Remembering the Lessons of Billy Mitchell
09/03/2011 by Robbin Laird In a recent piece, Ed Timperlake discussed the strategic significance of moving on from older paradigms to ensure US national security. He argued that
One of the great plot devices in suspense and horror movies is the surprise ending, just name the threat; zombies, aliens, vampires or the bunny boiling Glenn Close, whatever the threat is, it comes back to attack after being vanquished. Sadly it is over used and now an expected cliché.
Unfortunately, the honorable men and women in DOD and the Defense Industry building and testing the F-35 to bring one of the most unique and effective tactical jets ever invented to the air fleet inventory of USAF,USN, USMC and our Allied combat forces may still be living this plot device everyday.
They are all working together to get the job done especially now that the proven capability of the F-35 is not in doubt.
Sort of equivalent to Billy Mitchell’s destroying battleships with airplanes and being told to forget about it.
In addition to this lesson which Billy Mitchell tried to teach the US military, he believed a broader lesson was necessary, which he tried to bring to the attention of the country. In a book well worth reading, Spencer Lane looked at the first flight around the world and the impact it could have had.
Less than twenty years after the Wright brothers made their first tentative twelve-second flight of 120 feet on December 17, 1903, a flight around the world seemed impossible. The pundits of the time called it a flight of fancy, a Jules Verne science fiction story, a useless waste of effort, an impossible dream. But General Billy Mitchell called it an inevitable necessity. The flight was his legacy to those who would follow. Billy Mitchell planned the flight in exquisite detail. He designed its pioneering route and chose the few airmen with the skill, courage, and determination to complete it. He found the obscure young genius who could build the aircraft to survive the ordeal.
It was Billy Mitchell who proposed it, agitated for it, schemed, cajoled, threatened, begged, and eventually sacrificed his career and his life for it. The first world flight was, by any standard, the greatest aviation achievement of the twentieth century. The support requirements were daunting. Worldwide resources of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Fisheries Research Board, State Department and a host of private U.S. companies were coordinated into one seamless endeavor, involving 250,000 people worldwide. It was the largest logistical peacetime effort of the century, far larger in manpower and scope than even the first moon landing, which followed forty-five years later. The stakes for the flight were high. For the military, 1924 started another year of devastating budget cuts and continuing losses of personnel and resources.
The dwindling U. S. Army and Navy were competing with each other for the meager scraps of diminishing funds thrown to them by an indifferent Congress and a penurious new President. Commercial aviation in the United States was virtually nonexistent. For the tiny Army Air Service, things were very bad and getting worse. From a wartime peak of twenty thousand airmen, only 232 remained. Accident rates of 30 percent annually threatened to decimate what was left. Enlistments faltered.
Even an impoverished England spent 350 million dollars annually on the Royal Air Force, while an indifferent U.S. Congress allocated only twenty-five million to its air service.
A successful world flight, with its attendant publicity and prestige, would be an undeniable demonstration of the future military and commercial potential of aviation.
Mitchell believed it was also the last hope for its salvation.
General Billy Mitchell, then the Assistant Chief of the Air Service and strongest advocate of aviation, had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get permission for the flight. His military objectives were considered unnecessary for a country at peace. Politicians believed new weapons made another World War unthinkable. Unmoved by the fact that many other nations were making their own preparations for the flight to capture the power and prestige it would bring, the President and War Department repeatedly denied authorization. It was considered far too costly, too hazardous, and with too little chance of success.
Mitchell saw his world flight as the last, best chance to save the Air Service from total destruction. To the aging cavalry-trained Army staff and the battleship admirals mired in the outmoded, obsolete military concepts of the last century, his advocacy of aviation was insubordinate, opinionated, and irrational.
Both branches considered the tiny Air Service to be an expensive and unnecessary indulgence. To the presidents, cabinet officials, politicians, and military leaders whose views he challenged, he was an egotistical maverick, an uncontrollable loose cannon that had to be stopped.
His laboriously written, highly detailed reports supporting his views and proposals were all relegated unread to the “flying trash pile” reserved just for that purpose.
To the American public, however, he was a courageous war hero. To foreign Heads of State, he was the most significant American of the time—feted, honored, and awarded their highest medals. To historians, he later became … a prophet.
Billy Mitchell had powerful enemies. They chastised him, disciplined him, tried to jail him and even commit him to an insane asylum. When that didn’t work, they exiled him, court martialed him, broke him in rank, and suspended him from salary and duties. Then they quietly swept his first world flight into the closed dustbin of history.
It was not until World War II was well underway, and long after his death, that Mitchell’s dusty, musty, unread flying trash pile dating from 1919 to 1925 was finally reopened. Like some latter-day, incredibly accurate Nostradamus, it all came tumbling out. The resurgence of German military power and spirit, the threat their Luftwaffe would present in the future, their jet engines, their V-2 rockets that would rain on England—it was all there.
The reports covering the Pacific regions were even more incredible. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred within ten minutes of the time Mitchell predicted it would back in 1924. The number of aircraft carriers that would be used, the direction from which they would come, the number and types of planes and the munitions they would use, the ships and men that would be lost—it was all right there. Similarly, the attacks on Clark Field in the Philippines—the devastation they wrought on U. S. defenses, even the precise time of the attack—was all there. The battles of Iwo Jima, the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, Wake Island, Guam, Singapore—all were described exactly as they would happen … seventeen years later. Included with each report were detailed recommendations and proposals by Mitchell that would prevent each of the attacks he described from ever occurring. They were all ignored. On August 8, 1946, President Harry S. Truman posthumously awarded Billy Mitchell the Medal of Honor. Early in the year 2000, the U.S. government honored his memory with a new postage stamp.
Will we be printing a new stamp in a few years to whoever saves us from the downward plunge of the forces necessary to provide for our security?
Credit: Lane, Spencer; Naomi Shulman; William Hoffman; Phil Boyer; Paul Poberezny (2011-04-22). FIRST WORLD FLIGHT – The Odyssey of Billy Mitchell
U.S. Press. Kindle Edition.
This essay is in honor of my Stepfather. My stepfather was an island hopper in World War II who was part of the spearhead who would have clearly died in the direct invasion of Japan. He would not support a defense budgetary meltdown laying the foundation for reopening another Pacific adventure. I intend to honor his memory by fighting against such a threat.