Although William Lendrum “Billy” Mitchell, a GW graduate, is now considered to have paved the runway for the establishment of the nation’s Air Force, it wasn’t before he was first convicted of insubordination and resigned from the military.
The Father of the Air Force, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell
William Lendrum “Billy” Mitchell, 1899 GW Graduate. (Photo Courtesy University Archives.)
The George Washington University (GW) graduate was so certain of the necessity of air power to ensure national security and military dominance that he accused military leadership of incompetence in 1925. He had already fallen out of favor with many military leaders after he gave a series of reports the year before that asserted the superiority of air power—an idea the Navy didn’t like—and stated his bold and ultimately accurate prediction that Japan would launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. bases in the Philippines.
(His reports were compiled and published as the book Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power—Economic and Military).
His belief in air power began after he enlisted to fight in the Spanish-American War in 1898 as a GW junior (along with several other GW volunteers).
After the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Mr. Mitchell went to France to set up an office for the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force. He was elevated to the temporary rank of brigadier general while commanding allied forces in the Battle of San Mihiel in 1918. During that successful offensive, Mr. Mitchell became the first American airman to fly over German lines.
Mr. Mitchell amplified his call for military leaders to focus their attention on air power when he returned to the United States. To prove some of his theories, he set up and carried out the now famous “airplane versus battleship” tests from 1921 to 1923 in which he sunk stationary German ships from Martin MB-2 bomber airplanes. Congress awarded Mr. Mitchell a Special Congressional Medal of Honor after his death in 1936.
Mr. Mitchell completed the requirements for his GW degree in 1919 and was awarded a degree that year “as of the Class of 1899.” Mitchell Hall on the Foggy Bottom Campus is named for him.
You can find a sculpture of Mr. Mitchell in the Pre-1920 Aviation area of the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.
(By Bergis Jules)