Thursday, September 9, 2021

George Bancroft: Invisible Giant

By Dr. Ira R. Hanna
HRNM Volunteer

History is about people. Everyone has heard of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. Yet there are many who helped to shape American culture but remain relatively unknown. Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books provides fascinating biographies of some of these consequential figures. The chapter on George Bancroft provides some interesting connections to U.S. naval history. Bancroft was the first consequential American historian as well as a political boss, cabinet officer, diplomat, presidential ghostwriter, parlor radical, and bon vivant.
Invisible Giants
The first of Bancroft’s ten-volume History of the United States of America was published in 1864, the last in 1884. In 1885, he was elected president of the fledgling American Historical Association. Bancroft strongly believed that the nation had survived several trials and had a bright future. His writings implied that the voice of the people (their vote) was the voice of God.

Bancroft was the eighth of the thirteen children of Aaron Bancroft. He was very precocious and entered Harvard University at the age of 13. He graduated with honors and was offered a scholarship to study at Georgia Augusta University in Gottingen, Germany. In 1820, he was awarded a Doctorate of History, then returned to America and taught history at Harvard. Soon afterwards, he married Sarah Dwight, daughter of a prominent merchant/banker. Unfortunately, she died after the birth of their third child. In 1838 he married Elizabeth Bliss, a widow. During that time, as Collector of Customs of the Port of Boston, he helped form a Democratic Party “machine” in Boston that still exists today. In 1845, Bancroft was a leading figure in the Baltimore Democratic National Convention that nominated James K. Polk. When elected president, Polk rewarded Bancroft by nominating him to be Secretary of the Navy. During his short tenure as SecNav, Bancroft did two things for which Americans should be eternally grateful.
George Bancroft (National Portrait Gallery)
First, Bancroft supported the Mexican War and sent American ships to secure California ports from Mexican disruptions. This was partially responsible for California and Texas becoming states. Secondly, Bancroft realized that the Navy needed competent officers who were technically trained and understood how best to use the new steam-powered ships. He determined that the best way to do that was to combine the several naval schools into one that could keep up with the new technology as well as strategies to best use it. In 1845, he authorized the construction of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which has proven to do that exceedingly well.

After only 18 months as SecNav, Polk offered Bancroft the Ambassadorship to Great Britain. There, he laid the groundwork for England’s support during the Civil War. He also served as Ambassador to Prussia during the term of Republican president Ulysses S. Grant. Bancroft wrote speeches for Stephen Douglas in 1860 and Andrew Johnson in 1866. His own writings formed the core of the Democratic Party’s platform that lasted for over forty years.

Although Bancroft criticized Lincoln when he was first elected, he changed his mind as the Civil War progressed. He agreed with emancipation in 1862 and voted for Lincoln in 1864 although he was still a Democrat. In February 1866, Bancroft gave a eulogy for Lincoln before the House of Representatives.

George Bancroft died in 1891 at the age of 90. John Adams was president when he was born and Theodore Roosevelt attended his memorial service. Of the many unrecognized persons in American history, Bancroft certainly deserves not only to be mentioned in our history books, but given a prominent place.

Reference:
Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur. "George Bancroft." Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books, edited by Mark Carnes. Oxford University Press, 2002, pp.23-31.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Establishing Control: The Environmental Transformation of Sewell's Point

By Alec Bright
HRNM Volunteer

Naval Station Norfolk (NSN) is now a sprawling 3,400-acre complex with over 50 buildings; however, 100 years ago, in 1921, it was in its infancy, with a mere 474 acres to its name. Only 20 years before that, Sewell’s Point, the peninsula on which NSN sits, was largely undeveloped land. So, how did Sewell’s Point become what it is today? Sewell’s Point would undergo an environmental transformation for the Jamestown Exposition and the 300th anniversary of the arrival of British settlers to North America. Eighty thousand plants and trees were brought in to populate the once swampy area. The entirety of Lake Sanford was drained. The early efforts of the Exposition planners proved to the Navy the possibility of shaping a landscape to suit their own needs. Less than ten years after the Exposition, the Navy purchased the land on Sewell’s Point and began development, which continued for the next 100+ years, into the present day. In a sense, this is the story of how Naval Station Norfolk was created from the ground up.

