USS O’Brien (DD-415) is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during the Guadalcanal campaign, 15 September 1942. USS Wasp (CV-7), torpedoed a few minutes earlier, is burning in the left distance. O’Brien was hit in the extreme bow, but whipping from the torpedo explosion caused serious damage to her hull amidships, leading to her loss on 19 October 1942, while she was en route back to the United States for repairs (80-G-457818).
The Search for USS Wasp and USS Hornet High on a windswept bluff above the Pacific at San Francisco’s Land’s End stands an American flag and a memorial to the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38). It is overlooked by most visitors because on the other side of the parking lot is a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge, under which that battered cruiser returned, under her own power, despite having been hit 45 times during the brutal night battle off Guadalcanal on Friday the 13th, November 1942. I, however, never miss an opportunity to pay my respects at the memorial, for although San Francisco returned from the battle with a Presidential Unit Citation, 110 of her crewmen (including 7 Marines) did not.
The memorial consists of the bridge wings of San Francisco, removed after the battle, and almost sold for $350 in scrap value at the end of the war. The port bridge wing is perforated with holes large and small, inflicted by the Japanese battleship Hiei and other ships. It is profoundly emotionally sobering to know that the shells and shrapnel that blasted through that metal killed Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan, Captain Cassin Young, and every other officer on the bridge except Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless, who chose to keep San Francisco in the battle rather than disengage, despite his serious wounds. Other shells killed the previously wounded executive officer, the acting executive officer, and every officer senior to McCandless but one, Lieutenant Commander Herbert Schonland, who, as the damage control officer, stayed below to keep the damaged cruiser from capsizing.
Rear Admiral Callaghan would be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, along with three of San Francisco’s crew: McCandless, Schonland, and Boatswain’s Mate First Class Reinhardt Keppler. Captain Young, who had been awarded a Medal of Honor for heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor, would receive a Navy Cross along with 31 others of his crew (21 posthumously including Young); 21 Silver Stars were also awarded. Despite this record of extraordinary valor and ultimate sacrifice, an ever-decreasing number of people today have any clue of the price the U.S. Navy paid in the early days of World War II to buy the time for a nation that was unprepared for war, so that the U.S. could achieve ultimate victory in that terrible war, so that we could all have the freedom we take for granted today.
The San Francisco memorial is oriented so that it points along a great circle course to the island of Guadalcanal. The largest town on Guadalcanal, Honiara, is now the capital of the independent Solomon Islands, in a relatively isolated area of the South Pacific northeast of Australia. As I arrived at Honiara International Airport (formerly Henderson Field, the name still on the tower) on 1 January 2019, it was clear that Guadalcanal was not quite as far off the beaten path as it was in 1942 when Imperial Japan and the United States waged a brutal months-long campaign for control of Henderson Field. From the airfield I could see “Bloody Ridge,” one of several immortalized places on the island where U.S. Marines and, later, U.S. Army troops, fought valiantly and at great cost to prevent repeated Japanese counter-attacks from regaining control of the airfield that the Japanese had originally begun to build. I could also see Mount Austen, site of a modern Japanese memorial to the over 20,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors who died in vain trying to re-take the airfield.
As I stood on the bridge of the research vessel Petrel with its sweeping view and my first sight of the waters north of Guadalcanal, I admit to being overcome with emotion, literally choking up and barely able to speak for several minutes. Although the sea was calm, the sky overcast but not threatening, a typical late tropical afternoon, I knew that unseen under those placid waters were about 30 U.S. Navy ships, and another 10 or so in waters adjacent to Guadalcanal. Almost 5,000 U.S. Navy Sailors had died in five major night surface battles, two carrier versus carrier duels, and dozens of smaller but deadly naval battles for control of the sea, and countless dogfights for control of the skies over the sea.
From where I was standing, in about a 60-degree arc, I could clearly see the sites of all five surface battles: Savo Island, the worst defeat for the U.S. Navy at sea in history (9 August 1942); Cape Esperance, a narrow U.S. victory (11–12 October); the suicidal bloodbath for both sides of 13 November and the costly but decisive U.S. naval victory on 14–15 November; and Tassafaronga (30 November), yet another terrible U.S. defeat, but which did not change the outcome of the campaign. So many U.S. and Japanese ships were lost in these waters that they became known as Iron Bottom Sound.
I had been invited aboard the Petrel to participate in their search for two U.S. aircraft carriers lost in the campaign for Guadalcanal: the USS Wasp (CV-7) and the USS Hornet (CV-8), and, time permitting, other sunken U.S. and Japanese ships. To be frank, it would have been enough just for the opportunity to see Iron Bottom Sound, and pay my respects to those thousands of Sailors who left such a legacy of honor, courage, and commitment that our Navy strives to live up to today. But, the chance to be the first to see aircraft carriers unseen for 77 years was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass.
Petrel is a privately funded, highly sophisticated ocean research ship, equipped with state-of-the art autonomous and remote underwater research equipment capable of search of the ocean floor down to 19,000 feet and of covering a larger search area faster than previous research ships. It also had better internet connectivity via satellite than I have from my desktop at work, which I suppose would be expected given the ship was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who sadly passed away. Mr. Allen did live to see his dream of finding the lost heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35), sunk with heavy loss of life in the last weeks of World War II. Petrel continues to fulfill his wish of honoring his father’s World War II naval service by locating other U.S. ships lost in action.
