Tuesday, September 5, 2023

This Day in Aviation History (Mitchell Aerial Bombings Advance Air Power Case)

Sept. 5, 1923—The demonstrations weren’t as dramatic as hoped for and top army brass downplayed their impact. But Brigadier General Billy Mitchell was still grimly satisfied when aerial bombing tests devastated two battleships, New Jersey and Virginia, off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, proving the unique value of aerial warfare for future conflicts.

The year 1923 wasn’t the one the derailed Mitchell’s career and ensured lasting historical interest in him—that would come two years later, when he would be court-martialed on grounds of insubordination.

But 1923 set him seething about his pet cause—a unified air force—and how his ambitions and counsels were increasingly disregarded by what he saw as a backward top brass unappreciative of his efforts.

In August 1923, Mitchell, then assistant chief of the Army Air Service, demonstrated to the public “the size and strength of the air fleet” by having 18 bomber planes fly from Maine down the East Coast, executing potential wartime maneuvers.

In the fall, he would be sent on an inspection tour of the Pacific, leading to his prophetic report that defenses in the region—including at Pearl Harbor—would be vulnerable to a surprise air attack.

But in between, in September, Mitchell’s call for a bombing test against two battleships was granted, though not with the rigor he desired. The New Jersey and Virginia were stripped out and with minimal watertight integrity, hardly like Mitchell’s wish for the “sturdiest ships to be scrapped with steam up and magazines filled.”

In due course, Virginia sank and New Jersey was severely damaged. Siding with the Navy, Army Chief of Staff John Pershing issued a statement that, because the vessels were “obsolete,” the tests should not be considered “conclusive evidence that similar bombs would sink modern types of battleships.”

But the tests—coming two years after the bombing of the captured German battleship Ostfriesland, by the First Provisional Air Brigade under Mitchell's command—garnered considerable press coverage.

He felt encouraged to press his case for a “Department of National Defense…with a staff common to all the services” and with “subsecretaries for the Army, Navy and the Air Force.” It would take more than two decades, until after WWII, for that reform to be adopted.

If Mitchell’s superiors in the Army and War Department hoped Pershing’s statement would effectively muzzle the ambitious airman, they should have known better. Mitchell was never the type to accept being told what he couldn’t do.

The 25-year Amy veteran’s flight service alone testified to his refusal to be cowed into submission. As WWI dragged on in Europe, he prepared for the U.S. entry into the conflict by paying for his own lessons at a civilian flying school, waving off suggestions that he held too high a rank (at that time, major) and was too old (37) to undergo flight training. 

Mitchell came out of the war with a brigadier general’s ranking, public adulation as a hero and leader in a fledgling military unit, and the firm belief that he was best qualified to lead this new element of American arms. But he had to make do with a position as deputy of the air service because of his tactlessness and willingness to use connections from his father’s time as a U.S. Senator.

When even the term for that position wasn’t renewed, Mitchell had to accept a transfer away from the DC spotlight and out to San Antonio, while reverting to his permanent rank of colonel.

A pair of accidents in 1925 involving the sinking of the airship Shenandoah and an unsuccessful flight from the U.S. to Hawaii led Mitchell to make his fateful statement that they had resulted from “the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the navy and war departments.”

Late that year, Mitchell was found guilty at his court-martial for his remarks. Rather than accept his sentence, a five-year suspension, he quit the army early in 1926 and sought to promote his views as a civilian, with steadily declining success, until his death in 1936.

One of the most far-sighted but polarizing officers in the history of the U.S. Army, Mitchell also serves as an excellent case study in how Americans prefer their heroes without contradictions or flaws. 

Would a less abrasive, less headstrong leader have pushed his vision for the air force further along? On the other hand, would a less brilliant theorist have foreseen the eventual shape of the U.S. Air Force or a reorganized Defense Department? We will never know.

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