In 2002, amateur divers discovered the wrecks of three Dutch warships sunk off Indonesia in World War II. The three ships; the HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java and HNLMS Kortenaer; were found at 70 meters deep, 60 miles off the Indonesian coast. Now, something very strange has happened. Two of the three wrecks have disappeared, while a significant portion of the third is missing.
A team of divers who were attempting to film a documentary on the 75th anniversary of the ship’s sinking, were surprised to be able to see the imprints of the missing ships on the sea floor. The remains of HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java are completely gone, the Dutch Defense Ministry says, while a large portion of the HNLMS Kortenaer is missing.
One theory as to what happened to the ships is that illegal scrap metal scavengers progressively cut up the wrecks to sell the metal for scrap. Scavengers operating grabs from barges can “nibble” away at shipwrecks.
Nevertheless, Dutch officials are puzzled that scavengers could have removed two ships and much of a third without being observed. Also, relatively speaking, the depth of the water, at 70 meters or 230 feet, makes salvaging much more difficult. One salvage expert, speaking to the BBC, said, “It is impossible to salvage this. It is far too deep.” Other salvage operators disagree. Bas Wiebe, commercial manager of salvage company Resolve‘s Asia operations, said they could have cut away parts of the rotting wreckage using mechanical equipment known as grabs. “If time is not of the essence, you have a barge and equipment, you could just nibble away,” said another expert who declined to be named citing political sensitivities, said to the BBC.
Other theories are that the ships were removed intact to local scrap yards, although the scale of such an operation and the appearance of the shipwreck site does not make this likely. Some think that explosives could have been used to break up the ship, but the debris field around the wreck site is not large enough to support that theory. Others have suggested that a storm at sea might have moved the ships to deeper water, although that too appears unlikely.
All three ships sank during the Battle of the Java Sea, which turned out to be a disastrous defeat for Dutch, British, American and Australian sailors by Japanese forces in February 1942. It was one of the costliest sea battles of the war and led to the Japanese occupation of the entire Dutch East Indies. Roughly 2,200 died including 900 Dutch nationals and 250 Indonesians.
“An investigation has been launched to see what has happened to the wrecks, while the cabinet has been informed,” the Netherlands defence ministry said. “The desecration of a war grave is a serious offence,” it added, suggesting the wrecks may have been illegally salvaged.
If the ships were cut up for scrap, it is likely that they were not the first victims. Recently, the Guardian has reported that three British ships and a US submarine that sank in the Java Sea during the WWII have also been destroyed by illegal scrap metal scavengers. As reported by the Guardian:
A preliminary report from an expedition to document sunken ships, seen by the Guardian, shows that the wrecks of HMS Exeter, a 175m heavy cruiser, and destroyer HMS Encounter have been almost totally removed.
Using equipment that creates a 3D map of the sea floor, the report showed that where the wreck “was once located there is a large ‘hole’ in the seabed”.
A 100m destroyer, HMS Electra, had also been scavenged, the report found, although a “sizeable section” of the wreck remained. The 91m US submarine Perch, whose entire crew were captured by the Japanese, had been totally removed, the report said.
The illegal scavenging of shipwreck war graves is not limited to the Java Sea. In September, there were reports of ship wrecks from the Battle of Jutland being stripped for their steel.
Thanks to Walter Stevens and Irwin Bryan for contributing to this post.