The U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch pays close attention to any effort to find sunken U.S. Navy vessels. Under customary international maritime law, sunken naval vessels remain sovereign property, and the “right of salvage” or the “right of finds” for sunken merchant ships or commercial vessels do not apply. The U.S. Navy retains title to all sunken ships and aircraft wrecks (including terrestrial) in perpetuity unless specifically legally divested (the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor sunk off Cape Hattaras in 1863 is a rare example of this). In addition, the U.S. Navy has traditionally viewed a sunken naval vessel as a “fit and final resting place,” for U.S. Navy Sailors lost at sea due to the enemy or the elements, and this has recently been codified by a U.S. Navy regulation (at NHHC’s instigation).
Many of these wrecks are “war graves,” or otherwise represent the last resting place of Sailors who gave their lives in the service of our country, and, as such, deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and decorum—they are literally hallowed sites as much as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or Arlington National Cemetery. In addition, many of these sunken craft are hazardous due to unexploded ordnance or risk environmental contamination due to trapped fuel oil, as well as other potential dangers.
In 2004, the “customary” maritime law was legally codified by the U.S. Congress under the “Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA),” for U.S. warships, naval auxiliaries, or other shipping operating under U.S. government control in non-commercial service (e.g., merchant ships carrying U.S. war material in convoy) as well as military aircraft. The act applies to U.S. ships that meet the definition of “military craft” anywhere in the world, but applies only to U.S. citizens. That is, U.S. sunken military craft outside U.S. territorial waters are not protected by the SMCA from salvage activity by foreign entities, although “customary” maritime law still applies to the extent that the foreign entity chooses to respect it.
Nation-states generally do respect customary maritime law (which was also codified under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, which the United States signed but has not yet ratified). However, some salvagers conduct operations either unbeknownst to nations or outside any national jurisdiction. For example, within the last several years, British and Dutch warship wrecks lost during the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942 such as the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, have been blown apart by explosives and the pieces brought up by claw crane to barges (most likely from China), with human remains buried in unmarked mass graves ashore and the remains of the ship used as scrap (metal from shipwrecks that occurred before the advent of atmospheric nuclear explosions appears to have a market value worth the effort). In the case of Java Sea, such salvage operations are believed to have been conducted without the knowledge of official Indonesian government authorities.
The U.S. has lost two ships to this illicit activity in the Java Sea, the destroyer USS Pope (DD-225) and the submarine USS Perch (SS-176), with the saving grace being that neither vessel went down with their crews (their hell began in Japanese prisoner of war camps). NHHC continues to work closely with the U.S. Country Team in Jakarta to have Indonesia declare the wreck of the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) a protected maritime conservation zone so that she does not meet the same fate. Houston was lost on 1 March 1942 along with the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth in a heroic night action against an overwhelming Japanese force in the Sunda Strait; approximately 600 of Houston’s crew went down with the ship and are likely entombed within. Many others died in the water or in Japanese captivity.
Throughout all previous incarnations of the command, NHHC has kept a database of known or estimated positions of sunken U.S. naval vessels or aircraft as a matter of course and for the sake of history. It includes about 3,000 shipwrecks of all sizes dating to the Continental Navy plus 14,000 (and counting) aircraft wrecks. This database activity now has additional impetus as NHHC is the U.S. Navy’s executive agent for administering SMCA, and there are severe civil penalties (up to $100,000 per day) that can be levied on any U.S. citizen who deliberately disturbs a wreck covered by the act. In order to prove any such case in court, however, it is important to know the exact location and condition of wrecks in order to prove disturbance. Although Indonesia came under criticism for failing to protect the Java Sea wrecks, the reality is that even the U.S. Navy lacks the resources to monitor the condition of most of sunken naval vessels. Working with legitimate private researchers such as the Petrel, or receiving reports from responsible recreational divers, is generally the only way NHHC can learn of the location and condition or ongoing disturbance of U.S. Navy wrecks.
Under SMCA, it is perfectly legal for anyone to dive on a U.S. Navy wreck anywhere in the world (consistent with local laws) so long as there is no intent to disturb the wreck. If there is a valid scientific, educational, archaeological, environmental, or other U.S. Government purpose, NHHC has authority to issue a permit to a requestor for controlled disturbance of a wreck, which so far has been extremely rare. (Special policies are in place in the case of supporting activity by the Defense POW/MIA Accountability Agency—DPAA.)
Initially, Mr. Allen’s group (operating under his corporation, Vulcan, Inc.) began hunting shipwrecks in 2015 using his private yacht, Octopus (which was equipped with very sophisticated underwater search gear), and relying entirely on their own independent research. Octopus’s survey of U.S. and Japanese ships in Iron Bottom Sound and the location of the Japanese super-battleship Musashi in the Philippines attracted NHHC attention. It quickly became apparent that Vulcan’s Subsea Team was a very responsible organization, with exceptional capability, that treated the wrecks with the utmost respect, with no intent other than to find the wrecks and then publicize the courage and sacrifice of those U.S. Sailors who served aboard.
