Billy Mitchell

By Meilinger, Phillip S. | Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Billy Mitchell

Meilinger, Phillip S., Air & Space Power Journal

Billy Mitchell by James J. Cooke. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. (, 1800 30th Street, Suite 314, Boulder, Colorado 80301, 2002, 305 pages, $49.95.

Billy Mitchell has always been a controversial figure in American military history. On the one hand, soldiers and sailors usually see him as an arrogant, disloyal, and self-promoting blowhard who played loose with the facts in order to push his own agenda. Airmen, on the other hand, generally tend to see him as a courageous, farsighted, and dedicated patriot persistently thwarted by conservative soldiers and sailors who protected their turf. These conflicting images, common in the 1920s, remain popular today. James J. Cooke, a professor emeritus at the University of Mississippi who has written extensively on US participation in World War I, both from a ground and air point of view, attempts to present a more balanced portrait of Mitchell. He is only partially successful.

We have a number of Mitchell biographies, but Cooke found material that the others had missed-specifically, family papers and diaries located in Milwaukee, Mitchell's birthplace. These documents illuminate a dark side of the airman usually not seen. Mitchell's father, a powerful Democratic senator, had gone through a particularly messy divorce in his mid 30s. He subsequently remarried but had almost nothing to do with his son from that first marriage. The senator also had little time for the children of his second marriage, including Billy, who, says Cooke, was permanently scarred because of his father's neglect. Ominously, Mitchell went through a similar midlife crisis, divorced his wife, and essentially abandoned his three children from that marriage-they didn't even bother to show up for his funeral in 1936.

Cooke reveals that Mitchell had a drinking problem upon returning from France in 1919. For the next two years, when his marriage was falling apart, his behavior became increasingly erratic, and his military performance suffered noticeably. In 1921 the Army apparently ordered Mitchell to Walter Reed Hospital for a psychological examination. (However, Cooke's endnote states that this order was written in January 1928, long after Mitchell had retired; obviously, something is wrong with this account.) Instead, the Air Service shuffled him off to Europe on an inspection trip, giving him an opportunity to rest and get his life back in order.

Apparently, Mitchell frequently found himself in debt and periodically wrote his mother, asking for money to buy uniforms, guns, and horses. Fortunately for him, his second wife was extremely wealthy; she bought their large country home outside Washington, D.C., and her father paid Billy's considerable legal bills during his court-martial.

Cooke looks closely at the court-martial, portraying Mitchell's performance as dismal. He deliberately provoked the trial, apparently seeing it as a forum from which to lambaste his old foes in the Army and Navy hierarchy.

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