“Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead” – Davey Crockett
Any American kid who grew up in the 1950s or ‘60s knows that line from the theme song to the Davey Crockett television series. Davey Crockett, played by Fess Parker, was the quintessential American Frontiersman – self-reliant, painfully honest, honorable, and capable at every conceivable skill. The line was taken from a supposed direct quote by Davey Crockett.
Perhaps unusual for a frontiersman born and raised in the rugged, untamed Appalachian Mountains: Crockett became an early vocal defender of Native Amerindian rights. First as one of America’s most celebrated “western” heroes, and then as an elected member of the Tennessee state legislature, and finally as a Congressman in Washington, DC. Crockett had little success in promoting his beliefs or recruiting others to share them. Amerindians have inalienable rights, too; yet no government instituted by man was able to secure them. The “Indian Wars” and westward relocations of tribal nations continued.
As congressman, Crockett was twice defeated for re-election, mostly because of fellow Tennessean Andy Jackson and his Democratic Party’s anti-Amerindian views. [Aside: it is awfully shameful that the image of such a racist man is on one of our most commonly traded pieces of currency: the $20 bill. I say: get Harriet Tubman on there ASAP]. Shortly after his second Congressional defeat, Crockett abandoned his native country and went to Texas where he hoped to help build a more free and liberal country from the ground up. It was time to fight another revolution. He probably wanted to get land, too.
He was sure he was right. He went ahead. In early 1836 Crockett found himself in the Texas frontier, at a compound that had long ago been a Catholic mission called Mission de San Antonio de Valero – a place that came be known as The Alamo. One of America’s most loved heroes and admired adventurers did not make it to age 50.
I thankfully still have many memories of growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin besides simply watching TV shows like Davey Crockett. Some memories are of the many place and street names. I was recently reminded of the prevalence of the name “Mitchell” during a trip to Milwaukee, on the occasion of a class reunion for the 45th anniversary of our high school graduation.
I probably first became aware of the name “Mitchell” when the domes at the Mitchell Botanical Gardens, near Mitchell Park, were completed in the 1960s. Along the Menomonee River, south of the I-94 corridor and just a few miles from downtown, the domes are a beautiful landmark as you make your way through the area, easily visible from the Interstate.
It was probably about the summer of 1968 when my folks took my siblings and me there, sometime shortly after the domes were were completed. There were six of us kids, the youngest born in January, ‘68; my parents were quite brave. I remember being so very impressed with the huge glass dome structures. They seemed enormous! I wandered off from my family, trying to read all the labels … eventually getting very bored and sleepy.
Before moving away in 1974 I don’t recall noticing any Mitchell name prevalence: but there is also Mitchell Street, Mitchell Boulevard, the Mitchell Street Neighborhood and, of course, Mitchell Field Airport, which serves as Milwaukee’s commercial and international airport. There are probably more.
The Michell Domes, Botanical Gardens and Park are named for the donor of the land upon which the park, and later Botanical Gardens, were built: John Lendrum Mitchell.
John L. Mitchell was born and raised in Milwaukee in a very wealthy family, owing to the business success of his father, Alexander Mitchell. The elder Mitchell had immigrated to Wisconsin from Scotland, becoming the wealthiest person in Wisconsin principally through his ownership and leadership success in banking and The Chicago, St Paul & Milwaukee Railroad (AKA “The Milwaukee Road”), one of the most successful and far-flung railroads from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
John served in Wisconsin’s 24th Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, alongside Arthur MacArthur, Jr.
Awarded the Medal of Honor during the war, MacArthur, Jr later fathered Douglas MacArthur … a curious coincidence, we will soon see. Well, John Mitchell made his way into politics, first holding the Congressional seat his father had held (Wisconsin’s 4th CD) and later representing Wisconsin in the Senate.
In December, 1879, while living in Nice, France, John Mitchell and his wife Harriet welcomed their first child into the family – a son whom they named William. He would be the first of ten.
