by Dr. Mark Rutland
When the German battleship Ostfriesland was sunk by bombs dropped from an American airplane, the career of General Billy Mitchell sank with it. The top brass in the post-World War I American army saw airplanes as high-tech gadgets whose expense was prohibitive and whose only purpose was battlefield reconnaissance. Mitchell, the commandant of the Army Air Corps in WWI, saw the future and dared to tell the truth. The next war, he said, would depend on air power. His counsel rejected, Mitchell arranged for a public exhibition of that power. General Pershing and other WWI generals said it was impossible to sink a battleship from the air. It took Mitchell twenty minutes.
Mitchell's loyalty, prophetic foresight, genuine patriotism and zeal for the truth earned him a court martial. Convicted of insubordination, branded a crackpot and drummed out of the army he loved, Mitchell never backed down. He simply told the army and the country the truth.
Much of the nation and some in Congress listened, but the generals hated him and commanded him to be silent. He
refused and continued lecturing and writing. In 1923, he was reduced in rank, and in 1925, despite a public outcry, he was court-martialed and suspended without pay.
The court martial of General Billy Mitchell was an attempt to silence the truth, a truth that might have saved American lives and altered the course of history. His offense was telling the truth, and telling it with stunning accuracy. His analysis that Pearl Harbor was virtually defenseless to air attack from Japan was labeled as hair-brained and politically insensitive. His prediction that the Japanese would someday land paratroopers in Alaska was mocked and rejected as an attempt to gain support for an American paratroop corps that he advocated. Because leadership, rigidly and selfishly entrenched in the old paradigms, rejected that truth, Mitchell paid a heavy price for his honesty. Though a hero to some, he was a "renegade" to others, a rebel whose name was a joke in the highest echelons of the military.
In 1936 he wrote, "All of the people who sat on my court marital will be leading the forces defending our country in the Second World War. I hope someday they will be honest enough to admit they were wrong." He further wrote, "World War II will commence within five years." He died that same year with an estate worth a grand total of $5000. He lost everything because he told the truth. Mitchell did not live to see it, but the Japanese did bomb Pearl Harbor and did, in fact, land paratroopers in Alaska. World War II commenced within the five years he predicted, and the officers on his court martial, including Douglas MacArthur, led the American forces.
In 1946, the army and the nation formally apologized to a man committed to telling the truth regardless of the cost. General Billy Mitchell was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.1
1. "Wings of Valor-the Court Marital of Billy Mitchell." Retrieved from the Internet on June 21, 2003 at www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part1/6_survival.html.