In addition, Vulcan’s Subsea Team voluntarily shared positional and condition information (including extensive video and photos) with NHHC, and made clear they had no intent to publicize the precise coordinates of the wrecks. This began a collaborative relationship between Vulcan and NHHC, at no cost to the U.S. Navy other than staff time I chose to commit to the effort (which is a sunk cost). I would also note that NHHC collaborates with a few other research entities, such as Bob Ballard—so long as the research is legitimate, there is no intent to disturb the wreck, and the exact location is not publicized.
With the purchase of Petrel in 2016, and the desire by Mr. Allen to find the wreck of the USS Indianapolis (after multiple previous efforts by others had failed), the vessel’s underwater search group approached NHHC for additional data to supplement the considerable amount of data they had already amassed. As director of NHHC, I had previously directed NHHC historians and underwater archaeologists to do a “deep dive” (in the records) regarding the loss of Indianapolis. As a result of that, along with modern wind/current drift computer modeling courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Oceanography Department, NHHC determined that the actual position of Indianapolis’ loss was about 40 nautical miles west-southwest of the “official” U.S. Navy position used in the court of inquiry and court martial of Captain Charles McVay in 1945. I directed this information be shared with Petrel. Given her exceptional capability, she would have eventually found Indianapolis without NHHC’s help, and, in fact, the actual position of Indianapolis was about the same distance west but a bit further to the north than NHHC’s estimated position (but a lot closer than the “official” Navy position). Nevertheless, the successful search of the Indianapolis, Vulcan’s care in managing the release of information (enabling NHHC to initiate contact with the Indianapolis Survivor’s Association so that the remaining few survivors learned of the discovery before it hit the media), and the no-cost sharing of data from Petrel established a solid foundation for a trusted relationship that continues to this day.
The Vulcan Group prefers to keep future operations by Petrel as proprietary information and does not divulge positional data of the ship while underway. However, since the Indianapolis search, Petrel has shared future plans with NHHC. During 2018, Petrel located the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), lost during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the light anti-aircraft cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52), sunk by Japanese submarine I-26 after being severely damaged in the 13 November 1942 battle off Guadalcanal, and the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50), sunk during the Battle of Kula Gulf in July 1943. The 2018 expedition searched for, but was unable to locate, the destroyer USS Strong (DD-467), sunk in the southern Kula Gulf by what is believed to be the longest successful torpedo shot in history (11 nautical miles) by a Japanese Type-93 “Long Lance” torpedo. Petrel would subsequently locate Strong on 26 February 2019.
In late 2018, Petrel’s team issued an invitation to NHHC to participate aboard the vessel in a search for the lost aircraft carriers USS Wasp (CV-7) and USS Hornet (CV-8), and other ships in the Guadalcanal area, time permitting. Under the RHIP (“rank has its privileges”) principle, I took the first underway period out of Honiara from 2–16 January, and NHHC’s long-time director of underwater archaeology, Bob Neyland, took the second two-week underway period. Upon arrival on board Petrel, I reacquainted with Mr. Robert Kraft, the head of Petrel’s “A.T.U.” Unit (“All Things Underwater”); Mr. Paul Mayer, senior researcher and jack of many trades; and Ms. Janet Greenlee, their superb public outreach leader. On board with me were also Mr. Ed Caesar, an award-winning (Foreign Press Association 2014 Journalist of the Year) international correspondent doing a story for the New York Times Magazine, and international award–winning professional photographer David Maurice Smith.
The initial plan was to go after Hornet first due to her more extensive battle record (launching the Doolittle Raid on Japan; participating in the pivotal Battle of Midway, in which her entire torpedo squadron was shot down in one of the most valiant attacks against overwhelming odds in U.S. naval history; and her ultimate loss in the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942, during which her planes severely damaged the Japanese carrier Shokaku and her guns shot down many Japanese aircraft). Meteora, the goddess of weather, had other ideas. Petrel had very sophisticated tools for tracking weather and sea states. The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) could be launched and operate in almost any weather, but the manned Zodiac boat necessary to retrieve it when it surfaced could not be operated safely in the predicted conditions. The weather in the area of Wasp’s sinking was only marginally better, but expected to improve sooner, so Robert Kraft made the decision to go for Wasp first (no plan survives contact with the enemy).
Wasp was a one-of-a-kind aircraft carrier, with her tonnage limited by treaty restrictions. She carried about the same number of aircraft (70–80) as the previous Yorktown-class (Yorktown (CV-5), Enterprise (CV-6), and Hornet (CV-8), but was smaller, with less redundancy and less compartmentation to save weight. She was the first carrier to have a deck-edge elevator. Upon the outbreak of World War II, the less capable Wasp was intended to operate in the Atlantic, while Yorktown and Hornet were transferred to the Pacific. During this period, Wasp conducted two aircraft ferry missions, flying off British Spitfire fighters to bolster the defense of beleaguered Malta in the Mediterranean (and recovering one Spitfire—not a carrier aircraft—aboard that had engine trouble after launch, with a few feet to spare). However, with the loss of Lexington (CV-2) at Coral Sea and Yorktown at Midway, Wasp was rushed around to the Pacific.
