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Lexington gun
An image captured by a remotely operated vehcile from the R/V Petrel shows the barrel of a 5-inch gun on the USS Lexington. (Image courtesy of Paul G. Allen. Copyright Navigea Ltd.)

It’s traditional to revisit the gravesites of America’s fallen warriors on Memorial Day, but billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen is adding a non-traditional twist.

Today the co-founder of Microsoft is highlighting the work that he’s funded over the past couple of years to document the wrecks of historic warships — and not only U.S. ships, but naval vessels that flew the flags of Japan, Italy and Australia.

A newly unveiled website celebrates the exploits of the Petrel, Allen’s research ship, and its remotely operated vehicle. But more importantly, it celebrates the sacrifices made by the crews of such venerable ships as the USS Indianapolis, the USS Lexington, the USS Juneau and the USS Helena.

Here’s what Allen says in an essay written for Memorial Day, titled “Deepest Honor”:

“Long after the battles are over, the symbols that endure are the graves and memorials that stand to honor those who fought.

“On Memorial Day, people pay respect to those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Our military cemeteries are decorated end to end with flags and flowers. But for many families and friends of those lost at sea, this day is also a reminder of an ongoing question about the final resting place of their loved ones.

“Over the past year, the team on the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel have been dedicated to finding and documenting shipwrecks from World War II. Thanks to the efficiency of the crew and effectiveness of Petrel’s technology, we’ve discovered more than a dozen World War II warships. From the American fleet these include the USS Indianapolis, USS Cooper, USS Ward, USS Lexington, USS Juneau and USS Helena. We also surveyed nine warships from the Imperial Japanese Navy and one Italian naval ship.

“We search for these wrecks because of their historical significance. But the response to each discovery from families of those lost has been humbling. When we hear stories from the survivors or families of those who served or were lost at sea, we are reminded each time why these expeditions matter.

“Like many others, I have a personal connection to this history. My family was fortunate that my father returned from his service in the European theater. For thousands of other families this unfortunately was not the case. In documenting the final resting place of so many service members, all of us involved want to keep alive the memory of their dedication, heroism and self-sacrifice.

“These missions will continue with the same purpose, but with a deeper understanding that this work is important and makes a difference to thousands of families across the globe.”

Adm. John M. Richardson, chief of naval operations, issued a statement paying tribute to the crews of the ships that the Petrel helped find:

“The R/V Petrel expeditionary team’s discovery of the final resting place for many of our WWII ships serves as a reminder of the bravery and dedication of our sailors, and the unforgiving nature of war at sea.  We commemorate the service of so many of our shipmates from the Greatest Generation who paid the ultimate price to honor their oath to support and defend the Constitution.  Today, the men and women of the U.S. Navy best honor their sacrifice by serving with the same integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness as they did.”

For more about Memorial Day, check out the resources available via the Department of Veterans Affairs. And for more about the Petrel and its work, check out Paul Allen’s website, including the brand-new Petrel multimedia presentation. The Flying Heritage and Combat Museum in Everett, Wash., which features Allen’s collection of historic armaments, has scheduled a “classified” tank walkaround that’s open to the public at 7 p.m. PT May 31.

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