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What would you do if you were a popular general in the United States Army, a tireless advocate for military aviation, and instead of getting a promotion to Chief of the Air Service, you were demoted and sent halfway across the country? If it was 1925 and your name was Billy Mitchell, you might just have a giant barbecue, complete with a roster of attendees that reads like a who’s who in the history of military aviation. The bash featured in this week’s film was likely Mitchell’s last big celebration, because by the end of the year, he was embroiled in a court-martial that permanently ended his military career.

Brigadier General Billy Mitchell may have faced demotion and exile, but that didn’t prevent him from throwing a fabulous party.

Long before Billy Mitchell was known as the father of the United States Air Force, he enlisted in the Army to fight in the Spanish-American War. When Mitchell was appointed assistant to the head of the Signal Corps Aviation Section in 1916, he had already served for nearly two decades. Advancing military aviation became Mitchell’s life’s work. During World War I, he planned the air campaign for the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and led nearly 1500 planes (the largest number of planes used in warfare to that point) in the battle.

Mitchell returned from the war believing that future wars would be fought with air power. He became the primary advocate for military aviation, criticizing the War Department and the Navy for not developing a national air force. Mitchell also made sure that military aviation stayed in the papers, speaking publicly about new innovations in flight and pushing military pilots to break flight records. Mitchell rankled his military and civilian superiors, but he gained the support of the press and the general public.

After Mitchell made repeated public declarations that a coordinated air attack could sink a naval ship, the secretaries of the War Department and Navy reluctantly agreed to test the claim in the summer of 1921. Even with strict limitations imposed by the Navy, Mitchell’s air crew sank three captured German vessels, including the battleship Ostfriesland. Mitchell got what he wanted when budgets for military aviation were increased, but showing up the military establishment and exposing the weakness of the naval fleet certainly did not make Mitchell any new allies in his chain of command.

In the few relatively calm years before Mitchell’s demotion and court-martial, he was sent on assignments that seemed designed to keep him out of the public eye. Most notable was a 1924 inspection tour of Asia and Hawaii. In an extensive report that was later published as Winged Defense, Mitchell accurately predicted the circumstances of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, even coming within half an hour of the actual time of attack.

The beginning of the end for Billy Mitchell’s military career came when he was called to testify before the Lampert Committee in 1924. After the end of World War I, Congress had convened more than a dozen commissions, committees, and boards to investigate military aviation. The Lampert Committee provided an official venue for Mitchell to broadcast his opinion of the United States military’s lack of support for aviation. Mitchell ripped the Army and Navy to shreds, calling out the leadership and other witnesses.

Billy Mitchell was obviously a problem for senior military officials. When Mitchell’s term as Assistant Chief of the Air Service expired in March of 1925, he was not reappointed to the position. Mitchell was sent to a lower-profile job in San Antonio, Texas and lost his temporary promotion to Brigadier General. The assignment might have been routine, except that Mitchell was at the forefront of military aviation and had requested to keep his position as Assistant Chief of the Air Service. The reassignment was widely viewed as an exile intended to punish and silence the outspoken Mitchell.

mitchell-6

“Showing the General getting ready to testify before the Aircraft Committee.”

Before he made the big move, though, Mitchell’s supporters threw a booze-filled farewell barbecue in his honor. John Bockhurst, a newsreel cameraman who had filmed Army flyers on the first round-the-world flight, recorded the event for posterity.[1] If anyone ever wondered whether Mitchell reconsidered his public criticism of military officials, watching this film should clarify his position, particularly when an intertitle references his testimony before Congress. A shot of Mitchell sharpening a large knife is preceded by: “Showing the General getting ready to testify before the Aircraft Committee.”

While Mitchell had alienated his superiors, the film illustrates his widespread support in the rank and file. One distinguished guest who appears in the film is General James Fechet. Fechet took over Mitchell’s position as Assistant Chief of the Air Service and rose to Chief in 1927. Also appearing is Lt. Lester Maitland, one of the pilots who flew the first successful trans-Pacific flight in 1927. Hap Arnold, a staunch defender of Mitchell’s who would command the Army Air Forces during World War II, also features prominently throughout the film.

mitchell-5

“Scene showing close cooperation between the Air Service and the well known navy.”

