Term: Mitchell, William, 1879 - 1936
son of Sen. John L. Mitchell (q.v.) and grandson of Alexander Mitchell (q.v.); aviator, general, commonly considered the father of the U.S. Air Force; Milwaukee's Mitchell Field is named for him. An excerpt from his biography in the U.S. Air Force's Air & Space Power Journal: Chronicles Online follows:
"Billy Mitchell is the most famous and controversial figure in American airpower history. The son of a wealthy Wisconsin senator, he enlisted as a private during the Spanish American War. Quickly gaining a commission due to the intervention of his father, he joined the Signal Corps. He was an outstanding junior officer, displaying a rare degree of initiative, courage, and leadership. After challenging tours in the Philippines and Alaska, Mitchell was assigned to the General Staff - at the time its youngest member. He slowly became excited about aviation - which was then assigned to the Signal Corps - and its possibilities, and in 1916 at age 38, he took private flying lessons.
"Arriving in France in April 1917, only a few days after the United States had entered the war, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell met extensively with British and French air leaders and studied their operations. He quickly took charge and began preparations for the American air units that were to follow. The story of American aviation mobilization in World War I was not a glorious one. It took months before pilots arrived in France and even longer for any aircraft. Nonetheless, Mitchell rapidly earned a reputation as a daring, flamboyant, and tireless leader. He eventually was elevated to the rank of brigadier general and commanded all American combat units in France. In September 1918 he planned and led nearly 1,500 allied aircraft in the air phase of the Saint Mihiel offensive. Recognized as the top American combat airman of the war (he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and several foreign decorations), Mitchell, nevertheless, managed to alienate most of his superiors - both flying and nonflying - during his 18 months in France.
"Returning to the US in early 1919, Mitchell was appointed the deputy chief of the Air Service, retaining his one-star rank. His relations with superiors continued to sour as he began to attack both the War and Navy Departments for being insufficiently farsighted regarding airpower. His fight with the Navy climaxed with the dramatic bombing tests of 1921 and 1923 that sank several battleships, proving - at least to Mitchell - that surface fleets were obsolete. Within the Army he also experienced difficulties, notably with his superiors Charles Menoher and later Mason Patrick, and in early 1925 he reverted to his permanent rank of colonel and was transferred to Texas. Although such demotions were not an unusual occurrence at the time - Patrick himself had gone from major general to colonel upon returning to the Corps of Engineers in 1919 - the move was nonetheless widely seen as punishment and exile. Not content to remain quiet, when the Navy dirigible "Shenandoah" crashed in a storm and killed 14 of the crew, Mitchell issued his famous statement accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." He was court-martialed, found guilty of insubordination, and suspended from active duty for five years without pay. Mitchell elected to resign instead as of 1 February 1926 and spent the next decade continuing to write and preach the gospel of airpower to all who would listen. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Navy man, was viewed by Mitchell as advantageous for airpower. In fact, he believed the new president would appoint him as assistant secretary of war for air or perhaps even secretary of defense in a new and unified military organization. Such hopes never materialized. Mitchell died of a variety of ailments including a bad heart and influenza in 1936."
The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the William Mitchell Correspondence for details.
View newspaper clippings at Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles.
[Source: Source: U.S. Air Force, Air & Space Power Journal Chronicles Online]