At the time of the U.S. landings on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942, Wasp provided air support, along with Enterprise and Saratoga (CV-3), while Hornet defended Pearl Harbor from potential Japanese attack. During the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on 24 August 1942, Wasp was out of position, having been ordered to go south to refuel, and missed the battle. Enterprise was badly damaged in the battle and had to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs and was replaced by Hornet. On 28 August, Saratoga was hit by a Japanese submarine torpedo (for the second time in the war) from I-26 and put out of action for several months, leaving Wasp and Hornet as the only two operational U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific. (I-26 would later sink the light cruiser Juneau on 13 November 1942.)
For the first weeks of September 1942, Wasp and Hornet operated south of Guadalcanal, close enough to provide support to the Marines ashore on short notice if necessary, but outside the range of land-based Japanese bombers. The Japanese countered by flooding that operating area with at least nine submarines. On 15 September, Task Force 18 (TF 18), centered on Wasp, and TF-17, centered on Hornet, were providing air cover to a convoy transporting the 7th Marine Regiment (about 4,000 Marines) to reinforce the Marines already on Guadalcanal.
At about 1445, just after Wasp completed a launch and recovery cycle of aircraft and a particularly vulnerable time, the Japanese submarine I-19 penetrated Wasp’s escort screen undetected and fired all six of her bow torpedoes at the carrier from the relatively short range of just under 1,000 yards. At least two and possibly three of the torpedoes struck Wasp on her starboard side forward, immediately igniting an intense conflagration and causing a 15-degree starboard list. Among other things, the explosions knocked out the fire mains, so the crew had no effective means to fight the fires that immediately spread.
The U.S. Navy had learned numerous hard lessons in damage control from the loss of Lexington at Coral Sea (such as filling aviation fuel lines with inert gas) and these lessons had been incorporated and had initially saved Yorktown at Midway, despite multiple bomb and torpedo hits, until she was later sunk by a Japanese submarine I-168, and they had saved Enterprise during the Battle of Eastern Solomons. Unfortunately, many of these preventive measures required warning of an inbound air strike in order to implement. In the case of I-19’s torpedoes, there were only a few seconds of warning.
Wasp was quickly rocked by secondary explosions from stored bombs and fuel (the third torpedo hit may or may not have actually been a secondary explosion). These were followed by a massive explosion at 1500 and within about 20 minutes it was apparent that saving the ship was impossible. Captain Forrest Sherman gave the order to abandon ship. It took about 40 minutes for the crew to go over the side and Sherman was the last living person to go into the water. (Sherman would be awarded a Navy Cross and a Purple Heart for his efforts to save his ship.)
Following the massive explosion on Wasp, Rear Admiral Norman Scott, embarked on San Francisco, assumed command of TF-18, believing that Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes on Wasp would likely have been killed, so violent was the explosion. Noyes was only burned, but with all radio communication destroyed on Wasp, Scott’s decision was correct. (One of the most famous photos of Wasp on fire was taken from San Francisco.) Noyes would be relieved of command and criticized, somewhat unfairly, for operating the carriers for too long in the same vicinity, increasing the risk of submarine attack.
Fortunately, the burning Wasp remained afloat for hours, which enabled a relatively orderly abandon ship, and the great majority of Wasp’s 2,247-man crew were rescued by the carrier’s escorts, including the Laffey (DD-459), Landsdowne (DD-486), and other destroyers. Those who were killed included 25 officers, 150 men (including 4 Marines and 42 aircraft squadron personnel), and one war correspondent, Jack Singer (last seen sitting at his typewriter) for a total of 176 dead plus about 175 wounded. Captain Sherman’s original report, filed in December 1942, gave a total of 193 killed (plus the journalist) and that number has been used in almost every account since, although one account (Richard Frank’s very well-researched Guadalcanal) gives 173 (plus the journalist). However, very recent research by NHHC historian Bob Cressman confirms 176 (including the journalist)—Frank’s account missed two Marines. This just goes to show there is always something new to learn in history.
Survivors included Rear Admiral Noyes and Captain Sherman, who went on to be the youngest Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) at that time (1949–51), and, unfortunately, the youngest to ever die in office (of a heart attack). Benedict Semmes, Jr., went on to serve as a vice admiral and president of the Naval War College in the 1970s. Lieutenant David McCampbell, a landing signal officer (LSO) on Wasp, jumped into the water from the LSO platform and went on to be the U.S. Navy’s all-time leading “ace,” with 34 Japanese downed aircraft to his credit (a record 9 of them in one mission.)
Meanwhile, one of the torpedoes that missed Wasp passed directly under Landsdowne (DD-486) without exploding, and Landsdowne radioed a warning as the torpedo headed for the Hornet Task Force. At least three of the torpedoes that missed Wasp travelled about five miles into Hornet’s screen, one passing too close to the carrier for comfort. Another passed directly under the destroyer Mustin (DD-413) without exploding before hitting the new fast battleship North Carolina (BB-55,) killing five Sailors and blowing a 32 by 18 foot–hole in the ship, which necessitated the forward ammunition magazine be flooded as a precaution. Although still capable of making 25 knots, North Carolina required extensive repair and was out of action for two months. One of Hornet’s escorting destroyers, O’Brien (DD-415), successfully dodged one of the torpedoes only to be hit in the bow by another. Although no crewmen were killed, the damage was severe enough that O’Brien broke apart and sank a month later after transiting over 2,800 miles attempting to reach Pearl Harbor for repair; her entire crew was rescued.
