I wish I hadn't done that!  Colonel Mitchell didn't speak without thinking...he pondered it all, carefully preparing his response for a day and a half.  He knew what needed to be said, certainly understood the consequences before he spoke.  As he did perhaps he recalled one of his last conversations with his friend Hap Arnold, a response to his friend's pleas to Mitchell to tone down his rhetoric before he crossed the line of no return with the military's higher command.  Mitchell's response:

"When senior officers won't see the facts, you've got to do something unorthodox...perhaps an explosion!"

The explosion occurred at precisely 5:00 a.m. on the morning of September 5th.  Colonel Mitchell first handed out copies of his carefully drafted 6,080-word response to reporters, then read them a few lines:

"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 has 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 accident 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.

"The bodies of my former companions of the air molder under the soil in America and Asia, Europe and Africa, many, yes, a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity."

 

After a moment of stunned silence, the reporters rushed to be first to publish perhaps the most inflammatory words every spoken by any soldier in uniform, about the men who commanded him.   Colonel Billy Mitchell has pushed the limit throughout his career, and survived because of his popularity with the public and his admirable war record.  This time there was no doubt he had crossed the line.  The result was inescapable....

The Court-martial Of
Billy Mitchell

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It was a Friday morning when Colonel Mitchell issued his response and, after delivering his remarks he took the weekend off to fish in the Gulf of Mexico while newspapers across the country reported and commented on the Mitchell response.  The reaction was mixed, from high praise for his courage in some to damning denunciation for his insubordination in others.  Among the military command there was no argument...Colonel Billy Mitchell had gone too far.

Mitchell honestly expected the Army to place him under arrest on Monday, September 7 when he returned from his weekend jaunt.  By Wednesday he began to fear that, in view of his great popularity in the media and with veterans groups, the War Department might back down.  On September 9 he issued additional statements including the observation:  "What I have said about the conditions in our national defense hurts the bureaucrats in Washington.  It ought to hurt them, because it's the truth!"

It also became obvious, had it not been before, that Colonel Mitchell was almost aggressively seeking his own demise.  He seemed quite prepared to face the consequences of his actions with the determination that any trial would focus not so much on the rightness or wrongness of his insubordination, but the accuracy of his charges.  In his scathing September 9 statement he challenged, "If an investigation is desired I am eager to have it.  But it must be entirely public and all the evidence must be published for the people to know about...Then and only then will we begin to get at the actual facts involved and remove it from petty politics and bureaucratic suppression.

"It does not matter to me whether I am in the Army or not.  If the bureaucracies wish to throw me out they probably have the machine for doing it, and it will be only one more evidence of the conditions into which our national defense has drifted."

 

The Morrow Board 

While the War Department struggled with how to deal with Billy Mitchell's latest outrage, President Calvin Coolidge became the first to act.  His response was less of a reaction to Mitchell's insubordination than it was a reaction to his charges.  Earlier in 1925 the President had considered an investigation into the feasibility of the mounting call for a separate air arm, and had discussed with his close friend Dwight Morrow the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to launch hearings and report its findings.  Mitchell's actions may or may not have spurred the process, certainly such a panel might divert some of the attention from the Colonel's media attention, but at any rate the panel was established almost immediately after the Mitchell's second press conference.

While the Army was still investigating Mitchell and determining how to respond, Mitchell was summoned to Washington, D.C. to testify before the Morrow Board.  Hearings opened on Monday, September 21 and the Mitchell's arrived at Union Station in the Capitol the following Friday.  He was met by a throng of 10,000 supporters including members of two American Legion Posts that carried him through the throng on their shoulders while shouting, "We fought once...we'll fight for you now!"  Hap Arnold ushered the Mitchell's to his car and drove them to their hotel.  For the remainder of the weekend Colonel Billy Mitchell was the honored guest, and hero, of local veterans groups in functions throughout the city.

Billy and Betty enjoyed a relaxing Monday together before Colonel Mitchell's September 29 appearance before the Morrow Board.  They arrived together at the House Office Building just as Benjamin Foulois was wrapping up his own testimony.  Ironically, Foulois' testimony was just as acrimonious as were Mitchell's words:

"I was one of the first men to fly a plane for the Army, in 1908.  I remember that in 1910 I was allowed only $150 to keep our plane going--and I had to spend $300 out of my own pocket to do it.

"I say our lack of team work today is due to the utter ignorance of the General Staff of 90 percent of the Air Service problems."

For his own part, years later Foulois expressed surprise that it was Billy Mitchell and not himself that was court-martialed for his blatant words.  Even so, Mitchell remained bitter enemies even after Mitchell's death, and Foulois was never called to testify in the subsequent court martial proceedings.

Before the Morrow Board, Mitchell was far less impressive than others who testified.  In two days before the Board, Colonel Mitchell spent most of his time reading from his recently published book Winged Defense, even after one board member advised Mitchell in frustration that all the members of the Board had already read his book.  It is doubtful that Colonel Mitchell expected the Morrow Board to give a favorable review to his concept of an independent air arm anyway.

Mitchell did address some new points, particularly with the Shenandoah tragedy, charging that the Navy had violated the law with its propaganda mission.  Congressman Carl Vincent asked Mitchell what laws the Navy had violated.

"The section which restricts Navy air activities to sea," he replied.  Vincent indicated that Mitchell's interpretation of the law might be too broad, to which the Colonel responded:  "The Shenandoah was sent on a propaganda mission.  The law was evaded, not exactly disobeyed.  The orders for the trip were from nonflying officers.  The inquiry will bring that out."

