Following World War 1 (WW1) there were a few early military
aviation leaders who foresaw immense changes in the way future
wars would be fought. These insightful pioneers led a hard and
sometimes bitter struggle in their attempt to convince more traditional
military leaders that air power could drastically change the
value of existing military forces. The military changes they
proposed would have more effect on the world's navies more than
on land forces. These proposals would soon lead to practical
demonstrations whose physical remnants exist today in the form
of ship wrecks off the US Atlantic coast.
America's principal advocate of air power was Brigadier General
Billy Mitchell; his position as Commander, Air Service Group
of Armies placed him in operational command of all allied aircraft
during the last two months of WW1. Billy Mitchell reverted to
his permanent rank of Colonel upon his return to the US in 1919,
he then began a passionate and highly vocal political effort
to convince the Congress, as well as the Army and Navy General
Staffs, that the US needed a unified military air command. Col.
Mitchell believed that the military future of the US was best
served by a structure of three equal military organizations (Army,
Navy, and Air Force) unified under a single cabinet-level Department
of Defense. As part of his early pronouncements Col. Mitchell
stated that no naval vessel was safe from destruction by air
forces. He was extremely critical of the money expended on battleships.
Davis relates (P.67) that Col. Mitchell told congress a single
battleship cost as much as a thousand bombers but could be easily
found and destroyed from the air.
Col. Mitchell, the son of a US Senator, eventually created
enough political and public discussion to force a test of his
theories. A pair of congressional resolutions urging the Navy
to provide targets for Col. Mitchell's bombers could not be ignored.
The Navy responded by proposing a test program to answer the
plane against ship question. The Navy insisted that they conduct
their own tests, the Air Service would participate as an invited
The Navy had eleven German military ships to use in these
tests. These vessels were provided to the US as reparations in
the Treaty of Versailles, and were required to be destroyed or
sunk after examination. Eight of these would eventually be used
as targets in a series of aerial bombing and naval gunfire tests
conducted in the summer of 1921. The aerial tests would be a
series of four attacks against four different ship types. The
Navy, Marine Corps, and Army would alternate in bombing efforts
against a submarine, a destroyer, a cruiser, and a battleship.
The Navy would use surface gunfire to sink two submarines and
two destroyers. The wrecks of these eight ships, along with two
others, have been known since then as "The Billy Mitchell
Col. Mitchell's bombers shocked the Navy with their effectiveness
against these first four targets. He used his political gain
to acquire three more targets, all battleships, which would be
transferred to Army control. The Army Air Service would be the
sole attacking force in this second set of tests. The Limitation
of Armaments Treaty that followed WW1 forced the Navy to destroy
a number of capital ships. The Army was provided with the remnants
of Theodore Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet" for bombing
practice. The first ship sunk was the USS Alabama, in Chesapeake
Bay. This wreck was later raised for scrap and no longer exists.
The USS New Jersey and USS Virginia were sunk in 1923, they are
also included in "The Billy Mitchell Wrecks".
Col. Mitchell's strategic vision allowed him to predict many
of the major accomplishments of military aircraft in World War
II (WW2). He wrote reports in late 1923 that accurately described
the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. His
reports contained estimates of German and Japanese aircraft production
that greatly exceeded other intelligence analyses. These reports,
not declassified until 1958, were discounted at that time but
proven to be correct after WW2.
Col. Mitchell was brought before a Court Martial in 1925 on
charges of violating the 96th Article of War. This Article, the
last one, was a catch-all. It gave the Army the right to punish
essentially anything: "Though not mentioned in these Articles,
all disorders and neglect to the prejudice of good order and
military discipline, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit
upon the military service..." (Davis, P. 248). This Court
Martial was convened to punish Mitchell for highly critical public
statements he made following two US military aircraft accidents.
Col. Mitchell was found guilty on all counts by a court of 9
general officers. Major General Douglas MacArthur was the only
vote for not guilty. Col. Mitchell was sentenced "to be
suspended from rank, command and duty with the forfeiture of
all pay and allowances for five years." President Coolidge
upheld the verdict but altered the sentence to provide full subsistence
and half-pay "during the pleasure of the President"
(Davis, p.332). Mitchell privately acknowledged the he was technically
guilty because his written statement was intended to be so critical
of high military commanders that it truly was "conduct of
a nature to bring discredit upon the military". He refused
to be silenced, instead he resigned and began a lengthy nation-wide
speaking tour. Mitchell died of a heart condition in 1935.
If Billy Mitchell had lived nine more years he would have
seen virtually all his predictions about the use of air power
come true. These would include the use of aircraft carriers as
the most important naval vessels, and the strategic bombing of
civilian factories, transport centers, and population centers.
Only 12 years after his death Mitchell's request for three equal
services (Army, Navy, Air Force) united under a Department of
Defense would finally be realized.
The Billy Mitchell Wrecks are the most graphic pieces of physical
evidence we have today to show the vision of Billy Mitchell,
widely called the Founder of the US Air Force.
