Billy Mitchell’s Obsession
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the years after the First World War, the United States drew down its huge military establishment almost as quickly as it had been mobilized. Millions of men turned in their uniforms and went home and spending ceased on new weapons and aircraft. Except for one huge category: new dreadnought battleships for the U.S. Navy.
This seeming double standard enraged Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, the well-known commander of American air combat units in France. Just returned from the combat zone and appointed deputy director of the Air Service, Mitchell watched as contracts for new planes were cancelled and personnel released from service whether they wished to remain or not. Meanwhile, work went forward on new battleships – ships, Mitchell declared loudly and publicly, that could be sunk by bombers costing a fraction as much to build, crew and maintain.
An unpleasant man, Mitchell had irritated his superiors in France and now proceeded to do the same in Washington. But his campaign embarrassed the Navy, which felt obliged to disprove the claims. The ancient battleship Indiana was towed to Tangier Sound in Chesapeake Bay, where the coast defense ship San Marcos (the former Texas) had been sunk in shallow water in 1911 as a gunnery target. In a secret test arranged by Capt. Chester Nimitz in November 1920, Indiana was moored alongside the wreck, and Navy bombers dropped sandbags on the battleship in a series of exercises. Where the sandbags struck, a Navy demolitions team then set off charges.
An inspection team led by Capt. William Leahy, the director of Gunnery Exercises (and future Chief of Naval Operations) concluded that the bombs would not have sunk Indiana. And that, the Navy claimed, proved the superiority of the dreadnought battleship over the bomber. But one of the consultants on Leahy’s team apparently leaked documents and photographs to Mitchell, who displayed them to the House Naval Affairs Committee in January 1921. The congressmen proved amenable to Mitchell’s ideas, but wary. Though the Indiana tests had been falsified, there still was no empirical data regarding the efficacy of bombing attacks on warships.
“All we want to do is have you gentlemen watch us attack a battleship,” Mitchell responded. “Give us the warships to attack and come and watch it.”
Mitchell’s claim might have gone nowhere, but for the next witness. Admiral William Sims, commander of American naval forces in Europe during the Great War and then the president of the Naval War College, had an ongoing feud with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. He was also enjoying the fame of a best-selling memoir that would win the Pulitzer Prize for history later in the year. Senior admirals, Sims charged, had rejected the results of war games that supported Mitchell’s point of view.
“It was easy to see,” Sims testified, “that the question of the passing of the battleship was not an agreeable one to various members.”
Faced with congressional resolutions demanding open tests, Daniels agreed to provide some captured German warships for testing: a cruiser, a destroyer and a submarine. Further pressure brought a promise of some obsolete battleships for bombing tests plus the captured German dreadnought Ostfriesland. In addition, the radio-controlled target ship Iowa would be provided as a moving target.
“I’m so confident that neither Army nor Navy aviators can hit the Iowa while she is under way,” Daniels told The New York Times, “that I would be perfectly willing to be on board when they bomb her.”
Why did senior Army brass allow Mitchell, a relatively junior officer, to create such a public spectacle and delve openly into political action? Most Army leaders also rejected Mitchell’s ideas; the Army’s senior general, John “Black Jack” Pershing, was very clear about his desire for cordial relations with the Navy.
The answer’s clear to anyone who’s suffered through the political process in a state like Alabama. The U.S. Naval Academy (“Navy”) had beaten the U.S. Military Academy (“Army”) in every football game played since the end of the Great War. Three straight defeats humiliated the West Point grads who led the U.S. Army; Army failed to score in any of the games, and the third defeat handed Navy the overall lead in the series, an important statistic to all concerned. Mitchell provided the opportunity for the Army to humiliate the suddenly smug admirals. He would be allowed to mobilize whatever men, machines and officers he wished for his tests.
Mitchell and his cohorts, a group of young officers including future stars Hap Arnold and Tooey Spaatz, pulled together six squadrons for the 1st Provisional Air Brigade. The attacks would be carried out as realistically as possible: observation planes would find the targets, fighters would strafe them to suppress anti-aircraft fire, and then the bombers would strike. The Navy set its own rules: each ship could only be hit twice, inspection teams would board after each hit, and the strikes would be conducted well out to sea off the Virginia Capes, to place them at the planes’ maximum range and thus limit their loiter time over the target.
Starting in June 1921, Mitchell’s planes sank the German cruiser and destroyer within the Navy’s rules. Next came the German dreadnought. The planes hit her on the first day, causing her to settle three feet but not sink. The next day they stretched the rules, dropping many more bombs than allowed and scoring six near-misses that opened her hull plating. The battleship rolled over and sank, but Navy experts disputed Mitchell’s triumphant claims of success. Ostfriesland had been the victim of progressive flooding; even a semi-competent damage-control crew would have saved the ship had anyone been aboard, they (probably rightly) argued.
More tests followed. In September the old pre-dreadnought Alabama would be sunk by his bombers; two years later a pair of pre-dreadnoughts was expended. Mitchell continued his campaign, growing ever more insufferable. Soon after the 1923 tests he married Elizabeth Miller; at about the same time Pershing ordered him on a lengthy inspection tour of the Pacific.
When Mitchell returned form his Army-subsidized honeymoon, he had a new obsession: a future war with Japan. This war would be won with air power, he claimed, and new squadrons were needed to defend Hawaii, the Philippines and Alaska. Exasperated, Pershing demoted Mitchell to colonel and assigned him to a corps staff in San Antonio, Texas. Mitchell continued his campaign, with newspaper interviews and a book, “Winged Defense.” Things exploded in September 1925 when the Navy airship Shenandoah broke up in a storm over Ohio. Fourteen of her crew died, including her commander, Lt. Cdr. Zachary Lansdowne, a close friend of Mitchell. Pressed for comment, Mitchell issued an incendiary 6,000-word written statement.
“These accidents,” he wrote, “are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments.”
Mitchell’s behavior could not be tolerated any longer; besides, Army had tied Navy 0-0 in 1923 and then won two straight to reclaim the overall lead in their football series (beginning a decade of Army dominance on the gridiron). With a winning football team, the generals did not feel the need to humiliate the Navy via other means, and when President Calvin Coolidge issued a direct order that Mitchell be court-martialed for insubordination they readily went along.
Mitchell’s trial opened in November 1925. Dozens of witnesses supported Mitchell, including Lansdowne’s beautiful 23-year-old widow, Margaret, who said her husband had opposed Shenandoah’s flight to the Midwest as a dangerous publicity stunt, and that the Navy had pressured her to lie under oath. Sims appeared in support as did a series of Great War heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker. Even so, the court found him guilty on all nine counts, suspending him for five years without pay. Mitchell resigned, spending the next decade writing in favor of air power until his death from influenza in 1935 at age 55.
Future events would prove Mitchell’s predictions correct, if not his means of pressing his case. And even that would turn around to some extent; Otto Preminger’s 1955 movie starring Gary Cooper as Mitchell and a young Elizabeth “Bewitched” Montgomery as Margaret Lansdowne made the general into a misunderstood anti-hero. Mitchell received many honors after his death: Milwaukee’s airport is named for him, he’s been on a postage stamp, a bomber was named in his honor and President Franklin Roosevelt promoted him to major general in 1942 (apparently unaware of this, George W. Bush did it again in 2005). Mitchell probably didn’t care; the battleship was gone and an independent Air Force survived.
Sink ships with Mitchell's planes! Click here to order U.S. Navy Plan Gold now!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.