Hitting three ships with at least four of six torpedoes fired in a single spread makes Lieutenant Commander Takakazu Kinashi’s attack arguably the most effective by a submarine of all time. Wasp’s escort destroyers dropped 30 depth charges on I-19, but she escaped, only to later be sunk with all hands by destroyer USS Radford (DD-446) in November 1943.
For many years, the torpedo hits on North Carolina and O’Brien were attributed to a second submarine, I-15; however, Japanese records confirm I-19 fired all six. I-15 did, however, witness the destroyer Landsdowne as she was ordered to scuttle Wasp with a spread of torpedoes at 2100 on 15 September. (Of interest, both I-15 and I-19 were of a class of submarines that was equipped with a hangar and a float plane, and a plane from sister submarine I-25 bombed Oregon twice with incendiary bombs in September 1942, the only air attacks on U.S. soil by foreign aircraft.)
USS Hornet (CV-8) dead in the water with a destroyer alongside, 26 October 1942. Note the oil slick surrounding the carrier (80-G-304514).
The loss of Wasp left Hornet as the only operational aircraft carrier in the U.S. Pacific Fleet for over a month, until a repaired Enterprise arrived just in time to face four Japanese carriers (two fleet carriers, one medium carrier, and one light carrier) in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942, during which Enterprise was damaged again and Hornet was lost. The absence of North Carolina and O’Brien (which had been upgraded with additional anti-aircraft capability) from Hornet’s escort screen was a significant factor in the number of Japanese aircraft that were able to penetrate the Hornet Task Force’s anti-aircraft defenses and inflict mortal damage on the carrier. Although the damaged Enterprise remained in the area, her significantly impaired capability gave the Japanese a window of opportunity to attempt to reinforce and resupply their troops on Guadalcanal, setting the stage for the costly night surface battles off Guadalcanal on 13,14, and 15 November 1942.
Petrel has a very sophisticated geospatial display capability. Paul Mayer had amassed every bit of positional data from every ship operating in the vicinity of the Wasp at the time she was hit and the time she sank, which was displayed on the big screen. The first thing that was apparent was the positions were quite literally “all over the map.” My first thought was to comment that I had taken celestial navigation and it was a real (expletive), and nobody was shooting at me while trying to do a sight form. Instead I came up with something more mundane about the challenges of open-ocean navigation in the days before GPS, or even Loran and Omega. Nevertheless, there was a general clump and one significant outlier. The outlier happened to be the position recorded by the navigator of Landsdowne, the ship that had actually scuttled Wasp, about 25 nautical miles from the rest of the positions. Wasp’s navigator had been rescued by Landsdowne and was aboard the destroyer when she sank the Wasp. He recorded a position for where the WASP went down that was about 20 nautical miles different from the one recorded by Landsdowne’s navigator, which was somewhat perplexing. I recommended going with Wasp’s navigator’s position as it was likely he had more experience—plus, it was basically the centroid of mass for the other recorded positions.
On the first attempt to send the AUV down to search, it decided to be a bit too autonomous and spontaneously aborted after a few minutes for reasons that were a bit of a mystery to the technicians. The second attempt also aborted after a few hours (a normal mission for the AUV would be about 18 hours to search roughly 40 square miles). By contrast, once the AUV was recovered, exploiting that data and searching the area on computer only took about ten minutes to. By this time, the weather that was supposed to be getting better had gotten worse, and 15-foot swells made Zodiac operations unsafe. Finally, on 5 January, the AUV got in a full search, and located a debris field that stood out quite clearly against what was essentially a flat, featureless mud desert 14,000 feet down. Since the wind was recorded as coming from the southeast, it was assumed that Wasp would have drifted to the northwest, and the next search was programmed accordingly, which resulted in a little more debris, but no ship. The next two attempts, postulating even more northwesterly drift, also came up as a “zonk.”
After four attempts, with nothing to show except some photos of spectacular sunsets and blurry pictures of oceanic whitetip sharks (the species in Indianapolis’ nightmare), one of the crew developed acute abdominal pain, which rightly led Petrel to make best speed (12 knots) for the 30-hour return transit to Honiara for medical attention beyond that which could be provided by Petrel’s clinic. While waiting for the prognosis from the hospital ashore (which turned out well), Robert Kraft asked if there were any wrecks in Iron Bottom Sound I would like to take a look at with the remotely-operated vehicle (ROV). On a previous expedition, Octopus had mapped out over 40 wrecks or potential wrecks in Iron Bottom Sound, some of which had first been located and explored by Bob Ballard on his expedition in 1991–92. I asked to see the destroyer Laffey (DD-459), even though it was a site previously located by Ballard, and the Petrel’s team obliged.
The reason I wanted to see Laffey was because a painting of her is on my standard NHHC briefing cover slide and another print hangs on the bulkhead behind my chair in the command conference room. The painting depicts Laffey in a close-quarters duel with the Japanese battleship Hiei. During the pre-dawn hours of 13 November 1942, Laffey was second in a line of 13 U.S. ships (five cruisers and eight destroyers) that plowed head-on into a roughly circular formation of two Japanese battleships, one light cruiser, and 11 destroyers. The result was akin to a multi-car freeway pile-up in the fog that quickly degenerated into a hellacious no-quarter free-for-all. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison described it as being like “minnows in a bucket.” A survivor described it as being like “a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out.” The mission was to prevent the Japanese battleships from bombarding Henderson Field, which Captain Young on San Francisco assessed as “suicide,” sentiments with which Rear Admiral Callaghan agreed, but said they had no choice. Young’s assessment was correct.