The inquiry to which Colonel Mitchell referred was the Navy's own investigation into the Shenandoah tragedy, scheduled to begin almost immediately.  Colonel Mitchell was called before that board in early October.  Mitchell refused to be sworn in, his attorney arguing that no subpoena had been issued.  When Admiral Hillary Jones, president of the court of inquiry, produced a subpoena, Mitchell gave his only official response of the Shenandoah Inquiry:

"I am advised by my counsel that it would be inconsistent with my legal rights and might jeopardize my case, should I be required to testify before the naval court on matters likely to be the subject of inquiry in possible court-martial proceeding."

Colonel Mitchell had already said all he needed to about the Shenandoah tragedy, and he left it to the Navy to hang themselves, which they did in a most unflattering way.

In the hours after the Shenandoah had fallen to earth in pieces, the scene of the disaster had been invaded by souvenir hunters.  The site had been picked virtually clean.  Someone even went so far as to steal the Annapolis Class Ring from the dead finger of Captain Lansdowne.  During the official inquiry the media learned that the indignities heaped upon the victims had not ended there.  Bodies of the dead Naval airmen had been shipped home in underwear, crude wooden caskets, and with little regard for the family.  Navy regulations permitted the payment of up to $150 for burial of a man who died in service, but the clean-up at the site and shipment of the bodies back to Lakehurst alone had exceeded the allotted amount.  From Lakehurst the dead aviators had been sent home by the most economical means.  Families who had submitted funeral bills to the Department of the Navy, saw the bills returned to them without remuneration.

Billy Mitchell was now preparing his defense for the court-martial scheduled to begin on September 28.  It would prove to be quite costly, despite the fact that his chosen counsel took the job pro bono.  Despite these looming expenses, when Liberty magazine sent Mitchell a check for $1,000 (after the September 5 press conference Mitchell had agreed to do an article for Liberty), Colonel Mitchell simply endorsed it and sent it on to Margaret Lansdowne.  The widow of the Shenandoah's commander was instructed to share the sizable donation with the families of the other victims.

Colonel Mitchell selected as his own counsel, freshman Illinois Congressman Frank R. Reid who was himself a great proponent of air power.  Clayton Bissell was appointed assistant defense counsel and the team went to work in Reid's Congressional office to put their case together--in only three weeks.  Both men realized that they faced a virtually impossible situation.  Bissell remembered: "We quickly decided that Mitchell was guilty as charged, with insubordination and conduct prejudicial to the service.  We even convinced him that he would be found guilty.  Reid asked what point we wanted to make, in that event--and we agreed that the trial had to be used to educate the American people on aviation, to make national defense mean something."

The night before the trial began Colonel Mitchell echoed that sentiment.  Pounding on the table for effect he stated with vigor:  "I'm not afraid of what the court will do to me.  I'll fight on to get a real department of national defense, no matter what happens."

When Billy Mitchell, his wife Betty, and his attorney's walked into the old and long-empty warehouse called the Emory Building at nine o'clock on the morning of September 28, it was to face some of the best recognized names of the United States Army.  During one of the breaks during the days that followed, Mitchell remarked to someone nearby:  "MacArthur looks like he's been drawn through a knothole."

General Douglas MacArthur, one of six major generals on the court, later wrote that his being ordered to determine the fate of Billy Mitchell was "one of the most distasteful orders I ever received."   This august group was joined by six brigadier generals and Colonel Blanton Winship to interpret law for the members.  Virtually all of the men appointed to hear testimony and find Billy Mitchell either guilty or innocent of violating the 96th Article of War were acquaintances, some even friends.  The President of the court was Major General Charles P. Summerall, whose command in Hawaii had been blasted by Mitchell little more than a year earlier.

The first order of trial was the qualifications of the judges to hear the evidence and render a fair verdict.  Colonel Sherman Moreland, the Trial Judge Advocate (prosecutor) wasted little time in approving all of them.  It was the most august and highest ranking court ever assembled, each of the men were steeped in the Army's traditions, and all understood well the importance of subordinates adhering to orders and protocol.

When it came Reid's turn, he first challenged Brigadier General Albert Bowley.  Only a week earlier Bowley had debunked Mitchell's concepts of air power and a department of defense with the words:  "A single air service?  Do we want this?  The backbone of the army is the infantry!"  The other judges retired in private to take the matter under advisement.  When they returned, General Bowley was excused.

Next Reid challenged Major General Summerall, President of the Court.  It was an electric moment, General Summerall displaying a good deal of repressed anger.  When the other judges returned after considering this challenge, General Summerall was excused.  As he left the room he finally gave voice to his anger:  "Only ten minutes before court convened I shook hands with him.  Now its all over.  We're enemies, Mitchell and I."

Replacing Summerall at the head of the Court was Major General Robert Lee Howze, an old cavalry officer who had graduated from West Point in 1888, earned a Medal of Honor at White River, SD less than three years later, commanded the U.S. Fourth Division in the Great War, and risen steadily to become one of the Army's true old war horses.  Those who knew Howze expected him to be fair, but strict and unyielding in maintaining control of the proceedings.

Before the jury selection process was completed the prosecution dismissed Major General Fred Sladen.  Unlike General Sumerall, General Sladen seemed truly relieved to be excused from the undesirable task that lay before the remaining nine generals.  "I consider this the most august tribunal that has ever been called upon to act on any question since the Magna Carta," Frank Reid announced.

And thus began the court martial of Colonel William Billy Mitchell.

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96th Article Of War

Though not mentioned in these Articles, all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service...shall be taken cognizance of by a...court-martial and punished at the discretion of such court.

 

FRIDAY, October 30, 1925

 

The charges against Colonel Mitchell numbered some 52 pages, all related to the broad language of the 96th Article of War.  Mitchell faced eight specific charges and was asked first to stand and state his plea to the general issue.

