Paul Allen’s Quest For Sunken Warships

On Nov. 9-10, Christie’s New York will auction off the art collection of Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder. With more than 150 items, including paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne and Seurat, the sale is expected to fetch some $1 billion. Allen’s interest in art was well known, but less attention has been paid to another of his passions: tracking down and documenting World War II ships sunk in action.

Through his umbrella company Vulcan, Allen funded the discovery and exploration of more than 20 warships, including the American aircraft carriers Lexington and Hornet, the cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Japanese battleship Musashi. “Paul Allen single-handedly, privately, set out to find every significant U.S. World War II warship that fought in a major battle or had a significant story to it,” said explorer David Mearns, whose company Blue Water Recoveries worked with Vulcan for more than five years.

Finding a wreck presents enormous challenges. Only 10% of the ocean floor is properly mapped, and mountain ranges and canyons dwarf even the largest warship. The ships are rarely intact. And where to start looking, when the ships themselves might not have known exactly where they were when they sank?

Allen operated as a maritime private detective, collaborating with appreciative governments, museums and survivor associations but taking orders from none. A keen student of history, he would provide his team a list of the ships he was interested in, and they would determine which wrecks were feasible to explore. Allen would then greenlight a voyage. The expeditions mirrored the man himself—somewhat reclusive, engaging others only as much as necessary. Allen never shared details about the reasons for his commitment or how much he spent on it.

The goal of these missions was to locate and document wrecks, not to recover items or human remains. Most if not all of the ships that Mr. Allen found are war graves, subject to the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA) of 2004, which protects from unauthorized disturbance all sunken vessels owned by the U.S. government. The Underwater Archaeology Branch of the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) manages 17,000 ship and aircraft wrecks worldwide. Its director, retired Rear Admiral Samuel J. Cox, described how relations between Allen’s team and the Navy warmed over the years: “Initially Mr. Allen and Vulcan operated entirely on their own, pursuing a hobby and interest of Mr. Allen. My Command soon determined that Vulcan was a competent, serious, first-rate group with quality technology, and we were persuaded that they would treat any wreck found with dignity and respect.”

Information-sharing between Vulcan and the Navy was instrumental in locating the U.S.S. Indianapolis, whose story has captured imaginations for decades. Almost 1,200 men were aboard the cruiser when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II. News of the sinking didn’t reach the Navy for three days, and by the time rescue forces arrived, hundreds of sailors had died from exposure, dehydration and shark attacks. Altogether, almost 900 lives were lost, the most on a single ship in the history of the U.S. Navy.

The Indianapolis was sunk while sailing alone somewhere in the vast stretch between Guam and the Philippines, and several expeditions to find the wreck had failed before Allen’s team began to search in 2017. “The official Navy position of where she sank turned out to be 40 miles off from where she actually went down,” says Adm. Cox. “To aid in the search, our historians worked to provide Vulcan with a search box, and they eventually found the wreck just outside that box.”

“By the time Paul’s group approached me, I had become jaded and almost blew them off,” said William Toti, a retired U.S. Navy captain and chair of the U.S.S. Indianapolis Legacy Organization. “I had heard claims like this so many times before, I no longer believed the ship was discoverable. So when I received that call in August 2017 from the Navy that the ship had actually been discovered and I was cleared to notify the survivors, I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

The heart of Vulcan’s efforts were two high-tech research vessels. The first, Octopus, did double duty as Allen’s personal yacht. In addition to remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and a futuristic dive control center, it also came equipped with a music recording studio. Its successor, Petrel, included a ship-positioning system that allowed it to automatically “hover” over wrecks miles below on the ocean floor. “Petrel had capabilities the Navy does not have,” says Adm. Cox, who spent time aboard the ship in the South Pacific. “I had better internet connectivity on Petrel in the middle of the Coral Sea than I do at the desk in my office.”

Allen cited his father’s service in World War II as stoking his interest in warships. But he also had a lifelong fascination with the oceans. “Paul was fascinated by what happened to the seas, not just shipwrecks,” says Philip Wilcocks, a retired admiral in the Royal Navy who worked with Allen on recovering the bell from a British ship, HMS Hood. Allen was a scuba diver who sponsored a major collaborative project to map the world’s shallow coral reefs, and he shared Vulcan’s data with international efforts to map the world’s ocean floors.

Befitting a tech pioneer, Allen equipped the vessels with cutting-edge video and photographic technology. With each discovery Vulcan released images to the public, many of which can be seen on YouTube, showing debris fields, hulls flipped upside down and everyday items strewn. It is something akin to looking at the wreckage of the Twin Towers after 9/11, a powerful reminder that the sunken ships are war graves. One can visit Gettysburg, Waterloo or the D-Day beaches, but the surface of the ocean reveals nothing of old battles, since its victims were swallowed whole. The discovery of these sites can provide a sense of closure. “For the families of the lost, the [Indianapolis] discovery provided a point on the map they could point to and say, ‘This is where my father, uncle, brother, cousin lies,” said Capt. Toti. “This is hallowed ground for us.’”

—Mr. Wooley is a journalist and former officer in the British Royal Navy.