Above is a map of the Jamestown Exposition Fairgrounds. Created by William H. Lee, a cartographer, the map was included in a pamphlet given to Exposition visitors. (Theodore Roosevelt Center)
Many already know the story of Admiral’s Row, the famous Jamestown Exposition homes where flag officers now live on base; however, few consider why or how this location came to be the Navy’s home in the mid-Atlantic. While the geographic importance of Hampton Roads was well known, as proven by all navies during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Sewell’s Point, named after an early British settler, had largely been overlooked before the early 20th century. Apart from a small Confederate outpost, a waterfront hotel, and some hunting land, the peninsula had been left in its natural state. In 1903, when the site selection committee for the Jamestown Exposition chose Sewell’s Point for the World’s Fair, they did so to fulfill the Virginia’s General Assembly request that the fair be “held at some place adjacent to the waters of Hampton Roads whereon all navies of all nations may rendezvous.”[1]

Overseen by W.H. Manning, an experienced landscape designer, the transformation began in January 1905 with the removal of dense vines and shrubs from the 400-acre lot. From February to April 1905, local companies removed pine trees on the fairgrounds, replacing them with 30,000 willow trees. By May 23, 1905, the entire 100-acre lake, Lake Sanford, had been completely drained. Tributaries of nearby Bush Creek were also drained to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds and provide more space for Exposition buildings. Although some parts of the existing environment were left for viewers to enjoy the “natural beauty of the land,” they were sparse.

After a report on flood mitigation techniques from Manhattan, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, and Atlantic City, the board of directors agreed to construct bulkheads and jetties on Sewell’s Point. A system of fast-draining pipes and stilts raised buildings above the marshy waterline on the western part of the fairgrounds and mitigated the mosquito problem. These jetties and other anti-flood protections were drawn into the Exposition’s building plans.
An image taken in 1909 of the two piers build at the end of Sewell’s Point for the Exposition; known as the “Godspeed” and “Susan Constant” piers. (Wikimedia Commons)
When the Navy came looking for a home in the mid-Atlantic for the upcoming war in Europe, it was known that this land could be tamed. W.H. Manning, his crew, and the rest of those involved in the Jamestown Exposition had morphed a small, rough forest into an urban center suited to host both ships and people. Over the next 100 years, the Navy would face many more challenges in maintaining its control over Sewell’s Point. However, after adding more than 2,900 acres to the naval station, the Navy continues to demonstrate willingness and ability to form the landscape to suit its needs in the area.

Circled are some of the remaining buildings from the Jamestown Exposition, Admirals Row. Today, these houses are occupied by Navy flag officers. (Google Earth)

Notes:
[1] Charles Keiley, ed., The Official Blue Book of the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, A.D. 1907: The Only Authorized History of the Celebration (Norfolk, VA: The Colonial Publishing Company, 1909), 37.


