With administrative cauldrons overflowing with entrenched beliefs and colossal egos, politicians and military elites habitually consider military visionaries as nothing more than annoying burrs in expensive saddles. On today’s technological battlefields adaptation arrives quicker due to the fast-paced changes in weapons and tactics. But things were quite different after World War One. Hyped as ‘the war to end all wars,’ the celebrated armistice actually set the stage for a dozen future conflicts, including World War Two. One persistent voice not only predicted the looming battle in the Pacific, but even specified the point in time at an anchorage called Pearl Harbor.
William was born into a life of comfort in Nice, France. His grandfather held claim as the wealthiest person in Wisconsin, and his father served as Wisconsin’s senator. The suburb of West Allis, Wisconsin in present Milwaukee was the family estate. William graduated from Columbian College of George Washington University before enlisting in the Army at age 18 as a mere private during the Spanish American War. Albeit, his father’s influence gained William a quick commission in the Army Signal Corps, a commission that paved the way for William to become the ‘Father’ of the US Air Force. Americans would come to recognize William as the champion for air power, General Billy Mitchell.
During WWI, then Colonel Billy Mitchell planned and led 1,500 British, French, American, and Italian aircraft in the air phase during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, one of the biggest coordinated air/ground assaults of the time. After the war, much to the discomfort of Navy brass, Billy proved the effectiveness of air power when his air armada sank the ex-German battleship Ostfriesland in a much publicized demonstration.
Across the immense Pacific Ocean, Japanese House of Peers statesman Katsuda was asked by a newspaper correspondent to comment on the sinking of the Ostfrieland. His cagey response should have been an eye-opener for American military leaders: “Our people will cheer your great General Mitchell and, you may be sure, we will study his experiments.” Unbelievably, the Imperial Japanese statesman went on to say, “Should there be such a conflict, America would have to fight it a long way from home...it would be gravely embarrassing to the American people if the ideas of your General Mitchell were more appreciated in Japan than in the United States.”
He served his country with honor and distinction, but Mitchell’s blunt criticism of the military hierarchy’s antiquated mindset and engrained notions kept him in hot water. Considered the proverbial thorn in the sides of old-school generals and admirals, Mitchell was dispatched on “an inspection tour” of the Far East and Hawaii, mainly to get his name off the front pages and out of the eyes of the public. Undeterred, the ‘inspection tour’ resulted in Mitchell’s epic 324 page book published in 1925 entitled ‘Winged Defense.’ His intelligence report and prophetic script asserted that a Pacific War would be initiated with an attack by the Japanese against the American bases at Pearl Harbor, Clark Field in the Philippines, and followed by a siege against Corregidor.
Mitchell, now a General, stated the attack on Pearl Harbor would start at 7:30 a.m. The Japanese attacked at precisely 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941. Mitchell also predicted the raid on Clark Field would commence around 10:45 a.m. – the bombs fell in the Philippines at 12:35 p.m.; he was off the mark by less than two hours.
After the deadly crash of the Navy dirigible Shenandoah in September of 1925, Mitchell accused senior officers of incompetence and “almost treasonable administration of national defense.” The military pecking order had heard enough from the visionary general. Billy Mitchell was court-martialed on eight specifications.
Already a darling of the media, the public was firmly behind Mitchell as was an avalanche of star character witnesses: Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Fiorello La Guardia, among others. However, even after three of the 13 judges were removed by defense challenges as prejudiced, including the president of the court, and the remaining 10 judges with no aviation experience whatsoever, the court still found Mitchell guilty of all charges. Unbelievably, the court stated that ‘the truth or falseness of the accusations to be immaterial.’
Only one judge, the youngest of the 13, voted to acquit, Major General Douglas MacArthur. On being ordered to sit on Billy Mitchell’s court-martial, MacArthur stated, “one of the most distasteful orders I ever received.” General Billy Mitchell’s military career was over; one of the most brilliant minds in military aviation had been deviously sidelined.
December 7, 1941: A dazzling indigo sky carpeted the 7th Fleet as sailors nonchalantly greeted the morning while untold numbers of US military personnel crept into their bunks after a night on the town. Lieutenant Commander Logan Ramsay had just reported to the Operations Center on Ford Island, a small islet in the center of Pearl Harbor. Dressed in a pair of casual slacks and an Aloha shirt, he was skeptical about a report that destroyer USS Ward claimed to have sunk a Japanese sub trying to enter Pearl Harbor. It was 7:55 a.m.
Ramsey heard the screech of a plane diving over the station. Irritated, he turned and ordered the officer of the day, Lieutenant Dick Ballinger, “Dick, get that fellow’s number. I want to report him for about sixteen violations of the course and safety regulations.” Both men peered out separate windows. Ballenger said, “I just saw something black fall out of that plane when it completed its dive.” The bomb exploded exactly at 7:57 a.m. Ramsey sprinted to the radio room and ordered all on-duty radiomen to send out in plain English: “AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NOT A DRILL!”
