Mitchell, William Lendrum 1879-1936

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MITCHELL, William Lendrum 1879-1936

PERSONAL: Born December 28, 1879, in Nice, France; died February 19, 1936, in New York, NY; son of John Lendrum Mitchell (a U.S. senator). Education: Attended Racine College prep school and Columbian University (now George Washington University).

CAREER: Career military officer and aviator. First Wisconsin Infantry, served in Spanish-American War, beginning 1898; Signal Corps, captain, 1903, assigned to aviation section, 1915, American Expeditionary Forces, lieutenant colonel, air officer, 1917; I Corps, colonel, air officer, 1918, brevet (temporary) brigadier general, 1918, assistant chief of Air Service, 1919, colonel, 1925, court-martialed and suspended, 1925; resigned from military service, 1926. Nonfiction writer and memorist.

AWARDS, HONORS: Distinguished Service Cross for "repeated acts of extraordinary heroism in action"; Distinguished Service Medal; decorated by French and British following World War I; posthumous Medal of Honor, U.S. Congress, 1946, for "outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of military aviation."


Our Air Force: The Keystone to National Defense, E. P. Dutton (New York, NY), 1921.

Winged Defense: The Developments and Possibilities of Modern Air Power, Economic and Military, G. P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 1925.

Skyways: A Book on Modern Aeronautics, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1930.

General Greely: The Story of a Great American, G. P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 1936.

Memoirs of World War I: From Start to Finish of Our Greatest War, Random House (New York, NY), 1960.

SIDELIGHTS: American military officer and aviator William Lendrum Mitchell was instrumental in establishing the United States Air Force. Mitchell, an outspoken advocate for an independent military branch for aviation defense, was known as both a visionary and a troublemaking insubordinate. He was court marshaled in 1925 but vindicated years after his death when Congress and military leaders finally created an air force equal to the Navy and Army. Mitchell wrote about one hundred articles and five books, mostly arguing his cause. Though not noted for his literary talent, he was considered single-minded and determined.

Mitchell's father, John Lendrum Mitchell, was a U.S. senator from Wisconsin from 1893-99. Billy, as William Mitchell became known, grew up on his family's large estate in Milwaukee and befriended Douglas MacArthur, the great World War II general. The boys' fathers had served together during the Civil War. After attending Racine College prep school, he enrolled at Columbian University (now George Washington University in Washington, D.C.) at age fifteen. He left school to serve in the Spanish-American War.

After joining the Signal Corps, Mitchell served in Alaska and helped re-establish communications in San Francisco after its 1906 earthquake. The future advocate of military air power was introduced to flying in 1915, when the Signal Corps assigned him to its aviation section.

Mitchell became the first American aviator to fly behind enemy lines in September 1918, during World War I, when he led 1,500 French and American planes in the largest bombing raid ever, at that point. A month later he was made a brevet, or temporary, brigadier general. Mitchell had begun planning a massive bombing attack on Germany when the war ended in November. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for "repeated acts of extraordinary heroism in action," a Distinguished Service Medal, and was decorated by France and Britain.

Upon Mitchell's return to the United States he was appointed assistant chief of the Air Service under General Charles T. Menoher. The young aviator began writing and speaking out about the need for greater air power. His strident tone alienated many Navy admirals who bristled at the notion that their battleships could not handle air attacks. Mitchell proved his point by sending a group of planes to sink an obsolete captured German battleship, the Ostfriesland. They did the same with another discontinued warship, the U.S.S. Alabama, later that year, and again in 1923 with two other warships.

With each demonstration Mitchell aroused greater animosity among the Navy and Army leaders. Still, he persisted. Angered Washington military leaders banished Mitchell to San Antonio, Texas, and demoted him to colonel in 1925. After the Naval airship Shenandoah was wrecked in a storm in September, killing twenty-eight men, Mitchell said such incidents were "the direct result of incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the War and Navy Departments." He was court-martialed for this outburst and found guilty; MacArthur, Mitchell's childhood friend and then a colonel, cast the dissenting vote. Mitchell was suspended for five years, but he resigned in February of 1926, and retired to a farm near Middleburg, Virginia.

In addition to his magazine articles, Mitchell wrote the books Our Air Force, Winged Defense, Memoirs of World War I, the biography General Greely, and a memoir, Skyways. General Greely tells of Adolphus W. Greely, a Civil War veteran and renowned Arctic explorer who advocated flight innovation. "The intensely stirring narrative of that Arctic expedition overshadows [Mitchell's] other &lsqub;literary] achievements," a Christian Science Monitor reviewer wrote. "In these times of turmoil and human strife, it is good to read a book that magnifies man's inhumanity to man." Except for the biography, all of his works address the need for greater military air power and a separate air force division of the military equal to the Army and Navy under a unified Defense Department, instead of the War Department. Mitchell insisted that future wars would be won or lost in the air.

Our Air Force was published at the same time as Mitchell's Ostfriesland demonstration. In it, he writes, "No navy will be able to exist against air attacks unless it obtains an absolute decision beforehand; and, as an air service will eventually be able to sink any warship, there will be no use in maintaining these expensive instruments for national defense." Mitchell estimates the horrific damage bombs could inflict upon cities and fleets, and argues that in addition to saving lives during war, an air force is necessary to for civilian airplane peacetime use.

Mitchell saw no future in commercial aviation until "a system of airdromes is established through the country and proper rules have been prescribed by law and are well administered, which will guarantee the public safe transit thought the air." A New York Times Book Review critic wrote, "General Mitchell's treatment of his subject is by no means exhaustive. There are loose ends. The style might be better. But it is an honest book and planned in the spirit of patriotic service. He is a pioneer who blazes the way as a practical aviator as well as a thinker." The publication of Winged Defense coincided with Mitchell's court marshal. He made the same argument in this book, writing, "What is necessary in this country is that the people find out the exact truth about what it can accomplish in time of peace as well as in time of war."

During the last ten years of his life, Mitchell continued campaigning for his cause, calling an air force "the keystone of national defense." According to a writer in Webster's American Military Biographies, Mitchell "hypothesized a possible attack by Japanese aircraft launched from great carrier ships and directed at the Hawaiian Islands." Years later, this very attack, on Pearl Harbor in 1941, drew the United States into World War II.

Ten years after his death, Congress awarded Mitchell a special posthumous medal for his "outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of military aviation." In 1947 the Defense Department was created, with subordinate Army, Navy, and Air Force branches.



The International Hall of Fame, San Diego Aerospace Museum (San Diego, CA), 1984.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 81, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 156-170.

Webster's American Military Biographies, Merriam Co. (Springfield, MA), 1978, pp. 284-285.


Christian Science Monitor, February 29, 1936, review of General Greely, p. 14.

New York Times Book Review, July 3, 1921, pp. 16, 27.*

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Mitchell, William Lendrum 1879-1936

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