A Question of Loyaltyby Douglas C. Waller
A Question of Loyalty plunges into the seven-week Washington trial of Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, the hero of the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and the man who proved in 1921 that planes could sink a battleship. In 1925 Mitchell was frustrated by the slow pace of aviation development, and he sparked a political firestorm, accusing the army/em>
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A Question of Loyalty plunges into the seven-week Washington trial of Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, the hero of the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and the man who proved in 1921 that planes could sink a battleship. In 1925 Mitchell was frustrated by the slow pace of aviation development, and he sparked a political firestorm, accusing the army and navy high commands -- and by inference the president -- of treason and criminal negligence in the way they conducted national defense. He was put on trial for insubordination in a spectacular court-martial that became a national obsession during the Roaring Twenties.
Uncovering a trove of new letters, diaries, and confidential documents, Douglas Waller captures the drama of the trial and builds a rich and revealing biography of Mitchell.
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A Question of Loyalty
Monday, August 31, 1925
It was evening when Billy Mitchell finally sat down in the parlor of his quarters at Fort Sam Houston to write to Betty (as his wife, Elizabeth, was known) about the plane accident. Shade from leafy trees, some ripe with figs and pecans in the front yard, surrounded the home and cooled the dry air in the evening. But summer at the army post, just outside San Antonio, Texas, was still unbearably hot and dusty. Mitchell was glad Betty had remained with her parents in Detroit to give birth to their first child, while he managed the moving in of their furniture and the laying of new carpets.
Quarters Number 14 was not the best on the post, certainly not as fine as the accommodations usually given to generals. But it was comfortable. The house was built according to a two-story Italianate design, with limestone from the city's rock quarries. It had three bedrooms, a parlor, dining room, and servants' quarters in the back. Stables nearby housed three horses Mitchell had brought with him from Virginia: Eclipse, Boxwood, and Flood Tide. From the parlor's bay window, Mitchell had a beautiful view of a vast parade ground. He had to walk just several blocks to reach his office in the post's quadrangle. His old boss in Washington, Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, had ordered that Mitchell's personal plane, the Sea Gull 3rd, be flown down to him.
Still, Fort Sam Houston, as Will Rogers saw it, was "Siberia." (The two had become fast friends after Mitchell took the famous humorist up for his first plane ride four months earlier.) Mitchell had been busted from brigadiergeneral to colonel and banished to this "mosquito post in Texas," Rogers had written in one of his columns, because he had angered the brass in Washington.
But Texas was far from a backwater. Fort Sam Houston was the army's largest post in the United States. For decades it had guarded the country's strategically important southern flank against threats percolating up from Mexico. As the new air officer of the Eighth Army Corps, Mitchell had an area of responsibility that stretched from Texas to the West Coast. Elizabeth was thankful the army hadn't sent him farther away, to Panama. And though Mitchell had been reduced in rank, the army did not consider it a demotion. Colonel was his permanent rank, the highest he ever held during his career. Brigadier general had been his temporary rank during World War I, when officers were promoted rapidly as the army expanded for combat. After the war most reverted to their permanent peacetime ranks. Colonels went back to being captains, generals sank as low as major. The only reason Mitchell had been lucky enough to keep his star after the war was that his job as assistant director of the air service allowed for that rank while he held that position. When the job ended he stopped being a general.
But Mitchell felt humiliated by the reduction in rank. Elizabeth knew his feelings had been hurt "much more than he ever will say," she wrote to one of his sisters. John Weeks, Calvin Coolidge's secretary of war, had refused to reappoint him as air service assistant director the previous March, which meant that he returned to the rank of colonel. Mitchell had been so publicly critical of the War Department's management of air power and so reckless with the facts, as far as Weeks was concerned that he had practically been insubordinate. As far as Mitchell was concerned, he should have been named director of the army air service and promoted to major general a long time ago. He refused to accept the rank of colonel now. Soldiers on post still called him "general," and he never corrected them.
True, the Eighth Corps territory was vast, but its air arsenal was puny. In Washington, Mitchell had lorded over the entire air service, and his instant access to the national press and the city's powerful allowed him to push his cause for an air force independent of the army. Now he was relegated to a do-nothing job far away, the War Department hoped, from politicians and the media. In Washington. he had a platoon of air officers as loyal to him as disciples to a prophet. His staff now consisted of two clerks and a stenographer, Maydell Blackmon, whom he'd brought from Washington and who spent most of her days answering the hundreds of letters that poured in each week most from admirers who thought he'd gotten a raw deal. It amused "Blackie" (the nickname Mitchell had given her) that he always dictated letters while walking in wide circles in his office. "The general," as Blackie always called him, had a good command of the language and always seemed to know what he wanted to say. He rarely went back and edited what he had dictated.
Mitchell had wrenched his right shoulder in the plane accident that morning. He had scratches on his hands and face, and a plaster cast was packed on his nose, which was probably broken when his head slammed into the cockpit's forward crash pad. He had sent Betty a quick telegram earlier that morning hoping it would reach her in Detroit before she read about the mishap in the afternoon newspapers. In fact, reporters had already phoned her shortly after his Western Union message arrived, asking her for a comment. "Thank heaven you are safe," she had wired back. Betty had given birth to their first child, Lucy, less than a month earlier. She did not need the extra worry, not with everything else going on in this turbulent year. "I wanted you to know ahead of any news items appearing that nothing had happened to your old man," Mitchell now wrote in the peace and calm of his parlor.A Question of Loyalty. Copyright © by Douglas Waller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Douglas Waller is a senior correspondent for Time, and before that was with Newsweek. He is the author or coauthor of six previous books, including the national bestseller Big Red, The Commandos, and Air Warriors. He lives in Annandale, Virginia, with his wife and has three children.
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I agree almost completely with the reviewer below. The author's method of interspersing trial scenes with 'flashbacks' to Mitchell's earlier life is a great move and is done seamlessly.