"NOT GUILTY," he answered is a clear, strong voice.

Each of the eight charges were then read, four related to his September 5 conduct and then four more (the same charges) related to his September 9 statements:

  1. That Colonel Mitchell, in his statement of September 5, conducted himself "to the prejudice of good order and military discipline";

  2. That his statement was "insubordinate";

  3. That his statement was "highly contemptuous and disrespectful" and intended to discredit the War Department;

  4. The same four specifications as those cited, but referring to the Navy Department.
                                                              *

  5. That Colonel Mitchell, in his statement of September 9, conducted himself "to the prejudice of good order and military discipline";

  6. That his statement was "insubordinate";

  7. That his statement was "highly contemptuous and disrespectful" and intended to discredit the War Department;

  8. The same four specifications as those cited, but referring to the Navy Department.

As each count was read, Colonel Mitchell again announced his plea:  "Not Guilty!"  That done, court recessed for the weekend.

If the generals that stood in judgment of Billy Mitchell comprised the most august tribunal that has ever been called, the parade of witnesses that followed was a veritable "who's-who" of American heroes.  One of the first was Major Carl Tooey Spaatz who spoke of the sad state of American air power and announced that, if he could pull all of the administrative officers away from their desks, he might be able to field a force of 15 pursuit aircraft.

"Do you think aviation is being held back and repressed by the War Department," Reid asked.  The prosecution objected to the question as calling for a conclusion from the witness.

Before General Howze could rule on the objection, Spaatz shouted, "I do!" to applause from the audience.

The days that followed provided a parade of airmen, virtually all demonstrating their support for Colonel Mitchell and validating his charges with their testimony about the sad state of American air power.  Observers were puzzled by the course the trial was taking.  Little testimony related to whether or not Billy Mitchell was guilty of the charges, most centered around the veracity of his statements.  In September the New York Times had predicted:  "If the War Department decides to call Colonel Mitchell before a court-martial, the simple issue will be whether he has been guilty of disrespect to his superiors and insubordination.  It will not be mismanagement of the air service."

General Howze had already indicated that validation of Mitchell's claim that air power had been suppressed or that the September disasters had been the result of incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration would have no bearing on the verdict.  It was Billy Mitchell who was on trial, NOT the War Department or the Department of the Navy.

For this reason most didn't expect the trial to last more than a few days.  It didn't take long to read the words Mitchell had spoken on September 5 and 9, and compare them to the broad standards of the 96th Article of War.  To the surprise of almost everyone, the court seemed to be giving the accused a wide latitude to educate the public.  And that was exactly what Mitchell had wanted, regardless of how he got there or what it might cost.

The cost was indeed great, and not only for Colonel Mitchell.  There was a groundswell of support for Mitchell and one of the organizers for that effort was Ira Eaker who later stated, "We talked over how taking part in Mitchell's trial would jeopardize our careers and decided to go ahead anyhow.  (Major Henry) Arnold was the inspirational leader in that decision by this little group.  When Hap Arnold took the stand his testimony was pointed and, at times, vehement as to the sorry state of American air power.  After the trial Arnold was sent far from Washington for many years, and believed that this was a banishment imposed upon him for his support of Mitchell and his testimony at odds with the War Department.

On November 10 Reid called Mr. William G. Schauffler who had commanded a squadron of the 90th Observation Group in France and shot down a German plane on October 1, 1918 at the height of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  Disheartened by what he saw happening after the war, Schauffler had left the Army in disgust, but still served as a reserve officer in command of six reserve squadrons including the one based in the Capitol.  He testified that his squadrons existed only on paper, had no airplanes, and had mustered only once...to participate in a parade.

"Then why do you remain in the position you're in?"  Reid asked.
"God knows, I don't!"  Schauffler answered. 

The parade of war heroes was an appropriate prelude to Armistice Day, November 11, 1925.  A few minutes before eleven o'clock General Howze called a recess to observe a two minute moment of silence for the men who had died in the Great War.  Then the trial resumed, most of the testimony centering on Mitchell's charges that American defenses in the Pacific were weak and poorly organized.  Among the witnesses called was Major Gerald Brant of the Air Service and a member of the General Staff.

"Did General Mitchell make a report on the Hawaiian Island?" Reid asked.
"He made a report on the conditions in the Pacific which included the Hawaiian Islands, in October, 1924," Major Brant answered.
"When did this report reach you through channels?"
"Saturday."
"Do you mean LAST Saturday?"
"Yes sir."
"What is the opinion of the War Plans Division on this report?"
"It stated that these recommendations were based on General Mitchell's personal opinions and therefore no consideration need be given them."
"Can you produce Colonel Mitchell's report for this court?
"Probably  not, since they deal with strategy."

The irony of this testimony was evident to all.  Mitchell's report from his 9-month Pacific tour in 1923-24 had been considered ill-conceived and baseless.  It had been shuffled off to some forgotten pigeon-hole in the War Department as worthless.  Now, the War Department wanted to classify it as secret and ultimately did.  (Not until 1958 was that report declassified, and by then, most of what Mitchell had predicted had come to pass.)

On that same Armistice Day the court announced a stunning reversal in policy that many hailed as Mitchell's first victory of the trial.  General Howze announced that defense evidence that substantiated Mitchell's charges against the Navy and War Departments would be considered as mitigating factors in his statements of September 5 and 9.  If he could prove his own charges accurate, the court would exonerate him.  It was the first sign of hope for a trial whose outcome had been certain before it began.

