Paul Allen’s original goal was to find the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine during World War II. While many of the ship’s crew members survived the torpedo attack, hundreds died from exposure, drowning or shark attacks while awaiting rescue. Allen’s crew found the Indianapolis in August 2017. Since Allen’s death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his team aboard the Petrel has continued its quest to find other sunken warships from the war in the Pacific.
What does the U.S. Navy do when one of its sunken warships is found?
The Navy has no intention to touch the wreck at all. Its interest is in studying the Wasp and other wrecks the Petrel has found, in part to assess the damage the ships suffered and to see what lessons can be applied to how the service builds ships in the future.
The Wasp is sitting upright on the bottom of the Pacific, “in pretty deep mud,” says Sam Cox, a retired admiral who heads the Navy’s historical department. “The mud actually comes up to about where the water line was, so you can’t see where the actual torpedoes hit.”
According to Cox, the Wasp was one of the most important ships of the Pacific Fleet in the early days of the war — a time when the Navy had only a few operational aircraft carriers available to help stop the Imperial Japanese Navy. When the Wasp was sunk in September 1942, it left the U.S.S. Hornet as the sole operational carrier in the Pacific, until repairs on the U.S.S. Enterprise were completed and the ship returned to action.
The Hornet was sunk not long after the Wasp, during the Battle of Santa Cruz on Oct. 26, 1942. The Petrel crew found it too, on the same trip, resting on the bottom about 400 miles northeast of Guadalcanal.
“Some folks say: ‘Why do you want to talk about a wreck? You know you lost that battle,’” Cox says. “It has to do with the sacrifice, the valor of U.S. sailors. These were at that time mostly professional sailors; the draft had not been in effect for that long.”
How do you “preserve” a sunken warship?
According to Cox, illegal salvage operations in the Java Sea and the South China Sea have destroyed some British and Dutch ships from World War II that sank in relatively shallow water. Their hulls were turned into scrap metal. And American warships have not been immune — the wrecks of the submarine U.S.S. Perch and the destroyer U.S.S. Pope have disappeared sometime in the last two or three years. “The only good news is that neither one of them went down with any of their crewmen,” Cox says. “So it was a case of they salvaged U.S. Navy property, but we don’t know who did it.”