Described as small, wiry and fearless, young “Billy” (as he came to be known) grew up speaking French as well as English, and also was able to communicate in German, Spanish and Italian. He had his own nannies, but they could not keep up with his high energy and antics. Always bright and ambitious, his education took him to the nation’s capital in DC (where his father was serving as a Senator), to Columbian College — later renamed to George Washington University. But, he dropped out in 1898 to join the Army and fight in the Spanish-American War.
Billy took to the military life well and made it his career. His intelligence and capabilities always caught the attention of higher officers, and, in 1913, that resulted in a chance appointment to the US Army General Staff. This is where Mitchell really got exposed to Aeronautics … the art of flying.
Seeing the almost infinite potential of flight, especially in combat and for reconnaissance, Mitchell “caught the bug,” and it seems at this point his tendency toward brash behavior started to manifest itself. In 1916, Mitchell, anxious for action and opportunity, quit the General Staff and simply assumed command of Army Aviation until a commander could be appointed and placed in command.
He desperately wanted to pilot himself, but the Army would not train him. He was too old, they said, at 36. So, he took lessons on his own, at his own cost, and on his own time. Now flight qualified, and with a war going on in Europe, Mitchell was anxious for adventure and bristled at being under anyone’s command who did not see the future as he did. In 1917 he asked for leave to visit the front as an observer. It was granted. Four days later the United States entered the Great War.
Mitchell continued to learn as much as he could about flight and its uses in warfare, constantly pressing British and French pilots for intelligence, able to discuss technology and tactics in their mother tongues. Although denied overall generalship of US air flight, it was he who discovered from the air the size and direction of the last great German attempt to win the war in July, 1918. And he led the largest air force in the world up until that time – some 1,500 aircraft – in fighting back that salient.
The war soon ended. Mitchell, now a war hero and with a field promotion to Brigadier General, returned to the States more convinced than ever of the significance of air power. The Great War was certainly not “the war to end all wars.” There would be more great wars, and his country must be prepared.
He pestered everyone he could think of – from military brass to politicians – to get more emphasis on developing the science and technology of flight. The way he saw it: the significance could not be underestimated; its potential was endless. Literally, the sky was the limit.
He maintained this enthusiasm despite losing his brother John L Mitchell, III in a plane crash in France, during the war. He used it as a selling point: planes could have been made better, thus they had to be.
Mitchell was sure he was right. And went right ahead … finally getting an opportunity (through congressional intervention) in the spring and summer of 1921 to demonstrate the ability of aircraft to sink naval craft. The climax of the demonstrations was the aerial attack on the seized German battleship, Ostfriesland. During the “exhibition”, Mitchell and his men violated the rules of engagement by flying lower and dropping larger bombs than permitted. Nonetheless, Mitchell won the day and the argument, much to the chagrin on Navy staff and military brass. The Ostfriesland, defenseless and immobile the entire time, went to the bottom of the sea.
Despite the contested “successful” demonstration, the development of American military flight technology – for speed, altitude, payload capability and safety – languished. Mitchell continued to pester everyone.
Finally, at his wits’ end due to a series of deadly military flight accidents, he decided to go dangerously ahead. He was sure he was right. By this time, September, 1925, Mitchell was now only a Colonel (he had permanently lost his wartime General rank) and had been “put out to pasture” at a Texas Army base … coincidently located in San Antonio, not far from the Alamo.
What did Mitchell do? He publicly and openly defied military leadership, and in statements to the press, he called them “incompetent, criminally negligent and nearly treasonous.” The bodies of many of his fellow military aviators, he said, were buried because of “official stupidity.” Mitchell was sure he was right, and he had simply run out of buttons to push. He went ahead with open defiance of his superiors.
The military is all about obedience. And such acts of insolence cannot go unprosecuted, or unpunished. The court-martial of Billy Mitchell is the most famous court-martial in United States history, and one of its most famous trials, too.
Mitchell’s jury included General Douglas MacArthur, the son of his father’s Civil War army friend. Some further irony and coincidence:
- in 1951, MacArthur would lose his position as head of American forces in Korea for publicly criticizing President Truman.
