The Impressive Quest for a Lost The Second World War Attack Aircraft Carrier

Two days passed. The crew ate mountains of food, three times a day. A few of them fished off the aft deck at shift’s end. Sometimes, but not often, they hit the “trim room” to exercise. The A.U.V. only completed one successful mission — west of the first grid — and came back with nothing but mown wheat fields. Another mission was aborted. Four shots gone. Speculation Club met more frequently, as Kraft and Mayer tried to understand the mistake in their theories. The Wasp was traveling southeast; it was hit by the Japanese torpedoes; it was abandoned; it floated with the current west-northwest; it was scuttled by the Lansdowne; it sank. But if all those things were true, then the U.A.V. should have found it already. What had they missed? It was a perpetual intrigue to Kraft and Mayer that facts faithfully recorded in deck logs and official reports could prove so misleading. After the last fruitless sonar search, Kraft was in the online room, with his eyes fixed on a monitor, when he said, to nobody in particular, “the elusive Wasp.” There was, I thought, some tenderness in it.

Then came a setback. A crew member became ill, with severe abdominal pains. Nobody on board wanted to take any risks; the Petrel steamed back to Honiara, the nearest port, to seek medical help. The journey was 30 hours, one way. The importance of finding a shipwreck paled. Nevertheless, the prospects for the mission now looked bad. In the best-case scenario, in which the crew member was successfully and swiftly treated, we’d lose four days of the expedition. Four Battleship shots.

It was only at the moment when the mission seemed bound to fail — at least, within the time I would be on board — that I realized how invested I had become in the Petrel’s finding the Wasp. It wasn’t only a sense of narrative closure I sought, although that was a part of it. I had by now read widely on the Wasp’s history, and was gripped by its stories and characters. There was David McCampbell, who survived the sinking by jumping into the water, and who subsequently became the most successful Navy fighter ace of the entire war. There was Benedict Semmes Jr., who later became a vice admiral; Semmes saw an eight-foot shark circling his group of survivors as they swam toward the U.S.S. Duncan but decided not to tell anybody, lest he cause a panic. (A wise decision: The shark left his group alone.) There was the indelible vision of the Wasp’s air officer, Michael Kernodle, who was in the water when he looked back at the carrier and realized that he could see all the way through the ship, from side to side.

“What caused this large hole I do not know, but it must have been the result of a terrific explosion,” Kernodle later wrote.

And then there was John Shea, and the letter to his son, which made my eyes brim every time I read it. The action reports on the sinking of the Wasp mention Shea in the most glowing terms. As assistant air officer, he would have been in a high part of the central island called the primary fly tower when the torpedoes hit, overseeing the takeoff and landing of the ship’s aircraft. As soon as the explosions started, Shea rushed down a ladder and toward the danger, grabbing firefighting gear as he went. The mains had been knocked out in the torpedo strikes, meaning there was no water pressure in the hoses; Shea did what he could with chemical retardants. He was last seen on the port walkway leading out another hose when an enormous explosion, in the account of one witness, blew steel plating 150 feet above the deck. “Some of the men were blown into the air,” the officer wrote, “and I did not see them again.”

It wasn’t just Shea’s heroism that bit me. The more I learned about him, the more I was drawn in. Shea was a tall, lean, redheaded, soft-spoken Irish Catholic from Cambridge, Mass., and a career naval officer, with the body of an athlete but the reflective manner of a poet. At Boston College, where he was an outstanding undergraduate scholar, he had written verse, competed on the debating team and played varsity football. (A reporter on the Wasp wrote that his freckled nose was “dented from personal combat.”) After college, he waited years to marry his sweetheart, Elizabeth, because of some ill feeling between his family and hers. John and Elizabeth’s son, Jack, was an only child, and a late blessing.

When the news reached home that Shea was missing, presumed dead, two of his four sisters, both Boston public-school teachers, remembered the letter their brother had sent to his son, and read it to their grade-school classes. The school system then decided to publish it in a pamphlet. Soon, the text became a national sensation. The “Dear Jackie letter” was reprinted in The Boston Globe, which called it “an inspiring memorial to American youth.” Life magazine followed, as did many other papers. Long before Shea was declared legally dead, on Sept. 16, 1943 — a year and a day after the Wasp was sunk — the story of the letter grew bigger than the story of the Wasp itself.

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