General William "Billy" Mitchell
1879 - 1936
Mitchell, namesake of our airport, was a great military leader. A man of
absolute integrity, he fought for his beliefs at the risk of his own career. He
is widely regarded as the Father of the U.S. Air Force, and largely responsible
for the development of airpower, both military and commercial.
Born in France in 1879, the son of a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, his
Grandfather Alexander was one of the richest men in the state. Billy grew up in
Milwaukee. Upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he left college at
age eighteen to enlist in the U. S. Army as a private. He quickly rose through
the ranks of the Signal Corps, serving in the Philippines, Cuba and Alaska.
Mitchell became the youngest Captain in the Army, and was appointed to the
General Staff in 1912.
On the verge of World War 1, he recognized the importance of aviation. In
1916, he learned to fly at his own expense. Promoted to Major, he was appointed
Chief of the Air Service of the First Army. In Europe, Mitchell was promoted to
Colonel. He commanded more than 1,500 British, French and American aircraft in
the war - the largest "air force" ever assembled. His heroic leadership
resulted in promotion to Brigadier General and Chief of the Air Service, the top
command in aviation.
Returning to the
United States in 1919, he began vigorously promoting aviation. He planned the
building of a strong air force. His claims of air superiority led to a
confrontation with the Navy. In 1921, Mitchell proved his point when the
captured battleship Ostfriesland was sunk with aerial bombs. Eventually, the
forceful promotion of his ideas led to a clash with high ranking officers. As
opposition grew, he became more outspoken. In 1925, he charged the
administration with neglecting the national defense and almost treasonable
conduct. He was court-martialed and found guilty of insubordination. He
resigned from the Army in 1926, but continued his influence and leadership until
his untimely death in 1936 at the age of 56 years. Although broken and defeated
in his later years, he was a gallant man. He could have enjoyed a life of
luxury, wealth and power. Instead, he served his country with loyalty and
honor. His perseverance, intelligence and courage will never be forgotten.
In the history of aviation, the name of General William "Billy" Mitchell will
be forever identified as the pioneer advocate of airpower. Mitchell exemplified
the dedicated patriot whose single-minded devotion to a cause would lead him to
a degree of recklessness resulting in his downfall. In spite of the
controversial methods he used to advance his ideas, Mitchell's influence on our
military policy today is very much evident. In 1946, he was posthumously
awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Gen. Mitchell is buried at Forest
Home Cemetery in Milwaukee.