Explorers Discover the Wreck of the Aircraft Carrier USS Hornet, Sunk in World War II

The carrier launched the famous bomber raid on Tokyo.

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Photo courtesy of Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc.

The little ship called R/V Petrel is on a roll.

Just last week, the team behind this research vessel said it had found the wreck of the Japanese battleship Hiei, the first one U.S. force sunk during World War II. Now the ship, which is part of an expedition launched by late Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, has found an even more famous World War II wreck on the bottom of the sea: the USS Hornet.

A WWII Legend

The Hornet was an American aircraft carrier involved in the famous air raid on Tokyo early in the war before being scuttled during the Solomon Islands campaign. The ship was found more than three miles under the surface of the Pacific Ocean. R/V Petrel shared imagery of the sunken carrier, including pictures of the ship's five-inch guns (see above).

Le Porte-Avions Américain 'The Hornet'
Hornet under construction at Newport News, 1940.
Keystone-FranceGetty Images

The USS Hornet was one of the most famous carriers of World War II, but had one of the shortest careers. The ship was ordered 80 years ago, in March 1939, from the Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia and commissioned into the U.S. Navy just two months before Pearl Harbor. A Yorktown-class carrier, she displaced 25,000 tons fully loaded and was 824 feet long. Hornet typically carried a mixed air group consisting of up to 72 aircraft, including Wildcat fighters, SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and TBD Devastator torpedo bombers.

In April 1942, the carrier departed Naval Air Station Alameda, California, with a new, secret air group: 16 U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 Mitchell bombers. Hornet and her task force steamed to within 650 miles of Japan when, sighted by a Japanese fishing vessel, she abandoned plans to move closer and launched her bombers. The B-25s flew west and struck targets across a wide arc of Japan, bombing Tokyo, Yokosuka, Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagoya. The attack, just five months after Pearl Harbor, destroyed the myth of Japan’s invulnerability and boosted morale in the United States.

Doolittle Raid on Japan
A B-25 bomber launches from Hornet in April 1942, destination Japan.
HistoricalGetty Images

Later that year, during the October 1942 Battle of Santa Cruz, aircraft from Hornet damaged a Japanese carrier and cruiser, but the ship itself was heavily damaged by enemy fire. The Navy gave the order to abandon Hornet and attempted without success to scuttle her. Advancing Japanese forces finally sank the ship with torpedoes.

Long Lost

The Hornet was discovered in 5,330 meters of water, the equivalent of 17,486 feet, "on the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean." The Paul Allen website describes the discovery:

"The 10-person expedition team on the 250-foot R/V Petrel were able to locate 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. In the case of the Hornet, she was discovered on the first dive mission of the Petrel’s autonomous underwater vehicle and confirmed by video footage from the remotely operated vehicle, both pieces of equipment rated to dive down to 6,000 meters."
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Damage to Hornet’s hull.
R/V Petrel

Images on the website detail damage to the carrier’s hull, which may have been from the guns of the destroyers Mustin and Anderson. Together, they pumped a total of 400 five-inch shells into the carrier in an attempt to sink the boat before Japan could reach her. Another image shows an International Harvester tractor still upright in the aircraft hangar.

Hornet isn’t the first U.S. carrier the R/V Petrel has rediscovered. In 2018, the ship discovered the USS Lexington, a carrier sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Here’s dive footage of the discovery of the carrier known as “Lady Lex”:

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The Petrel team has been a little cagey about Hornet's precise location, and for good reason. Over the years, a number of Pacific war wrecks have been looted or disappeared completely, the victim of black-market scrappers. Although it is in international waters, the Hornet's remains are subject to the U.S. Sunken Military Craft Act. The act states that “the U.S. Navy's sunken military craft remain property of the U.S. regardless of their location or the passage of time and may not be disturbed without the permission from the U.S. Navy.”

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