National Park Service

State of the Park Reports

State of the Park Report for Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Resource Brief – General Billy Mitchell's Aerial Bombing Tests

Portrait of General Billy Mitchell by Robert B. Williams, First Flight Society's First Flight Shrine. NPS Photo.
Portrait of General Billy Mitchell by Robert B. Williams, First Flight Society's First Flight Shrine. NPS Photo.

General Billy Mitchell was a World War I pilot who advocated the development of air power as an instrument to win future wars. Mitchell promoted the advancement of aircraft bombing techniques that could sink battleships, a strategy that would give the allied forces an edge from the sky in any major battle. He put his theory to the test off the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. In 1921, Mitchell's Martin MB-2 bombers sank three ex-German warships, including the supposedly unsinkable Ostfriesland seventy-five miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The exercise was repeated off the coast of Hatteras Island in 1923 when two obsolete American battleships, U.S.S. Virginia and U.S.S. New Jersey, met a similar fate.

On September 5, 1923 the Virginia and New Jersey were anchored three miles off the Diamond Shoals Lightship near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Seven Martin MB-2 bombers flying at 3,000 feet each dropped two 1,100 lb. bombs on the Virginia. According to an observer, a single bomb that struck the vessel "completely demolished the ship as such… Both masts, the bridge, all three smokestacks, and the upperworks disappeared with the explosion and there remained, after the smoke cleared away, nothing but the bare hull, decks blown off, and covered with a mass of tangled debris from stem to stern consisting of stacks, ventilators, cage masts, and bridges." Within 30 minutes, the battered hulk sank beneath the waves. The New Jersey joined the Virginia shortly thereafter. The dramatic sinking of the Virginia and New Jersey proved the vulnerability of warships to air attack.

Many experts agreed there was a lesson to be learned from these aerial bombing demonstrations, but Mitchell was not satisfied with the pace of change. He remained a vocal critic, and in 1925 issued a blistering statement accusing the War and Navy Departments of "incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration" of aviation affairs. Consequently, Mitchell was court-martialed and convicted on charges of "insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer." Mitchell resigned from the Army, his prophecies largely disregarded by the government. On December 7, 1941 the truth of Mitchell's arguments was driven home. The Japanese, using air power alone, devastated the United States forces at Pearl Harbor and became the dominant force in the Pacific. On July 25, 1946, ten years after his death, Congress posthumously awarded Brigadier-General Mitchell the Medal of Honor.

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