The dark abyss of the world’s oceans conceals countless secrets, many of which are remnants of World War II. The recent discovery of three notable shipwrecks from this era has shed light on some of these underwater mysteries and reignited interest in the maritime history of the war.
World War II in the Pacific was characterized by fierce naval battles and immense sacrifices. Among the most heart-wrenching tales is the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35).
Tragically, while sailing between Guam and Leyte Gulf, she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The ship sank within 12 minutes, and out of her 1,196-strong crew, only 316 survived after enduring days of exposure, shark attacks, and dehydration.
In a significant breakthrough, after 72 years at a depth of 18,000 feet, the USS Indianapolis’s wreckage was located by the Research Vessel Petrel, funded by Microsoft’s Paul G. Allen. The vessel’s bell, still intact, served as a poignant reminder of the ship’s storied past.
The USS Indianapolis, based at Pearl Harbor, was at sea during the infamous attack on December 7, 1941. A week later, she resumed duties, joining Task Force 11. However, her most crucial mission came in 1945 when she delivered parts of the atomic bomb “Little Boy.”
Before the large-scale assault on Pearl Harbor began on December 7, 1941, a skirmish signaled the impending chaos.
Hours before the aerial attack, the USS Ward (DD-139) detected and fired upon a Japanese midget submarine near Pearl Harbor’s entrance. This destroyer, having fired the first American shots of the Pacific War, would later meet its end on the same date, three years later, at the hands of kamikaze pilots near Ponsol Island.
73 years after sinking, Paul Allen’s research team discovered the USS Ward’s remains near the Philippines.
The vast expanse of the Pacific hid the USS Lexington (CV-2) for over 75 years until it was found off Australia’s eastern coast.
While at sea during the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Lexington would later play a crucial role in the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was here that she was hit by multiple torpedoes and bombs, eventually being scuttled by the USS Phelps (DD-360) after her crew had abandoned ship.
Paul Allen and his team discovered the “Lady Lex” in 2018, surprisingly well-preserved after three-quarters of a century underwater.
The legacy of Paul Allen continues as the R/V Petrel, under his patronage, unveils another significant find from World War II: the wreckage of the Japanese battleship Hiei. This is just one of the numerous warship discoveries made by the vessel.
Launched in November 1912, Hiei was commissioned into the Imperial Japanese Navy in August of 1914, being the second of the four powerful Kongo-class battlecruisers. With her formidable arsenal, including eight 14” guns, and her nine-inch-thick armor, Hiei stood as one of the mightiest of her era. Besides her wartime patrolling in China’s waters during World War I, Hiei played a humanitarian role in aiding the rescue operations after the devastating 1923 Great Kanto earthquake.
Her journey as a symbol of strength continued when she was transformed into a gunnery training ship in 1929 and later rebranded as a battleship to align with Japan’s escalating aircraft carrier fleet.
Hiei’s service in the Second World War began with an ominous note. In November 1941, she sailed alongside the aircraft carriers that orchestrated the infamous assault on Pearl Harbor, pulling America into the global conflict.
In 1942, after aiding in the invasion of the Dutch East Indies, Hiei was redirected towards the Solomon Islands, with Guadalcanal as the intended target. However, on November 13, 1942, she faced staunch resistance from American warships, including the destroyer USS Laffey (DD-459). Though she sustained significant damage from the onslaught, it was the USS San Francisco (CA-38) that delivered the crippling blow, rendering Hiei’s steering non-functional. Left with no choice but to move in circles, Hiei became an easy target for American fighters and bombers. By the night of November 14, the mighty battleship met her tragic end, taking down 188 officers and crew members. Hiei’s sinking marked the first instance of a Japanese battleship being defeated by the US Navy during the Pacific War.
While the first sightings of Hiei’s remains were credited to a Japanese research team, it was the R/V Petrel that employed a remote-operated vehicle to authenticate the ship’s identity. The vessel’s discovery adds to Petrel’s growing list of World War II warship findings, which includes iconic names like USS Ward (DD-139), USS Astoria (CA-34), USS Indianapolis (CA-35), and USS Lexington (CV-2).
The visuals transmitted by the Petrel showcased two of Hiei’s five-inch gun turrets. The ship’s final resting place, aptly named “Ironbottom Sound,” is a poignant reminder of the heavy toll of war, with numerous warships from the Solomon Islands campaign lying beneath its depths.
These discoveries serve not just as a testament to advancements in underwater exploration but as tangible links to a past that shaped the modern world. Each shipwreck is a silent memorial, a reminder of the human cost of war and the brave souls who sailed into the unknown.