WWII wrecks disappear off Java

The Battle of the Java Sea. HMS Exeter under attack. Source: Wikimedia

Three Dutch Second World War ships considered war graves have disappeared from the bottom of the Java Sea, the Netherlands’ defence ministry has announced. The Guardian said three British vessels had also disappeared.

It is argued that rising commodity prices might have pushed scavengers to salvage the wrecks for their metal.

They were sunk by the Japanese during the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942, and the wrecks were discovered in 2002.

London said it was “distressed” by the reports and was investigating.

A new expedition ahead of the 75th anniversary of the battle, where around 2,200 people died, including 900 Dutch nationals and 250 people of Indonesian Dutch origin, found they were missing.

The Guardian reported that 3D images showed large holes on the seabed where HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter and the destroyer HMS Electra lay. The remains of the 91-metre US Perch, whose entire crew was captured by the Japanese during intense fighting in March 1942, had also disappeared.

Salvaging the wrecks would have been a huge operation, according to diving sources.

In October 2015, the Straits Times reported that two other British warships, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, had been “stripped bare, with the damage intensifying in recent months”.

The paper quoted Andy Brockman, a British conflict archaeologist, who warned that large-scale black market scrap looting had been going on “for years” and that “only international cooperation can save the remaining ships”.

The Dutch defence ministry said it would investigated, saying two Dutch ships had completely disappeared, while large parts of a third ship, a destroyer, were missing.

“The desecration of a war grave is a serious offence,” said the ministry.

“They are the final resting place for hundreds of crew members who perished,” said Dutch daily De Volkskrant, adding that “the looting of warships without the permission of the country of origin is against international law”.

A UK Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “Many lives were lost during this battle and we would expect that these sites are respected and left undisturbed without the express consent of the United Kingdom.”

In February 1942 Dutch, British, Australian and US forces ships were defeated by the Japanese, which led to the occupation of the Dutch East Indies, which is now Indonesia.

Illegal salvaging of the wrecks for steel, aluminium and brass has become common although the missing wrecks are around 100km offshore, at a depth of 70 metres.

“It is almost impossible to salvage this,” Paul Koole of the salvage specialists Mammoet was quoted saying by Algemeen Dagblad. “It is far too deep.”

Any salvage operation would have been prolonged and needed large cranes and would be unlikely to have gone unnoticed.

The Indonesian navy said it was unaware of the disappearance and would investigate. “To say that the wreckage had gone suddenly, doesn’t make sense,” naval spokesman Colonel Gig Sipasulta said. “It is underwater activities that can take months even years.”