Not only did Billy Mitchell think Japan would one day attack the United States, but he also thought it would be an aerial bombardment on ships in an American harbor.
He was right, although off by a couple decades.
After visiting Japan while stationed with the Army in the Philippines, Mitchell wrote in 1910, “That increasing friction between Japan and the U.S. will take place in the future there can be little doubt, and that this will lead to war sooner or later seems quite certain.”
Mitchell is a tragic figure in American military history. He foresaw a need for a strong air force long before anyone else in the military, and to prove his point to skeptical commanders who thought the idea of planes sinking ships was absurd, Mitchell arranged a demonstration. It worked. He returned from World War I with a chest full of medals and a head full of ideas considered radical to a staid, rapidly downsizing military uninterested in preparing for future conflicts.
MORE COVERAGE:75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack
In speeches, books and magazine articles, Mitchell predicted that one day rockets would travel across continents and oceans and people would zip between New York and London in as few as six hours on fast commercial airliners. He foresaw air forces attacking targets with unmanned aerial vehicles — he didn’t call them drones — and cruise missiles. He predicted that someday planes would be used for firefighting, evacuating the sick and wounded, photographing terrain, crop dusting and spying on enemies.
Mitchell was brash, bold and antagonistic. He was certain he was right, and anyone who disagreed became an opponent. He often was correct but needlessly made enemies of people who could have been valuable allies.
By the time Japanese torpedo bombers were dropping shells on the USS Arizona, Vestal and other ships in Pearl Harbor, Mitchell was dead. Within months of the Pearl Harbor attack, Doolittle’s Raiders would make the first strike against the Japanese homeland in B-25 bombers named after Mitchell, the same plane that graces the entrance of Milwaukee’s airport, also named after Mitchell. Jimmy Doolittle, the man leading the raid and flying the first B-25 off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, had been a Mitchell aide.
Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor for the bombing raid of Japan. “He was ahead of his time,” Doolittle said of Mitchell. But “the methods he used were so stringent that they destroyed him, and probably delayed the development of air power for a period of time.”
Links to MacArthur
Mitchell’s father, John Lendrum Mitchell, served as a first lieutenant in the 24th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Civil War along with Arthur MacArthur — father of Douglas — participating in the Battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro and Chattanooga. Both men’s sons would serve with great distinction, earn numerous medals, greatly affect the American military and end their careers under clouded circumstances. Mitchell’s son was court-martialed; MacArthur’s son was fired by President Harry Truman during the Korean War.
The lives of Billy Mitchell and Douglas MacArthur were intertwined from childhood, when they were boyhood friends in Milwaukee. Billy Mitchell fought in the Philippines in 1898 in Gen. Arthur MacArthur’s division, and when Douglas MacArthur arrived in France in October 1917 as a major in the 42nd Rainbow Division, Billy Mitchell was already in the country and welcomed him as commanding officer of the U.S. Air Service. Both belonged to the Alonzo Cudworth Jr. American Legion Post in Milwaukee. And in 1925, one of the jurors at Mitchell’s court-martial was Douglas MacArthur.
Decades before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mitchell’s father had bitterly denounced America’s attempt to annex the Hawaiian Islands. While representing Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate, John Lendrum Mitchell grew disgusted by President William McKinley’s policy of collecting land as war souvenirs, including Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Hawaii, too, was coveted by business and military interests for its strategic location in the Pacific Ocean. To John Lendrum Mitchell, Hawaii was not America’s to grab.
The joint congressional resolution annexing Hawaii passed on July 4, 1898. American military bases soon sprung up on Hawaii, and by 1906, the entire island of Oahu — which would become home to Pearl Harbor — was fortified by gun batteries.
Roots in Milwaukee
Mitchell grew up in a wealthy Milwaukee family with strong political connections. His grandfather, Alexander Mitchell, emigrated from Scotland to Milwaukee and found work as a clerk with the new Marine Fire and Insurance Co., later founding what would become the Marine Bank and owning the largest railroad in the Midwest: the Milwaukee Road. Mitchell St. and Mitchell Park are named after Alexander, whose son John Lendrum Mitchell was president of the Milwaukee School Board before representing Wisconsin’s 4th District in the House of Representatives and then the U.S. Senate.
When Billy Mitchell turned 18, he enlisted in the Army, joining the 1st Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry and was sent to Camp Cuba Libre in Jacksonville, Fla., to train for fighting in Cuba in the Spanish-American War. Mitchell was bitterly disappointed to miss out on the war — though he later served in occupation forces in Cuba. He was later commissioned an officer and posted to a signal corps unit in Washington, D.C.
The man who would eventually become known as the father of the U.S. Air Force became interested in aviation while stationed in Alaska. Bored while snowed in and waiting for better weather to install telegraph wire for the Army, Mitchell read articles on aircraft development. Fascinated by planes, he watched Orville Wright demonstrate the Wright Flyer in Virginia, took flying lessons and earned his pilot’s license.
With so few pilots serving in the American military, Mitchell, almost by default, became an expert on aviation issues and was asked to help draft legislation to keep military aviation under the authority of the Army Signal Corps. Mitchell is credited with being the first American Army officer to venture into the fighting trenches during World War I, where he saw the tactical folly of digging holes in the earth, which led to incredible losses of life and yearslong stalemates. He quickly understood that planes could render trenches obsolete and Mitchell persuaded the French premier to ask the U.S. War Department for 4,500 planes, 5,000 pilots and 50,000 mechanics to help the Allies gain air supremacy.
It was the start of America’s air force.
He later wrote in his memoirs of the Great War that for armies to win, it was necessary to slowly decimate opposing troops, destroying a country’s resources and people. Mitchell thought air power was the answer to the slaughter in the trenches.
