Home > Journals > LAWREVIEW > Vol. 95 > No. 1 (2022)
Still on Patrol: An Argument for Greater Protections for Sunken American State Vessels in International and Foreign Coastal Waters
Quint, the surly captain from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, is perhaps most famous for his soliloquy recounting the Indianapolis tragedy. The Indy, as she was called, sunk just under fifteen minutes after being hit by Japanese torpedoes in 1945 following her delivery of the components for the Hiroshima atomic bomb to the Pacific island of Tinian. It took the Navy five days to realize she was missing, by which point 600 of the 800 survivors had died from exposure or shark attacks. The Indy remained missing until she was found seventy-two years later by the Petrel, a research vessel outfitted and funded by the late Paul Allen of Microsoft fame.
The Indy is only one of the many World War II ships that Allen’s team has found on the ocean floor. In March 2018, the Petrel found the remains of the USS Juneau. The Juneau was hit by torpedoes during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. She is perhaps most famous for the tragic story of the five Sullivan brothers, all of whom died aboard the Juneau when she sank. On September 15, 1942, the USS Wasp was scuttled by American ships following a devastating torpedo attack by a Japanese submarine in the Coral Sea. The Wasp was found sitting just over two and a half miles down on the ocean floor seventy-seven years later by the Petrel. Just one month after the scuttling of the USS Wasp, the USS Hornet was sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers off the southern Solomon Islands. Famous for launching the Doolittle Raid and for surviving the Battle of Midway, the Hornet was effectively lost until she was also found seventy-seven years later by the Petrel.
Allen’s team and project are unique. They do not attempt to salvage these ships, nor do they seek salvage awards for finding them. Rather, the entire expedition is funded from Allen’s estate and stems from Allen’s deep personal interest in Navy wrecks. Additionally, Allen’s team does not publicly report the exact location of the wrecks it discovers. The locations are reported to the United States Navy, which then contacts the families of the sailors who died aboard those ships to inform them that the ships have been found.
The Indy, Wasp, Juneau, Hornet, and other similar ships exist in what has been called a “legal lacuna,” or a legal no-man’s-land in which there is limited governing law surrounding the discovery and salvage of sunken state vessels in foreign coastal and international waters. Unfortunately, this means that most of these vessels are vulnerable to salvage and destruction while the legal world debates how to address these concerns.