[Standard disclaimer: This post is made purely in my personal capacity. It should not be imputed to anyone or anything else.]
A formative event in Air Force history occurred more than two decades before that Service was even born: the court-martial of Colonel Billy Mitchell. The humongous National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base gives due homage to that signal military justice proceeding.
Mitchell was a flamboyant and talented pilot and leader of aerial combat units during World War I. The 1,481 U.S. and Allied airplanes that fell under his command performed impressively – and with elan. That alone would have made Mitchell one of the Air Force’s founding fathers. That status was cemented when, after the war, he became an evangelist for the gospel of air power. Immediately after World War I, he was assigned as the Army’s deputy chief of staff—a perch from which he advocated for expanded use of aircraft in combat. In 1925, after a series of tests demonstrated airplanes’ ability to sink a battleship, Mitchell reverted to his permanent grade of colonel and was assigned to duty at San Antonio, Texas. Feeling sidelined, the flashy aviator made provocative pronouncements that returned him to the public view. After a Navy dirigible was torn to pieces in a thunderstorm – killing 14 – and a Navy PN-9 demonstration flight went horribly awry, Mitchell loosed a verbal salvo. “These accidents,” said Mitchell, “are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments.”
“All aviation policies, schemes, and systems are dictated by nonflying officers of the Army or Navy who know practically nothing about it,” he continued. “The lives of the airmen are being used merely as pawns in their hands. … Officers and agents sent by the War and Navy Departments to Congress have almost always given incomplete, misleading, or false information about aeronautics.”
Four days later, he launched a reattack. “If the department does not like the statement I made, let them take disciplinary action as they see fit, according to their judgment, court-martial or no court-martial. … The investigation that is needed is of the War and Navy Departments and their conduct in the disgraceful administration of aviation.”
President Calvin Coolidge was livid. Mitchell was soon facing a general court-martial for eight specifications of violating Article 96 of the Articles of War – Article 134’s predecessor. The court-martial members included Douglas MacArthur.
The prosecution’s case was completed in a day. But the trial would last another six weeks. It became the Scopes Monkey Trial of the doctrine of strategic air power. Witnesses for the defense included legendary commander of the 94th Aero Squadron Eddie Rickenbacker and then-39-year-old Major Hap Arnold. Mitchell himself took the stand and was subjected to effective cross-examination by Major Allen W. Gullion.
After deliberating for less than three hours, the members found him guilty. According to later reports, Douglas MacArthur was the lone dissenter. The court-martial sentenced him to be suspended from duty for five years, but President Coolidge commuted that sentence to loss of half of his pay. Soon after the trial, Mitchell resigned from the Army.
Mitchell’s view of air power has been largely vindicated, making him an Air Force martyr. The National Museum of the United States Air Force offers a shrine to his martyrdom.
See generally John T. Correll, The Billy Mitchell Court-Martial, Air Force Magazine (Aug. 1, 2012), https://www.airforcemag.com/article/0812mitchell/
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