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Carderock’s Unique Capabilities Help Assess Damage to Sunken Lexington

By Todd A. Hurley, NSWC Carderock Division, Public Affairs | Feb. 2, 2021

USS Lexington (CV-2), often called “Lady Lex,” was commissioned at Quincy, Massachusetts, in December 1927, and was the second aircraft carrier to be commissioned by the United States Navy. Primarily operating in the Pacific, Lady Lex took part in fleet maneuvers in the Caribbean, the Hawaiian Islands and off the Panama Canal.

In 1942, she participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea. After her aircraft took part in sinking the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho and raided the aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, the Japanese retaliated with aircraft attacks. Lexington was hit with two torpedoes and three aerial bombs, two of which were Type 91 aerial torpedoes—an armor‐piercing projectile used by the Imperial Japanese Navy and specifically developed for attacks on ships in shallow harbors.

The attack lasted eight minutes and resulted in substantial damage at four different locations of the ship. The ship’s crew was able to recover from the assault and had the ship on an even keel with all fires extinguished within an hour. However, due to a large internal gasoline explosion 75 minutes after the attacks, she was abandoned and later scuttled by USS Phelps (DD-218), causing her to be the first U.S. Navy aircraft carrier lost in World War II.

She remained undiscovered for nearly 76 years.

It was not until March 4, 2018, that she was discovered approximately two miles under the sea by the exploration team Vulcan Inc., while aboard the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel. Vulcan Inc. was founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

“Before he passed away, Paul Allen gave the Vulcan an almost infinite amount of money to go out and look for sunken war ships by using Unmanned Underwater Vehicles equipped with sonar,” said Howard “Howie” Draisen, branch head of Carderock’s Hull Response and Protection Branch. “They were also the team responsible for finding USS Indianapolis (CA-35), among other ships.”

The Vulcan team then provided the Naval History Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) with the Lexington wreck site video footage and side-scan sonar data captured using remote operated vehicles. NHHC is located at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and is responsible for the preservation, analysis and dissemination of U.S. naval history, which includes managing the Navy’s sunken military crafts and ensuring they remain undisturbed.

In the summer of 2018, Kervin Michaud, former Carderock structural engineer in the Hull Response and Protection Branch, received a nearly 10-month Navy Innovative Science and Engineering (NISE) workforce development opportunity to partner with the NHHC to evaluate the Vulcan data and historical records to provide expertise in weapons-effects damage assessment.

“This seemed like a great opportunity to go down and help NHHC – it was incredible to learn what happened to the ship and learn how the Sailors reacted during the attack,” Michaud said. “Through better understanding the vessel’s final moments, the study aimed to provide vital insight to better protect today’s Navy ships against weapon threats.”

The primary portion of Michaud’s work consisted of gathering data such as battle damage reports, as well as going into the archives to get drawings and video footage of Lexington to better understand which part of the ship he was looking at and to verify the reported damage to the ship and how it split apart. His work also allowed him to look at other shipwrecks to see what happened to them, as well as what could have happened.

When discovered, Lexington was found to be separated into multiple sections along an underwater ridgeline spanning 550 yards: the bow and stern rest across from each other, the main hull section sits upright on the seabed and the bridge rests by itself in between these broken sections.

“The damage to the bow and stern sections of Lexington are severe and difficult to assess,” Michaud said. “The main hull section spans at least 400 feet and is split along the centerline of the ship, with the starboard end laying on the sea floor and the port side exposed in the water column.”

Due to his data collecting and research, Michaud found that what was originally thought to be the cause of the separation of the ship might not be the case.

“As the only reported internal explosion occurred at the General Workshop (A‐312E) and historical video footage of Lexington after the explosion in this area – but before the ship was scuttled – does not show similar damage, this damage almost certainly resulted from the large successive explosions that occurred following the scuttling,” he said. “These final explosions likely contributed to the separation of the bow and main hull sections, as the main hull section is resting hundreds of meters away from the bow and aft sections of the vessel.”

Interestingly, at the surprise of the Vulcan team, Lexington was not the only wreck found at the site. They also discovered several aircraft, one of which was the Grumman F4F‐3 Wildcat with an insignia of “Felix the Cat” painted on it.

In the past, the Hull Response and Protection Branch had partnered with the UAB to investigate the sinking of other historical vessels, which provided Carderock with shipwreck data.

Apart from Lexington and Indianapolis, the Vulcan team has been responsible for discovering wreckages of USS Cooper (DD-695), USS Hornet (CV-8), USS Wasp (CV-7) and USS Ward (DD-139).

Michaud, a Philadelphia native, had been a Carderock employee for nearly 10 years before transferring to NSWC Philadelphia Division in August 2020. He works as a structural engineer in the Ship Systems Hardening Branch.

“It was awesome to receive the opportunity to partner with the NHHC and to understand through the lens of the Sailors what happened to USS Lexington,” he said.

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