Billy Mitchell took his first flight in 1908, in a Wright Brothers aeroplane.

It was little more than a kite but Billy Mitchell was convinced he’d seen the future of warfare.

In World War One he was put in charge of American military aviation and became a General.

After the war, he became the leading advocate for air power.

But the army weren’t interested, and Mitchell was a nuisance.

He was demoted to Colonel to shut him up.

Mitchell argued they didn’t understand how war had moved from being 2D to 3D.

Wars wouldn’t just be fought on the surface anymore.

With aeroplanes and submarines, they’d be fought above and below the surface.

In three dimensions, not just two.

This wasn’t what the Army and Navy wanted to hear.

That a little plane made of string and fabric could sink a battleship.

So Mitchell asked them to give him some ships to prove his point.

In 1921 they gave him two captured German warships.

Mitchell’s planes sank them both.

The Navy said maybe he could sink smaller ships, but no plane could sink a battleship.

He asked for a captured German battleship.

Then Mitchell’s planes sank that as well.

They said he couldn’t do it against American battleships.

So Mitchell challenged them again.

And in 1923 he sank the USS Virginia and the USS New Jersey.

But still the Army and the Navy said the USA had nothing to fear from aeroplanes.

Mitchell publicly accused them of “Criminal negligence and an almost treasonable administration of the national defence”.

That was it, Billy Mitchell was court-martialled.

During his trial he was openly mocked by the prosecution.

Prosecution: “Who do you expect to attack the USA by air?”

Mitchell: “Japan”.


P: “In your crystal ball, can you see when they will attack?”


M: “On a Sunday, when everyone has the day off.”

P: “Do you know what time on a Sunday perhaps?”

(More laughter)

M: “Around 7.30 am, when everyone is still asleep.”

Billy Mitchell was found guilty of insubordination and suspended without pay, for five years.

He resigned immediately.

That was in 1926, he died ten years later in 1936.

He kept warning everyone who would listen, but no one listened.

Five years after he died, in 1941, the Japanese did attack the USA (as Mitchell said they would).

They attacked on Sunday (as Mitchell said they would).

They attacked at 7.30 am (as Mitchell said they would).

They sank all the US battleships (as Mitchell said they would).

It’s worth remembering Billy Mitchell when you’ve got the right answer but everyone else can’t, or won’t, see it.

Just having the right answer, often isn’t enough.


As Churchill said “There is nothing quite so unpopular as getting the right answer too early”.