An international investigation has been launched into the mysterious disappearance of several second world war shipwrecks which have vanished from the bottom of the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia. Former colonial ruler The Netherlands has launched a probe into how two Dutch navy ships seemingly vanished from the bed of the Java Sea, while Britain has urged Indonesia to investigate the disappearance of three of its vessels.
Naval warships and war graves are protected under international law and the desecration of such shipwrecks is illegal.
However Indonesia refused to take the blame Thursday for the disappearance of the shipwrecks - lost in 1942 during the Battle of the Java Sea and considered war graves - that investigators believe could have been salvaged for scrap.
More than 900 Dutch and 250 Indo-Dutch sailors died during the battle in which the Allied navies suffered a disastrous defeat by the hand of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Indonesian authorities have sought to distance themselves from the mystery, saying they could not be expected to protect the sites without assistance.
“The Dutch government cannot blame the Indonesian government because they never asked us to protect those ships,” said Bambang Budi Utomo, head of the National Archeological Centre under the Ministry of Education and Culture.
“As there was no agreement or announcement, when the ships go missing, it is not our responsibility.”
Amateur divers in 2002 discovered the long-lost wrecks of three Dutch ships, 60 years after they sank while in action against Japanese forces.
But an international expedition that sailed to the wreck site in preparation for next year’s 75th anniversary of the battle was shocked to discover that the wrecks had vanished.
“The wrecks of HMNLS De Ruyter and HMNLS Java have seemingly gone completely missing,” the Dutch defence ministry said in a statement.
Britain expressed its distress at the disappearance of its own warships and asked Indonesia to “take appropriate action” to protect the sites from further disturbance.
The Guardian cited a preliminary report from an expedition to document sunken ships which showed that the wrecks of HMS Exeter and HMS Encounter had been almost totally removed, along with parts of HMS Electra.
The US submarine Perch had also been entirely removed, according to the report.
Using equipment that creates a 3D map of the sea floor, the report showed that where a wreck “was once located there is a large ‘hole’ in the seabed”.
The four vessels sank when Japan’s navy overpowered British, American, Dutch and Australian sailors in what was one of the Allied forces’ most disastrous defeats.
Utomo said the looting “must have been going on for years for such a huge ship to disappear”.
Indonesia’s navy said the ships should not have been disturbed as they were war graves.
“However, the Indonesian navy cannot monitor all areas all the time,” navy spokesman Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta said.
“If they ask why the ships are missing, I’m going to ask them back, why didn’t they guard the ships?”
The seas around Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are a graveyard for more than 100 ships and submarines sunk during the war. For years, scavengers have surreptitiously located the wrecks and stolen parts, including steel, aluminium and brass.
A recreational diving school in Malaysia told the New Straits Times last year that shipwrecks were being blown apart by with explosives by people posing as fishermen before their metal is removed.
The US military found two years ago that there had been an “unauthorised disturbance of the grave site” of the USS Houston, which sank in the Battle of Sunda Strait, also in the Java Sea. It is the grave for nearly 650 sailors and marines.
Theo Vleugels, director of the Dutch War Graves Foundation, told the ANP news agency: “The people who died there should be left in peace.”
Agence France-Presse, The Guardian
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
shipwrecks disappear from seabed