The film also shows the pioneering navy pilot Commander Holden C. Richardson, who is referenced in a tongue-in-cheek intertitle that reads: “Scene showing close cooperation between the Air Service and the well known navy.” In the following scene, Billy Mitchell serves an enormous piece of meat to Richardson. Mitchell may have had a fight to pick with the Navy establishment, but he had close friends in pilots everywhere.

Also taking a prominent role in the Prohibition-era festivities were copious amounts of whiskey and beer. In fact, the alcohol gets its first mention at 3:47 when it is named “The life of the party.” Most of the second half of the film is devoted to depicting the progressively more drunken activities of the attendees.

mitchell-8“The life of the party.”

Billy Mitchell likely left for San Antonio with the support of his “associates and admirers” buoying his spirits. His high spirits were not to last long, however. In September of 1925, Mitchell released his most disparaging statement yet, blaming senior officials for the deaths of pilots attempting ill-advised flights, and accusing military leaders of incompetence. By October, President Calvin Coolidge had ordered the court-martial of Billy Mitchell under the 96th Article of War.

In December of 1925, Billy Mitchell was convicted of conduct that brought discredit to the military service and suspended without pay. Mitchell resigned in February 1926 but continued to promote military aviation until he died in 1936. In 1942, President Roosevelt posthumously elevated Billy Mitchell to the rank of Major General and recommended him for a Congressional Gold Medal.

 

[1] John “Bocky” Bockhurst is featured in a Universal newsreel about cameramen preparing for D-Day. You can view it here. Bockhurst sat out the invasion, however, because he contracted malaria.



This week’s story features a demonstration of the “often-forecast” videophone. Today, numerous devices and programs enable video calling, but the videophone as a separate appliance never quite took off. One reason why 1955 was not the year for the video phone is the price tag: According to the Universal news story, the videophone cost $5000.00, or about $43,000.00 in today’s dollars.

From the release sheet:

VIDEO-PHONE DEMONSTRATED

San Francisco–Demonstrated for the first time, the videophone, with two-way picture screens enabling the parties to see, as well as speak to, each other. As simple to operate as today’s dial tone.

 

videophone-2

The videophone included a small screen so that women could “primp” before placing their calls. A mirror would have been less costly and more effective.

Are you wondering what they mean by “today’s dial tone” in the release sheet text? In 1955, the dial tone had only recently come into widespread use; in conjunction with the rotary dial, the dial tone replaced the need to speak to an operator to place a call.

You may view the complete reel, which also includes stories about an oil refinery fire in Indiana, a fur fashion show, and the National Water Ski Championships in Florida, among others, here.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.



Guest bloggers Gene Burkett and Jan Hodges became interested in World War I combat art during their work on a holdings maintenance volunteer project with the textual records of the American Expeditionary Forces at the National Archives at College Park. This article is the second in a nine-part series on World War I Art and Artists.

As one of the eight official artists with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), William James Aylward followed the army from his landing in France through occupation in 1919. By the end of September 1918, he had produced twenty-six works covering a wide range of subjects. From the troopship USS Leviathan to a poignant rendering of a soldier standing mournfully over the grave of a friend, Aylward captured life in the AEF with a deft hand.

aylward, william james

Local Identifier: 111 SC 86627, Capt. William J. Aylward, E.R.C., one of the eight official artists appointed by the War Department. April 1918.

American troops began to arrive in France toward the end of 1917, at ports in the Northwest of France, often at Brest. One of the ships making the voyage between the U.S. and France was the USS Leviathan. It was a huge ship that ran on steam generated by coal furnaces. Ironically the Leviathan was a German luxury ship that had the misfortune to be moored in Hoboken, New Jersey when the U.S. declared war on Germany. It was seized and converted into a transport ship. It made several trips across the Atlantic to deliver American soldiers. After the war ended, the Leviathan returned the veteran soldiers to the U.S. Captain Aylward sketched the USS Leviathan as coal was being loaded into the monster-size ship.