- MacArthur considered Milwaukee his hometown, did two years of high school there and gained his West Point appointment via recommendation from Theobald Oljen, the Congressman from Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District, the same seat Mitchell’s father and grandfather had held.
- MacArthur is said to have voted to acquit Mitchell, although this is unverifiable, and his own memoirs are cryptic. But we do have this public quote:
“ … a senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors and with accepted doctrine.” – Gen’l Douglas MacArthur, jurist in the Court Martial trial of Billy Mitchell.
Mitchell had already prophesied many fantastic things, many of which he repeated at his trial. For example:
- The use of aircraft to fight forest fires
- The importance of air control in battle
- Transcontinental flight in mere hours
- Trans-oceanic flight
- The end of naval battleships, since they could be sunk with a tiny fraction of the cost to build them (via air power)
- The significance of aircraft carriers
- The creation of national military Air Forces totally separate from the Army and Navy
- Indeed, he even foretold of Japanese aircraft surprising and sinking American battleships in Pearl Harbor at dawn someday, perhaps just a few years hence.
Many testified on his behalf during the 7-week trial, which became rather a media spectacle. This included America’s most famous “ace”, Eddie Rickenbacker, and one of its most recognized congressmen, Fiorella La Guardia.
Despite all the testimony and a strong defense that substantiated the veracity of Mitchell’s claims, he was found guilty. For sentence, he was suspended from active military duty for five years without pay (which President Coolidge, as Commander-in-Chief and President amended to half-pay). Nonetheless, Mitchell resigned from the Army a few months later, spending the rest of his life – free of military chain-of-command – attempting to promote air power.
He died ten years later, his visions largely still unrealized, in 1936, aged only 56, from heart ailments and flu complications … after having some success persuading FDR to begin investing in national air power. He is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee, near his father and grandfather in the Mitchell family plot.
“On March 17, 1941, the Milwaukee County Board voted to change the County airport’s name to Billy Mitchell Field. It is a source of pride for Milwaukeans that our main airport is named in honor of General William Mitchell, who, though impatient with those who did not share his beliefs, nevertheless retained until his death his boundless faith in aviation’s future which he so unerringly visualized.” (Mitchell Airport History Website)
Just outside the Mitchell Field terminal is a retired B-25 bomber. Design and development of the B-25 began in 1938, more than three years before the US entered WW2, thanks mostly to Germany’s growing belligerence and Mitchell’s earlier lobbying of congress and the president. The plane was named the “Mitchell” and flew in every theater of operation during WW2; most famously, 16 Mitchells took off from the deck of the carrier Hornet to bomb Tokyo in The Doolittle Raid of April, 1942.
The name of the airport, with its Mitchell B-25 out in front, is testament and monument to Milwaukee’s pride in her visionary native son. Mitchell is considered the “Father of the American Air Force.”
My wife and I made a stop by the Mitchell Domes while in Milwaukee earlier this summer. To the domes that are named for the park, that is named for the father of Billy Mitchell. I hadn’t been in them in about 50 years, back when they were brand new. While inside, a large thunderstorm moved over the area as we looked at flora from around the globe. It got very dark. It rained very hard. Water came dribbling in, through cracks in the domes, and the leaks collected in many dozens of puddles. Sadly, the domes are in serious disrepair.
Dark gloomy clouds and uncontrolled rain puddles are a fair metaphor for the domes themselves. Milwaukee is in a crisis over what to do. I imagine that Billy Mitchell fought feelings of despair, too, but then rallied to the very end. I hope Milwaukee can rally and “go ahead” to save the domes. They were visionary in their time, too.
While strolling through the domes – dodging drips and puddles – thinking about the amazing Milwaukee Mitchell family, I couldn’t help thinking about my own family and the sunny Sunday my parents took me there, so long ago, when they were shiny and new. Thanks mom and dad for taking us there. You were good parents in countless ways. You even let us watch Davey Crockett on TV… after our homework was done.
Joe Girard © 2019
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