Advertisement
News

For years, military has tested the waters on the bay

For more than a century, the military and its various operations have been inextricably linked with the Chesapeake Bay from the Aberdeen Proving Ground all the way to Norfolk, Va., home port of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet.

Recently, the Navy advised Dorchester County officials that it intends to resume bombing and strafing Bloodsworth Island, a 5,361-acre piece of unoccupied bay real estate, west of Tangier Sound, and three smaller neighboring islands, which it has owned since 1942 and used for target practice until 1996.

Advertisement

A thick file of clippings from The Sun's library reports that for more than 60 years, nearby Deal Islanders had to put up with broken windows, cracked walls and jangled nerves caused by thunderous rumblings emanating from Bloodsworth, some seven miles away.

The bay was also a military laboratory for Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, the controversial deputy chief of the Army Air Service. In bombing tests in 1921, Mitchell proved that air power was the defensive and offensive wave of the future. Mitchell's tests sent several obsolete battleships to the bottom.

Advertisement

On July 21, 1921, Army twin-engine Martin bombers from Langley Field, Va., under Mitchell's direction, sank the former German battleship Ostfriesland off the Virginia Capes. The 27,000-ton heavily armored ship, a veteran of the battle of Jutland, went under in exactly 25 minutes.

Aviation pioneer Glenn L. Martin, an observer of the day's events, said, "No fleet afloat is safe if it loses control of the air. ... An enemy by gaining control of the air can now carry his own peace terms into the heart of any country. The sinking of the Ostfriesland will be epoch-making."

In his 1967 book The Billy Mitchell Affair, Burke Davis observed: "To some, the bubbling and gushing of air from the sinking Ostfriesland seemed like great sobs."

Navy brass couldn't quite believe what they had witnessed.

Clinton Gilbert, a Washington Post correspondent, wrote, "The chins of Navy officers ... dropped. Their eyes seemed to be coming out of the ends of their marine glasses ... seemed to be watching the end of an era which began when Rome crossed the high seas and smote Carthage."

Mitchell's next dramatic display of bomb tests came Sept. 24, when his planes bombed the battleship Alabama in the Lower Chesapeake Bay near Tangier Island. The battleship was anchored near the battered hulks of the Indiana and San Marcos (formerly the battleship Texas), which had been sunk years earlier and had been used as naval gunnery targets.

Three hundred-pound demolition bombs were dropped by Martin bombers in a staged attack that began shortly after midnight and continued into the next morning.

"Of two direct hits scored in the midnight attack, one struck the bridge on the starboard side and shattered it. The Alabama looked like a junk pile both forward and aft," reported a Sun correspondent aboard the Mills, a mine-layer.

Advertisement

Even though severely damaged, the Alabama continued to float until the next day, when, shortly after noon, the old ship was hit by one last 2,000-pound bomb. With its mast collapsed and superstructure severely damaged, the Alabama rolled over and sank.

Six years later, the Alabama, described by The Sun as a "hulk of twisted steel and gaping holes," was exhumed from the bottom of the bay and towed to Baltimore, where it was broken up at the Union Shipbuilding Co.'s Fairfield yard.

While the Alabama faded from memory, the San Marcos continued to trouble bay mariners for years afterward. Called the ship "that refused to die," the San Marcos was blamed for seven shipwrecks - from oyster boats to freighters to yachts - even though Coast Guard buoys warned shipping to keep clear of its watery grave.

In 1959, a Navy demolition team finally finished off the "proud battleship that defied destruction by Navy guns, airplane bombs and the sifting tides and currents of the Chesapeake Bay," observed The Evening Sun.

"She's a tough old dog," said Lt. Cmdr. Francis P. Jordan, who was in charge of the demolition project.

Wags cracked that the old dreadnought held the record for having sunk more ships as a wreck than when afloat.

Advertisement

Contrary to reports, the San Marcos had been sunk during gunnery practice in 1911 and not by Mitchell during his attack on the Alabama. After his 1925 court martial, Mitchell resigned his commission the next year and moved to Boxwood, his farm in Middleburg, Va. He died in 1936.

When the bell in the clock tower of Maury Hall on the grounds of the Naval Academy was replaced in the 1920s, parts came from the scrapped battleships Alabama, Michigan, Massachusetts and Indiana. Those four vessels were chosen because they had been used by midshipmen for summer practice cruises.


Advertisement