Those Voices Tragically Ignored In US Military History
The importance of history and the lessons we learn from it can never be over emphasized especially when it comes to aircraft and the innovators who had a vision before the plodders could wake up. Often times this resulted in needless deaths of those brave men who flew missions, met the enemy on the ground, or fought in the oceans trying to preserve the freedoms we so easily take for granted. While American rocketry expert and inventor Robert Goddard was ignored and underfunded in the US, the Nazis drew on the wealth of data he had produced and built the V-2 rocket, a modern missile used against the Allies in World War II that might have changed the course of events.
Distant storms brewing
The bloody pages of history are replete with the words and actions of those who knew and warned us about potential threats and advancements that could render conventional weaponry obsolete and it not only cost lives, but the sovereignty of nations! It is to these men we pay homage to this day though they may have been ignored or even persecuted for their foresight in their own time. Let us first examine the saga of Colonel Billy Mitchell. In 1925 in the aftermath of World War I little did the armed forces consider seriously the proposition of rapid wartime development even though hostile nations like Japan, Spain, Italy, and Germany were gathering momentum for conflict.
Too far ahead of his time
Mitchell felt that the warfare conducted in the air against shipping would be the most devastating method of projecting force against the enemy. Great Britain and Japan were already devising the first primitive aircraft carriers with the US grudgingly making insufficient efforts. America had not suffered as much as her allies and Germany during World War I and had no appetite for another war. Yet, distant storm clouds were brewing and Colonel Billy Mitchell of the Army Air Corps knew a day of reckoning loomed. Up to that time the notion of most nations during the industrial era of the 1800’s had been to build costly “Capital Ships” named so due to the expense of ability of any nation priding itself as a super power should it be able to finance hulking war ships in the ocean.
Vision of the future
However, the great day of the battle ship was quickly showing obsolescence due to its vulnerability and lack of range. Mitchell felt from his expertise as an aviator and bomber pilot that aircraft deployed properly could sink battleships and render them almost useless as long range threats. Billy Mitchell foresaw the future of dive bombers, torpedo planes, and high level bombers as the future of modern military aviation that could carry the battle to the enemy from great distances! However, a number of generals, admirals, and profiteering defense contractors didn’t see it that way and pushed Congress and the Defense Department to look the other way! Even when Billy Mitchell offered to prove his point with a demonstration they sought to alter the specifications around the displacement of the ship, the weight and capability of the bomb dropped, and the tactics of the pilot.
Colonel Mitchell pointed out that a single aircraft that did not even have to score a direct hit upon his target could simply cause a battleship to sink by creating a hull rupture by dropping a bomb of sufficient explosive force that would detonate in close vicinity sinking the vessel without ever landing the bomb on the deck. Grudgingly, US Naval Admiralty decided on some very restrictive test drops that were designed to try and prove Mitchell wrong. Often, in such controversial cases, these circumstances were changed to keep the reluctant and skeptical powers that be from being embarrassed while ensuring that those who stood to gain would keep things status quo. As a result, such mockeries often cost men their lives once lessons were ignored or intelligence value was compromised. We see it even today!
Intolerance for truth
From 1921 on Colonel Mitchell demonstrated consistently that aerial bombing against a number of decommissioned Dreadnoughts and aging battleships from past eras could be effectively sunk with the proper tactics and bomb loads. The opposition argued that test bombing stationary ships without antiaircraft batteries was not a realistic scenario so additional difficulties were applied. However, there was still big money to be made in building battleships, heavy cruisers, and other outdated vessels. Billy Mitchell grew weary of the denial and skepticism of high naval officers and began making comments that got him in trouble. On one occasion the Colonel, who had been promoted to Brigadier General said that those in Congress and in the armed services who denied the value of bombing at sea were negligent!
In response to the Navy's first helium-filled rigid airship Shenandoah crashing in a storm in September 1925, killing 14 of the crew, and the loss of three seaplanes on a flight from the West Coast to Hawaii, Mitchell issued a statement accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." In October 1925, a charge with eight specifications was proffered against Mitchell on the direct order of President Calvin Coolidge, accusing him of violation of the 96th Article of War, a clear violation of freedom of speech, but used as an excuse by the military to allege a threat to national security.
Mitchell’s detractors pitted against the brilliant aviator, no doubt, had much to gain by supporting the ship building industry as court martial proceedings began. Some of the most famous and well respected officers of the US military testified in Billy Mitchell’s behalf. World War I ace fighter pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker, Generals Hap Arnold, Carl Spatz, and Douglas MacArthur attended. However, some officers who were to preside over the proceedings were removed as they were seen as being too biased when, in fact, they would have supported Mitchell based upon his accomplishments.
The trial became so publicized that the controversy literally tore the nation apart as the government attempted to ridicule and dress down the man who had proven the future of aviation under US Navy doctrine! Before the trial was over Mitchell would be stripped of his Brigadier general rank and returned to Colonel, but charges against him were dropped! Seeing that attempting to further punish such a heroic figure in the US military could create morale problems and enrage the public, prosecutors withdrew further charges, but the damage had been done!
Impressing the President
February 1, 1926 Colonel Billy Mitchell resigned his position. Even though he would continue advocating air power in naval strategy losing his commission as an officer detracted from his public presence. In 1932 with the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency Billy Mitchell jumped at the chance to introduce him to the importance of air combat to naval doctrine, an impression that must have remained with the president in years to come being that FDR had once served in the Navy. Before World War II began President Roosevelt was having US war planes delivered to American allies under the Lend Lease Act. Great Britain, Russia, and China all welcomed the exported aircraft that Roosevelt authorized for aid against the aggression of the Axis Powers.
Spending his remaining years with his wife on a 120 acre farm in Middleburg, Virginia, Mitchell succumbed to heart problems and a severe case of influenza and died February 19, 1936. Like many early aviators subjected to the harsh environment of the first aircraft under high G forces and upper altitudes unpressurized probably contributed to Billy Mitchell’s ailing health. However, his legacy lived on long after his passing. The B-25 Mitchell Bomber was named after him. The Royal Canadian Air Force awarded him posthumously the Chief of the Air Staff honor. Admired by his contemporaries as well as the American public, Billy Mitchell earned his awesome place in the history of air power for decades to come.