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.
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 over a thousand 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 A$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.
Removing a shipwreck from the seabed requires time, know-how, and money. Salvage operations in southeast Asia appear to have become increasingly sophisticated.
Boats disguised as fishing vessels have been used elsewhere in the region. But my conversations with people close to the issue suggest that the Java Sea wrecks were likely removed using a major surface platform known as a claw barge. This reduces the need to rely on large numbers of divers, and, if operated together with specialist imaging equipment such as a sonar scanner, would maximise the efficiency of the salvage. It is also believed that the crew were armed.
The salvagers gave little-to-no consideration to objects of historical or archaeological significance.
The removal of propellers and trumpets is one thing. But the desecration of submerged war graves is undoubtedly the most troubling aspect of this story.
The presence of human remains on the wrecks does not deter illicit salvagers from their nefarious activities. However, the legal status of underwater war graves is ambiguous.
There is no international consensus on military human remains on sunken warships, and the onus is on states to make appropriate provisions for war grave recognition. Under Indonesian legislation, objects older than 50 years can be considered as cultural heritage. However, none of the wrecks mentioned in this article have been officially recognised – in fact, not a single underwater site has been heritage listed.
The international community has condemned the disappearance of the Java Sea wrecks, with the Dutch launching an immediate investigation. The UK Ministry of Defence also expressed serious concern about “unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains”, and requested that Indonesian authorities take “appropriate action”.
When the news broke that the ships had vanished, the head of Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (National Archaeological Centre of Indonesia), Bambang Budi Utomo, was quoted as saying:
The Dutch government cannot blame the Indonesian government because they never asked us to protect those ships. As there was no agreement or announcement, when the ships go missing, it is not our responsibility.
Chief of Indonesia’s Navy Information Office, Colonel Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta, confirmed Indonesia’s view that the Dutch, British and US governments should have done more to protect the wrecks:
The Indonesian navy cannot monitor all areas all the time. If they ask why the ships are missing, I’m going to ask them back, why didn’t they guard the ships?
Although Indonesia quickly committed to investigating the mystery of the missing wrecks, these initial messages undoubtedly caused further damage to Indonesia’s already-problematic reputation in conserving underwater heritage.
Rather than trading diplomatic blows, Indonesia and the nations that the ships belong to must work together.
Indonesian researchers have been working on the HMAS Perth since 2015, assessing its condition and vulnerability.
The results confirm that the wreck has been damaged by salvagers. There are other threats too, including overly-enthusiastic recreational divers, sea sand mining operations, shipping traffic, and marine pollution from coastal development in nearby Banten Bay.
Last year, researchers conducted local sessions to raise awareness of the sites, which they believe is key to reducing damage to the site. The project team is also considering introducing a maritime conservation area around the HMAS Perth site. Other suggestions include public display signs and expanding commemoration activities to include coastal communities.
There are also efforts being made to increase awareness within the broader population. In Jakarta, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries’ new Marine Heritage Gallery will bring underwater objects to both government officials and the general public.
In Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s busiest maritime trading destinations, there are plans to open a Regional Training Centre for Underwater Cultural Heritage inside Makassar’s historic Fort Rotterdam.
Internationally, the United Nations’ Ocean Conference will convene in New York in June with the aim of reversing the decline in the health of the world’s oceans. So far underwater cultural heritage is not on the agenda. It is up to UN members to ensure that these issues, and not just marine life, get their time in the spotlight.
Sunken warships have both historical and emotional significance. They must be valued for more than the sale of their parts.
Natali Pearson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.