The day after Armistice Day Mitchell received a telegram from the members of the New York American Legion.  They had sought to have Mitchell released to speak for their convention on Armistice Day, only to be denied.  Since late October, Mitchell had been under arrest and was forbidden to leave the Capitol.  The telegram said:

Greetings from your buddies.  America loves a man with guts!

1892 years ago a packed court-martial condemned a courageous soldier for telling the truth so don't worry.

We are all with you and we don't mean maybe!

That same day Reid called more war heroes to the stand, including two men who had established enviable combat records in the air, then left the Army after the war for other pursuits.  The first was Reed Chambers, the great ace of the 94th Aero Squadron who had shot down seven enemy aircraft.  Chambers had now turned his attention to commercial aviation.  There was no future in the Army.

The second was a man who had gone to war as a chauffer, been rescued from that humdrum position by Billy Mitchell and given the chance to fly.   He had come home wearing nine Distinguished Service Crosses for his prowess in the air, and left Army aviation to build automobiles (though within a few years of the trial he would return to the skies in commercial aviation.)  His testimony began with the proclamation, "It is a crime against posterity!"  He was one of the best-known of America's heroes, Eddie Rickenbacker.  His support of Mitchell both on the stand and in public, was without reservation.

Rickenbacker voiced before the court his frustration during World War I of sending airmen into battle without parachutes.  He testified that American air power was sorely inadequate and that the United States ranked eighth in the world in terms of air power.  He berated the War Department for its lack of new airplanes and the policy of relegating its pilots to the use of left-over planes from the war.  "It is dangerous to have them on hand," he announced.  "The graveyards throughout the United States show that, located or attached to the flying fields."

The prosecution objected, and had the graveyard remark stricken from the record.  When the prosecution challenged Rickenbacker one one point and asked him if he would be surprised to see that the official records differed from his testimony, Rick responded somewhat sarcastically, "I wouldn't be surprised by ANYTHING the records show!"  His words continued to ring loud and clear throughout the courtroom as he unflinchingly pronounced:

"This nation owes General Mitchell a debt of gratitude for daring to speak the truth.  He has learned his lessons from the only real teacher--experience.

"This nation will pay the price of their selfishness.  Not perhaps in this generation but in that of the boys who are growing up today or their sons.  The unified air service is the life insurance of our national security."

"One-tenth of one percent of the money now wasted on national defense, if put intelligently into aircraft, would give us some real protection.  The Army is helpless without aircraft, so is the Navy."

 

The trial had stretched into three weeks of debate over the War Department's handling of the Air Service and praise for Colonel Mitchell.  The message differed little and the daily reports were becoming trite.  Before calling the witness that would renew media attention, Reid called Colonel O. C. Pierce, a personnel officer.  At one point Reid questioned him about pilot ratings.  Colonel Pierce advised the court that the Air Service had only about thirty pilots who were rated as superior.  Reid asked Pierce to break down these pilots according to their type of aircraft.

"One attack, twenty-one pursuit, five bombardment, and one unclassified."
"What is the unclassified one?"
"He flies anything."
"What is his name?  Have you got anybody in that list?"
"General Mitchell is the unclassified one,"
Pierce announced, ignoring the fact that Mitchell no longer wore a star on his shoulder.

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She was not a secret witness, Reid had been advising the media for days that she would be called to testify.  Still a current of electric excitement and fascination rippled through the courtroom when, towards the middle of November, Frank Reid announced:

The defense calls as its next witness,

Margaret Ross Lansdowne."

When the pretty, young widow of the captain of the ill-fated Shenandoah walked into the Emory Building, the entire courtroom rose in reverence and General Howze bowed to greet her respectfully.   Reid quickly established that Mrs. Lansdowne had testified, several weeks earlier, before the official Navy inquiry into the disaster that had killed her husband.  (That inquiry was still being conducted concurrent with the Mitchell trial.)  Before the Naval inquiry, Mrs. Lansdowne had been somewhat reserved and her testimony contained almost nothing newsworthy.  All that changed in the Mitchell trial.

It had been Mitchell's charges against the Department of the Navy after the Shenandoah disaster that had set in motion the events leading to this trial.  The Navy had done its best to refute Mitchell's accusations, even prompting many believed, the reaction by the brother of the airship's navigator Charles Rosendahl to pen an open letter to the Houston Chronicle stating:  "You have no place in the service of your country when you have so little respect for its authority."

Mitchell had refused to testify before the Navy's official inquiry, citing conflicts with the defense of his own case.  The true fact of the matter was, as had been borne out in previous Mitchell statements to the media, that Billy expected nothing positive to come of the "whitewash board".  Mitchell was sure that the Navy would take care of its own, would gloss over facts and manipulate the hearing to clear itself of any wrongdoing in the tragedy.  Just how far the Navy would go to accomplish this exoneration comprised the majority of Mrs. Lansdowne's testimony.

Prosecutors in the Mitchell trial did their best to prevent the testimony that followed, an account by Mrs. Lansdowne indicating pressure by the Navy to influence her testimony in the Shenandoah inquiry--even to the point of perjury.  Captain Paul Foley had sent a communication to her prior to her testimony.  "It was delivered to me the day before the court (hearing)," she testified in a strong, clear voice.
          "Have you a copy of this communication?"  Reid asked.
          "I have not--I tore it up."

Reid read a portion of Mrs. Lansdowne's subsequent testimony:  "My husband was very much opposed to this flight and protested as vigorously as any officer is allowed to do to his superiors.  Everyone knows that in the military or naval services, orders are given to be obeyed and no officer cares to earn the stigma of cowardice or insubordination."

