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WWII shipwrecks looted on industrial scale

A diver at the wreck site of the World War II-era HMAS Perth. Picture: Australian National Maritime Museum / Facebook / Screengrab.

John McBeth, WWII grave robbers on the loose in SE Asian waters, Asia Times, 31 May 2023

Underwater pillagers have looted Australia’s HMAS Perth and wreckage of other WWII battleships despite efforts to protect the grave sites.

JAKARTA – The recent death of the sole survivor of the World War II sinking of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth in Indonesia’s Sunda Strait has brought home renewed attention to hundreds of wartime shipwrecks and the remains of their crewmen lying at the bottom of Southeast Asian seas.

After years of effort, it was only in 2018 that the Australian and Indonesian governments reached agreement on declaring the area around the 7,100-ton Perth and the nearby wreck of the American cruiser USS Houston as a maritime memorial park.

It was nearly too late. Australian Maritime Museum archeologists found that, between 2015 and 2016, about 60% of the Perth’s starboard hull plating was removed in an industrial-scale operation that disturbed the graves of the 357 Australian sailors in the process.

Salvage vessels have reportedly looted as many as 40 other wrecks, the last resting place for thousands of American, British, Australian, Dutch and Japanese sailors in the Java and South China seas and around the fringes of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Only last month, the Chinese grab dredger Chuan Hoon 68 was reported picking over the wrecks of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, sunk by Japanese bombers off Malaysia’s east coast in December 1941 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Royal Navy Museum director-general Dominic Tweddle said in a May 24 statement that the illegal salvage operation has thrown into sharp relief how vulnerable 5,000 similar historic underwater naval sites around the world are to wholesale plundering.

“We are distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit (of the two vessels),” he complained. “They are designated war graves. We are upset at the loss of naval heritage and the impact on the understanding of our Royal Navy history.”

Tweddle said there is a need for a management strategy for the Royal Navy’s underwater heritage to better protect or commemorate the wrecks “including the targeted retrieval of objects.”

“A strategy is vital to determine how to assess and manage these wrecks in the most efficient and effective manner,” he said. “Above all, we must remember the crews who served on these lost ships, and all too often gave their lives in the service of their country.”

The HMAS Perth (I) arrives in Sydney Harbour, April 1940. Photo: Samuel Hood / ANMM Collection 00022409 / Australian National Maritime Museum.

Retired Royal Navy Captain Roger Turner, who led the recent successful search for the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru which carried 1,000 Australian prisoners of war to their deaths in 1942, told the Asia Times: “It is quite despicable that the Chinese should be pillaging war graves.”

Reflecting on the value of the scrap, the former nuclear submarine engineer points out that in one application the 200mm thick steel contains a very low level of absorbed radiation suitable for ultra-sensitive nuclear-monitoring devices.

“Post-nuclear-age steel, since about 1940, carries its own radiation signal derived from above-ground nuclear weapons testing, which leads to global fallout being imparted into the steel during the smelting process,” he explains.

As a result, steel from the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, launched in 1916 and 1939 respectively, is more valuable than normal scrap, particularly the 400mm-thick, high-quality armor plating covering parts of the 43,700-ton battleship.

Turner notes that although the anthropogenic element of background radiation has now fallen back to what it was before the 1963 nuclear weapons test ban treaty, diminishing the value of pre-nuclear age scrap, it still carries a premium.

“In comparatively shallow water of about 68 meters, even without the nuclear premium, 40,000 tons of steel at $100 per ton is a fair return,” he says. “Probably getting just half of it would be profitable.”

Malaysian authorities say they are investigating the movements of the 8,300-ton Chuan Hong 68, which has been in Malaysian waters since February and is known for earlier salvaging operations in the Java Sea.

The vessel is suspected of also pillaging the wrecks of the Dutch light cruisers HNLMS de Ruyter and HNLMS Java and the destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer, sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in early 1942, shortly before the Perth and Houston met the same fate.

In 2017, responding to protests from the Netherlands government, Indonesia declared the area around the three hulks a historic site, using rarely applied 2010 legislation to forbid any anchoring, fishing or diving.

It was too late, however, to prevent the almost total removal of the wrecks of the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and the destroyers HMS Encounter and HMS Electra, which were sunk in the same encounter with the loss of 2,300 lives.

Little is known about the wrecks of other allied warships, including the corvette HMAS Armidale and the destroyer HMAS Voyager, both sunk off the south coast of Timor Leste, the carrier USS Langley (Cilacap) and the destroyers USS Edsall (eastern Indian Ocean), HMS Jupiter (Java Sea) and the HNLMS Van Nes (Bangka).

