In late 1929, a drought had so depleted the hydroelectric dams powering Tacoma that an aircraft carrier was dispatched to Commencement Bay to provide power.
The USS Lexington and its crew kept Tacoma from going dark.
The last time anyone saw the “Lady Lex” was on May 8, 1942, after she had been heavily damaged by Japanese forces in the World War II Battle of the Coral Sea.
That’s when Seattle billionaire Paul Allen’s crew on the Research Vessel Petrel discovered the wreck, two miles below the ocean’s surface in the Coral Sea and 500 miles off Australia’s east coast.
The Lexington was one of the first aircraft carriers built when it was launched in 1925.
In 1929, Tacoma was getting most of its electricity from Cushman Dam on the Skokomish River in Mason County and La Grande dam on the Nisqually River. Electricity was so cheap, many homes in Tacoma had switched to electrical furnaces and replaced their old wood-burning stoves with ovens, according to historian Michael Sullivan.
When fall arrived that year, rain did not come with it. The reservoirs were soon running dry.
“The city’s electricity was slashed immediately,” Sullivan wrote in 2012. “Streetlights were turned off, downtown shops and signs were darkened at dusk, industrial users were limited to daylight operation, and the barracks lights at Camp Lewis were shut off at 4 p.m.”
Government officials ordered the Lexington, with its steam-powered turbo generators, to Tacoma. It arrived on Dec. 16, 1929.
“Within 24 hours, the 180,000-horsepower electrical engines of the fourth largest ship afloat were surging thousands of kilowatts of electricity into the city’s power grid,” Sullivan wrote.
On Christmas Day the 1,400 sailors on board the Lexington hosted a Christmas party, according to writer and naval historian Steven Payne, who has conducted extensive research on the ship.
Sailors gave tours of the ship to Tacoma youth and provided a turkey dinner with all the fixings, Payne said.
After a month of powering Tacoma the Lexington returned to its military duties. The city had taken good care of the ship’s crew, its captain said.
“This is the first time in any port that the men behaved themselves,” one of the Lexington’s officers told the Tacoma Daily Ledger.
When the ship was sunk in 1942 she lost 216 of its crew. However, 2,770 crewmen and officers were rescued.
The ship had been hit by aircraft-dropped torpedoes and bombs before an explosion on board crippled it. She became the first aircraft carrier casualty in history.
“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 on the Petrel.
The Petrel has subsea equipment capable of diving to three and a half miles. Previous Allen-led expeditions have found the USS Indianapolis, USS Ward, USS Astoria, the Italian destroyer Artigliere and the Japanese battleship Musashi. Its mission is to research, explore and survey historic warships and other artifacts.