“Gentlemen, I’m glad you’ve decided to spend your day here, but what a waste of time this is! She has four skins to protect her and she’s broken down into countless secure and watertight compartments. It doesn’t matter how big the hole is, she was made to get home! Despite the enthusiastic unorthodoxy of our shiny general, the age of the battleship is still here and now. Quote me: That ship is unsinkable.”
Aboard the USS Henderson, off the Virginia coast, hundreds of newsmen and government officials from around the world listened as naval experts mercilessly ridiculed the general that brought them out on this sloppy July 21st of 1923 for a demonstration of what he called the “third dimension” – naval airpower.
A few miles away, listing slightly to port, was the SMS Ostfriesland, a German prize from the Great War. It had withstood several direct hits from bombs delivered by the NBS-1 bombers that began their runs the day before.
“It might be more useful for these toys to drop me a bottle of sour-mash,” former Navy Secretary Joe Daniels smarmily remarked as a new wave of sputtering planes passed overhead.
As each aircraft approached their target, they released their payloads early. Massive plumes of water shot into the air and the ship rolled heavily with every wave.
“Look! They can’t even hit what they’re aiming at today!” Daniels laughed.
But the pilots were following script. Their general, the pot-stirrer, heretic, prophet, had devised this tactic of the “water-hammer” for just such an occasion. Under the relentless pressure of the pounding waves, the Ostfriesland’s hull ripped apart. It sank in minutes.
Unfortunately, the Navy continued to resist the warnings of Billy Mitchell until they finally saw first-hand what airpower could do in the hands of a capable Japanese enemy.