The Billy Mitchell Wrecks - Where are They?

By clif Darby


Introduction

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 guest.

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 Wrecks".

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.

Purpose

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.

Information Sources

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 Club.

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.

Limitations

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.

Findings

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.

Wreck Information

1. U-117 ***
2. U-140 ***
3. UB-148 ***
4. G-102
5. S-132
6. V-43 ***
7. Frankfurt ***
8. Ostfriesland
9. USS New Jersey
10. USS Virginia


Conclusion

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 it frequently.


See Mike Boring's story: Diving the German heavy cruiser Frankfurt


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