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.
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:
That Colonel Mitchell, in his statement of September 5, conducted himself "to the prejudice of good order and military discipline";
That his statement was "insubordinate";
That his statement was "highly contemptuous and disrespectful" and intended to discredit the War Department;
The same four specifications as those cited, but referring to the Navy Department.
That Colonel Mitchell, in his statement of September 9, conducted himself "to the prejudice of good order and military discipline";
That his statement was "insubordinate";
That his statement was "highly contemptuous and disrespectful" and intended to discredit the War Department;
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?"
"Do you mean LAST Saturday?"
"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.
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.
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:
Air craft carriers capable of carrying a hundred bombers or pursuit aircraft
A gliding bomb that could be launched from airplanes and then guided for up to ten miles to its target
Winged bombs with accurate controls for target acquisition
A program to train and grade aviation mechanics for military service
A meteorological service to track weather patterns for aviation
Amphibious airplanes for rescue work
All metal bombers and bombers with as many as FOUR engines
A defense strategy for the Pacific based out of Alaska and supported by a strong air force
Development of instruments to enable aircraft to fly in fog
Bombers with a range of thousands of miles, capable of crossing either ocean that framed the United States
Observation planes that could fly as high as 30,000 feet
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.
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:
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.