Billy Mitchell Takes on the Navy

By Thomas Wildenberg

The two men should have had a common bond, but “Hunsaker took an immediate personal dislike to Mitchell, whom he regarded as a masterful ‘politician in uniform,’ ‘charming’ in some ways but with a certain ‘asinine quality.’” 4 As they whiled away the hours on the Aquitania , Mitchell expounded to anyone within earshot on the lessons of the war and the importance of an independent air force. The general and his cohorts, Hunsaker recalled, were “fully prepared with evidence, plans, data, propaganda posters, and articles to break things wide open for air power as the sole requisite of the national defense in the future.” 5 But for the Navy, Mitchell’s rhetoric spelled danger, especially for naval aviation.

On 19 March 1919, President Woodrow Wilson, anticipating the need to reorganize the aviation establishment, issued an executive order placing the Bureau of Aircraft Production under the director of the Air Service, who was to have all the powers conferred by law and executive order that had previously been accorded the director of Aircraft Production. In the reorganization that followed, the division of Military Aviation was abolished, and Mitchell was assigned to the staff of the director of the Air Service as assistant executive in charge of the Training and Operations Division. 6

Major General Charles T. Menoher, distinguished commander of the famed 42nd (Rainbow) Division, had been appointed director of the Air Service on 21 December 1918. Inexperienced in aviation matters, Menoher looked for guidance to Mitchell, the most experienced air officer on his staff. One of Menoher’s first acts was to give Mitchell the authority to develop plans, orchestrate training, and oversee research, thus allowing him to dominate the Air Service.

When Mitchell took over as chief of the Operations and Training Division, the place of aviation and its role in the military were being hotly contested. On one side were the airmen and supporters of aviation, who viewed the airplane as a powerful new weapon that would be the decisive factor in future wars, be they on land or at sea. 7 On the other side were the traditionalists, mostly nonflyers, conservative generals and admirals. In the Army the issue revolved around the status of airmen and the establishment of a separate air arm, while naval aviators’ first priority was to obtain aircraft carriers. 8 Meanwhile, civilian supporters of aviation pushed Congress to establish a department of aeronautics.

One of Mitchell’s first duties in the new command was to appear before the General Board of the Navy, an advisory body of senior flag officers who provided guidance to the secretary of the Navy on matters of policy and ship construction. Mitchell’s name had been brought to the board’s attention by Captain Nobel E. Irwin, director of Naval Aviation, in connection with the question of whether, in view of aviation’s potential, the coastline should continue to be the line of demarcation between the Army’s and the Navy’s authority. Irwin told the board that Mitchell “strongly advocates a united air service and made remarks that the Navy interfered with the Army’s work abroad.” 9 He did not reveal his source, but most certainly it was Hunsaker, who testified five days later. With uncanny foresight, he urged the board to call on Mitchell so that its members could hear his views on absorbing naval aviation into a unified air service. 10 This was an even graver threat to naval autonomy than coastline defense. Heeding Hunsaker’s advice, the General Board, via a letter from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, invited Mitchell. 11

He testified on 3 April. Much of the ensuing discussion revolved around the types and numbers of planes that might be transferred to the Army as the Navy demobilized. Although Mitchell predicted that “a Ministry of Defense, combining Army, Navy, and Air Force under one general director,” was sure to come about, the exchanges between Mitchell and his Navy inquisitors was remarkably calm and at times almost good-natured. When the subject of surface-ship vulnerability was raised, both sides agreed that tests were needed to find out how to tackle the problem. At one point Mitchell lectured the board on the necessity of fighter protection for observation planes and the inadequacy of the floatplane fighter. This put him squarely on the side of those within the Navy who were actively seeking to acquire the Navy’s first aircraft carrier. 12

