Ghost ships: Why are World War II naval wrecks vanishing in Indonesia?

By Natali Pearson from the University of Sydney

Seventy-five years ago this month, Australia, the UK, US and the Netherlands suffered a series of disastrous naval defeats against Japan in the narrow straits and seas around Indonesia.

The warship wrecks in the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait are the final resting place for thousands of Allied sailors.

The sites are considered war graves by survivors and their descendants, following a long maritime tradition of respecting human remains on shipwrecks.

So it was with shock and deep disappointment that an international team surveying the Java Sea wrecks in November 2016 found that at least four Dutch and British shipwrecks  and one American submarine whose entire crew was captured alive had simply vanished from the seabed some 70 metres below.

The ships were enormous the HMS Exeter, for example, was a 175-metre heavy cruiser, longer than three Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Other Allied ships in Indonesian waters have also been damaged.

The evidence suggests that the missing ships were stolen, or salvaged, for the valuable metal now sitting on the sea floor.

History repeating

The recent desecration of the Java Sea naval wrecks was unsurprising to those familiar with the state of underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia.

Last year, Inside Indonesia reported on measures being taken to mitigate damage to two other Allied wrecks in Indonesia: HMAS Perth and USS Houston in the Sunda Strait, west of Jakarta.

These naval ships were attacked by a Japanese fleet in the early hours of March 1, 1942, sinking with more than 1,000 lives lost between them.

In 2013, reports emerged of salvage barges removing scrap metal from the sites.

Although Indonesian authorities were not identified as participating in the salvage operations, they were criticised for not doing more to protect the wrecks.

Well-meaning recreational divers have also been implicated. Commenting on the removal of a trumpet from USS Houston, the executive director of the USS Houston Survivors' Association said:

"We have no idea of the untold number of other divers who have pilfered our ship and have kept relics retrieved for their own personal use, 'stealing' that which truly belong [sic] to the lasting memory of the bravery and dedication of the men who served on these warships."

Advocacy groups in Australia have long called on authorities to protect HMAS Perth.

While a recent sonar scan confirmed that USS Houston was largely intact, results for HMAS Perth were inconclusive.

Australian and Indonesian divers are due to return to HMAS Perth next month. Despite these efforts, some feel that it is already too late to protect HMAS Perth.

Why steal a ship?

Naval shipwrecks mean huge amounts of scrap metal, with huge potential re-sale value.

The sheer quantity of scrap metal on a naval ship means that a single wreck can be worth up to $1 million. The bronze propellers alone are worth tens of thousands of dollars each.

It is unlikely that the salvage was conducted in complete secrecy.

The Java Sea wrecks lay close to one of Indonesia's largest naval bases, and suspicious activity not to mention visible environmental impacts such as oil spills is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by passing marine craft.

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