Unfortunately, the mood in the Harding administration and in the country generally was anti-military. After all, the Great War was the war to end all wars, wasn't it? Why waste money playing with airplanes and bombs that would never be used?
Mitchell's dream, however, went beyond mere land-based air supremacy. The General was convinced that ships could be built that could carry and launch airplanes anywhere in the world at a moments notice. Furthermore, such ships could carry the air war right to the battleships, which were at the time the mainstay of every navy in the world.
But Mitchell was in the Army, and the Navy, not uncharacteristically of any military organization, was resistant to radical change. In 1920, Mitchell had met with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt and a group of admirals to try to convince them of the advisability – nay, the necessity – of developing naval aviation. But the admirals were not convinced. In truth, they found the idea that an airplane could sink a battleship ludicrous.
When Mitchell took command of the 1st Provisional Air Brigade 94 years ago today, it was to conduct a test of his theories. After the New York Tribune broke the news that the Navy's own 1920 "tests," purporting to show that battleships could withstand air attacks, had been faked using sand bombs, Congress passed a resolution calling for new tests.
On 21 July 1921, bombers of the 1st Provisional Air Brigade under General Mitchell sank the captured German battleship Ostfriesland by dropping 2,000 pound bombs beside the ship, rupturing its hull.
Mitchell repeated the performance in September with the sinking of the obsolete battleship Alabama and again in September 1923 with the sinkings of the obsolete battleships Virginia and New Jersey.
Mitchell was vehemently unpopular with the forces that be in both the Army and the Navy for his persistence in flouting their conventional wisdom with his wild dreams of air superiority. His success in proving his superiors wrong did not endear him further. He was demoted to the rank of Colonel and assigned to San Antonio Texas as Air Officer to a corps of ground forces.
In September 1925, the Navy dirigible Shenandoah crashed in a thunderstorm in Ohio, prompting (now Colonel) Mitchell to issue a statement accusing the War Department, the Army, and the Navy of "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." Mitchell had crossed the line, and in October, President Calvin Coolidge preferred charges against Colonel Mitchell for violation of the 96th Article of War. The Court Martial lasted for 7 weeks, from early November to the 17th of December, at which time Colonel Mitchell was found guilty and suspended from active duty without pay for five years.
In February 1926, two months after his court martial, Billy Mitchell resigned his commission and spent the remaining ten years of his life preaching the gospel of air power to whomever would listen. He died in February 1936 of natural causes.
Billy Mitchell was a true visionary. Less than five years after his death, on 7 December 1941, carrier based planes of the Empire of Japan wiped out the US 7th Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Unknown to the Japanese, and fortunately for America, Admiral Halsey happened to have America's fledgling fleet of aircraft carriers out on maneuvers that day.
If Billy Mitchell's life seemed – as it must have to him - a failure, that December 1941 "day that will live in infamy" exonerated him forever.