111-SC-31695Local Identifier: 111 SC 31695, Coaling the Leviathan. Capt. W.J. Aylward.

When the American army first arrived in France, it was assigned duties with the French and British. Although General John J. Pershing, the Commander in Chief of the AEF, provided American soldiers to the allies as requested, he was determined that American soldiers would fight under American command. Pershing’s goal was achieved in September 1918, when the United States was assigned to push the Germans out of the St. Mihiel area. The British and French regarded the task as simple. By September, the Germans were already pulling back from the front line. The Americans would punch through; routing the Germans, giving the allies a victory and the Americans confidence.

Aylward made his way to the St. Mihiel area, and drew pictures that captured the life of the soldiers at the front. The first shows the doughboys lining up for a hot meal in a structure that is marked by damage from artillery shells.

111-SC-57042Local Identifier: 111 SC 57042, First Division Headquarters Kitchen, St. Mihiel Drive. Drawing by Capt. W. J. Aylward.

 A simple task isn’t necessarily an easy task. Due to continuing rain in the area, the American infantry had to slog across a muddy plain to get to the enemy’s stronghold. The Germans held the high ground, able to watch the movements of the Americans. To American soldiers with combat experience, going “over the top” to reach the Germans was a grim prospect.  For the untried doughboys, it was to be a march into the nightmare of World War I. Aylward’s second sketch of the St. Mihiel area depicts the moments before the troops receive the order to advance. It’s a quiet scene, with a soldier in the forefront removed from rest of the doughboys, deep in his own thoughts. Other soldiers are huddled in clusters smoking or talking quietly.

The American attack started early in the morning of September 12, 1918, and continued to push forward over the next few days. The army achieved its first goal as an independent unit, winning the battle and capturing more than 15,000 German prisoners and 200 cannons. The casualties on the American side were 7,000 dead, with additional troops wounded or missing. The experience prepared the young army for its next assignment in the grueling Meuse-Argonne offensive.

111-SC-57041Local Identifier: 111 SC 57041, Troops waiting to advance at Hatton Chattel, St. Mihiel Drive. Drawing by Capt. W.J. Aylward.

More than four thousand American soldiers, mostly from the St. Mihiel Battle, are buried in the American Cemetery and Memorial at St. Mihiel. Aylward captured the sense of loss and sorrow of battle in his sketch simply titled “His Bunkie.” The background is empty in the picture; we see only a single soldier, a cross, and a newly dug grave.

111-SC-20063Local Identifier: 111 SC 20063, Drawings by Official American Military Artists. His Bunkie. Capt. W. J. Aylward.

The art of Walter Jack Duncan will be highlighted in the next post in this series about World War I Art and Artists.

Sources:

Barry, Gregory. Argonne 1918: The AEF in France. Ballantine Books. NY. 1972.

Bonk, David. St. Mihiel 1918: The American Expeditionary Forces’ Trial by Fire. Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK. 2011.

Griess, Thomas, ed. The West Point Military History Series: The Great War, Strategies & Tactics of the First World War. Square One Publishers, Inc. Garden City, NY. 2003.

Krass, Peter. Portrait of War: The U. S. Army’s Combat Artists and the Doughboys Experience in World War I. John Wiley and Sons.  New York. 2006.

National Archives. Still Pictures. Record Group 111-SC Army Signal Corps, WWI Combat Artists, by name.

National Archives, Record Group 120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I); General Headquarters: General Staff: G-2: Censorship and Press Division (G-2-D). Correspondence Relating to the Eight Official Artists of the AEF, 1917 -19.



This week’s story is from the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany. The games are most well-known for the controversy surrounding them; there was strong support in the United States and around the world for a boycott because of the Nazi regime’s racist ideology and discriminatory actions against Jews. The United States’ team attended the games, but several Jewish athletes chose to boycott. In the end, the prevailing story of the games was that of the African-American track and field athlete Jesse Owens: The four gold medals Owens won were widely considered a blow against the Nazi belief in Aryan supremacy.

In addition to footage of the track and field events, field hockey and diving contests are featured, as well as an on-field gymnastics display.

