Brig. Gen. William L. Mitchell is a Medal of Honor receipient for his pioneering work and foresight in the field of American military aviation. He is one of two Americans awarded the medal during peacetime. (U.S. Air Force illustration)
Billy Mitchell is one of the most famous and controversial figures in American airpower history. Mitchell was the first prominent American to publicly speak about his vision of strategic airpower that would dominate future war. He believed that aircraft were inherently offensive and were strategic weapons that revolutionized war by allowing a direct attack on the "vital centers" of an enemy country. These vital centers were the mighty industrial areas that produced the vast amount of armaments and equipment so necessary in modern war.
Born Dec. 29, 1879, the son of a wealthy Wisconsin senator, he was educated at Racine College at Columbian University (now George Washington University, Washington, D.C.). He enlisted as a private during the Spanish American War, but gained a commission when he joined the Signal Corps. After challenging tours in the Philippines and Alaska, Mitchell was assigned to the General Staff -- at the time its youngest member. He slowly became excited about aviation, which was then assigned to the Signal Corps. In 1916 at age 38, he took private flying lessons.
Arriving in France in April 1917, only a few days after the United States had entered the war, Mitchell met extensively with British and French air leaders and studied their operations. He quickly took charge and began preparations for the American air units that were to follow. Mitchell rapidly earned a reputation as a daring and tireless leader. He was the first American airman to fly over enemy lines, and throughout the war he was regularly in the air. He was elevated to the rank of brigadier general and commanded all American combat units in France. In September 1918 he planned and led nearly 1,500 allied aircraft in the air phase of the Saint Mihiel offensive.
Returning to the U.S. in early 1919, Mitchell was appointed the deputy chief of the Air Service, retaining his one-star rank. His relations with superiors continued to sour as he began to attack both the War and Navy Departments for being insufficiently farsighted regarding airpower. His fight with the Navy climaxed with the dramatic bombing tests of 1921 and 1923 that sank several battleships, which Mitchell said proved that surface fleets were obsolete. Within the Army he also experienced difficulties, notably with his superiors, and in early 1925 he reverted to his permanent rank of colonel and was transferred to Texas.
When the Navy dirigible "Shenandoah" crashed in a storm and killed 14 of the crew, Mitchell issued his famous statement accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." He was court-martialed, found guilty of insubordination and suspended from active duty for five years without pay. He elected to resign instead as of Feb. 1, 1926, and spent the next decade continuing to write and speak about airpower. Mitchell's plea for an independent air force was met to a degree in the creation of General Headquarters Air Force in March 1935.
Mitchell died Feb. 19, 1936, of a variety of ailments including a bad heart and influenza.
Among Mitchell's published works were Our Air Force, the Keystone of National Defense, 1921; Winged Defense, 1925; and Skyways, a Book of Modern Aeronautics, 1930.
Subsequent events, including the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, proved the validity of many of his prophesies, and many of his ideas were adopted by the Army Air Force in World War II.
On Aug. 8, 1946, Congress authorized a special medal in his honor that was presented to his son two years later by Gen. Carl Spaatz, chief of staff of the newly independent Air Force.
The citation reads in part: "... Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President of the United States is requested to cause a gold medal to be struck, with suitable emblems, devices and inscriptions, to be presented to the late William Mitchell, formerly a Colonel, United States Army, in recognition of his outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American military aviation.
SEC. 2. When the medal provided for in section I of this Act shall have been struck, the President shall transmit the same to William Mitchell, Junior, son of the said William Mitchell, to be presented to him in the name of the people of the United States."
From the U.S. Army Center for Military History: There is some debate as to whether William Mitchell was in fact awarded the Medal of Honor or the Congressional Gold Medal. The act cited directs that "a gold medal" be struck and presented in recognition of Mitchell's pioneer service and foresight. It does not, however, specify which medal was to be awarded. In July 1945 the War Department had recommended to Congress that special gold medals be voted by Congress in cases of outstanding leadership and that the Medal of Honor be reserved for awarding only gallantry in action. Mitchell was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which was announced using the identical citation and approved date as listed for the award above. It seems apparent that the intention was to award the Gold Medal rather than the Medal of Honor. However, for some unknown reason, when the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs published its report, Medal of Honor Recipients: 1863-1978 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1979) compiling all Medal of Honor recipient citations, William Mitchell and his citation were included.
Sources compiled from Air Force History Support Office, Air Force Historical Research Agency, U.S. Army Center for Military History (citation) and Air University.