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Battleship Trials

For over a century the U.S. Army and Navy were in agreement about the coastal defense of the United States: the Army would defend the beaches and out to the range of their coastal guns, and the Navy would protect anything beyond that range. The airplane, however, changed that arrangement. Since the U.S. Army Air Service's airplanes could attack an enemy fleet far from the coastline, the airmen wanted to take over that mission, but first, they had to prove that an airplane could sink a battleship.

In May 1921 men and aircraft from various units arrived at Langley Field, Va., to prepare for the Ostfriesland bombing trials. Designated the 1st Provisional Air Brigade, this unit was commanded by Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell during the bombing trials.

During highly publicized tests held in June-July 1921 off the Virginia capes, the Navy and Army studied the effects of bombing on ships taken from the German navy after World War I. The climax came on July 21, 1921, when Army Air Service bombers sank the powerful German battleship Ostfriesland. These tests, General Mitchell stated, proved that bombs dropped from airplanes could easily destroy "even the most modern of battleships." Furthermore, they "demonstrated beyond a doubt that, given sufficient bombing planes -- in short an adequate airforce -- aircraft constitute a positive defense of our country against hostile invasion."

In September 1921 the airmen presented further evidence by striking the obsolete USS Alabama. Although the Army Air Service sank two more battleships -- the USS New Jersey and the USS Virginia -- two years later, control over the coastal defense mission remained with the ground and naval forces. As a result, the supporters of an independent air force -- especially Billy Mitchell -- became more vocal in their demands for a separate air force.

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Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell