Armies and Navies have clashed since antiquity, but the airplane that enables aerial combat is barely a century old. Airplanes saw widespread combat in the First World War, and, despite the doubts and financial concerns of military leaders of the time, the brave men who fly them have gained their own dedicated military division, the United States Air Force. Billy Mitchell, through his charisma and an image that endeared him in American culture, was an instrumental figure in developing the modern Air Force.
Mitchell, the son of a wealthy Wisconsin Senator, began his military career at the age of eighteen when he enlisted as a private in the First Wisconsin when the United States declared war on Spain in April, 1898. Due to his father’s high position, “in three weeks Mitchell had accepted a second lieutenant’s commission in a volunteer signal company.” He witnessed the ceremony of Spain’s surrender in Havana, Cuba, an important experience in bringing him to “appreciate America’s new worldwide role.”
Mitchell arrived in Europe on April 10, 1917, four days after the United States declared war on Germany. While observing the French on the battlefield, “(t)he performance of the French pilots, aircraft, and supporting units deeply impressed on him the tremendous tasks facing American aviation.” The French military had outstripped the American military in terms of aircraft technology, and had developed a more progressive pattern of military aviation in which one group of observation planes would be assigned to sections of ground forces below, while a designated “aerial cavalry” would have command of a “major sector of the front,” allowing them a vast area of operations and a high amount of tactical options. Despite French losses, Mitchell became convinced of the future primacy of air power.
The aspect of airpower that most interested Mitchell was the aerial offensive. He sent a cable to Washington, in which he “emphasized what the Allied airmen had taught him: that only an enormous bomber and fighter force could win control of the air.” His cable fell on deaf ears, however, but when General John J. Pershing arrived in France, he “made Mitchell the Aviation Officer of the AEF because he was the senior flyer in France. Billy immediately sought the general’s approval for ‘tactical’ and ‘strategical’ aviation based on the lessons he had learned from his British and French teachers.” Mitchell was soon directing American aerial combat operations, and “the air arm rounded into shape.” He orchestrated several successful engagements, leading to a promotion to brigadier general before the war ended.
As an institutional leader, Billy Mitchell was an early proponent of America putting heavy emphasis on worldwide air superiority. His performance in World War I had earned him some celebrity. The visionary brigadier general believed in “an awesome potential for airpower as distinct from land and sea power, but the war ended before he...