Flying a French Spad two-seat observation plane and later an American-made Vought VE-7 fighter plane, Mitchell repeatedly flew into enemy territory to assess German lines. His personal insignia — a silver eagle on a red field — was painted on the fuselage. He was not greatly skilled at combat but was a genius at air tactics. In September 1918, he organized an attack involving more than 1,400 planes flown by American, French, British and Italian pilots that knocked out German supply depots and aircraft hangars. He ordered the construction of fake hangars and fake planes to fool German observation pilots into thinking the Allied air fleet was much larger, a tactic later used during World War II before the D-Day invasion.
Expecting war to continue into 1919, Mitchell devised an innovative plan to convert large, long-range aircraft into troop transports, each plane carrying 10 to 15 soldiers who could parachute behind enemy lines. The soldiers could assemble for action under cover of low-flying attack planes, Mitchell recommended, in a coordinated air and infantry assault. Resupplies of food and ammunition could be dropped by air. But the war ended in November 1918, and Mitchell soon was campaigning for a large expansion of military air power. He didn’t think peace would last.
Mitchell ended his memoir of World War I, the only world war he would see, with an admonition: “I wondered how soon we should have to come back to Europe in arms again — never, I hope. It is not our place unless we intend to take charge of the destinies of the world, which at this time seems a little premature.”
No one listening
In April 1919, shortly after he was appointed chief of training and operations in the air service, he was invited by acting secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt to meet with Navy commanders. Mitchell told the admirals that unless the Navy developed an air force, its battleships were in danger of destruction from the air. He proposed building aircraft carriers and suggested arming planes with torpedoes, armor-piercing bombs and larger guns. In a New York Herald article in December 1919, Mitchell wrote, “Air power will prevail over the water in a very short space of time.” A few months later, he used elaborate charts to illustrate to military commanders how, in his opinion, 1,000 planes could be built for the same cost as one battleship.
Many of his words fell on deaf ears.
By the early 1920s, Mitchell was growing more concerned about the military budget; he thought too much money was being spent on ships and not enough on planes. Convinced that aircraft were key to the military’s future, Mitchell urged a demonstration of air power, pointing out that while an army fights on land and a navy fights on water, an air force could do battle over both. But Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels was having none of it. So convinced of the Navy’s superiority over planes, he warned Mitchell that if he tried to drop bombs on ships, Mitchell’s planes would be shot down long before they could get close.
In testimony before a congressional committee, Mitchell vividly described what would happen from direct hits on ships as bombs falling from the sky pierced decks and superstructures: blasts would create fires, killing everyone on the upper decks, breaking lights and throwing the ship into complete darkness below deck, disrupting all communication systems, filling rooms with poisonous fumes, causing shell shock to most on board, disrupting ammunition delivery systems and exploding anti-aircraft shells stored in ammunition compartments. His description eerily described the grisly scene on board the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941.
In 1924, Mitchell toured Hawaii and Asia to inspect America’s military assets. After touring China, Korea, Japan, Siam, Singapore, Burma, Java, the Philippines and India, Mitchell wrote a 340-page report warning that the Asia-Pacific Rim could soon rival Europe in military might and America’s security depended on its foothold in the region. To Mitchell, however, Japan was the country that posed the greatest threat because of its growing military strength and its quest for external sources of oil and iron for Japanese industries.
In his 1925 book, “Winged Defense,” Mitchell detailed how Japan might attack Hawaii — starting at 7:30 a.m. with 60 Japanese pursuit planes destroying hangars and planes on the ground at Schofield Barracks, followed by 100 bombers striking Pearl Harbor’s naval base.
Though Mitchell correctly predicted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he did get some things wrong. He thought the Japanese would attack using land-based air power with submarines transporting airplanes in crates for assembly at an airfield on the northern Hawaiian island of Niihau and bombers flown from Midway Island. He undervalued aircraft carriers, contending that the large ships could not operate efficiently nor launch a sufficient number of aircraft for a concentrated operation. Also, Mitchell didn’t need a crystal ball to predict a Japanese offensive at 7:30 a.m. since military commanders often favor morning attacks.
Mitchell’s career effectively came to an end — though it could be said it was a long time coming — with the fatal crash of the Navy dirigible Shenandoah in September 1925. Because the Navy had scheduled a packed itinerary for the Shenandoah, visiting 27 cities between New Jersey and Iowa, the dirigible’s commander was under pressure to arrive on time at each city. Over Ohio, the Shenandoah flew into a storm, and though it could have steered clear, the dirigible would have missed local fair appearances, and the captain continued into the squall. It crashed, killing 14 crew members.
Mitchell was apoplectic. In a statement he issued to the press, he blamed the disasters on the incompetency and criminal negligence of top military commanders. One month later, he was court-martialed and convicted of conduct that discredited the military. He was suspended from duty for five years without pay. Within two months of the verdict, Mitchell resigned. He spent the next decade writing articles and talking to anyone who would listen about the need for a strong air force. He died in 1936 of influenza and, following his funeral at Milwaukee’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, was buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee next to his father and grandfather.
The personal insignia he ordered painted on his World War I plane was incorporated into the U.S. Air Force Combat Action Badge, first awarded in 2007 to Air Force members who come under enemy fire. The medal features a crimson- and gold-striped ribbon and a medal of an eagle clutching arrows surrounding by a laurel wreath.
Special print section marks Pearl Harbor 75th anniversary
"A Day of Infamy" commemorates the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The special print section includes rarely seen photos and maps, essays by President George H.W. Bush and journalist Tom Brokaw, and stories about how Wisconsin answered the call to serve. It is available for purchase at jsonline.com/pearlharbor, while supplies last.