Thursday, August 19, 2021

Before Electric Light: Ships’ Lanterns in the HRNM Collection, Part 2

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

Front view of Signal Lantern from HMAS Australia, manufactured in 1912 (William Clarkson)
Communicating at sea can be difficult in the best conditions, but what did Sailors do before the integration of electricity and radio into a ship’s infrastructure? Crews utilized many methods of passing messages, one of which was oil burning signal lanterns. The lantern pictured above is the second from the museum’s collection to be featured in our look into lighting before electricity and is used for signaling other ships and observers. Communicating with light sources continues today with electric signal lamps, but the fundamentals of their use began with fuel-burning lanterns.
Rear view of Signal Lantern from HMAS Australia, showing the adjustment port and key-tool, as well as instruction panel (William Clarkson)
Produced in Birmingham, England by Griffiths and Brown Ltd in 1912, this copper and brass lantern was hand made for use by the Australian Navy. Standing about 20.5” inches tall and approximately 10” in diameter, a series of fins that acts as a shutter sits behind the thick glass lens. The shutter is attached to an exterior flipper that when toggled produces short or long flashes of light, or visible Morse code. The lantern opens via a sliding door on the rear and reveals a removable fuel tank and burner which, when removed, provides access to the shutter and lens. The rear of the lantern also includes a keyhole, allowing for regulation of the flame inside. The lantern is affixed with a stamped plate instructing, “Suspend lantern when in use, if vessel is rolling through a total arc of more than 20 degrees,” a reminder of the realities and dangers of seafaring.
Letter certifying this lantern was taken from HMAS Australia (William Clarkson)
HRNM’s collection also includes a letter, dated 11 November 1942, certifying that this lantern was retrieved from His Majesty’s Australian Ship Australia, prior to its scuttling in 1924. The letter is signed by a Mr. Brewster of the Royal Australian Naval Store Depot at Darling Island, Sydney. In the letter, Mr. Brewster makes a point of mentioning that HMAS Australia was scuttled in accordance with the Washington Disarmament Agreement of 1922-23, an agreement to prevent a naval arms race after the First World War. He states at the close of his letter, “The Governments of the World, at that time, thought that this procedure was in the Cause of Peace. DIIS ALITER VISUM!! (The Gods thought otherwise).” The letter’s envelope, also in our collection, is printed with the words “Hand Message,” and “On His Majesty’s Service,” providing a nice reminder that the message inside is an official missive of a foreign government.
Envelope from the lantern's donation (William Clarkson)
This lantern saw use aboard HMAS Australia, an Indefatigable-class battlecruiser commissioned in 1913. It served as the Australian Navy’s first flagship. HMAS Australia saw action during the First World War, in both the Pacific and Atlantic, but was absent from the Battle of Jutland, as the ship was in port undergoing repair after a collision with HMAS New Zealand. After the end of the war, HMAS Australia returned to its namesake nation and was scuttled in 1924 off Sydney Heads, near Sydney, Australia.
HMAS Australia, undated (Australian Navy)
Even with the advent of new technologies at the turn of the 20th century, older and tested methods, like oil-burning signal lanterns, remained in use throughout navies across the globe for years to come. Such devices were kept and maintained as redundancies in case of equipment failure, ensuring that communications and operations could continue. Artifacts like this lantern serve as a window into bygone eras, as well as reminders that the skills honed by past Sailors are still with us, in many cases with few, if any, changes.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Before Electric Light: Ships’ Lanterns in the HRNM Collection, Part 1

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

Front view of Masthead or ‘Steaming’ Lantern now in HRNM’s collection (William Clarkson)
Lanterns have been in use on ships for thousands of years, both for providing vision, and preventing collisions at sea. Today, electric lights fill this roll, and are employed in standard practice with strict protocols. Before the transition to electricity, lanterns came in many sizes shapes and styles, and used many fuel sources, including whale oil and later, kerosene. In an oil-burning lantern, a wick is partially suspended into the fuel tank, and the exposed portion of the wick is lit. The flame causes the oil to be carried up through the saturated wick, keeping it burning without destroying the wick’s material. The masthead, or ‘steaming’ lantern, pictured above and below, is part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's collection and is a fine example of this fuel-based lighting.

