William “Billy” Mitchell was regarded as the father of the United States Air Force. Born in France in 1879, he later joined the U.S. army on the onset of the Spanish-American War in 1989. Later, in the Philippines, he stood as a second lieutenant against the Emilio Aguinaldo guerillas. After his time spent in war, he journeyed across the Alaskan wilderness to find a telegraph cable route. With this journey, he developed an interest in the brand-new technology, aviation. Having spent time as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army General Staff in 1912, Billy went on to learn how to fly three years later.
By the time the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Billy Mitchell had already been promoted as a colonel. Having aviation and war experience after studying British and French aviation strategies and aircraft, Billy Mitchell was appointed commander of the U.S. Army’s Air Service in France. Billy is accredited as innovator in the use of airpower, pursuing large-scale bombing attacks against the German targets. His leadership in aviation earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, and several foreign decorations. Back in the United States, he was named assistant chief of the Air Service.
Billy Mitchell believed strongly in the development of air power as a predominant force of war. In 1921, Billy and his aviators conducted a series of controversial bombing tests against target ships. He and his crew successfully sank the heavily-armored German battleship, Ostfriesland, with a series of 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs. The orchestrated bombing tests, as well as Billy’s condemnations of the U.S. army and navy’s air power, lead him to eventually be forced out of his job as assistant chief. He settled into his permanent rank of colonel, but still remained involved in the army in San Antonio, Texas.
September 1925 marked the beginning of a series of navy seaplane accidents: first, the navy airship USS Shenandoah crashed, and later, three navy seaplanes had been lost in separate accidents. Billy Mitchell answered to the crashes by stating the losses were results of incompetence and negligence. As a result of his statements, the court-martial held an investigation in 1925 to look into Billy’s alleged violation of the 96th Article of War. This military law allowed officers to be tried for discrediting military services and insubordination. Billy Mitchell ultimately pleaded “not guilty,” yet generals found him guilty of all charges.
Despite these charges, Billy’s punishment was light. He was suspended from duty and forfeited five years’ worth of pay and allowances. He ultimately tendered his resignation. In 1936, Billy Mitchell died of heart complications and influenza.
While a controversial figure, history cannot dispute the impact Billy Mitchell had on the United States’ Air Force. His influence on aviation still remains prominent long after his death.