Throughout Mrs. Lansdowne's testimony the prosecution found itself facing some of the most damning testimony yet, words that more vividly verified Mitchell's charges than anything that had been heard before.  Throughout the morning and into the afternoon they bombarded Reid with objection after objection.  Reid fought them back at every turn and managed to get most of Mrs. Lansdowne's story told.  When he finished and turned to the prosecution for cross-examination, the testimony became even more damning.

Though the prosecutors  could argue vehemently with Reid, to attack Mrs. Lansdowne under cross-examination would have been a public relations blunder for sure.  The strong but visibly sad lady before them was only 23 years old, and had lost her husband only three months earlier.  When she was asked to relate the visit she had received from Captain Foley PRIOR to receiving his communiqué, her story demonstrated that the Navy had shown no such effort to spare her feelings after the tragedy.

"Captain Foley sought to impress me with the importance of the court and told me that the court had all the powers of any federal court and that the solemnity of my appearance was very great and that I should be sure to tell the truth.

"He then asked me what I was going to say and I answered him that I preferred to make my own statement to the (Shenandoah inquiry) court.

"He asserted that he wanted to find out what I had on my mind, and please to get if off, and said, 'Let's rehearse the statement you are going to make to the court.  Tell me the entire thing you are going to say.'  I answered again that I did not want to make my statement.

"He told me that I had no right to say that the flight was a political flight, as the taxpayers in the Middle West had a perfect right to see their property, to which I answered that in the case of a battleship you wouldn't take it out to the Great Lakes and interest the taxpayers in the property.

"He answered that it couldn't be done--and I said that it couldn't in the case of the Shenandoah, but they (the Navy) were so stupid it had to be proven to them."

 

Mrs. Lansdownes' testimony was followed by a parade of witnesses designed to demonstrate that the Shenandoah tragedy had indeed by the result of ignorance on the part of the Department of the Navy.  Perhaps the most explosive testimony came near the end of this line of examination when Ernest Sheehan, a newspaper reporter took the stand.  Based near the Ohio field where the broken airship had fallen, he had been one of the first on the scene and the first to interview survivors.  Under oath he testified that these aviators had spoken freely with him until officials from the Navy arrived.  "Commander Klein (one of those officials) requested me not to write the cause of the wreck...(he) knew what I had because I told him...He asked me not to mix in it."

Reid asked with mock incredulity if Sheehan was intimating that Commander Klein was urging him to suppress the facts of the disaster.

"That was the impression I got," Sheehan answered.

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Though there was some powerful testimony in that fourth full week of the trial to excoriate the Navy's ill-fated propaganda mission for the Shenandoah, after the stirring story shared by Mrs. Lansdowne it appeared somewhat lackluster.  Then, on November 19, one of the Navy's own took the stand.  While he made it clear from the outset that he disagreed with Mitchell's call for a separate air force, he was poignant in his frank words about the Navy's handling of aviation.

The admire was now 64 years old with snowy-white hair, but he spoke with clarity and purpose.  There also spoke without fear of reprisal for he had retired three years earlier.  That might not have mattered anyway--Admiral William Sims had always spoke his mind and damn the consequences.  Before the Mitchell hearing he announced:  "The Navy Department hasn't any defined policy (regarding air power).  It is going along from day to day, more or less in a higgley-piggledy way."

Sims patently condemned the decision by the Navy to send the Shenandoah on its propaganda mission, and testified that he believed that indeed young officers were were afraid to speak their true convictions.  To do so would jeopardize ones career and advancement. 

Admiral Sims finished his testimony on Thursday, and was followed the next day by a few more witnesses before Reid announced that he was finished.  On Monday, November 23, Colonel Mitchell would take the stand in his own defense.  It was the point in the trial the entire country...perhaps indeed the world, had been waiting for.

Colonel Mitchell's testimony in actuality consumed only about one day in the seven week trial.  For nearly seven years he had spoken his messages...before Congress, in detailed reports to the War Department, in articles for publication, before Veterans groups and the general public, and especially in his recently published book.  Ironically, a good deal of his cross-examination was directed not at the veracity of the air theory espoused in Winged Defense, but the originality of them.  (To this day Mitchell historians often are quick to point out that many of Mitchell's concepts were derived from his associations with men like Sir Trenchard, Benjamin Foulois, and others.)  The Colonel was repeatedly bombarded with questions to determine which of his statements were based on fact and which were based upon personal opinion.  It became a long and for the most part, exceedingly banal sparing match.

There were times that it would seem as if a distant light sparkled in his eyes as he spoke of the future of air power, but these moments tended to lend credence to the opinion that Mitchell had perhaps become so focused on air power that he had lost touch with reality.  Some of his recommendations and predictions were preposterous in 1925:

As to the charges leveled in the Shenandoah tragedy, did Mitchell believe his facts were accurate?  
"More so than ever.  Now I KNOW they are true."

As to the military's propaganda machine and the muzzling of officers, had Colonel Mitchell ever given information to the media while service as Assistant Chief of the Air Service?  
"Often.  There was no other way of getting the truth out, I found."

In 1913 hadn't Mitchell issued a statement opposing separation of the Air Service from the Signal Corps?
"Yes...and I never made a worse statement!"

As a titter of laughter went around the courtroom at that candid remark, Major Gullion turned to General Howze and surprised all in the room:

"We are through with the witness."

Before the (Thanksgiving) holiday recess, Congressman Fiorello La Guardia took the stand.  "It's not convenient for me to come," he had told Claygon Bissell when he called for the Congressman's help, "but I'll be there."

Reporters got to the Congressmen at his hotel room early in the morning of his court appearance.  Then it was on to the Emory Building where the World War I veteran pilot had told the court that New York City would be helpless before an attack from the air by a foreign enemy.   By the time Reid had finished questioning the fiery young Congressman, the words from his early morning meeting with the press had reached the streets.