Rear view of lantern. Notice the access door at lower right, allowing for adjustment of the flame and brightness.
(William Clarkson)
Produced in 1914/15 by the Telford Grier and Mackay Company in Glasgow, Scotland, this lantern is hand made with copper, brass, and a glass lens. It measures 12 inches in diameter and 22 inches tall, weighing approximately 35 pounds. The exhaust cylinder atop the lantern is stamped “1914,” while the sliding back plate is stamped “1915,” along with the serial number C1154. Metal rings are attached to the side of the lantern to secure it to the foremast during ship operations. It is important to note that a lantern like this one is not used to provide visibility for Sailors on the ship; rather, it is meant to help other vessels identify the ship’s presence and heading in low visibility conditions. A masthead lantern could be placed anywhere along the fore and aft centerline of larger vessels, provided it shows unbroken light and is visible in an arc from right ahead, as well as at an angle from either side of the ship.
Diagram of Queen Elizabeth-class ships, showing the position of a masthead lantern at the foremast and orientation of visibility off the port and starboard from ahead (Wikipedia)

Packing note from 1945, showing provenance for this lantern as being from the HMS Queen Elizabeth (William Clarkson)
Accompanying this lantern is a packing note dated December 18th, 1945, identifying it as a ‘steaming’ lantern from His Majesty’s Ship Queen Elizabeth, a ‘Fast Battleship’ in the Royal Navy. It certifies that the lantern was transferred in one case (with measurements), from an officer of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington DC, where it likely ended up after removal from HMS Queen Elizabeth, during the ship’s repair and upgrade at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard between 1942-1943.
HMS Queen Elizabeth as seen June 1943 after repair and overhaul at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Completed in 1915, HMS Queen Elizabeth saw action in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, providing shore bombardment during an attempt to force the straits. From there it joined the Grand Fleet in the Atlantic, but was absent from the battle of Jutland while undergoing minor repairs. HMS Queen Elizabeth served as the Atlantic Fleet’s flagship until 1924. After a refit, HMS Queen Elizabeth joined the Mediterranean fleet in 1941, where it was mined by Italian forces in December, off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. From here Queen Elizabeth was transported to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia, for a year and a half of repairs. During this time, the ship was upgraded to electric lighting systems, and the lantern now in HRNM’s collection was removed. After returning to service in the Pacific until the end of World War Two, HMS Queen Elizabeth was sold for scrap in 1948.

While HMS Queen Elizabeth was not part of the United States Navy, the lantern now in HRNM’s collection gives us a glimpse at what contemporary U.S. vessels might have used. It also provides us with the opportunity to admire a bit of skilled handcraft in an age of automated production. Lastly, it allows us to connect with navies and Sailors around the globe, whose experiences at sea are often universal.


Thursday, July 29, 2021

Beans, Bullets, Black Oil, and Drink Cups: Fleet Logistic Support in the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USN (Ret.)
HRNM Docent and Contributing Writer

In the early evening of October 5th, 1962, Ensign Michael Mulford, Officer of the Deck (OOD) aboard USS Altair (AKS 32) set course for home, beginning a 12-day Atlantic crossing from Rota, Spain to the Naval Operating Base (NOB) at Norfolk, Virginia. After a brief preparation, Altair would sail to Boston for a periodic overhaul. The venerable ship had been permanently forward deployed to the Mediterranean since 1956, home ported at Barcelona, Spain and Naples, Italy. It returned to the United States only occasionally for periodic overhauls. On October 14th, at 2:20 A.M., three days before the ship reached Norfolk, Major Richard Heyser, USAF, left Edwards Air Force Base in a U-2 ”spy plane” for a photographic mission. Seven hours later, he overflew Cuba at 72,500 feet and made photographs of Soviet missile sites being constructed at San Cristobal. On October 16th, as Altair neared its destination, President John F. Kennedy and senior leaders were briefed at the White House on the unsettling news disclosed in photographs made during the overflight noted above.[i] When the discovery was announced by the President in a nationwide television address on October 22nd, it shocked United States citizens and the world. Now there was the possibility that Soviet forces could launch missile attacks against cities throughout the western hemisphere. The planned Boston overhaul for Altair and its crew was postponed. It would instead perform critically important duty in a watershed operation, the quarantine of Cuba, both to prevent further buildup and force the removal of the equipment surreptitiously introduced.