As author of “A Veteran’s Story” I had the honor to previously interview 3 Georgia residents who were at Pearl Harbor on that “Day of Infamy.” The following are excerpts from their stories.
In his room at Schofield Barracks, Army Air Corp administrator Bob Kerr was dressing for church when he heard the roar of low-flying planes. “I thought our flyboys were practicing,” he said. “Then someone shouted, ‘That’s a red ball on that wing! Hell, they’re Japs!’” Outside, Kerr found the squadron cook and another soldier on the ground, dead. As losses continued to mount, Kerr ‘appropriated’ an Army truck to transport the wounded and dying to the nearest hospital. Kerr made four separate trips to the hospital. “Don’t ask me how,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to drive a straight shift.”
Later in the war Bob Kerr conned his way into a gunnery position on a B-25 bomber. He fought over 32 different islands including 8 missions in one day over the bloody battlefield of Peleliu. Kerr remained in the military and eventually retired as a Major.
Fred Johnson had stayed on shore carousing until early morn, 4:00am to be exact, and was in a deep sleep on the battleship USS Maryland when the loud speaker boomed, “All hands man your battle stations! This is no s..t!” Johnson dashed to the Admiral’s bridge. “I thought it was raining because of all the raindrops on the water,” he said. “But those ‘raindrops’ were actually 7.7 m.m. machine gun and 20mm cannon fire from strafing Japanese aircraft.” The USS Maryland was moored next to the USS Oklahoma. “The Oklahoma started to capsize so we had to cut the lines or be pulled over with her,” Johnson recalled. “It was horrible; men jumping into burning oil on the water, igniting their bodies like torches.”
Fred Johnson survived Pearl Harbor. He later served aboard the new USS Hornet CV-12 aircraft carrier and faced 16 months of continuous combat, including Tinian, Iwo Jima, Rota, Saipan, Guam, Okinawa, Leyte Gulf, and Chi Chi Jima. The USS Hornet came under attack 59 times – she was never hit.
Roy Reid was a young 2nd Lieutenant and copilot of one of the thirteen B-17 heavy bombers flying into Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. The flight had been a 15 hour ordeal; the crews were tired, unarmed, and out of fuel. Reid said, “We were on our final approach to Hickam Field when I noticed smoke mushrooming above the harbor. The pilot said it was nothing but local natives burning sugarcane but I kept wondering how in the world you grow sugarcane on water.” Then Reid noticed aircraft burning on Hickam Field. “I knew then we were at war,” he said.
Bushwhacked by Japanese Zeroes, Reid’s B-17 was set afire and crashed landed on Hickam. His B-17 Flying Fortress is considered to be the first American aircraft shot down in WWII. Reid, too, survived Pearl Harbor and went on to fly 50 combat mission in the Pacific Theater of war.
Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese airplanes strafed and bombed the American outpost on Wake Island. Three days later the US Marines on Wake repelled a Japanese amphibious landing plus sank an enemy cruiser and destroyer with their shore batteries. Capt. Henry Elrod, from Georgia, shot down two Japanese zeros and sank an enemy destroyer. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The overwhelmed but heroic defenders of Wake Island held out for 15 days before being forced to surrender.
While on his coerced ‘inspection tour’ to the Far East in 1924, General Billy Mitchell made note of a previously ignored spot in the Pacific as having no strategic military importance. In his report, Mitchell stated, “Before coming to this conclusion of ‘no strategic value’, a thorough reconnaissance should be made of it. Wake Island lies about 300 miles north by west of Taongi Island in the Marshall Group. From the vicinity of Wake Island westward our movement everywhere lay within aircraft operation of Japanese islands.”
Even after his court-martial, Billy Mitchell continued to warn Americans about Japanese war strategies to attack or seize Hawaii, Alaska, and the Philippines. He also correctly predicted that Japan would not formally declare war before they attacked. Mitchell passionately stated, “We not only do nothing in the face of all this, but we leave our future in the air to incompetents.”
In 1921, when the US Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, heard that Billy Mitchell claimed a battleship could be sunk with airpower, he stated spitefully, “Good God! This man should be writing dime novels.”
Mitchell wasn’t a dime novel writer, but he was a writer, with incredible talent and visions of how unpreparedness can devastate a nation. Billy Mitchell died on Feb. 19, 1936. He didn’t live to see his predictions come true, but a grateful nation gave him credit where credit was due. The legendary B-25 Mitchell, the medium bomber James Doolittle used to bomb Japan in retaliation for Pearl Harbor, is the only aircraft ever to be named for an individual.
“There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”
- George Washington, 1780 -
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.