Rare World War II planes found

Historians now have color images of rare World War II planes, and families know the final resting place of 216 U.S. sailors and airmen killed during the Battle of the Coral Sea, following the research vessel Petrel’s discovery of a wrecked aircraft carrier scuttled in 1942.

The Petrel researchers located the wreckage of the USS Lexington on the floor of the Coral Sea 3,000 meters deep and 800 kilometers off the eastern coast of Australia, according to a March press release from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s team. Researchers located the wreck with the sonar and sea floor mapping instruments on a Remus 6000 autonomous underwater vehicle built by Norway-based Kongsberg, which says the vessel can dive to 6,000 meters. A separate remotely operated underwater vehicle with LED lights videotaped the wreckage. The expedition was funded by Allen, who has paid for other attempts to locate the wreckage of World War II ships.

Japanese fighter planes launched from aircraft carriers severely damaged the Lexington, forcing the destroyer USS Phelps to scuttle the vessel on May 8, 1942, after the surviving crew abandoned ship.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was “the first pure aircraft carrier battle,” meaning one in which opposing ships attacked each other with aircraft without directly seeing each other, says Laurence Burke, U.S. naval aviation curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Lexington was also notable as a “very unusual aircraft carrier,” since it was converted from a battle cruiser, says retired U.S. Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The 35 U.S. planes that sank onboard the Lexington included Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter planes and Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers. The painted decals on some of the planes are still intact, similar to some other wrecks at that depth, where there is little oxygen or life to erode the paint, Burke says.

“The Japanese had trained for multicarrier task groups so the ships could reinforce each other,” he says. “The Zero [Mitsubishi-built fighter plane] was unquestionably faster and more maneuverable than the Wildcat, but was also more vulnerable to gun fire.”
The planes are a rare find and “tempting” to raise from the ocean, especially because there are no intact TBD Devastators on dry land, Burke says.

“The [U.S.] Navy still owns the planes and would have to give permission for recovery,” he says. “I believe the depth also makes recovery extremely difficult.”

Locating the wreckage is significant because it could now be designated as a war gravesite.

In the Paul G. Allen photo at the top of the page, a Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bomber was found with the wreckage of the USS Lexington.

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Rare World War II planes found