This map indicates the range of the missiles placed in Cuba. (Kennedy Presidential Library)
The ship was moored in Norfolk from the 17th until the 29th of October, and activities were generally uneventful.[ii] Apart from official deck log entries, other events occurred. Soon after arrival, Ensign Bob Rati and another officer went to supper and stopped at a bar outside gate two. As they had a beer, a Sailor entered and called out that Enterprise was, “recalling all crew members to the ship.” He remembered that the next morning, the ship was gone.[iii] Response to the Soviet steps was in motion, unbeknownst to most citizens. He noted a clear increase in activity. A nearby transport ship was embarking Marines, and he saw a submarine behind Altair proceeding seaward. He observed jet aircraft taking off in rapid succession headed in a southerly direction. Though not familiar with Norfolk operations, he noted that “this was surely a busy place.” It was announced by Press Secretary Pierre Salinger that President Kennedy would address the nation on a matter of national importance on live television.
USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (DD 850) stops Lebanese freighter SS Marucla on October 26, 1962. No contraband was found, and Marucla was permitted to proceed to Cuba. (NHHC)
The remainder of the in port period was spent in loading cargo and otherwise preparing for deployment. Monday, October 29th was a clear, mild day in Norfolk with gentle winds from the west. At 10 A.M. the ship’s company began preparations for getting underway. About an hour later, Altair was underway for operations in accordance with Commander Service Force Atlantic Fleet Order 62-65 to carry out logistic support of a massive show of force to counter the bold, clandestine Soviet threat.[iv] During the initial portion of the trip, the crew conducted General Quarters and Abandon Ship drills.[v]

Altair reached Jacksonville on Halloween morning, negotiated St. John’s Channel and by 11:02 A.M. was moored to pier D-3 at Mayport Naval Station with other Atlantic Fleet Units. Activity increased with the November 7th arrival of a detachment of Helicopter Utility Squadron Four from NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, with its aircraft. By 10:01 A.M. November 10th, Altair was underway from Mayport Naval Station to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The transit was used, among other things, to practice helicopter operating procedures for Vertical Replenishment, known as VERTREP, a key aspect of logistic support.[vi] This portion of the cruise terminated at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on November 13th, where the ship stopped briefly. Altair was to be a “one stop shop” for commodities other than black oil and ammunition, carried by other logistic support ships.

The Quarantine force was embarked in ships on the northern flank of Cuba, and Altair and other replenishment ships were positioned on the southern flank of the island where Bob Rati recalls that the first ship seen was USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and, “now we knew why she had left Norfolk in such a hurry.” Leaving Guantanamo, Altair reached Kingston, Jamaica, on the 14th, and after a short stop left for underway fleet operational support that began early on the 15th and continued at a high pace until October 18th. In this brief period, Altair replenished USS Enterprise, USS Independence (CVA 62), and USS Iwo Jima (LPH 2), 13 destroyer types, and 9 amphibious vessels. It steamed to Vieques on the east coast of Puerto Rico and replenished ships of Amphibious Squadron One, whose Commander was embarked in USS El Dorado (AGC 1). The upshot of the cruise was that the combatant units were sustained in a timely manner. The variety and home ports of the ships replenished demonstrate the power of the U.S. Navy response to the Soviet provocation.
Helicopter Utility Squadron Four (HU 4) hooks up a load to replenish Task Force ships, October 1962. (Courtesy of Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Stephen W. Woody, USN)
One situation, amusing in retrospect, that underscored Altair’s commitment to providing responsive customer service emerged. According to Bob Rati, there was "wardroom chatter that the amphibious transport ships had exhausted supplies of drink cups for soda vending machines." Moreover, "there were none in Altair stocks." There was some discussion of a course of action. The highest administrative message category, PRIORITY, was selected to seek support from CONUS (Continental United States), and a logistics flight was arranged to resolve the problem. The discussion reminded him of how dangerous the situation was. Rati remembers, “We were determined to deliver the supplies that were needed, including those drink cups.” It called for confirmation of the cups’ arrival, and he was selected to “do the confirming.”[vii] He went to a nearby amphibious transport, sat in a place where a drink machine was visible and watched it in action, dispensing sodas into the newly-arrived cups.
Altair's ship patch
With underway replenishment and VERTREP duties concluded, Altair left for San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it arrived on November 21st, one day after quarantine operations were suspended. The ship remained in port until November 23rd when at 8:49 A.M., it was underway to return to Norfolk. The transit was routine. Pilots met the ship on the morning of the 29th and brought it to the pier from which it had departed 30 days before.[viii] Altair remained in port for about the next 30 days. The period was routine, in preparation for the long-delayed overhaul.

