BOOK REVIEW – Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power

Thomas Wildenberg, Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013, 288 pp.

Review by Charles D. Dusch, Jr.
United States Air Force Academy

Now that the centennial of the First World War is upon us, it is time for an impartial, scholarly work on Billy Mitchell. Thomas Wildenberg’s latest offering argues that Mitchell was neither the founder of the U.S. Air Force, nor the creator of strategic bombing. Rather, Mitchell’s “claim to fame” was sinking the former German battleship Ostfriesland, which he did by disobeying orders. Wildenberg’s objective is to document Mitchell’s contribution to the interservice rivalry over air power after World War One, focusing on the Virginia Capes bombing trials of the early 1920s. Unlike previous examinations of Mitchell, Wildenberg contributes to the literature by writing from the perspective of the U.S. Navy, and specifically by incorporating the papers of Vice Admiral Alfred W. Johnson, who was a captain when he commanded the naval force responsible for the Virginia Capes bombing tests.

The author’s introduction of these papers is quite engaging. One sees just how vulnerable naval aviation was after the post-Great War budget cuts, both organizationally and materially, due to internal Navy issues at the time of the bombing trials. Examining the structure of naval aviation in the context of Mitchell’s push for a unified, independent air force modeled along the lines of Great Britain’s Royal Air Force, drives home the threat Mitchell posed to the Navy and how this may have contributed to the ardor manifested by both services during this struggle for air power control. Mitchell’s well-timed salvoes challenged Navy leadership and grabbed headlines across the nation. In many ways, the climax of this interservice struggle came in the early 1920s off the Virginia Capes when both the Army and Navy conducted aircraft bombing experiments on former German warships.

In his chapter on these bombing trials, the author makes good use of primary sources. There is an excellent discussion on the limits of Army Martin bombers and the impact of doctrine in attacking surface ships, as well as the condition of the target vessels as attested to by the Navy salvage crews that prepared them for the bombing experiments. Also, Johnson’s comments on Mitchell’s Saturday Evening Post articles, listed separately in the second appendix, deliver both insightful contrast to Mitchell’s well-publicized statements and valuable scrutiny of Mitchell’s assessment of the tests from his Navy counterpart. In fact, Johnson’s testimony before the Lampert Committee comes across as the most damaging to Mitchell’s declarations and is one of the most absorbing chapters.

One hungers for more of Johnson’s material. This is by far the book’s strong suit, and a comparative analysis of the two commanders would have been an innovative approach to this controversial topic.

However, much of Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy crosses well-trodden ground. Indeed, the author makes ample use of previous Mitchell biographers, whom he also discusses in a very nice historiographical synopsis. For instance, Wildenberg extensively references James C. Cooke in the chapter “Laying down the Gauntlet,” though he criticizes Cooke’s accuracy and acceptance of Mitchell’s diary entries at face value, since Mitchell was reputed to twist the truth. Yet, Wildenberg stumbles into the same trap. The author argues that Mitchell’s most important contribution to the U.S. military was his service in the Great War, where his leadership was overlooked and underplayed. However, Wildenberg’s chapter on WWI relies heavily on Mitchell, or published historians who depended on Mitchell’s writings for their scholarship. Here, one would like to have seen more archival sources, such as Mason Patrick’s papers.

One of the most surprising things about this book is the author’s frequent use of pejorative language concerning Mitchell. Wildenberg is not shy about where he stands concerning the controversial airman. Indeed, the book seems to be quite emotional at times about Mitchell’s so-called war with the Navy. At one point, after discussing the successes of the Air Service during the Virginia Capes trials, the author even seems to have embraced the Navy’s 1925 argument for post-WWI battleship design against aircraft to diminish the effect of the experiment, despite the verdict of World War II, as derived from the sinking of ships such as the Prince of Wales and Yamato. Ironically, the author’s passion and advocacy do give one a sense of the fervor and vitriol that resulted from Mitchell’s ill-advised attempts to wrest aviation away from the Navy through the headlines.

Additionally, when attempting to ascertain Mitchell’s motives for his actions, the author sometimes ventures into speculation and innuendo without citing sources. There are factual errors as well. Hunter Liggett was not yet in line to command the U.S. First Army between 20-23 May 1918, when Mason Patrick met with Pershing to discuss the Air Service. That came much later. The author asserts that Air Force historians “never” mention that Mitchell intentionally disobeyed orders to sink the Ostfriesland. As early as 1942, Emile Gauvreau and Lester Cohen clearly bragged about it in their book, Billy Mitchell: Founder of our Air Force and Prophet without Honor (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., pages 60-61). Mitchell’s work, Winged Defense, is hardly a “tome” (The 1988 Dover Publications edition is 223 pages, large print, and Mitchell is not known for his scholarship even by his champions). There are more.

Despite these lapses, Wildenberg does make attempts to be fair. The author owns that Mitchell had many supporters in both services. He also accurately acknowledges that the Navy could be selfish too, when the tables were turned, as it clung to its control of the now-famous Norden bombsight even after it had largely rejected the doctrine of level-bombing against ships. Nor would the Navy release the Norden’s patent to the Army. As a result, the Army Air Forces found itself wanting for accurate bombsights in the Second World War and was forced to send large numbers of bombers against their targets without bombsights of any kind. Dropping their payloads off the Norden-equipped lead bomber, precision and effectiveness suffered. One must wonder how many lives might have been spared, or if the war might have otherwise been shortened had this not been the case.

Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy adds to the literature on Mitchell by presenting the perspective of the U.S. Navy during a volatile time of interservice rivalry in American history. The contribution of Alfred Johnson’s papers is most illuminating and begs a comparative study of the two commanders of the Virginia Capes bombing trials. Nonetheless, there is still a need for an impartial, scholarly work on Mitchell now that the centennial of the Great War is upon us.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

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