Bombers Against Battleships

Feb. 1, 1959

Memories of a day at sea off Cape Hatteras in late 1923 come back to me now and again as I read of the dizzying evolution of modern weaponry.

Events that day accurately and ominously forecast the military history to be lived during the following quarter century. Now that quarter century itself is past — but perhaps we can still learn a lesson in principle from that September day in the near long ago.

I saw two US battleships go down that day. The Virginia and New Jersey were already obsolete at the time. Yet the era’s top military leadership, both Army and Navy, still maintained, at least in public, that aerial bombing could do them and their class of vessel little harm.

Billy Mitchell, a brigadier general and assistant chief of the Air Service, personally led Army Air Corps bombers to a test attack on the two ships that day. Ironically, as the two old battlewagons sank beneath the waves, Mitchell himself had passed a point of no return in his personal fortunes. Two years later his bitter opposition triumphed and Mitchell was court-martialed.

I watched the sinkings from the observer ship, the Army transport St. Mihiel. The action out front was by the Air Service. The Navy handled the running commentary.

Before embarking on the St. Mihiel, we were told that the test was to be entirely an Army Air Service show. But, oddly, the decks were awash with personable young officers of the surface Navy greeting correspondents and congressmen as we sailed down the Potomac. We found ourselves organized in groups under their tutelage. The relatively few Air Service officers on board remained silent for the most part.

The ranking naval person on board was Rear Adm. W. R. Shoemaker, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, who was known for his low regard for aviators. He believed 750 pilots would take care of all naval aviation needs and that flying pay ought to be cut to ten percent of base pay. Admiral Shoemaker had come aboard with something up his gold-encrusted sleeve. Gen. John J. Pershing, also no great admirer of his Air Service, was the senior Army representative aboard. The two top rankers were quite cordial to each other during the short voyage.

Word had been passed that Maj. Gen. Mason M. Patrick, then Chief of the Air Service, and generally a supporter of Mitchell’s views, would brief correspondents before the tests in the wardroom of the St. Mihiel. We waited expectantly as General Patrick produced notes from a briefcase, not noticing the quiet entrance of General Pershing behind him.

General Patrick began with the statement that differences existed between the Army and Navy on the vulnerability of armed ships to bombs. What the rest of his briefing would have been, no one ever will know. Before he could continue, General Pershing interrupted with:

“What General Patrick is telling you is that his Air Service is having some target practice.”

Somewhat surprised, General Patrick looked up, then got to his feet and saluted.

“Yes,” he said, “the Air Service is having target practice.” He stuffed his papers back into his briefcase, and the session ended with whispers among the audience.

The Virginia and New Jersey, 16,000-ton sister ships launched in 1905, were obsolescent by 1917. Their entire war service had been limited to training engine crews. Their Krupp armor varied from three-inch deck plates to eleven-inch reinforcement amidships, each hull divided into two compartments. Their towering twin cage-masts and triple smokestacks looked ancient even in 1923, but our Navy mentors assured us the dreadnoughts remained unsinkable by aerial bombs.

Eight planes, each carrying two 600-pound bombs, launched the first attack against the New Jersey. The first four bombs missed widely, but the fifth detonated near enough for its geyser to wash the decks, causing no apparent damage. Then came a direct hit. A dense black cloud with a heart of red flame arose forward. Everyone watched anxiously as the pall lifted. Topside everything appeared unchanged aboard the New Jersey. Rooters on both sides were tense as three less spectacular hits were noted among more bad misses. As the eight-plane aerial formation disappeared to the east, the score stood at four hits among the sixteen bombs dropped.

“Her paint hasn’t been scratched,” our Navy press officer said when the smoke lifted. An air officer ventured that the New Jersey appeared to be settling slightly at the stern. The Navy man added that ship antiaircraft would have blasted the formation from the sky before a single comb could have been dropped. He also insisted that in a real situation the ships could have maneuvered to avoid all of the four bombs that hit.

After a short interval a second formation appeared. Eight more dual winged Martin planes, each carrying a one-ton bomb and flying at 6,000 feet, appeared overhead. That represented about their limit in altitude with maximum load. Six of the next eight big bombs missed the New Jersey widely. But two burst close alongside. Partisans stared intently through their binoculars.

“That list is increasing. She’s had it,” judged one air optimist. “From here the entire deck is slanting toward me. I can even see the tops of the cage-masts.”

“Bunk,” snapped the Navy man. “In ten minutes her list hasn’t increased one degree. Those close ones may have loosened a plate or two, but she’s still sound from bow to stern otherwise.”

