The discovery of the wreck of the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, which played a key role in several monumental points during World War II including the Doolittle Raid on Japan and the pivotal Battle of Midway, was announced Tuesday by U.S. researchers, more than 75 years after the vessel was sunk.
An expedition crew funded by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that searches for “historically significant shipwrecks” uncovered the wreckage in waters more than 5 kilometers deep in the South Pacific Ocean in late January.
“We had Hornet on our list of WWII warships that we wanted to locate because of its place in history as a capitol carrier that saw many pivotal moments in naval battles,” said Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for Allen’s company Vulcan, in a statement.
The 10-person expedition team on the 250-foot (76-meter) research vessel (RV) Petrel was able to locate the Hornet’s position by piecing together data from national and naval archives, including official deck logs and action reports from other ships engaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz Island, during which it was sunk, the researchers said. Positions and sightings from nine other U.S. warships in the area were plotted on a chart to generate the starting point for the search grid.
Photos released by the team showed an anti-aircraft gun and other weapons in the wreckage deep under the ocean.
The famed Doolittle Raid — the first airborne attack on Japanese homeland targets, including Tokyo — was launched by U.S. Army Lt. Col. James Doolittle from the deck of the Hornet in April 1942. That raid showed that the Japanese mainland was vulnerable to U.S. air attacks, while also serving as retaliation for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and providing an important morale boost for America in the opening days of the war.
“In the dark days following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, she and the Doolittle Raiders were the first Americans to punch back at Japan, giving hope to the nation and the world when things looked bleakest,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran said in a statement.
In June of that year, the Hornet was one of three American carriers that surprised and sunk four Japanese carriers at Midway, turning the tide of the Pacific War.
The ship was sunk during the exceptionally vicious Battle of Santa Cruz Island on Oct. 26, 1943. After a relentless coordinated attack by Japanese dive-bombers and torpedo planes, its crew eventually abandoned it. Two Japanese destroyers later launched an additional torpedo attack, finally sinking the Hornet.
“When they left, we were dead in the water,” Richard Nowatzki, a gunner on the ship who survived the battle, told CBS News. “They used armor piercing bombs, now when they come down, you hear ’em going through the decks … plink, plink, plink, plink … and then when they explode the whole ship shakes.”
Retired Rear Adm. Samuel Cox, director of naval history and heritage command, said in the statement that while the Hornet was lost, the Japanese victory came at “an extremely high cost.”
“About half the Japanese aircraft engaged were shot down by greatly improved U.S. Navy anti-aircraft defenses,” he said. “As a result, the Japanese carriers did not engage again in battle for almost another two years.”