Eight of the biggest prizes in historic aviation history were discovered approximately two miles beneath the surface of the Coral Sea, more than 500 miles off the coast of Queensland, Australia, on 4 March by billionaire philanthropist Paul G.
Allen’s research vessel RV Petrel. The aircraft, seven Douglas TBD-1 Devastators — of which there are no preserved survivors — and a combat veteran Grumman F4F Wildcat, have been on the bottom since 8 May 1942, when the aircraft carrier on which they were serving, the USS Lexington, was sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea.
The battle was the first action in which aircraft carriers engaged each other, and the first when crews from either side neither saw the opposing vessels, nor fired directly upon one another. The USS Lexington — originally commissioned as a battlecruiser but launched as an aircraft carrier during 1925 — faced three Japanese carriers, along with the USS Yorktown. On the morning of 8 May, Lexington suffered multiple hits by torpedoes and bombs delivered by Nakajima B5N ‘Kate’ torpedo bombers and Aichi D3A ‘Val’ dive-bombers, a secondary explosion causing uncontrolled fires that finally saw the order go out to abandon ship. A total of 216 crew members were lost, 2,770 being rescued.
To prevent the carrier being captured, the cruiser USS Phelps despatched the final torpedoes that sank the crippled carrier.
But the Japanese had suffered what would turn out to be a permanent setback in their advance on New Guinea and Australia, and lost the light carrier Shoho, the fleet carrier Shokaku suffering significant damage.
Several examples of the Devastator, Wildcat and Douglas Dauntless were blown off the deck before the Lexington sank, and the seven TBDs and the F4F discovered are lying separate from the three main surviving sections of the ship and are not considered to be war graves by the US Navy. The National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola, Florida, is reported to be very interested in the discovery, possibly raising hopes that a private/public partnership could be entered into to recover some of the aircraft.
The Wildcat has been identified as a machine flown by US Navy ace Lt Noel Gaylor, who went on to command the navy’s experimental jet fighter squadron VX-3 from June 1951 to January 1954, retiring on 31 August 1976 as an admiral. Five of the TBDs located — coded T-3, T-4, T-5, T-8 and T-9 — participated in a torpedo attack on the Shōhō during the battle, with T-4 and T-9 scoring confirmed hits.
Paul Allen, whose previous recoveries have included the ship’s bell from HMS Hood — it is now on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth — said, “To pay tribute to the USS Lexington and the brave men that served on her is an honour. As Americans, all of us owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who served and who continue to serve our country for their courage, persistence and sacrifice.”