A few days later, Captain Thomas T. Craven relieved Irwin as the director of Naval Aviation. Almost immediately he found himself involved in the controversy over plans for a department of aeronautics. Craven acknowledged that aircraft might be developed more rapidly under a single government department, but he ardently disagreed with Mitchell’s ideas for a unified air force. Armies and navies exist to win wars, Craven told the House Committee on Naval Affairs. A winner strikes with all the weapons he can to damage an enemy. If a naval commander is to use aviation in battle, that arm should be built, organized, and trained to work within the Navy like any other ship type or weapon. Mitchell ignored this “ancient truism,” which was the basic reason for retaining aviation in the Navy. 13

He may not have worked out all the details related to carrier operations, but Mitchell certainly realized their importance in at-sea aviation. His appearance before the General Board seems to have crystallized his thinking in this regard, for he formulated a policy for the use of the Air Service in a naval war shortly thereafter, in which he was bold enough to request two aircraft carriers with flight decks 900 feet long. 14 This was consistent with his concept of the service’s role in war: to achieve air superiority by first destroying the enemy’s air forces. 15 “The hostile Air Service,” he wrote in a memorandum dated 16 April 1919, “must be sought out and attacked wherever found, whether this be over the water or over the land.” This would become the foundation of his theories regarding coastal defense. 16

Mitchell also proposed a new structure for aviation, one that would give him unfettered tactical control over the Army’s aircraft. 17 It would be the first step toward obtaining his unified air force. The new organization would be based on two divisions. A support organization responsible for personnel and logistics would be called the Air Service; the other, called the United States Air Force, would be strictly a tactical organization commanded by a flying officer. Since Mitchell was the highest-ranking aviator in the Army, that command would undoubtedly be his.

Mitchell’s proposal was the first of several attempts that spring to develop a coherent air-power theory and doctrine. On 19 April 1919, General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing appointed a board of senior officers under Major General Joseph T. Dickman to review the performance of each branch of the American Expeditionary Force, including the Air Service. Pershing charged its members to “consider the lessons learned during the war insofar as it affected tactics and organization.” 18 After analyzing input from several sources, including the report of the Air Service Board, headed by Brigadier General Benjamin Foulois, the Dickman Board unanimously agreed that “unity of command is absolutely vital.” Aviation, like cavalry and artillery, must remain an auxiliary. 19 The report reflected the opinion of Army leadership that future wars would be decided by mass armies on the ground. 20

While the Dickman Board was deliberating, Secretary of War Baker decided to order a broader examination of aviation’s role in national defense. On 1 May, he directed Assistant Secretary of War Benedict C. Crowell to form a commission to study aviation problems as they had developed in the principal Allied countries during the war. Baker made sure to instruct his independent-minded assistant “to limit himself to fact-finding and submit no conclusions as to air policy.” 21 During the late spring and summer, the Crowell Commission—also known as the American Aviation Mission—visited France, Italy, and England to confer with various government officials, army and navy commanders, and aircraft manufacturers. 22

Meanwhile demobilization was in full swing, and the Air Service was rapidly shrinking. On the day the Armistice was declared, 195,023 officers and men were assigned to the Air Service. By mid-1919, this number had decreased by 92 percent, to 15,875. Of these, only 220 were regular Army officers, detailed from other branches for temporary duty in aviation. 23

On 6 June Mitchell testified before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs during its hearings on the Army appropriation bill for the coming year. He used the forum to further his cause. Committee chairman Senator James W. Wadsworth Jr. provided the perfect opening when he asked Mitchell about duplication in the work of the Navy. Reducing military expenditures was one of the main concerns of Congress in the immediate postwar era, and anything that improved efficiency was highly desirable. Mitchell was quick to pick up on this, replying that naval officers were “duplicating substantially everything.” 24

When the American Aviation Mission returned to the United States in July 1919, its members had concluded that something drastic had to be done to avoid the complete disappearance of the American aircraft industry. It recommended that oversight of all air activities of the United States be concentrated within a single department of aeronautics. But Secretary of War Baker, having specifically warned the mission not to intrude into policy, disagreed in his cover letter accompanying the report’s release, stating that the group had “in my judgment gone too far.” 25 Army, Navy, and civilian aviators faced different problems and needed to be trained separately, he said.

