Undersea Aircraft: The Planes of Hornet, Wasp and Lexington

The importance of aircraft carriers during World War II cannot be overstated. As naval aviation began to decide primacy in the Pacific, carriers battled carriers in duels and long-range strikes were launched from their airdecks. The R/V Petrel has located the wrecks of three US aircraft carriers lost during WWII, including the USS Lexington, the USS Hornet and the USS Wasp. All three of these carriers were involved in WWII battles that shifted the course of the war, and the wrecks serve as the war graves for 532 American sailors lost in battle. Because these carriers went down with aircraft aboard, one of the unique aspects of aircraft carrier discoveries arethe planes scattered on the seafloor near each of the wrecks. Due to the depth, the planes are often so well preserved we can actually see enough information to learn more about who may have flown them.

USS Lexington

The USS Lexington, nicknamed the “Lady Lex,” was originally commissioned as a battlecruiser but was launched as an aircraft carrier in 1925. During WWII, she took part in the Battle of the Coral Sea along with the USS Yorktown against three Japanese carriers. This is where Lexington made her mark on history, engaging in the first carrier-versus-carrier battle and the first naval engagement where opposing ships never came within sight of each other.

The crew of the Petrel was able to locate 11 of the 35 aircraft that were on board when the carrier went down, including the Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat flown by Noel Gayler, one of the first aces of World War II. You can see the Japanese flag decals indicating enemy planes shot down and the Felix the Cat insignia that helped the Navy identify this specific aircraft’s storied history.

F-5-2-1-768x432 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat flown by Noel Gayler

T-9-and-T-4-1-1-1-768x432 Two Douglas TBD-1 Devastators resting on top of each other in the seabed

USS Wasp

Before heading to the Pacific, the USS Wasp ferried army planes to Iceland to supplement British aircraft, and supported missions to Malta to provide cover from the daily German and Italian air attacks. In the Pacific theater, the Wasp was escorting the Seventh Marine Regiment to Guadalcanal to provide reinforcements when it was hit by four Japanese torpedoes, causing a massive inferno on the ship. In the video below you can see a few of the planes discovered in the Wasp’s debris field and a 3D model rendering of the Grumman Avenger they located. Read more about the Wasp here.

USS Hornet

The USS Hornet was best known for launching the Doolittle Raid, the first airborne attack of Japanese homeland targets. In her final battle, the Hornet fought hard, and after taking a beating during the Battle of Santa Cruz, she refused to sink for nearly 24 hours. Read more about the Hornet, and watch a 95 year old former gunner set eyes on his old ship 77 years after he survived her sinking.

Hornet2-768x431 The crew located the remains of an F4F Wildcat in the Hornet’s debris field

HMS Ark Royal

While not a discovery, in 2004, before the R/V Petrel, Paul Allen’s M/V Octopus explored the remains of the HMS Ark Royal, the British aircraft carrier that launched Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers that sank the Bismarck, the storied German battleship.

Ark-Royal-Aircraft-768x445 Aircraft in the Ark Royal debris field.

The goal then, as it is now, was not only one of discovery and exploration, but an effort to honor those who served. In this case, veterans from Her Majesty’s Royal Navy were on the Octopus to view the remains of the Ark Royal.

“They were the men who had worked on the hangar decks, in the boiler rooms and manned anti-aircraft guns as she was attacked. They knew the ship inside and out and their view of the thousand meter dive to the bottom of the sea was a trip back in time.” – Rob Kraft, The Deepest Frontier

Read more about the expeditions and discoveries of the RV Petrel here.