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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Milwaukee's Maverick Aviator

We hear a lot these days about new technology and the dramatic changes it's making in our lives. An outspoken prophet of an earlier technology -- first ignored, later persecuted, and ultimately vindicated -- was Milwaukee's Billy Mitchell, who was born on this day in 1879.

William Mitchell (1879-1936) grew up in Milwaukee, the son of a senator and grandson of a famous railroad magnate, and entered the military during the Spanish-American War. In 1908 his life was forever changed when the Wright brothers demonstrated their flying machine to the Army (shown here). He learned to fly during World War I, took command of the first U.S. aircraft units in 1917, flew the first American combat mission, and became the leading voice for developing U.S. air power. In 1921 and 1923, he tried to prove that battleships were no longer an effective weapon of war by sinking two of them from the air. The top brass in the U.S. armed services, who had spent their careers expanding the American Navy, were not pleased by his constant agitation on behalf of a new technology that threatend to make it obsolete. In 1923 Mitchell even warned that the principal U.S. naval base in the Pacific, Hawaii's Pearl Harbor, could be easily destroyed from the air. Abrasive and domineering, his outspoken criticism of his superiors led them to demote him from general to colonel in April of 1925.

Later that year, after unnecessary crashes of military aircraft, it seemed to Mitchell that their refusal to embrace the new technology and support its courageous developers was unconscionable. Caught between loyalty to his country, whose safety demanded rapid development of air power, and obedience to his superiors, whose complacency and ineptitude was slowing its development and needlessly killing his test pilots, Mitchell spoke out. In September 1925 he publicly accused top government officials, including his commanding officers, of “incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense." This was too much for them to bear, and he was charged for insubordination. His court-martial was a media extravaganza, and though he was convicted and resigned his commission, he became an icon for military reformers and prophets of air power. For the last decade of his life Mitchell wrote and lectured on the inevitable supremacy of aviation, and soon after his death he was sadly proven right by the bombing of civilian targets in the Spanish Civil War and the devastating Blitz on London.

Today he is commonly considered the father of the U.S. Air Force. The WWII B-25 aircraft was popularly called the Mitchell Bomber, and Milwaukee's airport is named after him. To learn more about the career of this prophet neglected in his own time, visit the excellent site created by the Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Archives staff.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on December 28, 2005

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