north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     On September 5, 1923, Billy Mitchell, brigadier general of the Army Air Force, proved that battleships were vulnerable to bombing attacks by aircraft. His planes from Virginia’s Langley Field sank two battleships off of the coast of Hatteras. The bombers operated from a temporary airfield that Mitchell built near Hatteras. The battleships, the USS Virginia and USS New Jersey, were among those to be destroyed according to the Naval Limitations Treaty that followed World War I. In thirty minutes, eight planes flying at an altitude of 3,000 feet and deploying thirteen 1100-pound bombs sank the Virginia. Then three Martin bombers dropped three bombs to put the New Jersey under. Two years earlier Mitchell had conducted similar tests off the coast of Virginia, sinking surrendered German vessels and the USS Alabama.

     Although he watched the battleships sink from the Navy transport St. Mihiel, Army Chief of Staff General John J. Pershing did not believe the tests proved that aircraft could sink modern warships and that air power could have the upper hand over naval power. General Mitchell became increasingly critical of his superior’s attitude towards air power until he was court-martialed in December of 1925 for violating the 96th Article of War. He was suspended from the service for five years but resigned in 1926. In a report he submitted after a trip to Japan in 1924 Mitchell predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor. He discussed Japanese expansionist ambitions and his belief that a Pacific War would begin with an attack at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. He wrote, “Attack will be launched as follows: Bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island (Hawaii) at 7:30 A.M..... Attack to be made on Clark Field at 10:40 A.M.” On December 7th, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at 7:55 A.M. and the Philippines’ Clark field at 12:35 P.M. Mitchell’s claims about naval power being vulnerable to air power were ultimately proven true at Pearl Harbor when Japan sank or severely damaged nineteen U.S. warships, including eight battleships. Mitchell died in 1936 and did not live to see his predictions fulfilled. In 1946 Congress posthumously awarded Billy Mitchell a Special Congressional Medal of Honor (the only one of its kind) for his pioneer work in American military aviation.


References:
Emile Gauvreau and Lester Cohen, Founder of Our Air Force and Prophet without Honor (1942)
Medal of Honor Website: http://www.medalofhonor.com/BillyMitchell.htm
Noel Yancey, “The Wings of War,” (Raleigh) Spectator Magazine, July 6, 1988
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Billy Mitchell

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