Meanwhile, the first formation had rearmed at an advance base on Pimlico Sound. The morning was almost gone before they returned with 1,100-pound bombs, flying at only 3,000 feet.

The Virginia was now the target. The bombardiers were doing better. A sighting bomb fell close and the next was a near miss. The target rolled violently as the waterspout rose and fell. The third was a direct hit amidships. An ominous black cloud obscured all details of hull and deck. From the cloud fringes metal debris shot into the sea.

Then slowly the dark curtain lifted to reveal a dramatic picture. Cage-masts and funnels alike lay almost level along the deck like reeds before a gale.

The next two bombs were near misses. The Virginia’s list increased abruptly.

“You civilians don’t know the punishment a battlewagon can take,” said our Navy mentor, with the patience of a teacher dealing with a backward class. “After Jutland, Admiral Beatty’s flagship came in drawing forty feet of water and the bow was ten feet under water. The Virginia right now can get back to port under her own power. Remember, her forward and aft guns sill can fire. She is listing, but that’s because her deck wreckage is piled on one side. With a crew aboard, she’d be cleared by now.”

Our informant continued in that vein as the St. Mihiel steamed toward the distressed ship. Nearly alongside, the transport had to veer away sharply. The crippled ship was about to sink. Moments later she overturned in one great lunge. There was only a brief glimpse of her keel ranged skyward. Then slowly she slid stern first beneath the waves. Thirty minutes had passed since the first bomb fell. Soon a mass of bubbles rose to mark her resting place. The Virginia dead, the morning ended with a smoke-screen demonstration by an Air Service plane. Still afloat was the New Jersey, silhouetted defiantly in a nearly upright position.

Elsewhere on the St. Mihiel messages between Admiral Shoemaker and Washington went back and forth. A plan to rob the Air Service of the headlines announcing its triumph was moving forward.

At that moment, in a giant hangar at Lakehurst, NJ, reposed a recently completed rigid airship, which had been built from modified blueprints of a Zeppelin captured intact in France at the close of Would War I. The new airship, to be christened Shenandoah, was the first rigid ever-built in America. For several days before weather had favored its trial flights, but it had not been moved out of its hangar. As the Virginia went down, the barometer at Lakehurst was beginning to fall. Conditions were not ideal for a maiden flight of an unproved aircraft, but certainly a successful demonstration would capture newspaper headlines the next day. And naval publicity minds correctly reasoned that a Shenandoah flight would grab those headlines in a big way.

But headlines or not, the test proceeded.

The weather was closing in more rapidly as the second aerial formation appeared on the horizon to resume attack on the New Jersey from about 3,000 feet, again armed with 1,100-pounders. Only three bombs looked at all effective out of eight dropped. The best was a detonation close alongside that sent a familiar water tower over the deck.

A few minutes later five more planes flew across the darkening horizon. The leading plane was Billy Mitchell’s. Four Martins followed at 4,000 to 5,000 feet, again loaded with one-ton bombs. Obviously the quartet represented a last chance. If it failed, the Navy would call for gunfire to sink the New Jersey before dark.

The first bomb fell close alongside, its geyser pouring water across the slanted deck. The next was another near miss. What seemed a long interval passed as the next plane twice crossed the target. The bombardier was making sure. Then his bomb detonated within the hull, shooting up a telltale flash of red and black doom. The New Jersey heaved in agony.

“That was a lucky shot,” exclaimed a voice nearby.

“The bomb must have gone right through the grating over the boiler room.”

The dying ship was now listing fast. Soon it gracefully executed half a barrel roll, showing us a red, encrusted bottom, as had the Virginia. She started down, stern first, with a sliding motion, and soon was out of sight.

The St. Mihiel stood alongside. Six minutes had elapsed since the burst within the hull.

On the sail back home the Navy pressman conducted a review of all we had been taught. He was a likable and polite person, and I felt concern for him. He obviously sincerely believed that what had happened couldn’t have happened.

Meanwhile, ironically, the Shenandoah publicity coup succeeded only in degree. Before presses began to roll the next morning, news of the great Japanese earthquake flooded city rooms. But the Shenandoah flight still topped what seemed to be the less dramatic story of battleships sunk by bombs.

That was thirty-five years ago. And now we are on the threshold of the space age.

The author, Samuel Taylor Moore, has served in three wars, retiring as an AF colonel in 1953. He covered the Mexican punitive expedition in 1916 as a newsman, then became a balloon pilot and commander of the 7th Balloon Company in France in World War I. He also served in the CBI and, more recently, in Korea. Now a free-lance writer, he has done sever articles for this magazine in the past.