Chalk up another historic shipwreck discovery for the Petrel, the research vessel funded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen: This time it’s the USS Hornet, the World War II aircraft carrier that was sunk by Japanese forces in 1942.
The Hornet is best-known as the launching point for the Doolittle Raid, the first airborne attack on the Japanese home islands after Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. Led by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, the raid in April 1942 provided a boost to American morale and put Japan on alert about our covert air capabilities.
Two months later, the Hornet was one of three U.S. carriers that surprised and sunk four Japanese carriers during the tide-turning Battle of Midway.
The Hornet was lost near the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific on Oct. 26, 1942, during the Battle of Santa Cruz. The carrier weathered a withering barrage from Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes — but the crew eventually had to abandon ship, leaving the Hornet to its sinking.
About 140 of the Hornet’s nearly 2,200 sailors and air crew members were lost..
“With the loss of Hornet and serious damage to Enterprise, the Battle of Santa Cruz was a Japanese victory, but at an extremely high cost,” retired Rear Adm. Samuel Cox, director of the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, said today in a news release. “About half the Japanese aircraft engaged were shot down by greatly improved U.S. Navy anti-aircraft defenses. As a result, the Japanese carriers did not engage again in battle for almost another two years.”
The Petrel took on the search for the Hornet as part of its mission to investigate scientific phenomena and historical mysteries in the South Pacific. The 250-foot research vessel’s previous shipwreck finds include the USS Indianapolis, the USS Lexington, the USS Juneau and the USS Helena.
The ship’s latest expedition took place in January, three months after Allen’s death.
“We had Hornet on our list of WWII warships that we wanted to locate because of its place in history as an aircraft carrier that saw many pivotal moments in naval battles,” said Robert Kraft, who heads the Petrel project as director of subsea operations for Vulcan. “Paul Allen was particularly interested in historically significant and capital ships, so this mission and discovery honor his legacy.”
The Petrel’s 10-person expedition team zeroed in on the Hornet’s position by piecing together data from national and naval archives that included official deck logs and action reports from other ships engaged in the battle. 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.
The discovery of the Hornet was made during the first dive mission of the Petrel’s autonomous underwater vehicle, at a depth of nearly 17,500 feet, and confirmed by video footage from the research ship’s remotely operated vehicle.
CBS News caught up with Richard Nowatzki, a 95-year-old California resident who was a gunner on the Hornet, and showed him video of the aft gun that he operated.
“I used to stand on the right side of that gun, and that’s where my equipment was,” Nowatzki said. “If you go down to my locker, there’s 40 bucks in it. You can have it.”
That might be tough: The precise location of the wreck is not being disclosed, to protect the underwater gravesite from being disturbed any further.