At one point early in the melee, Laffey passed directly ahead of Hiei’s on-rushing bow emerging from a smoke screen, with a CPA (closest point of approach) of 20 feet. Laffey sprayed Hiei with every weapon she had, including the side-arms of officers on the bridge. The destroyer pumped numerous 5-inch shells into Hiei, hits that were described as “instantaneous impact”; most of them bounced off the battleship’s thick armor plate. Nevertheless, Laffey’s 1.1-inch and 20-mm anti-aircraft guns fired rounds into Hiei’s bridge, wounding Rear Admiral Abe and Hiei’s captain, and killing Abe’s chief of staff and other officers on the bridge. After the battle, Abe remembered nothing of what had happened, and his ability to command and control the battle had been gravely impaired. In addition, Laffey’s shells caused Hiei’s pagoda-like superstructure to catch fire (described as “a burning high-rise apartment building” steaming through the battle), which then drew fire from numerous other U.S. warships. Laffey also fired torpedoes at Hiei, but at too close a range for them to arm.
As Laffey drew away from Hiei, she came under concentrated fire from three Japanese destroyers and the battleship Kirishima. Hit by several 14-inch battleship shells and numerous smaller-caliber rounds from the destroyers, Laffey lost speed before her stern was blown off by a torpedo from another Japanese destroyer. Shortly after Laffey’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander William E. Hank, gave the order to abandon ship, a massive explosion killed him and many others. Chunks of the ship rained down on the destroyer O’Bannon (DD-450), which otherwise went through the thick of the battle miraculously without any casualties. Laffey suffered 57 killed and 114 wounded, and Hank would be awarded a second Navy Cross, this one posthumously; Laffey was awarded a posthumous Presidential Unit Citation.
As bad as the battle was for Laffey, she didn’t get the worst of it. Three other destroyers were sunk: Cushing (72 killed), Barton (165 killed), and Monssen (145 killed). The light cruiser Atlanta was lost with 170 killed, including Rear Admiral Norman Scott (who had survived the sinking of the destroyer Jacob Jones—DD-61—in World War I), who was killed by “friendly fire” from San Francisco in the chaos. Scott would be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
San Francisco survived, with 86 dead, plus 24 killed the day before when a crippled Japanese torpedo bomber deliberately flew into the cruiser’s anti-aircraft guns that had inflicted the mortal damage to the aircraft. San Francisco, in turn, would hit Hiei in a critical location, knocking out her steering, as the two ships steaming on opposite courses fired broadsides into each other at a near point-blank range of just over a nautical mile. Only the fact that Hiei, having been caught by surprise by the presence of the U.S. force, was still firing mostly shore bombardment rounds and incendiaries likely saved San Francisco, but not Callaghan or Young.
The next morning, the gravely damaged light cruiser Juneau was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-26 and blew up, killing all but about 100 or so of her crew, of whom all but 10 died over the course of ten days in the water due to exposure, salt-ingestion, and shark attack. All five Sullivan brothers were lost on Juneau. Including the Juneau, 1,439 U.S. Sailors died in this battle, making 13 November 1942 the bloodiest battle at sea in U.S. naval history. Fifty-seven U.S. Naval Academy graduates died in this one battle alone.
As the ROV reached the seabed and approached the wreck of the Laffey, it was once again a deeply emotional experience knowing how many men had gone down with this ship in such a desperate battle. The damage to the ship was appalling. The descriptions in various accounts paled compared to the reality of seeing it. The bow area had taken at least one major caliber shell hit, and was crunched so the hull number could not be seen in the crumpled folds. The entire superstructure was perforated like the bridge wing at the San Francisco memorial, yet, through the zoom lens, the engine-order telegraph on the bridge could plainly be seen, intact. The two forward 5-inch turrets looked like they had been blasted open from the inside, the No. 2 turret trained aft as far as it would go. Both funnels had been blasted off and a huge gaping hole led to the engineering spaces. Reports said the stern had been blown off aft of the aftermost turret (No. 4). The stern was indeed missing, so no name could be seen, but everything after where the aft funnel should have been was completely mangled.
As the ROV carefully inched its way along each side of the ship, uncertainty began to mount among Petrel’s crew as to whether this wreck could be confirmed as Laffey. There were enough features still visible that I could identify it as a Benson-class destroyer. I asked the ROV operator to take a close look at the forward 5-inch gun director, as Barton (lost in the same battle) had a newer type fire-control radar. However, this one matched Laffey, so I was convinced, although others were still suffering lingering doubt. As the ROV was about to end to search, one of the operators spotted some sort of rectangle on the bulkhead at the quarterdeck. Using the powerful zoom optics of the ROV, the rectangle proved to be the builder’s plaque, and “U.S.S. Laffey” could be seen through the marine growth. The sight of this ship, which had gone down fighting so heroically, evoked intense emotions in me that I can only liken to a religious experience. The ship herself was the only marker her crew had.
