Billy Mitchell is one of the most iconic and controversial figures in U.S. military history. His achievements have been overshadowed by his political antics and flamboyant personality, the legends surrounding the origins of the Air Force and the politics of strategic bombing.
While Mitchell posthumously received a special medal for his outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of military aviation, his court-martial for insubordination – after accusing Army and Navy leaders of “almost treasonable administration of the national defense” – is one of the most extraordinary in the annals of U.S. military justice.
Lionized by the Air Force and demonized by the Navy, Mitchell has been described as a “heroic lone patriot fighting” against bureaucracy for the good of the country, on the one hand, and an “egotistical charlatan” more interested in grandstanding than the future of airpower, on the other.
Mitchell is often portrayed as the founder of the Air Force and the creator of strategic bombing. He was neither. Ironically, his World War I service is often overlooked and underplayed. In September 1918, he planned and led nearly 1,500 American and Allied aircraft at St. Mihiel in one of history’s first coordinated air-ground offensives, and by the end of the war was commanding all U.S. Army air combat units in France. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Air Service’s success and acclaim would have been possible without Mitchell.
– Thomas Wildenberg, author of “Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry Over Air Power”