Background Paper on Billy Mitchell - The Father of the US Air Force

Billy Mitchell, the “Father of the US Air Force,” is one of the most controversial yet influential military figures of the 20th century. I will first provide biographical information so that one would understand the background of this man. Next, I will discuss his World War I experience as it is during WWI where he makes a name for himself and experiments with new strategies and tactics. After WWI, Billy Mitchell became the world’s biggest proponent of air power and the following section will discuss his course of action in trying to persuade military policy to shift towards aviation. Then, I will discuss his leadership style, analyzing both the good and the bad that lead him to success and failure.

Billy Mitchell was on December 28, 1879, in Nice, France to a wealthy Wisconsin senator and his wife. His family was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the state. Billy Mitchell attended Columbia University, which is now George Washington University, but at the age of 18, he enlisted as a private in the US Army when the Spanish-American War broke out. Due to his father’s influence and intervention, Billy Mitchell was commissioned into the US Army Signal Corps which at the time was in charge of all aviation. He learned to fly at the age of 38 at his own expense and volition. Mitchell also became the youngest member of the General Staff. However, on April 6, 1917, the US declared war on Germany and Billy Mitchell was deployed to France.

During WWI, Billy Mitchell realized that he had very little combat experience so he took all the advice he could from his British and French counterparts. Billy Mitchell and the foreign officers discussed strategies and tactics. Much of the experimentation of new strategies and tactics was trial-and-error. He soon gained enough experience to begin American Air Operations. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and commanded all US air operations in France. In 1918, he led 1500 Allied aircraft during the Battle of St. Mihiel. one of the first coordinated air-ground offensives in history. During the planning stages of the battle, he developed a concept dubbed “Air Ascendancy.” The concept first stressed attaining air superiority (destruction of enemy aircraft to clear the skies), then reconnaissance to locate enemy ground forces, and finally the destruction of enemy ground forces. After World War I, Billy Mitchell was completely convinced the aviation would render all other forms of warfare utterly obsolete and began advocating air power.

Billy Mitchell wanted to shift the national security policy from “sea power” to “air power.” After WWI, the US military decreased the size of the Army significantly and spent most of the defense budget on a strong and powerful navy. Government officials believed a strong navy could protect both coasts much better than ground forces while also promoting international trade and influence. Mitchell had a vendetta against Navalism and knew he could not get anything accomplished without proving the superiority of aircraft over ships. Billy Mitchell publicly challenged the Navy and claimed his bombers can destroy any ship. The Navy accepted his challenge and set up strict guidelines. Billy Mitchell disregarded these guidelines and dropped multiple 4300 pound ordnances and sunk every ship, including the captured German battleship Ostfriesland, a ship previously thought to be unsinkable. The results of this display resulted in the increase in the Army Air Services and naval aviation. However, his leadership style and personality made him a nuisance to his superior officers and limited the impact of his innovations in aviation during his lifetime.

Billy Mitchell was an indefatigable worker who always took initiative. This initiative and drive led him to become a pilot when the Army said he was too old and senior for flight training. He ensured that those under him received the best training and education. He led by example and those under his command generally loved him as a leader. However, his flamboyant, daring, and stubborn behavior was a nuisance to his superiors. Whenever Mitchell disagreed with his superior officers, he went around them and this insubordination eventually led to his court-martial. Although his persistent behavior allowed for some of his visions to come true during his lifetime, when this behavior was taken too far, led to the end of his military career.
6. Billy Mitchell revolutionized military aviation. He was born to an influential family whom aided his military career in his early life. During WWI, he assumed command over all US air operations in France. After WWI, he dedicated his life to promoting aviation and trying to convince the country that it was the future. He was a tireless leader who always stuck to what he believed was right, which was the reason why he was successful in many areas but also the reason he ultimately left the service disgraced. It was only after his death that his reputation was vindicated.