But before Secretary Baker had a chance to release the report prepared by Crowell’s commission, two bills were introduced in Congress implementing its recommendations. Republican Representative Charles F. Curry of California introduced the first, H.R. 7295, on 28 July 1919. His bill concentrated all aviation affairs in a department of aeronautics. It provided for a secretary of Aeronautics, to whom would be entrusted “all duties heretofore assigned to the War, Post Office, and Navy Departments in so far as they relate to aviation.” 26 The secretary would be responsible for promoting matters pertaining to aviation, including the purchase, manufacture, maintenance, and production of all aircraft for the United States. Curry also proposed a regular air force, to be organized within the framework of the department of aeronautics as a combat force, capable of both independent and joint operations. Three days later, Republican Senator Harry S. New of Indiana introduced the second bill, S. 2693. As a sitting member of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, New had listened to Mitchell’s compelling testimony of 6 June. His bill was less detailed than Curry’s, but it did call for a “United States Air Force” assigned to the Department of Aeronautics, which would also control all aviation matters for the government. 27

The introduction of these bills initiated an all-out struggle, led by a small number of pro-aviation supporters in the Republican-dominated House, for an independent air force and a department of aeronautics. They were backed by the Army airmen who had served in France, a group of which Billy Mitchell was the senior member. In opposition was a powerful group led by secretary of War Baker and the secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels. Their supporters included the General Staff of the Army, the assistant Secretary of the Navy, and most naval aviators.

It was natural for the Army airmen, who had flown high above the mud and grime of the trenches, to feel they could accomplish more than the infantry, and faster. Baker understood their attitude but agreed with the General Staff that in the final analysis, victory went to the men on the ground. He wasted no time in convening a board of Army officers, headed by General Menoher, with four artillery officers as supporting members, to investigate the advisability of creating a separate department of the air. General Menoher “was not coy about his aeronautic philosophy: the Air Service belonged—wing, stick, and propeller—to the U.S. Army.” 28 He and the other four members were convinced that the paramount role of aircraft was the direct support of ground troops. It appeared as if the Menoher Board made an exhaustive effort to examine the merits of the New and Curry bills, but “the cards were stacked against an honest appraisal.” 29

During the next two months, the board examined a wealth of written material and heard from a number of witnesses, including Mitchell, who appeared on 14 August 1919. He later wrote: “The whole hearing impressed on me more than ever that, under the control of the Army, it will be impossible to develop an Air Service.” 30

But a few high-ranking officers were inclined to support the legislation, so to tip the scales, Menoher came up with an ingenious scheme. Via telegraph, he requested opinions of some 50 key corps and army commanders who had had operational experience in World War I with air units under them and were unanimously in favor of keeping control of aviation within the Army. Not surprisingly, the Menoher Board concluded that “the military and naval air forces should remain in integral parts of the Army and Navy and be completely under their respective controls both in peace and in war no matter what may be the decision as to the establishment of a separate aeronautical department or agency.” 31

On 20 August Mitchell appeared before a special subcommittee of the Military Affairs Committee, convened by Senator Wadsworth to conduct hearings on reorganizing the Army. Although Wadsworth was more concerned with the size of the service, its postwar organization, and the adoption of universal conscription, the topic of aviation could not be avoided. “What have you to say about the condition of the aviation game?” he asked. 32 This open-ended question was all Mitchell needed. “Army aviation is shot to pieces,” he said, “and our naval aviation does not exist as an air arm.” 33 He quickly concentrated his fire on the Navy.