After the doctors ashore worked their magic, it wasn’t long before Petrel was back underway, heading southeasterly from Guadalcanal to resume the search, quickly rejoined by the oceanic whitetips in the five to six–foot range, whether the same or different group as before there was no way of knowing. Like the first set, these were not timid at all, getting right in with the Zodiac as the crew hooked a cable to the AUV so it could be hoisted out of the water. Like the two previous ones, two more search attempts came up totally empty. On the sixth dive, the AUV started taking on water, and the search effort was halted while repairs were made. The search area that had been covered now looked like a large rectangle and future searches would start adding to the perimeter. The question was, which direction? Petrel had a commitment to return to Guadalcanal on 16 January to pick up CBS correspondent Mark Philips and a TV news crew. Ed Caesar had to get off, and although the Petrel’s great connectivity had enabled me to stay in touch with my office and keep up with work, I really did need to get back to Washington. Time for further searches was running out. The Petrel could return to the Wasp site later, but I could not.
While the AUV was being tinkered with, Kraft sent the ROV down to check out the debris field located on the first search. It turned out to consist of dozens of World War II–era helmets and a variety of other miscellaneous metal fragments, nothing of which looked like it definitely could have come from an aircraft carrier. Kraft and Mayer scrubbed and rescrubbed the after-action reports and the positional data. The question was whether or not to possibly use our last shot on Landsdowne’s outlying position or to continue to search to the north and west of the debris field.
We were all convinced by now that the debris field was not from Wasp. It was possible the debris was from the torpedo hits on O’Brien or North Carolina, although how that would have produced a field of helmets was mystifying. Now working under the assumption that the debris field was from the hits on the ships in Hornet’s group, Petrel’s team tried to determine the relative direction of Hornet’s group from the Wasp when she was hit. Although the distance, roughly five miles, was well recorded, the navigational fixes from Hornet’s group were as varied as those of Wasp’s. The famous photo that shows O’Brien being hit by a torpedo as Wasp burns several miles in the background was about the only clue, using the direction of smoke pouring from Wasp as a reference. The chicken bones suggested a search to the southwest of where we had been looking.
After about another 18 hours of searching, the AUV surfaced at about 0300 on 14 January. The data card was pulled from the AUV and took about 20 minutes to load onto the computer. The search of the data was only a matter of minutes before the wreck of Wasp could be seen sticking out like a lighthouse against the barren backdrop of the bottom. The carrier was sitting upright and mostly intact. The sonar shadow clearly showed the island superstructure, and it was apparent there were large holes in the flight deck other than the elevators. The resolution of the side-scan sonar was such that from the first instant there was absolutely no doubt that this was an aircraft carrier, and the only one it could possibly be was Wasp.
The first view of Wasp was accompanied by a very long period of silence in the operations room.
There was relief that we had found her, but the sight of an aircraft carrier at the bottom of the ocean is incredibly sobering. Like Laffey, knowing that this ship represented the final resting place of 176 Americans actually made it very somber for me and everyone else in the room (at the time, I still thought it was 194 Americans). Eventually, however, I admit that excitement set in. It turned out that Wasp’s actual position was 11 nautical miles from the closest U.S. Navy navigational fix, and 23 nautical miles from that of Landsdowne.
Petrel is equipped with very precise GPS station-keeping ability, and took a position just off the port beam of Wasp and lowered the ROV into the water. Through the multitude of video and still cameras on the ROV, at least two sharks were observed to follow the ROV down to about 1,000 feet before they broke off. It took about an hour for the ROV to descend to about 14,000 feet, arriving just off the bottom (but not touching it) only about 50 yards from the carrier. It could have been lowered closer with considerable precision, but Kraft wanted to take absolutely no chance of either hitting the ship or the ROV.
As the ROV cautiously approached the WASP, it became apparent that the ship had settled in deep mud almost to the normal waterline, which meant that finding exact locations of torpedo impacts would not be possible, although observed upward blast damage on catwalks along the flight deck gave indication of where torpedoes had exploded. The first part of Wasp to come in view was the innovative (and standard thereafter) deck-edge aircraft elevator, which could take planes from the hangar deck to the flight deck without creating a “hole” in the flight deck. At first it looked as if the flight deck was ringed by icicles; these proved to be chains that had served as lifelines along the catwalks that had come loose and were hanging from the stanchions.
As the ROV slowly worked its way aft, 20-mm and 5-inch guns came into view. At the stern, the flight deck “round-down” had come loose and fallen at a diagonal across the last few frames of the ship, which caused the very aft end of the fantail to separate and resulting in the stern nameplate being buried in the mud and not visible.
As Petrel periodically re-positioned to ensure the umbilical cable would not come in contact with the ship, the ROV slowly worked its way forward along Wasp’s starboard side. In the area of the island, the quad 1.1-inch anti-aircraft mounts were remarkably intact. Through the zoom lens, the interior of the bridge was a shambles and extensive material from the overhead had collapsed on to the deck. Just forward of the island, the ship was cleaved athwartships as if cut by a knife, mostly likely caused when the ship came to rest on the bottom, but probably originating in torpedo damage that was not visible in the mud. After rounding the bow, finding an anchor, and then crossing the flight deck to observe the port side of the island, which showed evidence of intense heat, the survey of the ship ended. Although 45 aircraft had gone down with the ship, none were observed on the flight deck nor through openings into the hangar bays.
