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Battleships Bombed by Billy Mitchell

by Paul Branch, 2006

See also: Graveyard of the Atlantic

The USS New Jersey after being hit by one of several bombs that sank the ship off the North Carolina coast, 5 Sept. 1923. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.In 1923 two surplus navy battleships were bombed and sunk by aircraft under the command of Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell off Cape Hatteras to determine the effectiveness of air power against heavy surface ships. Mitchell, an outspoken advocate of air power, had demonstrated in 1921 what many naval strategists considered impossible-that battleships could be destroyed from the air-when he used airplanes to sink an old surplus battleship. Two years later, he set up the experiment off Cape Hatteras to determine if battleships could be sunk by high-level bombing and to measure the potential for aircraft being called into combat from long distances to intercept a hostile warship. The target vessels, which were to be scrapped under postwar naval limitation treaties, were the 14,949-ton New Jersey and Virginia, built between 1902 and 1906 at a cost of $6 million each and anchored 18 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras.

The attacks began on the morning of 5 Sept. 1923. While officers and dignitaries watched from another ship, the first planes flew directly into action from Langley Airfield, Va., a distance of 175 miles, demonstrating the feasibility of long-range attack. The remaining planes under Mitchell flew from a temporary airfield on Hatteras. The New Jersey was shelled with 600-pound bombs from 10,000 feet, which left the ship damaged and leaking. The attack then shifted to the Virginia, which was sunk with thirteen 1,100-pound bombs from 3,000 feet in only 30 minutes. That afternoon the planes returned to send the New Jersey to the bottom in only a few minutes.

The experiment proved both the benefit of high-altitude bombing and aircraft long-range strike capability. However, debate over the use of air power against ships continued until World War II conclusively demonstrated the value of air power.


Burke Davis, The Billy Mitchell Story (1969).

Emile Gauvreau and Lester Cohen, Billy Mitchell: Founder of Our Air Force and Prophet without Honor (1942).

William Schwarzer, The Lion Killers: Billy Mitchell and the Birth of Strategic Bombing (2003).


Origin - location: 



The Mitchell bombing "test" was of dubious objective value for many reasons. The "Texas" class dreadnoughts of 1906 were coal burners with a coal bunker design that made any penetration by bomb, torpedo, or mine likely to sink the ship. The major flaw of this design was that coal was difficult to load or to transfer internally--if one boiler was disabled a continuous bunker made it much easier to shift the fuel to where it was needed. However, after 1919 navies rapidly converted to oil in better-segmented tanks. More advantageous yet, oil could be easily pumped around to correct listing or limit fuel to active fires. Lastly, the target ships in the Mitchell demonstration did not have active mobility to dodge bombs, nor the excellent damage control teams that German dreadnoughts during WWI typically exhibited. This not only included many more compartmentalized doors and bulkheads than on Brit and American ships, but significantly larger crews with specialized training and tools to fix battle damage. Very lastly, I really doubt if ANY horizontal bombing run in WWII from above 3000 ft ever hit any major ship that was moving (see Midway.)


What was the name of the North Carolina airfiled that Mitchell flew out of to drop the bombs at ten thousand feet?
Thank you
Daniel C. Kennedy


I believe that the aircraft were Martin M2-Bs.


Again the battle ships needed to be bigger ( much wider)and longer. It also needed smaller and more numerous water tight compartments and deeper draft so even multiple bombs would never reach the magazine. If this had happened we would of seen the entire US fleet engaging one ship and it would of escaped. The design flaws made it fail.


what are the coordinates of the USS Virginia and the USS New Jersey


Dear Randy,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia and sharing this question. I'm going to direct you to the NOAA Office of Coast Survey website for Wrecks and Obstructions. On the home page there is a link to a spreadsheet that lists wreck sites and the geocoordinates.  Here is the link for the spreadsheet:  And here is the link for the web page:

Here is a portion of the data for the USS New Jersey: 

USS NEW JERSEY    Wreck - Submerged, nondangerous    35.03218


And here is a portion of data for the USS Virginia: 

USS VIRGINA    Wreck - Submerged, nondangerous    35.01929 -75.285944

I hope this helps!

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library



Thank you for posting the historical moment! My current Pentagon duties have me considering Air Force innovations and left me wondering 2 Questions:

1) What kind of plane did General Mitchell use when he performed the 1921 bombing? I ask because I suspect "bombers" did not exist, so did they just modify a scout plane, an air-to-air combat plane, a crop duster, or something else?

2) Same question for 1923: Were the high-altitude bombers "newly designed aircraft" or simply basic modifications to some existing airframe?

Thank you!


Hi Brian,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia and sharing your interests and questions.

Unfortunately, NCpedia doesn't have any additional information about the planes used.  You may want to contact a number of the centers for U.S. military history.  Here are a few suggestions:

U.S. Army Center of Military History:

The U.S. Military Academy archives:

You may also want to look a published histories.  Here is a sample search from WorldCat:  WorldCat searches the holdings of libraries all over the world. You can locate books that may be in a library near you (or request a book through interlibrary loan). 

Another thought is to contact curators at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.  I bet someone there has that sort of info at the touch of their fingers!

I hope this helps! Good luck with your research and best wishes,

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library

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