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USS Lexington, first aircraft carrier sunk in WWII, found near Australia

Searchers have found the wreckage of the USS Lexington, the aircraft carrier sunk 76 years ago near Australia during the world’s first carrier-versus-carrier battle.

The Lexington was critically damaged by Japanese forces during the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942, and the U.S. Navy was forced to scuttle it.

The ship’s wreck was located Sunday by the research vessel Petrel, which is owned by billionaire explorer Paul Allen. The wreck rested about 500 miles off the eastern coast of Australia and about two miles below the water’s surface.

Images released by the searchers show a wreck with stunningly intact features, including a 5-inch gun with the rifling still visible inside the barrel. The ship’s name remains visible on several areas, and an intact fighter plane is still emblazoned with U.S. star emblems.

“Lexington was on our priority list because she was one of the capital ships that was lost during WWII,” said Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for Allen, in a statement. “Based on geography, time of year and other factors, I work with Paul Allen to determine what missions to pursue. We’ve been planning to locate the Lexington for about six months and it came together nicely.”

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Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, whose father served on the Lexington and survived the attack, heralded the find.

“As the son of a survivor of the USS Lexington, I offer my congratulations to Paul Allen and the expedition crew of Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel for locating the ‘Lady Lex,’ sunk nearly 76 years ago at the Battle of Coral Sea,” Harris said in a statement issued from Australia, where he was meeting with that country’s military leaders.

“Our Navy’s strength comes from those who have gone before,” he said. “This is our heritage. Our Navy’s strength comes from those who serve now.”

After a series of initial successes in the Pacific — including the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — Imperial Japan experienced its first military setback during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The Lexington, launched in 1925 as one of America’s first carriers, went down with 35 aircraft aboard, and 216 crew members died in the battle.

The Lexington and the USS Yorktown faced three Japanese carriers during the Battle of the Coral Sea, which spanned May 4-8.

The Lexington was hit by multiple torpedoes and bombs during the final day of the battle. Uncontrollable fire on the ship forced the crew to abandon it.

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The USS Phelps sank the hobbled Lexington with torpedoes, giving it the dubious distinction of being the first aircraft carrier to sink during wartime.

The Lexington’s 2,770 crew members were shuttled onto other nearby ships in the U.S. fleet.

The United States also lost the USS Sims and USS Neosho in the battle, with the USS Yorktown sustaining heavy damage.

The Japanese lost one light carrier, the Shoho, and one of its fleet carriers was heavily damaged.

The Battle of the Coral Sea marked a new era of Navy warfare, where battles would often be fought between carrier-launched planes, with ships never even coming within sight of each other.

Along with the Battle of Midway a month later, the Battle of the Coral Sea ended Japan’s advance in the Pacific.

Since deploying in 2017, the Petrel has made several discoveries of military ships in the Philippine Sea, including wreckage from the USS Ward, which fired the first shot of World War II at Pearl Harbor.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.