Among the other hulks are three US submarines and two German U-boats, which had been operating out of Japanese bases in occupied Dutch East Indies and British Malaya and were sunk in the Java Sea in November 1944 and April 1945.

Known Japanese wrecks include the heavy cruiser Ashigura, torpedoed off the Bangka-Belitung islands in June 1945, a light cruiser, eight destroyers and three submarines, one of which lies close to the Krakatoa volcano in the Sunda Strait.

British naval historian Geoffrey Till believes the ultimate solution is for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to draft a common protection policy that can be implemented by individual countries.

“But since countries don’t protect such sites of historic importance, and in many cases don’t have the resources to do so even if they cared, it’s hard not to be despairingly pessimistic about this,” he said.

It is not clear how many commercial salvagers may be involved in the grave robbing, but naval experts place part of the blame on complacent Western governments allowing China’s progressive encroachment on international norms and conventions.

The plundering of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales in 50-meter-deep water off Kuantan isn’t new. In 2013, divers noticed one of the Repulse’s bus-sized brass propellors was missing, something that could only have been done using a heavyweight crane.

Reports a year later claimed explosives were being used to break up both wrecks, the grave of 840 sailors. But the Malaysian government has done little to stop the destruction despite the site being well within the country’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ).

Britain’s Protection of Military Remains Act makes it an offense to interfere with a protected place or to disturb or remove anything from the site. Divers are permitted to visit, but the rule is don’t touch and don’t penetrate.

There is no international law forbidding the practice, however, and outside of the United Kingdom, the sanctions can only be enforced in practice against British citizens, British-flagged ships or vessels landing in Britain.

HMAS Perth in the Battle of Sunda Strait. Image: AWM.

Sunk by enemy gunfire and torpedoes on March 1, 1942, the Perth and the 9,000-ton Houston were victims of the Japanese invasion force which had completed the conquest of Southeast Asia and was then in the process of occupying the Dutch East Indies.

Able Seaman Frank McGovern, who died last week at 103, was the Perth’s last survivor. But that was only the start of his wartime ordeal, which Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described as “amazing” and McGovern as “an extraordinary Australian.”

In the years following the sinking of the Perth, he endured two years on the notorious Burma Railway, then was aboard a Japanese ship torpedoed by a US submarine in the Philippine Sea while carrying 1,000 prisoners of war to slave factories in Japan.

More than 540 Australians perished, but McGovern and 30 other prisoners escaped and spent three days in a lifeboat before being picked up by another Japanese ship, which delivered them to Japan.

There, McGovern was put to work in a factory, where his spine was fractured during the second of two American air raids in which incendiary bombs devastated large swathes of Tokyo.

Forced to work or face summary execution, the fate that awaited the incapacitated after they were drained of their blood, he managed to survive until the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945.

McGovern was one of the first Australians repatriated home, but it took years for him to adjust, confronted with many sad memories – including the death of his elder brother aboard the ill-fated Perth.

The general location of the Perth and the Houston, which lost 700 crewmen in the sinking and during subsequent Japanese internment, has long been known, lying four kilometers apart close to the mouth of the strait separating Java and Sumatra.

Retired Australian navy diver Clive Carlin and compatriot Jack Hammett spent many weekends searching for the two wrecks in 35-meter-deep water, but say they only discovered their exact location from a local fisherman using his own GPS in 1999.

“For me, the Perth is as memorial to the men who sailed in her, in defense of Australia and the Australian way of life,” says Carlin, a long-time Indonesia resident who helped lay an ensign on the wreck during an underwater ceremony on the 60th anniversary of the one-sided battle.

The shipwreck of HMAS Perth (I) lies in waters between Java and Sumatra, a victim of the Battle of Sunda Strait in 1942. A joint survey project between the museum and Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (Indonesia) has recorded the devastation caused by extensive illegal salvage. Image: James Hunter, ANMM / Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional.

For the Australians, the issue of protecting the wrecks has surfaced again since the discovery of the Montevideo Maru, a converted passenger/cargo ship sunk by the US submarine Sturgeon off the northwest Philippines in July 1942.

Nearly 1,000 Japan-bound Australian PoWs who had been captured in fighting around lightly defended Rabaul on the northern tip of New Britain in Papua New Guinea died in what is still Australia’s worst maritime disaster.

The wreck lies about 100 kilometers west of Luzon’s Cape Bodjeodor on a direct line to its plotted destination on China’s Hainan island. But at a depth of 4,000 meters – the same as the ill-fated Titanic in the North Atlantic – that is unlikely to attract the attention of pillagers.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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