Billy Mitchell Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Commanded the U.S. air effort in World War I and thereafter was an outspoken advocate of air power and of an independent U.S. air force.

William “Billy” Mitchell grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in Washington, D.C. The son of a U.S. senator, he was deeply steeped in patriotism and military history. In 1898, at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he dropped out of George Washington University to join the U.S. Army and served in the aviation section of the Signal Corps. The armed forces were Mitchell’s home and his love for the remainder of his life. Mitchell was an Army representative to a flight demonstration by Orville and Wilbur Wright, and he himself learned to fly in 1915. From 1917 to 1918, he commanded the Army Air Service of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces in Europe and was promoted to brigadier general in 1920.

Mitchell traveled widely, observed other countries’ increasing interest in air power, and became a strong proponent for air power and for an independent Air Force. He worked hard to develop strategic doctrines that would utilize air power in the conduct of modern warfare and gathered many supporters. In 1921, the Army and the Navy held a demonstration of air power with a captured German battleship as the target. Mitchell’s pilots sank the ship with heavy bombs, disregarding the rules set for the demonstration. Mitchell gained support in Congress but alienated his military colleagues by regularly and publicly criticizing the military’s mismanagement of air power. At his 1925 court-martial, personally ordered by President Calvin Coolidge, he was found guilty of insubordination, reduced in rank to colonel, and suspended from active service for five years. Mitchell resigned a few months later and continued speaking out against the military command and for air power. His rank was posthumously restored, and he was decorated for his service.

  • Burlingame, Roger. General Billy Mitchell: Champion of Air Defense. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Chronicles the life of Mitchell and his campaign to establish a strong air defense for the country.
  • Hurley, Alfred F. Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. A factual and objective biography that balances Mitchell’s often overstated claims about his role in the development of air power.
  • Mitchell, William. Memoirs of World War I: “From Start to Finish of Our Greatest War.” New York: Random House, 1969. Published years after Mitchell’s death, these reminiscences show the origin of Mitchell’s thoughts about the role of air power.
  • _______. Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power, Economic and Military. New York: Putnam, 1925. A definitive statement of Mitchell’s thought and strategic air-power doctrines.

Air Force, U.S.


Fighter pilots

Military flight

World War I

World War II

Brigadier General Billy Mitchell was one of the earliest advocates of the use of aircraft by the U.S. military.

(Library of Congress)
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