Understanding the full importance of the Air Mail Service can only be done when reflecting on its position in the larger world of aviation. The most vocal person regarding military aviation during the 1920s was General/Colonel/private citizen Billy Mitchell. Mitchell had a visionary view of what aviation could become, but his occasional lack of grounding in the current reality and uncompromising positions would become his undoing.
Billy Mitchell was the son of a Senator from Wisconsin. He joined the army during the Spanish-American War, was quickly promoted, and was assigned to the Signal Corps. He strung telegraph lines in Cuba, and after the war Mitchell accepted an assignment to take charge of establishing a telegraph line across Alaska. Gold fever had taken over, leading to an influx of prospectors and a need for faster communication. Next Mitchell went to the Philippines during US war there.
Mitchell had become a veteran officer by the time World War I came around. Aviation fell into the realm of the Signal Corps, primarily since its initial use was to survey behind the enemy lines. In today’s world of aerial maps, where planes and satellites allow us to see remote parts of the world in great detail, it is hard to imagine not being able to know about anything going on beyond our field of vision. Sending a balloon up to gather data on enemy positions was quite revolutionary. And World War I stimulated aviation advancements as only a war can.
World War I made Billy Mitchell a believer in the necessity for air supremacy in any future conflict. In large part his assessments held merit…was would never be the same. He also developed a devoted following who, especially after the plane proved to be a decisive element in World War I, became determined to point out how Mitchell was right.
The problem is that Mitchell began believing in his ideas, without seeing how they fit into a larger picture. He talked to Congress, the newspapers, and anyone else who would listen if he felt it would help his cause. Unfortunately in the process, he attacked anyone who he felt stood in the way of his goal of an independent Air Force and a building up of air power. He also failed to take into account the realities of the current situation.
The United States was trying to downsize all branches of the military after the war, so the cuts to the army air corps were not unexpected. Mitchell also attacked his perceived lack of planes supplied to his aviators during the war. While there were legitimate issues, he did not seem to take into account the challenges that the government faced…he focused on the challenges of aviation without regards to General Pershing’s challenge of establishing the entire American army in France.
For all of his foresight, Mitchell did have some misjudgments about the details of how aviation supremacy would look. Mitchell saw a role for dirigibles…a steerable lighter than air craft like a blimp…because at the time they had more range than the current available aircraft.
Mitchell felt that, despite difficult flying conditions, the army needed to focus on centering bases in Alaska because he didn’t think that aircraft carriers would be advanced enough to be particularly useful in the next war with Japan, which he correctly saw as eminent. It is possible that Mitchell’s persuasive personality led to the navy being more focused on aviation. This theory would have to allow for Mitchell’s lack of perspective and also lack of understanding when things did not happen as fast as he would have liked.
Mitchell’s determination to express his views, eventually bypassing other military leadership to go straight to the press caused his ideas to take hold with the American public, but also led to his losing his war rank of General (which was not uncommon…see Colonel George Custer) being assigned to a post in Texas with little responsibility and ultimately his court martial where he was demoted to the rank of private. He subsequently resigned and began crusading for air power as a civilian before dying of heart failure in 1936.
The story of Billy Mitchell is that of an intelligent, dynamic, and complex personality. It also provides insight into the challenges that the military faced after World War I. In 1920 Air Service appropriations dropped from 60 to 27 million dollars. In 1921 the Air Service dropped from 16,000 men to 10,000 (the army dropped from 280,000 to 150,000). Mitchell’s concerns that the United States might fall behind in aviation development were justified.
The state of affairs of the military emphasizes the value of the air mail service during this critical time. This was one area that managed to continue to grow and develop with solid goals. As aviation companies grew and the Post Office turned mail delivery over to private contractors, civilian aviation was able to take off and in large part make up for the military shortfalls. There were other factors, of course, but the value should not be understated.
Hurley, Alfred F. Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1975.
Gauvreau, Emile and Cohen, Lester. Billy Mitchell: Founder of Our Air Force and Prophet Without Honor. The War Vault. 2019. (originally published 1942).
Mitchell, Ruth. My Brother Bill: A Biography of General Mitchell. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. 1953.