Born to fly: WWII veteran recalls service

Donna Stephens

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Flying has been a part of Billy Mitchell’s life for 80 years — since he was 17.

Now 97, the Maumelle man has a lifetime of memories of sailing through the sky, including service in World War II as a member of the Army Air Corps.

“The older I get, the fewer of us (WWII veterans) there are, and the more notoriety we get for being some of the few left,” Mitchell said. “But my flying helped me all of my life. It was the center of my life.”

Mitchell grew up in Paragould and graduated from Paragould High School in 1939.

That fall, he came to what was then Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), which offered a civilian pilot training course.

Billy Mitchell served in World War II as a member of the Army Air Corps. (Mike Kemp photo)

“(President Franklin D.) Roosevelt was getting us ready for war,” Mitchell remembered, referring to the expansion of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party from Germany all across Europe.

Mitchell’s father had the $40 it cost to get his son into the ASTC training program, which he started early in 1940 — before he turned 18.

“I think maybe I had never touched an airplane until I was at Teachers College,” he said. “I think I just wanted something to do.”

He recalled his English professor sharing news of the war in Europe from the Swiss German-language newspaper Der Bund.

“In ‘39, the Germans had taken Poland,” he said. “And back then, people in the U.S. still remembered World War I, and they wanted to be far away from combat, so Roosevelt couldn’t get into the war until something happened.”

After completing the first part of the course, he earned his private pilot’s license on June 8, 1940, and he began the second course in the summer of 1941. That course entailed flying a bigger plane and even some aerobatics.

“That one didn’t end until sometime in October, and I was tired of school, so I dropped out and went to St. Louis and got a job in an airplane factory,” Mitchell said.

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, resulting in America’s entry into the war.

Mitchell said he took a better job with airway traffic control in Kansas City and later went to Memphis, where he passed his written exam for a commercial license. From there he worked at the West Memphis airport and gained the flying time to earn the commercial license in the fall of ‘42. He later worked as a civilian for a ferrying group in Memphis in early 1943.

“At that time, there was a shortage of pilots, so the ferrying group (part of the Army Air Corps) would take commercial pilots in with a commission and wings,” Mitchell said. “I was classified 1-A (available for military service); I was about to be drafted, so that’s when I took the job with the Air Corps in February of ‘43.

“I just went to work with good pay and got my commission as a second lieutenant with wings, and I stayed there three years.”

Not quite 23, he found his first military assignment in Great Falls, Mont., where he joined other pilots flying Bell P-39s, “little fighter airplanes” to Fairbanks, Alaska, where Russians would pick them up and take them back to Europe to aid the Allied effort.

After 15 months, he was sent to India, where he served as an administrative pilot to Burma and Singapore, flying PX supplies and mail, and where he “flew the Hump” from India into China. According to wearethemighty.com, Allied pilots christened the operation that crossed the Himalayan foothills and supplied aircraft and equipment to the Chinese “the Hump.”

“That was the only way we could supply them because the oceans were controlled by the Japanese,” Mitchell said. “The conditions for flying were terrible — you’d have warm, moist air coming up over the Bay of Bengal, and when it would reach the mountains, it would form terrific thunderstorms. It was terrible flying. I had several friends who never came back from the Hump.”

According to the website, more than 1,000 men and 600 planes were lost navigating the 530 miles of the Hump.

Mitchell recalled the base in Eastern India that contained a room with maps “that sort of kept us in touch and showed us when the war was won in Europe.”

Victory in Europe Day (V-E) came on May 8, 1945, shortly after Hitler committed suicide.

“Then we were anxious — we wanted to come home,” Mitchell said. “We were glad the (Allied) effort would be put into the Pacific rather than Europe. There were rumors that something big was going to happen, but I think no one really knew that the bomb would be dropped.”

American forces detonated nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, respectively. The Japanese surrendered unconditionally on Aug. 15, which came to be known as Victory over Japan (V-J) Day.

“We were in India when the two bombs were dropped, so the war was over,” Mitchell said. “I got home about three days before Christmas in ‘45, and then I was discharged a few months later (in February 1946).”

Although he didn’t see combat, his service, like so many others in supportive roles, was absolutely vital to the war effort.

“I think all of the country put a lot of effort into it,” said Mitchell, who was discharged as a captain. “We were united, and of course, in an operation that big, we did lots of things wrong, but we did lots of things right in our production and our training.

“It would be a different war today with all the changes in technology and equipment.”

Flight followed him after the war. He was a flight instructor and a crop duster before getting into the chemical business when he founded Helena Chemical Company in 1957. He sold his interest in the business in the mid-1960s. It is now Helena Agri-Enterprises, “one of the foremost agronomist solutions providers in the United States,” based in Collierville, Tenn., with more than 4,000 employees in about 450 branch locations, according to helenaagri.com.

“The flying got me into that,” Mitchell said.

David Mitchell, his son, said the company, which formulated agricultural chemicals, was all over the Southeast.

“He picked Helena because of the long fields, the flat ground in the Delta and several other successful ag chem businesses,” David Mitchell said.

After he went into business, flying went from his vocation to his hobby.

“We had an airplane up until he was 84,” David Mitchell said. “He gave up his license when he turned 84, thank goodness. I was leery about his driving, and he gave up his flying. It was due to a medical thing. By that time, licenses required yearly physical exams. He said he didn’t want to compromise the physician’s integrity.”

About a year ago, Mitchell, who had split most of his adult life after the war between Helena and Florida, moved to the 501 to be near his children, David, Timothy and Brenda Saunders. Son Joe died a few years ago.

Mitchell, who will turn 98 on March 29, remembered an experience from his second flying course at ASTC with a red-headed classmate named Raymond Mitchell. They were on a flight with an instructor who was demonstrating an approach in which the plane is slowed, but instead it stalled, hit the ground and bounced back up in the air.

“I put my feet up on the dash and covered my face ready for a crash,” he remembered, chuckling. “The instructor told us we didn’t hit the ground, but he asked me to taxi in. He wanted to smoke a cigarette.

“Raymond and I went back later on our bicycles and saw the big ruts we’d made. I saw him a few years later at Phoenix. He’d already been in combat in China with the Flying Tigers (The First American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force prior to Pearl Harbor). He was killed after that.”

David Mitchell said his father, like his friend Raymond Mitchell, was another hero of the Greatest Generation.

“We’ve always admired him tremendously for his accomplishments,” he said. “He was the leader of the pack.”