At two miles down it’s too deep for scuba divers but it is an iconic wreck rediscovered – the USS Lexington, one of the USA’s first aircraft-carriers and the first to be sunk, was found by Microsoft’s billionaire-owner Paul G Allen’s research vessel Petrel on 4 March.
The “Lady Lex”, which sank in 1942, lies in the Coral Sea more than 500 miles off Australia’s east coast.
She and another carrier, USS Yorktown, engaged three Japanese carriers in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. This was the first carrier-v-carrier naval action in history – and the first in which opposing warships never came within sight of each other.
The Lexington was hit by multiple torpedoes and bombs from Achi aircraft on 8 May before a secondary explosion caused uncontrollable fires to break out.
Most of the crew were evacuated onto other vessels before the USS Phelps fired the final torpedoes that scuttled the stricken carrier. A total of 216 crew had been lost but 2770 crewmen and officers were rescued.
During the battle the Japanese Navy also sank USS Sims and Neosho and damaged Yorktown, but lost its own carrier Shoho while another, Shokaku, sustained significant damage.
The engagement succeeded in halting the advance of Japanese forces on New Guinea and Australia, and a month later the US Navy was able to seize the initiative at the game-changing Battle of Midway.
The 76m Petrel carries subsea equipment capable of diving as deep as 3.5 miles, and an ROV captured images of the wreck’s stern nameplate to confirm Lexington’s identity.
The carrier is said to lie with the main section upright and the bow and stern sections a mile away, with the bridge lying between them and, nearby, well-preserved Douglas Devastator and Dauntless and Grumman Wildcat aircraft. There were 35 aircraft on board when the carrier sank.
“Lexington was on our priority list because she was one of the capital ships that was lost during WW2,” said Robert Kraft, Allen’s Director of Subsea Operations.
“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 honour,” said Allen. The vessel was not the first aircraft-carrier casualty of the war – HMS Hermes had been sunk off Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, the previous month.
Deployed last year, Allen’s research vessel carried out several expeditions around the Philippines before moving to the Coral Sea.
Petrel team had located the USS Ward and Cooper along with five Japanese warship wrecks, having also found the USS Indianapolis in August.