Brigadier Gen Billy Mitchell—an outspoken, controversial visionary with a place in OBX history

By on May 27, 2024

Billy Mitchell highway marker on the north end of Hatteras Village. (Kip Tabb/OBV)

Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice

The Billy Mitchell highway sign on the north end of Hatteras Village gives a sense of who Brigadier General Mitchell was. But it does not come even close to telling the full story of a man who, with considerable justification, is considered the father of American air power.

Mitchell was a controversial figure. Brash and outspoken, he had little patience for those who disagreed with him, and it was those qualities that led directly to his court martial for insubordination in 1926.

His connection with the Outer Banks is tenuous, but important. On September 5, 1923, bombers under his command operating from a temporary field near Hatteras sank the battleships USS Virginia and USS New Jersey, dropping 1,100 pound bombs from an altitude of 3,000 feet. In 1921, aircraft under his command sank the German battleship Ostfriesland and the USS Alabama.

Both bombing missions, conducted in the aftermath of WWI and sanctioned by the U.S. military, were designed to test Mitchell’s theory that naval ships could be destroyed by air attacks.

Born in 1879, Mitchell enlisted in the US Army in 1898 hoping to get into the Spanish American War. The war lasted a short time—April to December of 1898 —and he did not see action at that time. It was the beginning, though, of his military career.

Promoted to Captain in the Army’s Signal Corps, he was sent to Alaska in 1901 to build telegraph lines to remote areas of the territory. By all accounts, he was very good at his assignment. It was during that time that Mitchell became interested in flight, and in 1906, just three years after the Wright Brothers first flight, he wrote an essay predicting future wars would be won by the country that controlled the skies.

When the United States entered WWI in April of 1917, Mitchell was a major in the The Signal Corps, which eventually became the Army Air Corps and after WWII, the US Air Force.

Working with French and British allies, he planned massive airstrikes on German lines, learning first and how effective air power could be.

When WWI ended, Mitchell was the most experienced aviator in the Signal Corps ranks. Now a Brigadier General, he believed he was in line to command the nascent but growing air power of the Army. His personality, however, was already rankling superior officers.

“His brash methods and unwillingness to work within the chain of command had alienated his superiors,” the National Museum of the US Air Force wrote in its biography of Mitchell.

But if he was abrasive in person, his theories on air power could not be casually dismissed. Perhaps his most consistent point was that every ship in the US Navy was vulnerable to air attack. Navy brass and military leaders in general, were skeptical.

To test his theory, in 1921 the Ostrriesland a German battleship seized as surplus after the war, was anchored off the coast of Virginia and bombers from Langley Air Force Base under Mitchell’s command sank the supposedly unsinkable ship. The demonstration was somewhat controversial. The National Air and Space Museum notes that it “remains a matter of some controversy to this day.”

Military leaders wanted Mitchell to bomb the ship in a series of attacks, allowing experts to examine damage between attacks. Instead, Mitchell ordered his pilots to throw all their bombs at the ship at once, sinking it in 20 minutes.

Because the results were considered insufficient to prove or disprove Mitchell’s theories, a second test was established, this time off Diamond Shoals, the dangerous waters off the Point at Cape Hatteras.

The two ships selected, the New Jersey and Virginia were sister ships commissioned in 1906. Under the terms of the WWI armistice, they were considered surplus weaponry.

On September 5, 1923, bombers took off from Langley Airfield, 175 miles from the ships. As military brass watched, the first of Mitchell’s bombers arrived, dropping bombs from 10,000 feet followed by a second run from 6,000 feet. Then aircraft from the temporary airfield constructed near Buxton finished the bombing run at 3,000 feet.

The ships were stationary, allowing Naval Command to continue to insist air power could not sink a moving ship that was protecting itself. Nonetheless, the Cape Hatteras bombing runs were important. Mitchell was able to effectively demonstrate that long range bombing was feasible. He had been maintaining for some time that the best defense of the American borders were bombers that could intercept any foreign fleet well before they came close to our shoreline.

“Here, Mitchell, the dashing and flamboyant pilot, is at the controls of an SE–5 pursuit,” author Roger G. Miller wrote in Billy Mitchell Stormy Petrel of the Air. (US Dept. of Defense)
Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. (Photo credit: USAF File photo)
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“Here, Mitchell, the dashing and flamboyant pilot, is at the controls of an SE–5 pursuit,” author Roger G. Miller wrote in Billy Mitchell Stormy Petrel of the Air. (US Dept. of Defense)
Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. (Photo credit: USAF File photo)
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It was also the first time a bombsight was used. Primitive compared to future designs, four of the bombs dropped from 10,000 feet either struck their target or were near misses, proving their effectiveness.

The official report, however, continued to question whether bombing a moving ship in combat conditions could succeed. Mitchell, incensed, battled his superior officers in the Navy, which issued the report and Army, which had acquiesced to it.

In 1925 he was transferred to San Antonio, Texas, as air officer to a ground forces corps. The reassignment was short-lived.

In September of that year, the naval airship Shenandoah crashed in bad weather near Caldwell, Ohio with a loss of 14 lives. Among the dead was the ship’s pilot, Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne, a good friend. It was the third in a series of air disasters that Mitchell felt were preventable.

Mitchell contacted reporters issuing a statement that read, “These accidents are the result of the incompetency, the criminal negligence, and the most treasonable negligence of our national defense by the Navy and War Departments.”

Mitchell asserted that the Shenandoah was a naval airship and had no business being in Ohio among other points he raised. There could be little, doubt, however, that publicly calling his superiors criminal and treasonous crossed the line to insubordination.

His insubordination trial in the fall of 1925 was headline news throughout the nation. Although very popular with the public, Mitchell had burned too many bridges within the military and he was found guilty and sentenced to five years of suspended service at half pay.


The Washington (DC) Times December 18, 1925 following the guilty verdict in Mitchell’s insubordination trial. The headline read “Glory Comes at a High Price.” (Library of Congress, Chronicling America)


Following the verdict, he resigned from the military and entered private life. Mitchell died in 1936 from the flu compounded by a heart condition.

The following sources were used for this article: NC Dept. of Cultural Resources Marker Program (B-32); US Dept. of Defense, Billy Mitchell Stormy Petrel of the Air by Roger G. Miller; National Museum of the US Air Force; National Air and Space Museum. The Library of Congress Chronicling America is an extraordinary collection of digitized newspapers that tells a contemporaneous story of events.



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  • eddie leneave

    His insubordination trial in the fall of 2025 <——————- No words

    Monday, May 27 @ 2:56 pm
  • Linda Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Sorry about that. We fixed.

    Monday, May 27 @ 5:03 pm
  • Obxserver

    The following describes an event in the Japanese campaign on Singapore in December of 1941 that is cited in military history as vindication of Mitchell’s observation that naval vessels without air support were sitting ducks for an aerial attack; “Following the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese landed in northern Malaya on December 8. The Royal Navy battleship, HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, along with four destroyers were sent to attack the invasion force. In the late morning of December 10, after finding no targets, the Royal Navy ships were returning to Singapore and were attacked and sunk by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes. Having no aerial defense, the ships became the first Allied warships sunk by air attack while operating on the high-seas in the Pacific War. ”

    BTW the 2 battleships sunk in the bight ; the USS Virginia and the USS New Jersey were both part of the Great White Fleet of 1906 sent by President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt to circumnavigate the globe in the first worldwide demonstration of the potential global reach of the US military . Seems kinda quaint now.

    Tuesday, May 28 @ 2:44 pm