Paul Allen and the Shipwrecks of World War II

March 14, 2018

When we think about the people who are most instrumental in the preservation of history, we usually think of professional historians and, if we're lucky, people who lived through world-changing events. When it comes to the history of the attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II, there are men and women who are still alive and passing on the details of the devastating attack and the brutal war that followed. Interestingly, one of the most prominent people linked to the preservation of these historical events is neither a historian nor a survivor. He's a billionaire philanthropist named Paul Allen.

Paul Gardner Allen may not be a household name like Bill Gates—his fellow co-founder of Microsoft—but as of 2017, Allen was the 46th-richest person in the world. Beyond being a successful businessman, however, Allen has a deep interest in history that could only be satisfied through exploration and discovery.

The Discoveries of the Research Vessel Petrel

RV Petrel in Surigao Strait

RV Petrel in Surigao Strait

Paul Allen's love for the sea—he owns one of the largest yachts in the world—and the history beneath the waves led to the purchase of a platform supply vessel in 2016. He christened the ship the RV Petrel and put her to use scouring the depths of the world’s oceans on multiple research and exploration missions. Equipped with state-of-the-art deep-sea search equipment, Petrel was used by Allen throughout 2017 to make several milestone discoveries.

The first came in March in the form of the Italian World War II destroyer Artigliere, but that find was soon eclipsed by a massive discovery in August of the same year. Already well known for his immense wealth and philanthropic work,  on August 19, Paul Allen also became known for locating the USS Indianapolis (CA-35). One of the most difficult shipwrecks to pinpoint, Indianapolis was lost during World War II after delivering components for the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The sinking of the heavy cruiser spawned nightmarish stories of sailors adrift in the Pacific waters, fighting off fatigue and sharks.

Allen, spurred on by the incredible discovery of the intact wreckage, continued his search of the Pacific, this time directing Petrel and her research team to Surigao Strait in October 2017. Within a month, after the 73rd commemoration of the Battle of Surigao Strait, she captured footage of several Japanese ships, including the battleships Yamashiro and Fusu, and the destroyers Yamagumo, Michishio, and Asagumo.

USS Ward (DD-139) on fire after kamikaze strikes, 7 December 1941

USS Ward (DD-139) on fire after kamikaze strikes, 7 December 1941

Closing out the year on a very high note, Allen’s expedition made a monumental find in Ormoc Bay in the Philippines. Around the 76th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Petrel came upon the wreckage of the USS Ward (DD-139), a ship that was best known for firing the first shots of the Pearl Harbor attack. After receiving word of a Japanese mini-submarine nearing the entrance to the harbor, Ward’s crew attacked and sank it. Along with Ward, the Petrel also found the remains of the USS Cooper (DD-695) and two Japanese destroyers: Shimakaze and a Yugumo-class vessel, most likely either Hamanami or Naganami.

Paul Allen continued his work in 2018, funding expeditions that, in February, located the wreckage of a C-2A Greyhound aircraft that crashed in November 2017.

In early March, Allen announced the discovery of Petrel's biggest find to date: the American aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2). While searching the Coral Sea east of the Australian coast, Petrel located a large ship at the bottom of the Pacific. On further inspection, various markings established the ship's identity. Lost during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, Lexington was found in surprisingly good shape.

Allen’s First Expeditions

Prior to purchasing Petrel, Allen funded several research teams to uncover even more world history. In 2012, he ordered the expeditions that retrieved the bell from HMS Hood, which sank during World War II in the Denmark Strait. Three years later, he led another team on a search in the Philippines that discovered the Japanese battleship Musashi.

Paul Allen, Philanthropist and Wildlife Conservationist

Paul Allen at the Allen Institute for Brain Science

Paul Allen at the Allen Institute for Brain Science

Beyond his expeditions in the deep blue, Allen has also donated more than $100 million to help fight Ebola in West Africa and worked to help spread awareness of the virus. He’s also had a hand in several wildlife conservation efforts, including the Great Elephant Census, which was an aerial team that surveyed the African savannah elephant in 20 different countries. The philanthropist also provided funding for the Global FinPrint initiative that surveyed sharks and rays in coral reefs, the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us Project, and was a founding member of the International SeaKeepers Society.

Another passion of Allen’s over the years has been investing in projects in Africa to help improve quality of life in several countires. He’s had a hand in helping fund Mawingu Networks, which aims to deliver wireless Internet to rural villages and Off Grid Electric, a company devoted to delivering solar powered energy in Rwanda and Tanzania.

Paul Allen's Many Honors

For his many and varied accomplishments throughout his life, Allen has received multiple awards and honors, including being named one of the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World and receiving an Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy for working to “save endangered species, fight Ebola, research the human brain, support the arts, protect the oceans, and expand educational opportunities for girls.” He’s also been the recipient of four honorary degrees from Washington State University, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Watson School of Biological Sciences, and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.


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