FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
George Segal, left, portrays Col. Morgan, Joe Moore plays Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell and Don Stroud plays Lt. Col. Herbert White.
Hero finally gets his due
Perhaps because of his military and sports background, TV news anchor and playwright Joe Moore has always been fascinated by heroes.
'Prophecy and Honor'
On stage: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, at the Hawaii Theatre
Tickets: $25, $35 and $48
Call: 528-0506 or visit www.hawaiitheatre.com
Strike that. Moore is engrossed by the notion of unrecognized heroism, the deep-rooted steel that makes a fella defy convention for what he knows is right, and what's good for you. Which explains why Moore is a fan of John Wayne, Mozart and Gen. Billy Mitchell.
The first two, you probably know. Mitchell, on the other hand, was a bright, ambitious, thoroughly competent Army officer in the early 1920s who would have faded into obscurity -- except that he simply couldn't keep his mouth shut.
A little background: As a fast-rising officer in the Army's Signal Corps, Mitchell told anyone who would listen -- and there weren't many -- that, in the future, wars would by determined by air power. He claimed this before any military anywhere had acquired a single flying machine. Prescient, sure, but at the time, starry-eyed.
By the time the Great War rolled around, Mitchell's aerial preparations made him the ideal commander to head America's bit in the skies over the Western Front. With Eddie Rickenbacker and Sgt. York, he became the most-recognized Yank over there. Brash, outspoken and intolerant of bureaucratized ignorance, Mitchell alienated his superiors, and after the war, the young general, to the surprise of many, was not made head of the Army's fledgling Air Service.
Instead, Mitchell used his rank and connections to arrange stunts to prove the worthiness of air power, the most notable of which was the sinking of battleships by aerial bombs, which infuriated the old-battle-line Navy.
COURTESY U.S. AIR FORCE
Mitchell and his Boeing MB-3 fighter -- a type used in Hawaii -- with his personal insignia.
TO GET MITCHELL off the front pages, the Army packed him off on an inspection tour of Hawaii. In 1924, Mitchell wrote a report predicting the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor by air on a Sunday morning, which became a book called "Winged Defense."
When the Navy then scuttled a War Department plan to create a modernized "Air Force" within the Army, Mitchell went ballistic. Accompanied by a couple of naval aeronautical disasters -- the John Rodgers flight to Hawaii and the wreck of the airship Shenandoah in Ohio, ironically, also on its way to Hawaii -- Mitchell's accusations of naval incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense" earned him a courts-martial for insubordination, by direct order of President Calvin Coolidge.
Mitchell was, of course, guilty, and resigned his commission, not that he stood much chance with the whole of Washington officialdom arrayed against him. The highly public courts-martial, played out in the last months of 1925, riveted the nation, embarrassed the rankers and, in the long run, earned Mitchell the role of "father of the United States Air Force" -- which didn't occur until more than two decades later, and after a war Mitchell predicted.
Dramatic stuff, and the trial was given the Hollywood treatment in the 1955 Gary Cooper film "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell," directed by Otto Preminger. Joe Moore caught this movie on late-night TV, and, like the American public of 1925, was captured by the iconic image of a lone truth-sayer standing firm against the buffeting winds of officialdom. Moore was reminded of his own father, an Air Force light colonel who spent his career piloting planes, and who instilled in his young son a thirst for storytelling that meant something.
COURTESY U.S. AIR FORCE
Mitchell was highly decorated by the Allied forces during the Great War, but not so much by the Americans.
INSPIRED BY THE film, Moore acquired transcripts of the trial and books by Mitchell, and the newscaster wrote "Prophecy and Honor" in the early '90s, based largely on the courtroom transcript. It had a short run at the Diamond Head Theatre and then was put back in Moore's drawer.
"Then I read in the Star-Bulletin that the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels were likely going to do shows out here," said Moore. "That got me to thinking -- it's the 60th anniversary of the founding of Gen. Mitchell's Air Force, so why not dust off the old play, fine-tune it and do a fundraiser for the new Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island?"
Luckily, in past few years, new biographies of Mitchell have been published, giving Moore additional insights into the general's prickly character. Moore also took a red pencil to his original play, rendering it, in his hindsight, a better piece of drama.
Although Moore remains an overly packed B-4 bag of antique Billy Mitchelliana -- "Hey, you know who played Zachary Lansdowne in the Gary Copper movie? Jack Lord!" -- he's also aware that the story has resonance in today's tight-lipped military.
"There's something called 'the Mitchell Factor' that keeps senior officers from speaking out, despite the best interests of the service and the country, because to do so would jeopardize their careers -- and their reputations," reflected Moore. "Being an 'independent thinker' depends on your point of view, I guess. But it takes real chutzpah to stand up to the doctrine of the day."
Little Known Facts
» Although William Lendrum "Billy" Mitchell was the son of a Wisconsin senator and hailed from one of the richest families in the Midwest, he was born in Nice, France.
» The only American military aircraft named after a real person is the B-25 Mitchell, produced by North American Aviation during World War II. It was the first aircraft to be built in modular sections.
» In the mid-'50s, the Air Force Association and the Mitchell family petitioned to have the general's court-martial verdict voided, which the Air Force refused. The resultant publicity, however, led to the Gary Cooper movie about the trial.
» The U.S. Air Force Pipes and Drums selected the Mitchell family tartan as its official plaids.
» The standard U.S. Army dress uniform in 1925 featured a "standing collar," but Mitchell was often seen wearing a uniform with a "falling" collar of his own design. The Army later adopted Mitchell's style of uniform. Ironically, the Air Force is currently redesigning its dress uniform and the favorite is called the "Billy Mitchell Heritage" design -- which features a standing collar.
» Mitchell designed a personal eagle insignia that he painted on the side of his official aircraft. During World War II, this design was used to create the Air Force Combat Action medal, first awarded this year.
» The centerpiece display of the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island is a Mitchell bomber as used in the "Doolittle Raid" of 1942 -- and friends Billy Mitchell and Jimmy Doolittle performed bombing demonstrations together after the Great War.
» Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush both reauthorized Mitchell a posthumous commission as a major general in the U.S. Army.
» When Mitchell died, Air Corps Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold said, "People would often say Billy Mitchell was years ahead of his time -- but many would forget how it was also true." The new Air Force uniform design competing with the "Billy Mitchell" is called the "Hap Arnold."
» "If a nation ambitious for universal conquest gets off to a flying start in a war of the future," Mitchell wrote, "it may be able to control the whole world more easily than a nation has controlled a continent in the past."