When Gullion began cross-examination he looked with some annoyance at La Guardia.  "The newspapers recently quoted you as saying, 'Billy Mitchell isn't being tried by a jury of his peers but by nine beribboned dogrobbers of the General Staff.'  Were you correctly quoted.

"I didn't say 'beribboned'." La Guardia deadpanned.

The courtroom burst into laughter and General Howze struggled to regain control.  The the President of the Court looked at the Congressman and stated:  "The court would like to have you explain what was meant by your characterization of this court."

"From my experience as a member of Congress and from my contact with the General Staff, I'm convinced that the training, the background, the experience and the attitude of officers of high rank of the Army are conducive to carrying out the wishes and desires of the General Staff....I want to say that, at that time, I didn't know General MacArthur was on this court."  Again the room broke into laughter and MacArthur looked up uncomfortably.  For most of the proceedings he had tried to remain conspicuously, inconspicuous.

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Court resumed on Monday, the last day of November and the same day on which the Morrow Board submitted its report to President Coolidge.  The disappointing but anticipated conclusion was at odds with Mitchell's call for a separate air force.  Despite this recommendation from the committee that had spent two months interviewing 99 witnesses, a board that in hindsight some believe was seated when it was to counter-act the charges anticipated in Mitchell's trial, the Morrow Report was a small victory for the Air Service.  It recommended renaming the Air Service to the "Air Corps", a small step away from the concept of air power as an auxiliary (service organization) to the Army.  It further encouraged representation on the General Staff and advocated offices of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, and of the Navy, and of Commerce, be established for the air services.  Ultimately it would lead to the U.S. Army Air Corps Act of 1926 which also included a 5-year buildup of American air power.

Among the first witnesses called in this last phase of the Mitchell trial was Navy pilot John Rodgers of the ill-fated PN-9 flight to Hawaii.  Commander Rodgers did his best to portray the mission in a light favorable to the Navy, refuting Mitchell's claims that it was publicity stunt.  It was, he told the court, an effort to practice navigation and to qualify the Navy's aviators.
"Then you haven't a single qualified aviator in the Navy?"  Reid asked.
"That's what we're trying to do, qualify ourselves," Rodgers responded.

On the first day of December the well known Admiral Richard Byrd was called to the stand.  His presence was notable, but his testimony was lackluster next to the objections and wrangling between Reid and Gullion.  The sparing continued for the next several days as the prosecution presented a series of witnesses to refute the testimony of the Mitchell supporters.  The Shenandoah's navigator, Lieutenant Commander Charles Rosendal testified that Commander Lansdowne had never protested the flight that had resulted in the disaster of September 3.  That flight, subsequent high ranking Naval officers testified, had been ordered for "training and development of the ship", not for propaganda purposes.

Even some of those who testified for the prosecution found themselves agreeing with Mitchell far too much to suit the prosecutors.  Several planned witnesses were never placed on the witness stand when Gullion realized their support was for the accused.  Thurman Bane had been Chief of Engineering at McCook Field through Mitchell's bombing tests, and the two had often clashed.  Bane had once commented to another, "You shouldn't fool with Mitchell.  He's crazy."  Called out of retirement to testify against Mitchell, he was quickly dropped from the list of witnesses when the Army realized he would support the accused.  Bane even apologized to Mitchell for his past criticism.

Mitchell just smiled and replied, "Forget it.  All that's water over the dam.  We've got to work together now, and save air power."

Such was the general nature of Colonel Mitchell though much of the trial.  It was almost as if he never realized it was his life--his career, that was at stake.  Even in the face of the most scathing rebuke from prosecution witnesses, Mitchell tended not to take anything personally.  It was both frustrating--and admirable.  Those who testified against him might have felt more comfortable had the man glared at them, or rebuffed them.  Instead, he seemed focused only on his hypothesis, never on the personal attack.  After the trial he remained friends with MacArthur, and two of his judges (General McCoy and Colonel Winship) became godfathers to his children.

One of the last witnesses in the seven week trial was the previously excused President of the Court, General Summerall.  He blasted Mitchell's report on combat conditions in the Pacific.  When questioned about his "Mitchell and I are now enemies" quote to the media upon being excused from the trial, he denied making the statement despite a demeanor that gave evidence to just such an opinion.  Even so, somewhere during the hearing or shortly thereafter General Summerall made a statement that would become a lasting tribute to the colonel...

"Mitchell is one of that damned kind of soldier who's wonderful in war and terrible in peace!"

On the morning of December 17 General Howze called for arguments to sum up the case.  Mitchell turned to Reid and asked him to remain seated, then rose to face the generals himself.  The court had reneged on its November 11 policy that it would consider the substantiation of the statements precipitating Mitchell's trial as a mitigating factor to his guilt under the 96th Article of War.  In a clear, strong voice he addressed the court:

"My trial before this court-martial is the culmination of the efforts of the General Staff of the Army and the General Board of the Navy to depreciate the value of air power and keep it in auxiliary position, which absolutely compromised the whole system of national defense.

"The truth of every statement which I have made has been proved by good and sufficient evidence before this court, not by men who gained their knowledge of aviation by staying on the ground and having their statements prepared by numerous staff...but by actual fliers.

"To proceed with the case would serve no useful purpose.  I have therefore directed my counsel to entirely close out our part of the proceeding without argument."

Major Gullion could not be so casual.  Against the recommendation of Colonel Moreland, Gullion launched into a diatribe of scathing rebuke for Mitchell and a plethora of flowering praise for the generals who sat in judgment.  He even provided mimeographed copies of his summation to the press.  As the court took a noon recess, one of the spectators rushed forward to put an arm around Colonel Mitchell and tell him, "The people are with you, Billy.  Keep punching.  You'll rope 'em yet."