From the release sheet:

U.S. ATHELETES ECLIPSE ALL RIVALS IN OLYMPIC COMPETITION

Berlin, Germany–Sweeping  forward with an irresistible urge to win, the American team conquers the stars of fifty-one other competing nations, capturing the men’s Track and Field title with the astounding total of 203 points to 80 for Finland, their nearest competitor in the series of events that constitutes the sizzling feature of the Olympiad. Little Kitei  Son, a Korean running for Japan, walks away with the grueling Marathon, classic fixture of the Games. Jesse Owens, the Buckeye Bullet, establishes himself as the outstanding star of the meet, in breath-taking individual and team competition. Varied aquatic and gymnastic events add bright splashes of color to the greatest athletic meet of all time.

1936olympics-1

Sohn Kee-chung (Kitei Son), a Korean athlete competing for Japan, won the 1936 Olympic marathon.

You may view the reel, which also includes a story about a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt in Chautauqua, New York, in which he expresses his distaste for war and affirms his isolationist views. The original narration track for this reel no longer exists, but the speech and sound effects, such as the crowd noise during the Olympic Games, are extant.                    

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.



The story of the North Platte, Nebraska canteen reads more like a Frank Capra movie rather than an Army film production. As the story goes, a rumor had started that a train carrying troops from Nebraska would be arriving at North Platte on Christmas Day 1941. About five hundred townspeople came to greet the train bearing food and gifts. The troops ended up being from Kansas, but that was the start of a five year endeavor in which the residents of North Platte volunteered their time and money to supply troops stopping at the train station with food and hospitality. By the time the canteen shut down in April of 1946, the people of North Platte had served over six million members of the armed forces, keeping the canteen open from five in the morning to midnight every day.

canteen-5

The North Platte Canteen was open from 5AM to midnight, serving up coffee, snacks, and kindness.

I first came across the North Platte films when I was searching the index cards of the Army Signal Corps. My mother grew up on a farm in North Bend, Nebraska, and I was interested in finding what the Army might have filmed in the state. I was surprised to discover footage of North Platte, Nebraska shot in August of 1945, during the final days of World War II.  I was unaware of the story of the North Platte canteen, but I enjoyed the footage of the Canteen and the street scenes of the small but bustling town. It wasn’t until I read Once Upon a Town by Bob Greene that I learned the full meaning of what the Army had filmed.

111-adc-6284-notecard

The notecard that describes the North Platte Canteen footage and first piqued this blogger’s interest.

In the four reels of film documenting the days leading up to V-J Day, there are heartwarming scenes of locals greeting soldiers and a local boy named Gene Slattery auctioning his shirt to raise money for the canteen. The daily activities of the people of Nebraska were also filmed, from shots of wheat fields and a milking operation to patrons entering local businesses, demonstrating how life goes on even in war time. In addition, Army cameramen recorded the celebrations of what might have been the most patriotic of all small towns as they learned that the war was officially over. The films are unedited, silent, black and white, and have a certain home movie like quality. Over twelve days in August, 1945, in a town called North Platte, Army cameramen created a time capsule of Americana.

 

111-ADC-6284 August 4-6, 1945.

The first film contains the most footage of the North Platte Canteen and is simply very well-shot. The cameraman clearly planned his shots. Canteen workers offer African American soldiers fruit at the station. There are excellent exterior and interior shots of the canteen. Not only was the canteen filmed, but the cameraman also recorded street scenes and small town American life. This film is not only good for the story it tells of the North Platte Canteen, but also of the typical American main street during WWII.

111-ADC-6286 August 9, 1945.

This film contains scenes of farming and women bringing food to the Canteen. There is also footage of Gene Slattery auctioning off his shirt at 6:21.

111-ADC-6285  August 9-10, 1945

Good shots of the towns of Elsie and North Platte. More footage of Gene Slattery auctioning off his shirt at 7:15.

111-ADC-5123 VJ-Day August 14,  1945

While many of us are familiar with VJ-Day celebrations in Times Square, this film shows how Middle America celebrated the end of the war. There are wholesome scenes of people waving flags and mothers with their children, but the film also shows more high-spirited celebrations as well, such as drinking beer while riding down main street on the front fender of a car.

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