A True Guardian of Freedom


Dan Heller


            The North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber, such as the B-25J Guardian of Freedom proudly on display at the Lyon Air Museum, was one of the most successful aircraft of World War II. It served with a variety of nations in every theatre of the war. Perhaps the most notable mission involving the B-25 was the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April of 1942. Under the command of General Jimmy Doolittle, 16 of these aircraft took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet with only 450 feet of runway. The B-25 is also notable of being the only military aircraft named after an individual.

            Major General William “Billy” Mitchell (1879-1936) was an early advocate and pioneer of military air power. Born in France to a Senator from Wisconsin, he was raised in a suburb of Milwaukee. After college, Mitchell enlisted in the Army, serving in the Spanish-American war. Gaining a commission, he remained in the Army after the conflict. In 1906 he correctly predicted that air power would be the deciding factor in all future armed conflicts.

            In the years prior to World War I, Mitchell toured the battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War and again correctly predicted that a future war between America and Japan was inevitable. At age 32, he became the youngest member of the Army General Staff.

            In 1915, he began taking flying lessons in Newport News, VA. He completed his flight training in four Sunday training sessions. Mitchell paid for his private flight training out of his own pocket. Mitchell was 36 years old, and the Army felt that he was too old to enter their program.

            In March of 1917, shortly before the American entry into World War I, Mitchell went to the front in France as an observer. When the United States entered the war in April of 1917, Mitchell went to Paris, where he coordinated combat air operations with British and French counterparts. He eventually reached the wartime rank of Brigadier General and commander of all American air operations in France. During the war Mitchell was awarded the Legion of Honor, Croix de Guerre with Palm, Italian Order of Sts. Maurice and Lazarus, Distinguished Service Cross, and the Victory Medal with clasps denoting his participation in several prominent campaigns. 

            After the war, Mitchell was appointed Director of Military Aeronautics with a permanent rank of Colonel. He was then appointed the Assistant Chief of Air Service. After an extensive tour of post-war Europe, he once again correctly predicted that another great war in Europe was inevitable.

            Arriving back in the United States, Mitchell began a tireless campaign within the military and government for more spending on the research and development of military aviation, and the expansion of the existing air fleet. In 1921 he demonstrated, in a highly publicized test, that only a handful of aircraft could have the potential to disable or sink the largest of ships. 

            Mitchell also became a strong advocate for the creation of a separate Air Force, equal in size and budget to the Army or Navy. Several congressional hearings were held on the matter. Ultimately the Navy refused and the proposal was discarded. Taking the outcome personally, Mitchell vowed to continue his fight. He became increasing vocal and abrasive to his peers and superiors, alienating many of them.

            After several military aviation accidents involving the loss of life, Mitchell issued a public statement accusing the leaders of the Army and Navy of "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." Acting under the direct orders of President Calvin Coolidge, Mitchell was charged with violations of the 96th Article of War.

            In November of 1925 the Court Martial of Billy Mitchell began. One of the judges on the panel was Douglas MacArthur, along with then-Majors Carl Spaatz and Hap Arnold testifying for the defense. Despite public support, Mitchell was found guilty on all charges. Rather than face punishment, Mitchell resigned his commission in February of 1926.

            For the next ten years, Mitchell continued his campaign as a civilian. Despite the gathering war clouds, few listened to him and he quickly faded into obscurity. Plagued by multiple illnesses, he died on February 19, 1936.

            Within five years of his death his predictions proved correct - air power would become the predominant role in any armed conflict, and that another great world war was unavoidable.

            In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt posthumously promoted Billy Mitchell to the rank of Major General. In addition, the visionary strategy and tactics of aerial combat that he pioneered proved to be valuable tools for the United States during World War II. However, despite several attempts over the decades to overturn the verdict, his court martial conviction still stands.

            Today, there are many namesakes that bear Mitchell's name. General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee is one of them, along with numerous buildings, roads, schools and scholastic programs, a United States Postal Service stamp and even a Hollywood movie. However, undoubtedly the most fitting tribute of all is the magnificent airplane which bears his name.

            Though Billy Mitchell did not live to see the day when the first B-25 took to the skies on August 19, 1940, his pride and fighting spirit live on in every Mitchell bomber ever made, a fitting tribute to an American Hero.