History Stories

In the treacherous waters of the Atlantic and the bomber-laden Mediterranean of World War II, the USS Wasp, a 741-foot-long aircraft carrier, came out unscathed. But it wasn’t so lucky in the Pacific. After earning two battle stars and ferrying soldiers and aircraft in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, it was downed by Japanese torpedoes while transporting reinforcements to Guadalcanal on September 15, 1942.

One hundred ninety-four people were killed or went missing in the attack, and the exact location of the wreck, and their bodies, became a historical mystery.

That mystery has now been solved. In January 2019, wreckage from the Wasp was discovered at the bottom of the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia. Surrounded by downed planes and abandoned helmets, the destroyed ship, whose exact location is under wraps, has been preserved for decades in the sea’s warm waters. It was discovered by the expedition crew aboard the Petrel, a research vessel operated by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s exploration team.

The discovery is a reminder of the vessel’s storied past. The eighth American ship to bear its name, the aircraft carrier was the place where U.S. Army planes flew from a U.S. Navy carrier for the first time. In 1942, it conducted two missions to the Mediterranean island of Malta, which was a British colony at the time. The island, which was considered an important stronghold from which British forces could attack Axis ships on their way to the new front in North Africa, had become strategically important. In an effort to keep British forces from using it to their advantage, German and Italian planes conducted almost daily bombings.

The USS Wasp came to the rescue, delivering Royal Air Force Spitfires to counter the attacks. Most of the planes delivered on the first ferrying mission were destroyed, but a second mission was a success. “Many thanks to you all for timely help,” said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a telegraph to the Wasp’s crew. “Who said a wasp couldn’t sting twice?”

The ship geared up for another sting as it entered the Pacific theater in support of the American invasion of the Solomon Islands, serving as home base for the planes that supported the invasion of Guadalcanal. But after heading south to refuel, it was attacked by Japanese submarine I-19. Four torpedoes lay waste to its hull, causing a catastrophic fire the ship’s crew was powerless to fight. The survivors abandoned ship and were rescued by other American destroyers.

Bud A. Ledbetter, who served on the Wasp as a radioman, recalled the attack in an oral history. “I was in the water and found a sailor who was vomiting,” he said. “I grabbed ahold of his life jacket and turned him on his back and pulled him along with me for the next hour and a half….At sunset I said to myself, “It’s time for me to get rescued, because if the sun goes down, the show’s over!”” Ledbetter was picked up soon afterward. Once the survivors had been rescued, the USS Landsdowne torpedoed the Wasp and it sank to the bottom of the ocean.

Journalist Ed Caesar followed the search for the Wasp for the New York Times Magazine. “My overriding impression was how small it seemed, for a carrier that had housed more than 2,000 sailors and dozens of airplanes,” he writes. “There had been so much life contained within that rusting hulk.” The wreck is approximately 14,000 feet below the sea surface.

Other Allen-led expeditions have uncovered a variety of historic shipwrecks, including the USS Indianapolis, USS Helena, and USS Hornet. As for the Wasp, it lives on: Today, it’s the name of an amphibious assault ship, the tenth to bear its name. 

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