As was his modus operandi, Mitchell had used a half-truth in claiming naval aviation no longer existed. He was well aware that the outgoing chief of Naval Operations had abolished the Office of Naval Aviation on 1 August, but what he did not tell the committee was that the functions of that office had been relegated to the Planning and Material Divisions of the Office of the chief of Naval Operations. In Mitchell’s mind this did not matter, for his prime concern was the need for an independent air force that would bring together personnel, ordnance, communications, etc. Weapons development was one of his pet peeves, and he told the committee: “We believe that if we are allowed to develop essentially air weapons [as a] means of fighting in the air that we can carry the war to such an extent in the air as to almost make navies useless on the surface of the waters. The Navy General Board I might say agrees with me on that.” 34

Predictably, this created a firestorm, causing Admiral William S. Benson, the chief of Naval Operations, to write to the secretary of War requesting that Mitchell explain the basis for his statement. 35 His request was passed to the General Staff of the Army, which had to issue two separate requests for a response from the pugnacious airman before he would acquiesce. Mitchell’s reply, which he claimed was based on the 3 April hearings before the General Board, did not pass muster with Baker, who was forced into the embarrassing position of admitting that Mitchell’s statement “was not justified.” 36

Mitchell had thrown down the gauntlet. The Navy responded on 12 September when Roosevelt, then serving as acting secretary of the Navy, appeared before the same Senate subcommittee. He began by stating that the Navy was absolutely opposed to the creation of “another separate branch of the national defense.” 37 Naval aviation, Roosevelt declared, was a distinct and integral part of the Fleet. “Naval aviators,” he continued, “must therefore be of the Navy, they must have Navy training and be in close touch at all times with the development of naval work.” Roosevelt later declared before the Military Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, “General Mitchell knows nothing whatever about Naval Aviation.” 38 The Navy had never had a separate aviation branch or department.

Roosevelt’s scathing criticism did not stop Mitchell from further, erroneous attacks on the naval-aviation establishment. On 7 October, he delivered before the House Committee on Military Affairs several untruths intended to advance his cause. This time it was Secretary Daniels who took umbrage. Writing to Secretary Baker, he complained about the testimony of three Army officers—Mitchell, Colonel Charles DeF. Chandler, and Major Benjamin Foulois—who had made incorrect statements about naval aviation for which they were unqualified. Daniels’ four-page letter included eight examples, beginning with Mitchell’s testimony about naval aviators being in favor of a separate air service: “I think the flying personnel of Naval Aviation are really in favor of it [a separate air service] but hesitate to express their opinions because they are all junior officers and because the senior officers are against it largely, I believe, from lack of familiarity of the subject.” 39 As Daniels explained, this was simply Mitchell’s opinion, and it was incorrect. Most aviators in the regular Navy were opposed to a united air service. Daniels held that the impropriety of submitting incorrect evidence “should not pass unnoticed,” particularly when it tended to discredit another department of the government.

Such complaints were part of a larger war of words that emerged throughout the fall and winter of 1919–20. It was fought in the halls of Congress and waged on the newsstands of America, fueled by numerous articles and newspaper accounts. In the end, the Curry Bill never emerged from the House Committee on Military Affairs. New’s bill, which differed from Curry’s in that the proposed head of the new agency would be a presidentially appointed director of aeronautics who would not hold cabinet rank, was approved by Military Affairs Committee and passed to the full Senate for debate on 28 January 1920. Senator New told colleagues that it would save the government $63 million, but most senators remained unimpressed. The bill was returned to committee, where it died. 40 Mitchell would have to find another venue to advance his ideas on air power.

1. Maj. Gen. Menoher, Director of the Air Service, and Maj. Gen. Kenly, Director of Division of Military Aeronautics, Cable No. 2415, 7 January 1919, War Cables 1917–1919, box 33, entry 96, RG 18, NA-CP.

2. Andrew Boyle, Trenchard (London: Collins, 1962), 328–31; Mitchell, Daily Journals January–March 1919, box 4, MP; James C. Cooke, Billy Mitchell (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2002), 107.

3. “Shipping and Mail,” The New York Times , 27 February 1919.

4. William F. Trimble, Jerome C. Hunsaker and the Rise of American Aviation (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 2002), 62.

5. William F. Trimble, Admiral William A. Moffett: Architect of Naval Aviation (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1994), 68.

