What would you do if you were a popular general in the United States Army, a tireless advocate for military aviation, and instead of getting a promotion to Chief of the Air Service, you were demoted and sent halfway across the country? If it was 1925 and your name was Billy Mitchell, you might just have a giant barbecue, complete with a roster of attendees that reads like a who’s who in the history of military aviation. The bash featured in this week’s film was likely Mitchell’s last big celebration, because by the end of the year, he was embroiled in a court-martial that permanently ended his military career.
Brigadier General Billy Mitchell may have faced demotion and exile, but that didn’t prevent him from throwing a fabulous party.
Long before Billy Mitchell was known as the father of the United States Air Force, he enlisted in the Army to fight in the Spanish-American War. When Mitchell was appointed assistant to the head of the Signal Corps Aviation Section in 1916, he had already served for nearly two decades. Advancing military aviation became Mitchell’s life’s work. During World War I, he planned the air campaign for the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and led nearly 1500 planes (the largest number of planes used in warfare to that point) in the battle.
Mitchell returned from the war believing that future wars would be fought with air power. He became the primary advocate for military aviation, criticizing the War Department and the Navy for not developing a national air force. Mitchell also made sure that military aviation stayed in the papers, speaking publicly about new innovations in flight and pushing military pilots to break flight records. Mitchell rankled his military and civilian superiors, but he gained the support of the press and the general public.
After Mitchell made repeated public declarations that a coordinated air attack could sink a naval ship, the secretaries of the War Department and Navy reluctantly agreed to test the claim in the summer of 1921. Even with strict limitations imposed by the Navy, Mitchell’s air crew sank three captured German vessels, including the battleship Ostfriesland. Mitchell got what he wanted when budgets for military aviation were increased, but showing up the military establishment and exposing the weakness of the naval fleet certainly did not make Mitchell any new allies in his chain of command.
In the few relatively calm years before Mitchell’s demotion and court-martial, he was sent on assignments that seemed designed to keep him out of the public eye. Most notable was a 1924 inspection tour of Asia and Hawaii. In an extensive report that was later published as Winged Defense, Mitchell accurately predicted the circumstances of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, even coming within half an hour of the actual time of attack.
The beginning of the end for Billy Mitchell’s military career came when he was called to testify before the Lampert Committee in 1924. After the end of World War I, Congress had convened more than a dozen commissions, committees, and boards to investigate military aviation. The Lampert Committee provided an official venue for Mitchell to broadcast his opinion of the United States military’s lack of support for aviation. Mitchell ripped the Army and Navy to shreds, calling out the leadership and other witnesses.
Billy Mitchell was obviously a problem for senior military officials. When Mitchell’s term as Assistant Chief of the Air Service expired in March of 1925, he was not reappointed to the position. Mitchell was sent to a lower-profile job in San Antonio, Texas and lost his temporary promotion to Brigadier General. The assignment might have been routine, except that Mitchell was at the forefront of military aviation and had requested to keep his position as Assistant Chief of the Air Service. The reassignment was widely viewed as an exile intended to punish and silence the outspoken Mitchell.
Before he made the big move, though, Mitchell’s supporters threw a booze-filled farewell barbecue in his honor. John Bockhurst, a newsreel cameraman who had filmed Army flyers on the first round-the-world flight, recorded the event for posterity. If anyone ever wondered whether Mitchell reconsidered his public criticism of military officials, watching this film should clarify his position, particularly when an intertitle references his testimony before Congress. A shot of Mitchell sharpening a large knife is preceded by: “Showing the General getting ready to testify before the Aircraft Committee.”
While Mitchell had alienated his superiors, the film illustrates his widespread support in the rank and file. One distinguished guest who appears in the film is General James Fechet. Fechet took over Mitchell’s position as Assistant Chief of the Air Service and rose to Chief in 1927. Also appearing is Lt. Lester Maitland, one of the pilots who flew the first successful trans-Pacific flight in 1927. Hap Arnold, a staunch defender of Mitchell’s who would command the Army Air Forces during World War II, also features prominently throughout the film.
The film also shows the pioneering navy pilot Commander Holden C. Richardson, who is referenced in a tongue-in-cheek intertitle that reads: “Scene showing close cooperation between the Air Service and the well known navy.” In the following scene, Billy Mitchell serves an enormous piece of meat to Richardson. Mitchell may have had a fight to pick with the Navy establishment, but he had close friends in pilots everywhere.
Also taking a prominent role in the Prohibition-era festivities were copious amounts of whiskey and beer. In fact, the alcohol gets its first mention at 3:47 when it is named “The life of the party.” Most of the second half of the film is devoted to depicting the progressively more drunken activities of the attendees.
Billy Mitchell likely left for San Antonio with the support of his “associates and admirers” buoying his spirits. His high spirits were not to last long, however. In September of 1925, Mitchell released his most disparaging statement yet, blaming senior officials for the deaths of pilots attempting ill-advised flights, and accusing military leaders of incompetence. By October, President Calvin Coolidge had ordered the court-martial of Billy Mitchell under the 96th Article of War.
In December of 1925, Billy Mitchell was convicted of conduct that brought discredit to the military service and suspended without pay. Mitchell resigned in February 1926 but continued to promote military aviation until he died in 1936. In 1942, President Roosevelt posthumously elevated Billy Mitchell to the rank of Major General and recommended him for a Congressional Gold Medal.