The purpose of this report is to collect the exact locations
and conditions of the ten ship wrecks known as "The Billy
Mitchell Wrecks". The dates of these sinkings are well documented,
but the exact locations are not. Navigational equipment in the
1920's was not sophisticated enough to provide fine detail in
the open ocean. Thus, the general location of these wrecks was
noted at their sinking, but was not precise enough to allow most
of the wrecks to be relocated. Modern radio navigation equipment
allows location to be determined within 100 feet, and these large
wrecks can be reliably relocated with information this precise.
This report is intended to provide information that would
be needed by a SCUBA diver who wanted to visit these wrecks.
A diver must know more than just the wreck's location. A diver
must also know expected water depth and conditions. Information
about the condition of the wreck would also be useful to a diver.
The condition of the wreck should include both interesting points
and cautions about possible hazards.
The information sources for this report are a combination
of published material and personal interviews. The source for
all biographical information about Billy Mitchell is his biography:
The Billy Mitchell Affair, by Burke Davis. The source
for ship size, armament, and manner of sinking is Shipwrecks
of Virginia, by Gary Gentile. Gary is an avid researcher
and author of several books on wreck diving, he has also dived
several of the Billy Mitchell wrecks.
The source of wreck locations, conditions, and depth is primarily
Ken Clayton. Ken Clayton is responsible for finding the individual
ships logs from all the Navy inspection and observation vessels
during the actual sinkings. Clayton compared the positions reported
in those logs with locations of bottom features that might be
wrecks, he organized expeditions and directed boat captains to
suspected positions. An eight year effort eventually provided
Ken the honor of being the only person to have dived all ten
Billy Mitchell wrecks. He was also, in all but one, the first
person to dive each of the Billy Mitchell wrecks. Ken Clayton
was recognized for this effort by an invitation to join The Explorer's
The wreck locations were confirmed by interviewing each of
the three boat captains who have anchored on the wrecks while
divers explored and positively identified each one. Other divers
were also interviewed for their observations of individual wreck
features. The author of this report has dived five of the Billy
Mitchell wrecks, and provides personal observations.
Some limitations in describing wreck conditions exist. Several
of these wrecks have not been fully explored. These wrecks are
at the limits of SCUBA divers abilities to explore and very few
people have done so. The short time available at these extreme
depths along with the large size of some wrecks also limit exploration.
The descriptions of some wrecks features are incomplete due to
this lack of knowledge.
The two treaty's governing the destruction of these ten ships
required that they be unrecoverable. This was interpreted to
mean sinking in more than 300 feet of water, all Navy records
testify this was done properly. However, three of these wrecks
are actually more shallow than that.
The depths of the Billy Mitchell wrecks is generally great
enough that they can be reached by only a very few highly experienced
SCUBA divers. Diving these wrecks requires significant amounts
of modern equipment and the use of several specially mixed breathing
gasses. The three shallow wrecks, all submarines, are at depths
that are not difficult for highly experienced divers; but helium
gas mixtures are still recommended.
The information compiled about these wrecks will be presented
as a list, ordered by the date of sinking. Each wreck will have
three types of information: (1) identification of the ship, including
name, nationality, type, size, and armament; (2) sinking information
including date, manner, and location; and (3) wreck information
including depth, wreck condition, and typical diving conditions.
Wrecks marked with "***" have been dived by the author.
- 1. U-117 ***
- 2. U-140 ***
- 3. UB-148
- 4. G-102
- 5. S-132
- 6. V-43 ***
- 7. Frankfurt ***
USS New Jersey
The Billy Mitchell Wrecks have all been found and positively
identified through direct observation by experienced wreck divers.
The three battleships are the most interesting ships but because
of their upside-down orientation these are the least interesting
wrecks. The three submarines are upright and provide a much more
interesting wreck to explore, this is enhanced by their shallow
depth. The destroyers are also interesting wrecks, but the fishing
nets makes these wrecks very dangerous. The prettiest wreck is
the Frankfurt, because of its size, amount and type of armament,
and upright orientation.
Obviously all ten wrecks are within the range of modern diving
equipment and techniques. However, SCUBA divers are reminded
that even the three "shallow" submarines are well past
the recommended depth limit of 130 feet. These three submarines
lie between 245 and 275 feet and can be reached as shallow as
220 feet, but these depths already present serious nitrogen narcosis
problems to the diver using air. The remaining wrecks all lie
in water greater than 330 feet deep, primarily between 390 and
415 feet. This is a depth range where breathing air poses an
unreasonable risk. Divers who are not trained and equipped for
using mixed gas are advised not to attempt these wrecks. Dives
to these depths require decompression time in the water breathing
at least two gas mixtures other than the mix required on the
bottom, and typically exceeding two hours. The risks associated
with SCUBA dives to these wrecks will seriously hinder further
exploration. Dives to these wrecks are dangerous and expensive.
The few people qualified to perform these dives will not be doing
See Mike Boring's story: Diving the German heavy cruiser Frankfurt
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