The Blast From Billy Mitchell

July 1, 2006

“Statement of William Mitchell

Concerning the Recent Air Accidents”

Brig. Gen. William Mitchell

Statement to the Press

San Antonio

Sept. 5, 1925


Brig. Gen. William Mitchell is the most famous figure in the history of US airpower. In World War I, he gained fame as a fiery leader but alienated almost everyone. He returned to Washington and soon angered the Navy by demonstrating you could sink battleships with airplanes. He ripped both the Army and Navy for what he saw as their negligence of airpower. By 1925, the Army had had enough of “Billy,” and it shipped him off to a dead-end post in Texas.

It was from exile that Mitchell launched the most famous verbal attack of his career. The trigger was the Sept. 3, 1925 crash of a Navy airship, Shenandoah, killing 14 crew members. In a 6,000-word press statement, Mitchell pinned the disaster on Army and Navy leaders, whom he accused of “incompetency,” “criminal negligence,” and “almost treasonable administration” of military aviation. The remarks enraged Washington and landed Mitchell in a sensational court-martial. He was convicted of insubordination and suspended from active duty, but Mitchell resigned and continued to speak out.

Mitchell made many controversial statements in his time, but only one got him court-martialed. This is the one.

I have been asked from all parts of the country to give my opinion about the reasons for the frightful aeronautical accidents and loss of life, equipment, and treasure that has occurred during the last few days. This statement, therefore, is given out publicly by me after mature deliberation and after a sufficient time has elapsed since the terrible accidents to our naval aircraft, to find out something about what happened.

My opinion is as follows:

These accidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments. In their attempts to keep down the development of aviation into an independent department, separate from the Army and Navy and handled by aeronautical experts, and to maintain the existing systems, they have gone to the utmost lengths to carry their point. All aviation policies, schemes, and systems are dictated by the nonflying officers of the Army or Navy who know practically nothing about it. The lives of the airmen are being used merely as pawns in their hands.

The great Congress of the United States, that makes laws for the organization and use of our air, land, and water forces, is treated by these two departments as if it were an organization created for their benefit, to which evidence of any kind, whether true or not, can be given without restraint. Officers and agents sent by the War and Navy Departments to Congress have almost always given incomplete, misleading, or false information about aeronautics, which either they knew to be false when given or was the result of such gross ignorance of the question that they should not be allowed to appear before a legislative body.

The airmen themselves are bluffed and bulldozed so that they dare not tell the truth in the majority of cases, knowing full well that if they do, they will be deprived of their future career, sent to the most out-of-the-way places to prevent their telling the truth, and deprived of any chance for advancement unless they subscribed to the dictates of their nonflying bureaucratic superiors. These either distort facts or openly tell falsehoods about aviation to the people and to the Congress.

Both the War and Navy Departments maintain public propaganda agencies which are supposed to publish truthful facts about our national defense to the American people. These departments, remember, are supported by the taxes of the people and were created for the purpose of protecting us from invasion from abroad and from domestic disturbance from within. What has actually happened in these departments is that they have formed a sort of a union to perpetuate their own existence, largely irrespective of the public welfare—and acting, as we might say about a commercial organization that had entire control of a public necessity, “as an illegal combination in restraint of trade.”

The conduct of affairs by these two departments, as far as aviation is concerned, has been so disgusting in the last few years as to make any self-respecting person ashamed of the cloth he wears. Were it not for the great patriotism of our air officers and their absolute confidence in the institutions of the United States, knowing that sooner or later existing conditions would be changed, I doubt if one of them would remain with the colors—certainly not, if he were a real man. …

As a patriotic American citizen, I can stand by no longer and see these disgusting performances by the Navy and War Departments, at the expense of the lives of our people and the delusion of the American public.

The bodies of my former companions in the air molder under the soil in America and Asia and Europe and Africa, many, yes a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity. We all may make mistakes, but the criminal mistakes made by armies and navies, whenever they have been allowed to handle aeronautics, show their incompetence. We would not be keeping our trust with our departed comrades were we longer to conceal these facts.

This, then, is what I have to say on this subject, and I hope that every American will hear it.