Years later Mitchell remembered those warm words from a good friend as, "a moment of tenderness--the one moment of all that nightmare which I'll never forget."  It had been one of the few times Will Rogers ever made a statement without a humorous punch line.

Following lunch, Colonel Moreland reversed himself and gave his own closing statement, telling the court:  "I do not believe that this court has any right to send out into the Army again an officer about whom there can be any question as to loyalty, as to subordination, as to his complete dedication to the best interests of the service."

The prosecution then rested and Howze asked Reid again if the defense wished to say anything further.  "Nothing."  Reid replied.  All that could be said, had been said and no one doubted the outcome.

It took only half an hour for the court to render a verdict, little more than another hour to determine the punishment.  As twilight spread across the Washington Monument, in the dreary confines of the old Emory Building, Colonel William Billy Mitchell stood to his feet as each of the specifications against him were read.  After each count the finding was announced--nine times including the general charge.  Nine times the court announced:

GUILTY!

 

When the verdicts had all been read General Howze announced, "The court upon secret written ballot, two-thirds of the members present concurring, sentences the accused to be suspended from rank, command and duty with the forfeiture of all pay and allowances for five years."

 

That secret written ballot remained a true secret, though Betty Mitchell later claimed that General Howze told her there had been a split verdict.  Billy Mitchell was himself convinced that the verdict had not been unanimous, and went to his grave at least hoping that his boyhood friend Douglas MacArthur had cast a dissenting ballot.  Fiorello La Guardia later told a Mitchell biographer that a janitor had found the crumpled ballots in a waste basket, one marked "Not Guilty" in the penmanship of Douglas MacArthur.

In 1945 General MacArthur wrote Senator Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin that he had cast the lone dissenting vote, a fact he claimed Mitchell knew before his death, and for which he expressed his appreciation.  In his memoirs MacArthur recalled of his boyhood friend:

"When the verdict was reached, many believed I had betrayed my friend...Nothing could be further from the truth.  I did what I could in his behalf and I helped save him from dismissal.  That he was wrong in the violence of his language is self-evident; that he was right in his thesis is equally true and incontrovertible.

"Had he lived through World War II he would have seen the fulfillment of many of his prophecies."

Rightly or wrongly, Douglas MacArthur never could shake the ghost of the court-martial of Billy Mitchell.  Years later when he commanded American forces in the South Pacific, he never fully gained the confidence of American airmen who believed he'd betrayed a friend. 

 

The Mitchell's took the verdict and the sentence quite in stride, Mitchell walking to the front of the courtroom to shake hands with each of the judges before he left the Emory Building.  The verdict at least, was not unexpected.  The sentence, many people felt, had been far more lenient than anyone could have hoped for.  He could have been dismissed summarily and completely from the Army.

Frank Reid told the media:  "They may think they have silenced Mitchell, but his ideas will go marching on, and those who crucified him will be the first to put his aviation suggestions into practice.  He is a 1925 John Brown."

Therein may have been the true reason for the lenient verdict, at least in the supposition of some.  By retaining Mitchell in the Army under suspension of rank and command, the War Department at least still maintained some control over the uncontrollable Billy Mitchell.

While several in Congress threatened to raise a storm of support for Mitchell after the Christmas holidays, it never fully materialized.  On January 26, 1926 President Calvin Coolidge approved the findings and the sentence of the court-martial judges.  Mitchell in turn sent a note to the Adjutant General:

"I hereby tender my resignation as an officer in the United States Army, to take effect on February 1, 1926."

It was probably the only time Mitchell sent something in writing to the Army command structure that it wasn't immediately ignored.  On February 1, 1926 Billy Mitchell became a civilian.

Billy Mitchell could not, and would not, be silenced.  In the years after becoming a civilian, he continued to speak, and write prolifically.  He wrote a wonderful story of the life of a great but unconventional American General...his old mentor Adolphus Greeley.  He continued to promote aviation, call for a unified air force, and warn of the dangers of war in the Pacific.

On February 19, 1935 William Billy Mitchell died in his bed of complications from influenza.  He was fifty-six years old, but in his own words, had lived three lives.  Rumors that the Army denied him burial at Arlington were false, Billy Mitchell wanted to go home to his native Wisconsin.  He was buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee after a simple funeral.  Joining the relatives who served as pall bearers was General Frank McCoy, one of the court-martial judges.

Six years later on October 15, 1941 Congressman McCormack introduced H.J. 240 in the 77th Congress.  It read: 

WHEREAS the late William L. Mitchell faithfully and honorably carried out his duties as a brigadier general in the Air Service of the United States Army during the World War, having served fearlessly throughout 14 major actions; and
WHEREAS the march of events has proven the wisdom of many recommendations made to Congress by the said late William L. Mitchell during 1924 and 1925; and
WHEREAS it is the desire of Congress to honor the memory of the said late William L. Mitchell:  THEREFORE BE IT
RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United Staes of America in Congress assembled,
That the Secretary of War is authorized and directed to make the records of the War Department indicate that the late William L. Mitchell's rank of brigadier general has been restored as of the effective date of his resignation from the Army; and
THE President of the United States is hereby authorized to issue the necessary commissions or documents incident to the restoration of such rank.

 

Fifty-six days later the moment Billy Mitchell had feared and warned his country to prepare for, happened in the most tragic of manners.  On the morning of December 7, 1941 the unified air service of Japan attacked Ford Island on the Island of Oahu.  The most powerful fleet in the world was crushed beneath a torrent of bombs, and nearly 200 American airplanes were destroyed on the ground where they were parked.  More than 2,000 Americans died that day.  The attack commenced at 7:55 a.m. on a Sunday morning.  Billy Mitchell's warning to America in 1924 had been off--by 25 minutes.

