Court-Martial of U.S. Soldier William Billy Mitchell

About the court-martial of U.S. soldier William Billy Mitchell who questioned the military tactics and failure to embrace air warefare.


Seven days after entering the U.S. military service in 1898, Mitchell became the youngest 2nd lieutenant in the Army. An outspoken, gregarious, and respected leader of men, Major Mitchell, in 1912, transferred to the 1st U.S. military Air Force as a pilot after 2 hours of instruction from Orville Wright. In W.W. I, Brigadier General Mitchell, a staunch advocate of air power, argued often with Gen. John J. Pershing, who threatened to send him home if he didn't shut up. Mitchell also argued with his nonflying superiors in Washington, but his pleas for a large, independent air force fell on brass ears.

In 1921, with the U.S. preparing to abandon its air force experiment, Mitchell pulled out all the stops, determined to prove to the military and the American people that planes could be a greater striking force than a battle-ship or artillery.

In a test with 7 land-based planes carrying torpedo-shaped bombs, Mitchell led his squadron 100 mi. from land, in stormy weather, to search out, attack, and sink the unsinkable battleship Ostfriesland. It was all over in 21 1/2 minutes. The Congress, Navy, and War Department referred to the incident as: "Fool Mitchell luck!"

On a tour of Hawaii and the Philippines, Mitchell reported in detail how both could be destroyed militarily. Again, no one paid any attention: no one--but the Japanese.

After the navy dirigible Shenandoah was destroyed in a storm over Ohio, Mitchell publicly stated: "These accidents are the result of the incompetency, the criminal negligence, and the almost treasonable administration of our national defense by the Navy and War Departments." This bombshell was heard. Mitchell's court-martial followed.

The Court-Martial. At a carefully chosen site in a small abandoned warehouse in Washington, D.C., the trial began on October 28, 1925. The charge: violations of the 96th Article of War. The proof: Mitchell's public statements. The president of the court, Gen. Charles P. Summerall, and the judges were nonflying opponents of Mitchell and of his stand for a large independent air force. Testifying for Mitchell were: Maj. Carl Spaatz; Maj. "Hap" Arnold; Maj. Gerald C. Brandt; and Eddie Rickenbacker. After 3 weeks of testimony, the prejudiced judges brought in their verdict: guilty on all counts. The sentence: 5 years' suspension from rank, command, and pay.

Significance. The trial of Billy Mitchell proved again the awesome power of the military in its court-martial system.

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