“Billy” Mitchell and the Rise of Naval Airpower

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert B. Kane, AU Director of History

The US Navy and the Japanese Navy, 75 years ago, fought two historic naval battles which changed the course of the Pacific War and naval history. 

On May 8-4, 1942, in the battle of the Coral Sea, just to the northeast of Australia, the two adversaries fought each other, entirely with naval aircraft, in the first naval battle in which the opposing warships never saw each other.  One month later, June 4-7, the two navies again fought each other at Midway in the central Pacific. 

Again, naval aircraft of the two sides served as the major tactical combatants.  A resounding American victory, this engagement stopped the offensive advance of Japan and inflicted significant, irreplaceable Japanese ship and personnel (pilots and aircraft maintainers) losses.

 In the early 1920s, American airpower advocate and “father of the US Air Force,” Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell had predicted the rise of naval airpower and the vulnerability of warships to aircraft.

            The concept of the aircraft carrier began on November 14, 1910, when Eugene B. Ely in a Curtis pusher aircraft took off from a platform built over the bow of the USS Birmingham, anchored off Norfolk, Virginia.  On January 18, 1911, he landed his aircraft, using a tailhook and landing wire, on a platform built over the stern of the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay.  By the end of World War I, the Japanese, Austro-Hungarian, and British navies had conducted the first naval air attacks.

            After the end of the war, Mitchell came to strongly believe that airpower would become the predominant military force and urged the formation of an independent air force.  Additionally, he felt that aircraft had made surface fleets obsolete and that the nation should use the funds, earmarked for battleships, to build hundreds of aircraft instead.  Finally, he urged the country to build floating bases (aircraft carriers?) for aircraft to defend the nation against naval threats.

            To prove his belief that warships were vulnerable to air attacks, Mitchell convinced Army and Navy leaders in early 1921 to sponsor a demonstration in which aircraft would attack obsolete World War I warships off the Virginia coast.  Although the Navy’s rules of engagement for the demonstration restricted Mitchell’s initial conduct of the demonstration in July, aircraft of his First Provisional Brigade eventually sank several former German warships, including the battleship Ostfriesland, and seemingly proved Mitchell’s point.  While some senior Navy and Army leaders contested the results, the Navy interestingly continued its development of naval aviation.

            The 1922 Washington Naval Treaties restricted the tonnage of cruisers, battlecruisers, and battleships.  As a result, the Japanese, British and American navies used the hulls of ships originally designed as cruisers or battleships, to construct the first aircraft carriers, which were not addressed in these treaties.  By 1930, several navies had ordered ships specifically designed as aircraft carriers, and, by the start of World War II, the American, British, French, and Japanese navies had a number of aircraft carriers.

A year after World War II began, Royal Navy aircraft on November 11-12, 1940 attacked the Italian fleet in Taranto harbor, the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack in history, and sank or damaged three battleships and three other warships.  On December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese aircraft from six aircraft carriers destroyed American airpower in Hawaii and put eight battleships, the heart of the US Pacific Fleet, on the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese attack plan was ironically similar to the 1938 fleet exercise of the US Pacific Fleet with attacks by naval aircraft from carriers northeast of Oahu against the island’s military installations.  Mitchell’s predictions of the early 1920s about the effectiveness of aircraft against warships had now become reality.

This disaster forced the Navy’s battleship oriented admirals to become more aviation minded.  Fortunately, the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise, the USS Lexington, and the USS Saratoga, were not in port when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and were now America’s only offensive military power in the Pacific.  Unintentionally, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to the rise of the aircraft carrier as the US Navy’s main offensive warship and eventually relegated the battleship and cruiser to gunnery support platforms and/command ships for amphibious operations. 

Six months later, the battle of the Coral Sea, May 8-4, 1942, was the first naval action in which aircraft from aircraft carriers engaged each other and in which the ships of the opposing sides never saw or fired directly upon each other.  Considered a tactical draw, both sides lost on aircraft carrier each as well as several other smaller warships and about the same number of aircraft and men.  However, the engagement was an American strategic victory as the Japanese forces, which would have threatened Australia and the sea lanes to Hawaii in the South Pacific, retreated northward.

One month later, the American and Japanese fleets met again as the Japanese military leaders sought to eliminate the United States as a strategic power in the Pacific and to extend their area of control further to the east after the April 18 Doolittle Raid on Japan.  The objective was to trap and destroy the American carriers in the Pacific.  After three days of intense aerial combat, the Japanese Navy had lost four fleet carriers, 248 aircraft, and over 3,000 experienced pilots and aircraft maintainers, and the American fleet lost one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, 150 aircraft, and 307 killed.  Several military historians consider Midway as the most decisive victory in naval warfare.

Three months later, US forces in the Pacific invaded Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the first of many amphibious landings which led to victory in the Pacific by early September 1945.  Increasing numbers of aircraft carriers served as the offensive striking power for these landings while battleships and cruisers served as flagships and/or gunnery support platforms for the invasion forces.  The last engagement in naval history in which battleships played the primary role was the battle of the Surigao Straits, Philippines, October 25, 1944.  During that battle six American battleships, including five resurrected from Pearl Harbor, decimated the Japanese fleet seeking to reach the American landing beaches at Leyte Gulf.