6. Organization of Military Aeronautics 1907–1935 , 37; “Coordination of All Aerial Activity Aim of the Reorganization Plan,” Official U.S. Bulletin , 21 March 1919, 6.

7. Peter R. Faber, “Interwar U.S. Army Aviation and the Air Corps Tactical School,” The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1997), 184.

8. Ibid.; Charles M. Melhorn, Two-Block Fox: The Rise of the Aircraft Carrier, 1911–1929 (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1974), 30–31.

9. Irwin testimony, 5 March 1919, roll 13, GBH, NA.

10. Trimble, Jerome C. Hunsaker , 67.

11. Acting SecNav to SecWar, 17 March 1919, Correspondence File Jan–Apr 1919, box 7, MP.

12. Mitchell testimony, 3 April 1919, 487, 490, 495, 499, roll 14, GBH; Melhorn, Two-Block Fox , 41.

13. George Van Deurs, “Navy Wings between the Wars” (unpublished manuscript, microfilm NRS 308, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C.), 17.

14. Mitchell, Memorandum for DAS, 12 April 1919, Correspondence January–April 1919, box 7, MP.

15. Notes on General Policy of Air Service Organization Recommended by Brig. Gen. Mitchell, n.d., Misc. Articles, box 25, MP.

16. Mitchell, Memorandum for DAS, 16 April 1919, Correspondence January–April 1919, box 7, MP.

17. Mitchell to DAS, April 16, 1919, Correspondence January–April 1919, box 7, MP.

18. Robert P. White, Mason Patrick and the Fight for Air Service Independence (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 2001), 38.

19. James P. Tate, Army and Its Air Corps: Army Policy toward Aviation, 1919–1941 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1998), 7.

20. R. Earl McClendon, Autonomy of the Air Arm (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1996), 36.

21. White, Mason Patrick and the Fight for Air Service Independence , 39.

22. Organization of Military Aeronautics, 1907–1935 , 38; Flight , 13 November 1919, 1482.

23. Aerial Age Weekly , 29 September 1919, 91; Tate, Army and Its Air Corps , 7. “Report of the American Aviation Mission,” Aircraft Journal , 26 July 1919, 4.

24. U.S. Congress, Senate, Army Appropriation Bill Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Military Affairs United States Senate, Mitchell testimony, 6 March 1919, 66 Cong., 1st sess. on H.R. 5227 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1919), 93–97.

25. Flying , 19 September 1919, 714.

26. Thomas H. Greer, The Development of Air Doctrine in the Army Air Arm, 1917–1941 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1985), 20.

27. Organization of Military Aeronautics, 1907–1935 , 40; Rice, The Politics of Air Power , 16.

28. Tate, Army and Its Air Corps , 4.

29. White, Mason Patrick and the Fight for Air Service Independence , 46.

30. Tate, Army and Its Air Corps , 11.

31. McClendon, Autonomy of the Air Arm , 41; White, Mason Patrick and the Fight for Air Service Independence , 47–48; Menoher (President of Board), Report of a Board of Officers Convened to Report upon the New and Curry Bills, 27 October 1919, Hearing before Subcommittee No. 1 (Aviation) Serial 2 , 3325–34.

32. U.S. Senate, Reorganization of the Army, Hearings before Subcommittee of the Committee on Military Affairs, 66th Cong., 1st sess., 299.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., 300.

35. SecNav [Benson Acting] to SecWar, 22 September 1919, Series II Cong. Hearings 1919–1925, JP-OpA.

36. Baker to SecNav, 21 October 1919, Series II Cong. Hearings 1919–1925, JP-OpA.

37. Roosevelt testimony, Reorganization of the Army Hearings , 727.

38. “Fine Progress in Naval Aviation: Testimonies of Secretary Daniels and Franklin D. Roosevelt,” U.S. Air Service , November 1919, 28.

39. Daniels to SecWar, 17 December 1919, Cong. Hearings 1919–1925, JP-OpA.

40. Tate, Army and Its Air Corps , 13.



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