In the log for the Midwatch of January 1, 1963, the Officer of the Deck, Master at Arms First Class B.R. Apple, lamented the plight of the onboard watch standers on New Year’s Eve/Day. After giving the required data in poetry, he noted that, “We’re sailing soon with liberty none, But when in Boston we’ll have our fun.”[ix]

One crewman, a Boiler Technician 3rd Class, perhaps anticipating the impending hijinks, got an early start and was brought back to the ship by the Shore Patrol “in a state of marked intoxication, without an ID or Liberty Card, loudly “cursing those who apprehended him.”[x] On January 2, 1963, at 7:07 A.M., Altair got underway for Boston, though the ship’s departure was slowed by ”removal and transfer of hand grenades to a Covered Lighter (YF) that came alongside.” Two days later by 8:09 A.M., Altair was moored to pier 1 of the Bethlehem Steel Company, ready to begin the long-delayed overhaul deferred by response the Cuban Missile Crisis, a situation of national importance and urgency.


Notes:
[i] Thirteen Days, A memoir of the Cuban missile crisis, Robert F. Kennedy, W.W. Norton and Company, New York/London, 1968, 1-8. This group was named “The Executive Committee.”
[ii] Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Midwatch, 0151 and following, Record Group 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel 1798-2007, National Archives and Records Administration.
[iii] Letter of former Lieutenant (jg) Bob Rati, USN to the author dated March 13, 2021. The letter also refers to the general level of activity at the naval base.
[iv] Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Forenoon watch, 1057, October 29, 1962
[v] Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Afternoon watch, 1300-1332, October 29, 1962
[vi] Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Forenoon and Afternoon watches, 0836-1220, November 11, 1962
[vii] See again, endnote vi above.
[viii]
Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Forenoon watch, 0732-0744, November 29, 1962. At 0804 Lieutenant (jg) Long and other members of Detachment 90 of Helicopter Squadron Four departed the ship enroute to its home station.
[ix] The Officer of the Deck by tradition writes the first entry of the New Year in poetry. The portion of the Altair log is given exactly as it appears.
[x] Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Midwatch, 0237, January 1, 1963

Thursday, July 15, 2021

100 Years Later: The Ostfriesland Test and the Rising Popularity of Air Power

By Laura Orr
HRNM Director of Education

General William "Billy" Mitchell (U.S. Army)
At the turn of the twentieth century, many U.S. admirals believed that planes could never sink a ship. To them, the very idea of devoting a portion of the Navy’s budget to airpower seemed laughably unsound. However, in 1921, U.S. Army General William “Billy” Mitchell taught the Navy’s naysayers that airpower forged the future of human warfare. From June 21 to July 21, Mitchell led a team of pilots from the U.S. Army Air Service in a bombing test against five target ships: USS Iowa, an old U.S. battleship converted to a radio-controlled target ship; G-102, a captured German destroyer; a German light cruiser, Frankfurt; a submarine, U-117; and the German battleship Ostfriesland. The results of the “Ostfriesland tests” stood the world on its head. Mitchell and his fliers sank all of the German vessels, including the Ostfriesland.

