Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, July 29, 2016

Why Was Billy Mitchell Court Martialed?

By Kimball Worcester
Mitchell the Aviation Hero

Billy Mitchell spent his postwar days proselytizing for an independent air force run by knowledgeable aviator warriors. His words and deeds were implicitly, and eventually explicitly, critical of his superiors in the Army and War Department. He also waged an ongoing doctrinal guerrilla war with the U.S. Navy especially after his public relations victory resulting from the sinking of the Osfriesland.  In 1925 it came to a head. 

Rebecca Maksel summarized the events nicely in Air & Space Magazine (July 1, 2009):

The popular Colonel Mitchell faced  a court-martial for his controversial remarks to the press on September 5, blasting two military disasters: a bungled flight during which three Navy seaplanes failed to make it from the West Coast to Hawaii; and the crash of the Navy airship USS Shenandoah while flying over the Midwest on an ill-advised public relations tour. “These incidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments,” Mitchell stated. “The bodies of my former companions in the air molder under the soil in America, and Asia, Europe and Africa, many, yes a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity.”

Mitchell the Defendant at His Court Martial

Within days, the War Department charged Mitchell with violating eight specifications of the Ninety-sixth Article of War, which covered “all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service.” After more than seven weeks of testimony and 99 witnesses, he was found guilty of all charges and was sentenced to a suspension from rank, command, and duty, with forfeiture of all pay for five years. Mitchell resigned his commission and died in 1936. He received many posthumous honors for his visionary work.


  1. Douglas MacArthur sat on the court martial and later said he supported Mitchell. The MacArthur Memorial has a podcast about the MacArthur/Mitchell relationship.

  2. Douglas Macarthur I would think would not be one to tolerate insubordination, but then it was only several years since the Great War, and he was you might say an egalitarian division commander. The Rainbow Division; so called because its troopers where drawn from all over the US, not just specific regions and ethnic groups. He would go over the top and attack with his men and not even carry a sidearm, instilling confidence and courage. They loved him; many of them where Bonus Marchers in the 30’s. Imagine how difficult it must have been for him to have to harshly break that up. With maturity his military genius really shone through; I’ve heard that he had the lowest casualty rate of any of the American WWII theatre commanders. Mitchell was from a wealthy Milwaukee family; his father was a senator. Practicing noblesse oblige in pursuing a military career? His prescience in aviation warfare is without question; he was right but not absolutely. Modern military aviation is not supreme, it is certainly powerful and has the awe factor, but guys on the ground and the navy are on an equal footing. Surely Mitchell is evocative of our times; being certain of oneself and feeling the need, the mission to wake others up by preaching it; not worried about the consequences of whose feathers get ruffled. He died a young 56 in 1936, from a heart ailment as well as influenza. Since the Great War, very tragic; the flu bug was not yet tamed?