The Petrel’s team then navigated the ROV through the debris fields surrounding the ship, which contained such things as fire-control radars from the gun directors and other unidentified, but sometimes large, pieces of metal. About eight or nine badly damaged aircraft were located in the debris field. One was definitely an F4F Wildcat fighter, one was probably an SBD Dauntless dive bomber based on the dive brakes, and the rest were TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. In some cases, wings had been blasted away from fuselages, but in every case the tail assembly had been obliterated (no sign of horizontal or vertical tail surfaces were observed anywhere and had presumably been buried in the mud). The phenomenon precluded any identification of aircraft by bureau number or other ship or squadron markings.
With the survey complete and everyone satisfied, except for maybe the sharks, Petrel commenced a return voyage to Guadalcanal. Ed Caesar had gotten more “drama” for his article on the search than he had expected. I notified the Chief of Naval Operations and Vice Chief of Naval Operations of the find, and noted that the Petrel Group wished for no publicity until the New York Times Magazine had the opportunity to break the story, which finally occurred online on 13 March and in the Sunday magazine on 17 March.
My head of underwater archaeology, Bob Neyland, boarded Petrel after I disembarked. Petrel then went out and found Hornet on the first dive, so no drama for Bob.
CBS broke the story on Hornet first, even though she had been found after Wasp. Petrel would then go on to locate and positively identify the Japanese battleship Hiei, which had been unable to steer after the “Achilles heel” hit by San Francisco.
Hit over 85 times during the night battle, the stubborn ship finally succumbed the next day to multiple waves of air attacks from Enterprise, and from Henderson Field, whose airplanes had been saved by the sacrifice of Callaghan’s force preventing a Japanese bombardment, at staggering cost.
I have been asked on occasion why the Navy would want publicity about shipwrecks. Don’t sunken ships represent defeat? Actually, in the case of the U.S. Navy, most ship losses were in the course of victory, and victory has a price. Many of those ships lost in defeat were lost in acts of unbelievable courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
Even in the worst of defeats, there are almost always numerous extraordinary acts of valor and sacrifice by American Sailors that deserve to be remembered. Even Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, who inflicted the worst at-sea defeat of the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Savo Island, lauded the courage displayed by the northern group of U.S. cruisers, especially USS Quincy (CA-39), before all three were sunk. Mikawa commented that with five minutes more warning for the U.S. forces, the outcome of what should have been an evenly matched battle might have been completely different. Even at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were astonished at how quickly U.S. ships were able to put up an intense anti-aircraft barrage—it was the weapons that were ineffective, not the U.S. Sailors who manned them. And at Pearl Harbor, those officers and sailors earned 15 Medals of Honor and 51 Navy Crosses for acts of extreme valor in the face of catastrophe. Such courage deserves to be remembered.
From the very beginning, American sailors have paid a very high price for the freedom of this nation. The Battle of Penobscot Bay (a defeat) Bonhomme Richard (John Paul Jones) versus HMS Serapis, and Randolph (Nicholas Biddle) versus HMS Yarmouth, were all in the top eight bloodiest battles of the American Revolution on land or sea, with over 300 killed in each. Their sacrifice deserves to be remembered.
Sadly, memorials dedicated to the sacrifice of American Sailors during the battles for Guadalcanal are few and far between. Besides the San Francisco memorial, the USS South Dakota memorial in Sioux Falls honors the three destroyers lost in the battle of 14–15 November (Preston, Walke and Benham), and the museum ship The Sullivans (DD-573) in Buffalo has a room dedicated to Juneau, aboard which all five Sullivan brothers were lost after the battle of 13 November. The Sailors who fought at Guadalcanal were still mostly pre-draft volunteer professionals, many of whom had endured years of austere budgets, slow promotions, neglect, and even disrespect.
They went to war in a Navy with equipment that was not the best in the world, even though it was thought so, and yet they still did their duty to the utmost, even in some cases against insurmountable odds and the knowledge that they would not survive. They bought time with their lives for this nation to mobilize the industry and manpower to achieve ultimate victory, for which this nation should always be grateful. To have the story of Hornet and Wasp, ships whose courageous crews held the line during the darkest days of the war, reach a wide national and international audience is in my view a “win” for the U.S. Navy.
There are still ships to be found, such as the destroyer USS Jarvis (DD-393). Her loss on 9 August 1942 with all 233 hands somewhere southwest of Guadalcanal was overshadowed by the disaster at Savo Island the night prior. Badly damaged by a Japanese aerial torpedo and saved by the heroic damage control efforts of her crew, Jarvis was limping alone toward Australia for repair when she came under a 31-plane Japanese air attack. It is known from Japanese records that the crew of Jarvis put up a valiant fight, downing several aircraft before being overwhelmed. For Lieutenant Commander William W. Graham, Jr. (USNA ’25), and the crew of Jarvis, there are no Medals of Honor, no Navy Crosses, no Presidential Unit Citation because there were no witnesses. Only the ship herself, wherever she may be, serves as a memorial to the crew’s valor and ultimate sacrifice. That wreck, and every other Navy wreck, is hallowed ground deserving of the utmost respect, and the lives of their crews deserve to be remembered.