The U.S.S. Wasp: Torpedoed, Scuttled, Sunk and Now Found
Three hours after nightfall on Sept. 15, 1942, the U.S.S. Wasp, a United States Navy aircraft carrier, slipped beneath the waves 350 miles southeast of Guadalcanal. Hit by two or possibly three torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, the crippled ship was abandoned, then torpedoed by an American destroyer to send it to the bottom, approximately 14,000 feet below.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 14, 2019, researchers laid eyes on the Wasp for the first time in 76 years. The news of that discovery and the story of the team who found the wreck was published on March 13 in a feature article by Ed Caesar in The Times Magazine.
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Aboard a 250-foot-long research vessel called the Petrel, originally built for servicing oil fields, a group of explorers, historians, divers and submersible pilots have been combing the South Pacific for the graves of American warships like the Wasp since 2017. Funded by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who died in October and who wanted to find these ships as a way to honor his father’s military service in World War II, the ship’s state-of-the-art technology allows for faster and more efficient searches than were possible even a decade ago.
How did the Wasp sink?
During the Marine Corps’ fierce battle for Guadalcanal, the Wasp was part of a convoy delivering reinforcements to the island. While the Wasp was in transit, the Japanese submarine I-19 fired several torpedoes at the aircraft carrier in quick succession. Navy officials are not completely sure if two or three of those torpedoes hit the Wasp. Other torpedoes in that salvo hit the destroyer U.S.S. O’Brien and the battleship U.S.S. North Carolina nearby.
Japanese torpedoes of that era ran just below the surface and had large explosive warheads that detonated on contact with their target. When hit, multiple explosions rocked the Wasp and started fires that began to consume the ship from the inside out.
Unable to save the ship, the Wasp’s crew abandoned the still-floating aircraft carrier, knowing that it would most likely sink on its own within hours. To speed that process, American Navy officers scuttled the carrier by firing torpedoes from a warship in their naval convoy.
How did the Petrel team find the ship?
Many underwater explorers rely on something called a side-scan sonar device: Towed behind a ship, it sends out acoustic waves to its left and right that bounce off the seafloor. An umbilical cord connected to the device sends a stream of data back to the ship that researchers monitor for anomalies that could be ship remains.
When Robert Ballard, a reserve naval officer and oceanographer, went looking for the Titanic in 1985, he knew side-scan sonar would not be helpful because the seafloor in that part of the North Atlantic was littered with boulders deposited in the last ice age, which would clutter the incoming data. He towed a camera instead. Rather than looking for the shipwreck itself, he did something that revolutionized underwater searches: He looked for the debris field ejected from Titanic as it sank — which would be a much larger target. The strategy worked.
The technology aboard the Petrel takes Ballard’s early work a step further. It relies on a sensor — called an autonomous underwater vehicle, or A.U.V. — that propels and guides itself. This device can dive as deep as 18,000 feet as it follows a preprogrammed route and then returns to the surface on its own. Once it is craned back aboard, crew members pull data from the vehicle that researchers can quickly analyze.
After its seventh A.U.V. run looking for the Wasp, the Petrel team found the ship.
How does the unmanned underwater vehicle find shipwrecks?
The amount of seafloor the A.U.V. takes in is immense. On a typical run, the uncrewed, submarinelike device follows a track six miles long, skimming just 260 feet above the seafloor while sending out low-frequency sonar waves to its left and right. In a single mission, it can cover about 40 square nautical miles of seafloor.
Once all the imagery is downloaded from the A.U.V. and uploaded into the Petrel’s computers, team members see a graphic representation of the entire search area and can quickly identify any promising targets. If they believe they have found debris or the hull of the sunken ship, they then return to the exact spot and send an uncrewed remotely operated vehicle outfitted with manipulator arms and high-resolution cameras to examine the object.
How about rocks and underwater volcanoes? Wouldn’t those make it harder to spot the ship?
The Petrel team was lucky that the Wasp went down in a relatively flat and muddy part of the ocean, where things like sunken airplanes and ships clearly stand out along the seafloor. Such areas are relatively rare in that part of ocean because of its proximity to the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire” — a band of volcanoes both underwater and on land that spans the Earth’s crust.
How does the Petrel crew decide which wrecks to pursue?
Petrel crew members like Paul Mayer, who pilots the ship’s remotely operated vehicle, scour through records at the National Archives, working with employees at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington who maintain a database of more than 2,500 shipwrecks and 14,000 sunken aircraft. Ship’s logbooks, surviving charts and witness testimonies all aid in deciding where to search.
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.”
Sitting in 14,000 feet of water, the Wasp is not in danger of being illegally salvaged. But Cox says he expects that the Navy will periodically visit the carrier and other known wrecks to ensure they remain untouched.
One ship Cox says is still at risk is the U.S.S. Houston, a cruiser that sank on March 1, 1942, with about 600 crew members aboard. The wreck sits only about 120 feet down in Indonesian territorial waters, and the United States is trying to get the site designated as a maritime conservation zone, so it can have legal protection under Indonesian law.
John Ismay is a staff writer who covers armed conflict for The New York Times Magazine. He is based in Washington.
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