This week, billionaire Paul G. Allen announced that his ship-hunting research vessel R/V Petrel and her crew had discovered an important piece of World War II history. About 500 miles off the coast of eastern Australia and two miles down they located the wreck of the U.S.S. Lexington, one of the United States’ first aircraft carriers, which was scuttled on May 8, 1942, to prevent its capture after the Battle of the Coral Sea, as the Associated Press reports.
Elaina Zachos at National Geographic reports that the Petrel crew had been planning to hunt for the Lexington, known affectionately as “Lady Lex,” for six months after successfully locating several historic wrecks including the Japanese battleship Musashi and the U.S.S. Indianapolis last year. The team received coordinates for where experts thought the Lexington might have sunk. Equipping the Petrel with exploration gear that could reach 3.5 miles under the sea, they began their search. So far, besides locating the ship, the team has been able to find 11 of the 35 aircraft that were onboard when the carrier went under.
“Lexington was on our priority list because she was one of the capital ships that was lost during WWII,” Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for the Petrel says in a statement. “Based on geography, time of year and other factors, I work with Paul Allen to determine what missions to pursue. We’ve been planning to locate the Lexington for about six months and it came together nicely.”
“To pay tribute to the USS Lexington and the brave men that served on her is an honor,” Allen says in the statement. “As Americans, all of us owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who served and who continue to serve our country for their courage, persistence and sacrifice.”
The Lexington was not originally commissioned as an aircraft carrier, as Jeanna Bryner at LiveScience points out. Originally, the ship was supposed to be a battlecruiser, but the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty limited battleship construction, so Lexington was re-commissioned as an aircraft carrier, entering service in 1928.
In May 1942, the Lexington was part of the Battle of Coral Sea, which History.com characterizes as the first air and sea battle in history. The Japanese were headed to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, hoping to control the island and cut off access to Australia. Allied forces, however, had intercepted the plans and launched air strikes from carriers when Japan began the invasion. During the ensuing four-day battle, the Japanese light carrier Shoho was destroyed and a larger carrier, Shokaku was severely damaged. The loss of carriers meant Japan did not have enough air cover for their invasion, and they eventually retreated.
The Americans paid a price, too. The carrier Yorktown was heavily damaged. Bryner reports that on May 8, the Lexington was struck by torpedoes and bombs. A secondary explosion onboard led to out of control fires. That night 2,770 personnel were evacuated.The U.S.S. Phelps then launched torpedoes, sinking the carrier so it would not fall into Japanese hands.
In total, 216 crew members of the Lexington were killed in battle.
Back in Massachusetts, a new Essex-class carrier was being built at the same shipyard that the Lexington came from. When they heard the news of the sinking, workers petitioned the Navy to name the new ship after her fallen sibling. The new U.S.S. Lexington served throughout World War II and was not decommissioned until 1991. It is now docked in Corpus Christi, Texas, where it functions as a museum.
There is no word yet on whether the Petrel will recover any artifacts from the Lexington, but knowing where it rests is a comfort to many. “As the son of a survivor of the USS Lexington, I offer my congratulations to Paul Allen and the expedition crew of Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel for locating the “Lady Lex,” sunk nearly 76 years ago at the Battle of Coral Sea,” Navy Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., head of the U.S. Pacific Command, says in the statement. “We honor the valor and sacrifice of the “Lady Lex’s” Sailors — all those Americans who fought in World War II — by continuing to secure the freedoms they won for all of us.”
It’s likely this won’t be the last find by R/V Petrel. In 2016, the ship was retrofitted and tasked by Allen to search for historic warships, and there are still many more out there to be found.