Within 10 hours Japanese aircraft made a nearly simultaneous strike on Clark Field in the Philippine Islands, virtually destroying America's air force in the South Pacific.  It was 12:30 p.m. local time...Mitchell had missed that one by less than two hours.

Shortly before Michell's death in 1935 he had an emotional conversation with his good friend, Alfred Verville.  Mitchell knew that his heart was failing and told his friend:  "All I wish is that I could stick around to finish up--and I want to be around for the next big show."

"What do you mean, General?" Verville asked.

"I mean," answered Mitchell, "the real air-power war, the real world war.

While the United States reeled from the horrible surprise attacks throughout the Pacific and the world wondered if there was any hope to recover, one airman stepped to the foreground.  Years before he had served, for one day, as an aid to General Billy Mitchell.  Two days before Colonel Mitchell's trial began, the forward-thinking 28-year old Air Service lieutenant won the Schneider Cup Race at Baltimore, Maryland and set a new speed record for seaplanes of 245.7 mph.  On the morning of April 18, 1942 that same airman, now a Lieutenant Colonel, led 80 volunteers of the Army Air Corps in a daring raid on Japan to give the United States its first ray of hope.  As they lifted off from the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet to carry out what would have been considered an impossible mission, they delivered a healthy dose of payback to the Japanese...flying B-25 MITCHELL bombers.  When the real world war came, in a sense...General Billy Mitchell was around for the big show.

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On August 8, 1946 the United States congress approved Private Law 884:

AN ACT Authorizing the President of the United States to award posthumously in the name of Congress a Medal of Honor to William Mitchell.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

That the President of the United States is requested to cause a gold medal to be struck, with suitable emblems, devices and inscriptions, to be presented to the late William Mitchell, formerly a Colonel, United States Army, in recognition of his outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American Military Aviation.

Sec. 2.  When the medal provided for in section 1 of this Act shall have been struck, the President shall transmit the same to William Mitchell, Junior, son of the said William Mitchell, to be presented to him in the name of the people of the United States.

Sec. 3.  A sufficient sum of money to carry this Act into effect is hereby authorized to be appropriated, out of money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated.

[Billy Mitchell's Medal of Honor has since been the subject of some confusion.  One can quickly see by the images of the medal struck that it is NOT the Medal of Honor authorized by Congress during the Civil War, and commonly called The Congressional Medal of Honor.  The U.S. Senate's Committee on Veterans' Affairs publication, Medal of Honor Recipients, 1863-1978 further perpetuated this error by listing Billy Mitchell among its list of Medal of Honor Recipients.  The medal is, in fact, NOT THE Medal of Honor, but a special award, authorized by Congress similar in concept to few other such rare awards as the Four Chaplains Medal authorized after World War II and presented only to the four men for whom it was named.]

 

Conclusion:

On July 26, 1947 President Harry S Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947.  Based on lessons learned during World War II, sweeping changes were made in the command structure of the United States Army and Navy.  That act established a Department of Defense to be headed by a civilian secretary appointed by the President and holding Cabinet rank.  The office of the Secretary of War became the Secretary of the Army who would, with his counterpart in the Navy, work together for a unified military defense with a Joint Chiefs of Staff.  On that day the United States Air Force was born, a separate arm with its own Secretary of the Air Force...co-equal with that of the Army and Navy.  Billy Mitchell's dream had at last come true.

In 1955 the Air Force Association passed a resolution calling for Billy Mitchell's conviction to be overturned.  Two years later his youngest son, William Mitchell, Jr. petitioned the Air Force to set aside his father's conviction.  Reluctantly Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas, after writing "It is tragic than an officer who contributed so much to his country's welfare should have terminated his military career under such circumstances.  Today, however, I am confident that his services to his country and his unique foresight as to the place of air power in the defense of our country are fully recognized by his countrymen.

"The application is denied."

The touching efforts of his son and the airmen who followed in his footsteps aside, that is probably how Billy Mitchell would have wanted it...to be remembered as a man who understood that sometimes "you've got to do something unorthodox...perhaps an explosion."  Billy Mitchell's explosion changed our world.

Nearly a century after that trial in 1925 Mitchell is almost as controversial as he was when he lived.  His name evokes strong opinion, still berated by some, worshipped by others.  His most ardent admirers still claim Mitchell had the right ideas, he just accomplished them the wrong way.  Billy Mitchell would probably say, were he alive today, that he accomplished them THE ONLY WAY.  He was indeed, a sort of soldier.

Right or wrong, the most fitting epitaph may well be the words spoken by Frank Reed on the night before the court-martial began: 

"Rome endured as long as there were Romans....
America will endure as long as there are Mitchells."

 

Charles Lindbergh

A Different Kind of Hero

 

Sources:

Burlingame,  General Billy Mitchell - Champion of Air Defense, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, NY, 1952
Davis, Burke, The Billy Mitchell Affair, Random House, New York, NY, 1967
Manchester, William, American Caesar, Little, Brown and Company, 1978
Manning, Robert, Above and Beyond, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1985
Meilinger, Col. Phillip S.,  Airmen and Air Theory, Air University Press, Maxwell AFB, AL, 2001 
Rickenbacker, Edward V.,  Rickenbacker, An Autobiography, Prentice Hall, 1967
Runyon, Damon and Kiernan, Walter, "Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker", Dell Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1942

 


Part I

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Part II
World War Two
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Part III
US Air Force

 

 

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