For years, high-ranking American admirals argued that airplanes would never revolutionize combat. Battleships, they said, would always be the Navy’s future. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Benson commented, “I cannot conceive of any use that the fleet will ever have for aircraft. . . . The Navy doesn’t need airplanes. Aviation is just a lot of noise.” Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels agreed. He also derided Mitchell’s plan, saying, “I would be glad to stand bareheaded on the deck or at the wheel of any battleship while Mitchell tried to take a crack at me from the air. If he ever tries to aim bombs on the decks of naval vessels, he will be blown to atoms long before he gets close enough to drop salt on the tail of the Navy.”

Mitchell aimed to prove the battleship establishment wrong publicly. His testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in January 1921 led to two Congressional resolutions forcing the Navy to provide the targets for Mitchell’s weapons tests. The admirals did not want to conduct the tests, but they also did not want to appear obstructionist to the wishes of Congress. Confident that even a decrepit battleship could withstand a few hits, the admirals believed the tests could be used to observe the type of damage bombs might cause.

The Navy greatly restricted the manner in which the Air Service pilots could conduct their attacks. The pilots could not use aerial torpedoes or score more than two hits with their heaviest 2,000-pound bombs. This latter restriction did not matter to Mitchell, however. He intended his pilots to avoid direct hits, in favor of near misses, because when the bombs exploded underwater, they would inflict maximum damage on a ship’s hull.
Sailors and dignitaries aboard USS Henderson (AP 1) watch the tests (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Mitchell’s bomb tests would take place in the Atlantic Ocean, fifty miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The dignitaries observing the test didn’t believe that Mitchell’s fliers stood a chance. The German ship Ostfriesland had taken eighteen hits at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, hit a mine on the way back to Germany, and returned to action two months later. In addition to having a four-layer steel hull to protect it from mines and torpedoes, Ostfriesland was divided into separate watertight compartments so it couldn’t be sunk by any single hull breach. As the New York Times reported before the tests, “Naval officers are insisting that the fliers will never sink the Ostfriesland at all.”

Starting on June 21, bombing tests took place against the smaller ships. The German vessels were sunk quickly. The naval officers did not exhibit much concern at these proceedings, as their focus was on the Ostfriesland. The main event took place on July 21, 1921, when six Martin MB-2 biplanes and a Handley-Page O/400 attacked Ostfriesland. Over 300 disbelieving observers watched six bombs strike the water right next to the big ship. At 12:40 P.M., twenty-two minutes after the first bomb fell, Ostfriesland sank. Some of the naval officers had tears in their eyes as Ostfriesland and their devotion to battleships sank beneath the waves. In an instant, the U.S. Navy looked weak and helpless.
Ostfriesland hit during the bombing tests, July 21, 1921 (Wikipedia)
Even so, not everyone was convinced by the result. General John Pershing commented, “These tests against obsolete battleships will not, I hope, be considered as conclusive evidence that similar bombs would sink modern types of battleships.” The Joint Army-Navy Board’s report on the tests noted that the ships were unable to maneuver, employ antiaircraft fire, or conduct damage control. Of course, Mitchell pointed out that his forces suffered the most restrictions. They could not use all the ordnance at their disposal, and they could not inflict more than two direct hits. Moreover, under battle conditions, a loaded battleship would suffer secondary explosions. The Ostfriesland went under through the success of the main attack alone.
A cartoon from the Chicago Tribune showing the differing opinions about the Ostfriesland tests (Chicago Tribune)
Mitchell testified to Congress that the test “demonstrated beyond a doubt that, given sufficient bombing planes—in short an adequate air force—aircraft constitute a positive defense of our country against hostile invasion.” In the following years, Mitchell continued to criticize Army and Navy leaders for their dismissal of airpower. Because of this, in 1925, Mitchell was court martialed for conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. Upon receiving the guilty verdict, he resigned his commission.

But while the Navy and Army were not strongly convinced, both Congress and the general public took Mitchell’s point seriously: aircraft could sink battleships. In the Ostfriesland test’s aftermath, Congress created the Bureau of Aeronautics to manage all aspects of naval aviation. Aircraft would be the future of the U.S. military, as the Second World War confirmed just twenty years later.