The Billy Mitchell Court-Martial
Courtroom sketches from aviation's Trial of the Century.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
(Page 2 of 2)
Public opinion was for Mitchell, a dashing war hero and unreserved advocate of air power, and stacks of letters poured in. (Mitchell’s wife, Betty, would answer them during courtroom breaks.) Near Thanksgiving a group of Texas cowboys sent a live turkey for the colonel’s holiday dinner and, reported the Washington Herald, offered their services: “If the bunch of us could do any good by standing back of you with Winchesters while you are telling the court about the negligence in the Air Service, we would like to be called as witnesses or guards.”
But the public’s enthusiasm did little good. The defense called 41 witnesses in an attempt to prove that by speaking out, Mitchell hoped to correct the Air Service’s problems. The prosecution, on the other hand, didn’t care if Mitchell’s remarks were truthful or not. They were trying him for insubordination. Because of Mitchell’s high profile and public support, the generals let the defense present its evidence. But their view of Mitchell didn’t change.
In his concluding remarks, Major Allen Gullion, the judge advocate, took a swipe at Mitchell: “Is such a man a safe guide? Is he a constructive person or is he a loose talking imaginative megalomaniac?... Is this man a Moses, fitted to lead the people out of a wilderness?... Is he not rather the all too familiar charlatan and demagogue type...and except for a decided difference in poise and mental powers in Burr’s favor, like Aaron Burr?”
After more than seven weeks of testimony and 99 witnesses, the court-martial came to a close. In a secret ballot, the court sentenced Mitchell to a suspension from rank, command, and duty, with forfeiture of all pay for five years. “The Court is thus lenient because of the military record of the Accused during the World War,” the generals wrote.
Unwilling to accept the verdict, Mitchell resigned as an officer in the U.S. Army on February 1, 1926.
Rebecca Maksel is an Air & Space associate editor.