A moment in Air Force history: air battle in St. Mihiel, France

Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith
435th Air Base Wing/86th Airlift Wing
history office

***image1***History always seems to take place in far away locations. Few probably realize the largest air battle of World War I took place less than a hundred miles from here in an area known as the St. Mihiel Salient, France.

The St. Mihiel Salient was a German frontline bulge into France 25 miles wide and 15 miles deep, located southwest of German-controlled Metz. It was formed in 1914 when the Germans took position to attack Verdun. Though Verdun did not fall, the Germans held the area for the next four years.

The 1918 attack on St. Mihiel was to be the first battle of the new First American Army formed under Gen. John J. Pershing. As the 16 U.S. divisions (610,000 men, 3,000 pieces of artillery, 50,000 tons of ammunition and 200,000 tons of supplies) maneuvered into position, it was clear to General Pershing that he was going to need airpower support.

He appointed Col. William “Billy” Mitchell as chief of his Air Service; giving him control of about 600 American-operated aircraft. Colonel Mitchell secured control of additional Allied air units creating a 1,481 aircraft fleet – the largest air armada ever used. He assigned observation aircraft to ground forces and protected them with constant pursuit (fighter) patrols over the battlefield. The rest of the forces, which Colonel Mitchell called “strategical aviation,” were massed against enemy airpower and behind-the-line targets. By today’s standards, this limited airpower-to-ground support but 1918 technology would not have enabled a true strategic offensive very far beyond the battlefield.

The assault began Sept. 12, 1918, with the worst flying weather seen in months. Despite setbacks, Colonel Mitchell’s force gained control of the airspace. The battle lasted four days, but enough ground had been taken by the second day to open the Paris-Avricourt railline to supply the next offensive on the Argonne. The Allied losses of 7,000 men in the battle, considered light by World War I standards, set the stage for Germany’s defeat just two months later; thus concluding “the War to End All Wars.”

Today, Souilly’s City Hall – General Pershing’s former headquarters – still maintains his flag. A Montsec American Monument to the St. Mihiel battle stands 10 miles east of the town. Twelve miles northwest in Thiaucourt, France, is the St. Mihiel American Cemetery. Among the 4,153 buried is 1st Lt. John L. Mitchell, pilot and brother to Colonel Mitchell. World War I is remembered to honor those who defended freedom and to understand how its outcome set the stage for a century of subsequent conflicts – some still being fought today.