Deep-sea explorers hone in on debris fields on the Pacific Ocean floor. They seek sunken World War II ships in an area where one of the war’s crucial battles took place. In October, the crew of Vulcan Inc.’s search vessel, Petrel, identified two Japanese aircraft carriers that sank during the Battle of Midway.
Midway Atoll lies nearly halfway between the United States and Japan. It is a 2.4-square-mile, ring-shaped coral reef. Six months after the Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, attack in 1941, the United States fought Japan at Midway. The Japanese wanted the atoll for a refueling and launching base. The location was prime to aid their plan eventually to reach the U.S. mainland. The U.S. victory at the Battle of Midway was a turning point in the war. Defeated and demoralized, Japan lost momentum while the United States grew in resolve to end the war in the Pacific decisively.
Seven ships went down in the June 1942 battle at Midway. Five were Japanese vessels, and two were American. Prior to the Petrel exploration, only one had been located—the USS Yorktown. A National Geographic Society expedition found it in 1998.
Petrel launched autonomous underwater vehicles to find the Japanese ships, Kaga and Akagi. Akagi lies amid a debris field 18,000 feet (about 3.4 miles) below sea level. Director of undersea operations Rob Kraft says high-resolution sonar images allowed the team to measure and evaluate it on the ocean floor.
“The dimensions that we’re able to derive from this image [are] conclusive. It can be none other than Akagi,” Kraft says.
The search is not about recovering the ships. As gravesites, they will remain undisturbed to preserve the dignity of the lives lost. But the information gleaned from the wreckage can answer questions about what happened there—and promote respect and remembrance for those who gave their lives.
“We read about the battles; we know what happened. But when you see these wrecks on the bottom of the ocean . . . you kind of get a feel for what the real price is for war,” says historian Frank Thompson, who is onboard Petrel.
Petrel’s crew hopes to find all the wreckage from the battle. The late billionaire Paul Allen began Petrel’s mission to honor his father’s military service. Allen co-founded Microsoft and used some of his wealth to establish Vulcan. He died in 2018.
Kraft says Allen wanted Petrel’s crew to preserve history, educate people about the past, and honor those who fought on the warships.
The Petrel crew has found 31 sunken vessels worldwide so far.