Heartbreak as large-scale salvagers loot Southeast Asia’s WWII shipwrecks, war graves
It is an uphill battle to track down the culprits, the programme Undercover Asia finds out. Meanwhile, experts urge greater protection of underwater cultural heritage.
EAST JAVA, Indonesia: Deep-sea diver Dave Yiu has done countless dives to Asia’s World War Two shipwrecks over the past 20 years.
He imagines what life was like aboard the ships, and is awed by their historical value and the surrounding marine life.
In recent years, however, he has also witnessed their destruction first-hand.
Two wrecks that he has often visited are the British Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS (Her Majesty’s Ship) Repulse and battleship HMS Prince of Wales. They sank off the coast of Kuantan, Malaysia on Dec 10, 1941 under Japanese attack.
On a trip in 2013, he noticed a propeller missing from the stern of the 242-metre-long Repulse, which lies about 50 metres underwater at its shallowest point.
“We’re talking about a huge propeller, bigger than the size of a bus,” he told the programme Undercover Asia. “It’s gone. We used to see small-time salvagers, and they just dive for scrap metal, but this is something else altogether.”
There has been more of the same happening since then, and he has even seen boats that have carried out the demolition.
The sinking of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales marked a major setback for the British in the war, and more than 800 men on both ships died.
“There’s a lot of reverence for the men of war who died,” said Yiu, a Singaporean diver with Tech Gas Asia, which offers a range of scuba gear and services. “Human remains? We see them, we don’t touch them.”
Seeing the Repulse “eaten up” by looters is “heartbreaking” to him. The plunder of Southeast Asia’s wartime shipwrecks has even been dubbed the world’s biggest grave robbery.
More than 40 have been identified as damaged or removed. Hundreds more are suspected to be damaged or are considered vulnerable. Thousands of American, Australian, British, Dutch and Japanese sailors went down with the ships.
WHO DISTURBED THE GRAVES?
News of the illegal salvaging and desecration of war graves has sparked outcry in countries such as the Netherlands.
The Dutch, the colonial rulers of Indonesia, lost three ships when Japan defeated the Allied forces in the Battle of the Java Sea on Feb 27, 1942.
Some 915 men went down with the HNLMS (His/Her Netherlands Majesty’s Ship) De Ruyter, Java and Kortenaer. In total, 2,300 lives were lost in the battle, which sought to prevent Japan’s occupation of the Dutch East Indies.
Who has destroyed these war graves and why? Investigative journalist Aqwam Fiazmi Hanifan is one of those who have tried to uncover the mystery.
He went to East Java, where stories had emerged of human remains found alongside scrap metal from a Dutch vessel dredged up.
Taking small valuables and scrap metal is a tradition in Java's coastal communities, who have fished the seas a long time. And locals around Brondong Port confirmed that they had sorted out parts from the warship.
Aqwam found, however, that they could not have been responsible for the large-scale removal of the wrecks, which required modern machines.
As for the human remains, a former scrapyard supervisor said bones and skulls were found. Some of the remains were buried at the Suko cemetery in Brondong, but official investigations found the bones to be from animals.
The former supervisor had another lead: Pioner 88, the name of a salvage ship. Aqwam traced its ownership to an Indonesian company, but his attempts to track down its boss were unsuccessful.
He shared his findings with the police, but officers found no evidence that the company had broken the law.
“We couldn’t find the big metal pieces to match the investigation of their metals,” an officer told him. “Also, their (salvage site) co-ordinates are different (from those of the wartime shipwrecks). We need to stick to the facts.”
Aqwam’s investigations hit a dead end, but doubts remain in his mind. According to him, the location for a government licence issued to Pioner 88 in 2015 was near the plundered wreck of British destroyer HMS Electra.
“Mostly these licences didn’t even mention any co-ordinates. We can see that, especially for the Pioner 88 crane ship, it doesn’t explain specifically the co-ordinates of which shipwrecks they can collect,” he noted.
Based on locals’ testimonies, ships sometimes operate outside the location stated on those licences anyway, he added. “Sometimes the areas they work in are quite far from the sea lanes they’re supposed to be working in.”
In 2017, another vessel, a dredger called Chuan Hong 68, was caught by the Indonesian Navy for allegedly looting a sunken Swedish supertanker.
The dredger was also suspected of illegally scavenging on the wrecks of three Japanese ships that sank off Borneo during World War Two. But it managed to flee.
The Chinese government, which said a Malaysian company had chartered the dredger, suggested to Indonesia that it settle the issue with the company, reported the Jakarta Post.
Chuan Hong 68 was then detained by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. The ship and its crew were later released.
Some experts believe illegal salvagers have torn historical shipwrecks apart because of the high value of their metals. The ships were manufactured before the first atomic explosions and, unlike steel that has been produced ever since, have no radioactive contamination.
Such metal is rare and used for sensitive equipment, such as Geiger counters — which detect radiation — aeronautical instruments and clean-room equipment, said maritime archaeologist James Hunter of the Australian National Maritime Museum.
He and his colleague Kieran Hosty have examined historical shipwrecks such as the cruiser HMAS (Her/His Majesty’s Australian Ship) Perth (I), which sank on March 1, 1942 off the north-western tip of Java.
They estimated in a 2017 survey that 60 per cent of the ship’s starboard hull plating had disappeared between October 2015 and December 2016 as a result of industrial-scale operations.
The “massive undertaking” would have required commercial or highly sophisticated divers, crane barges and other resources to extract over 4,000 tonnes of the wreck from the seabed, said Hosty.
DELICATE AND COMPLICATED TASK
Governments and researchers have made some progress on protecting what is left of the region’s wartime shipwrecks. But more work is needed, and collaboration among countries is a delicate and complicated task.
International legislation — including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — has proven inadequate for the protection of the HMAS Perth, noted a paper co-authored by Hosty, Hunter and Shinatria Adhityatama of Indonesia’s National Research Centre of Archaeology.
The status and protection of World War Two shipwrecks depend on the willingness and national laws of the country where they are found, Dutch and Indonesian researchers noted in another paper, published in January.
Indonesia’s position is that these wrecks fall under its legal system, they noted in the paper Battle of the Java Sea: One Event, Multiple Sites, Values and Views.
WATCH: Who’s behind the illegal looting of WWII shipwrecks near Indonesia? (47:49)
The public outcry in the Netherlands over the illegal salvaging of the HNLMS Java, De Ruyter and Kortenaer “sparked diplomatic tensions” between the two countries, the researchers noted.
Who plundered the wrecks remains unknown. But an expedition in 2019 helped both countries establish what is left on the seabed.
And from July 2017, the three wrecks have been marked “historic shipwrecks” on Indonesia’s nautical maps, which means no anchoring, diving or fishing is allowed at these locations, they noted.
Similarly, the work of Australian and Indonesian agencies resulted in the HMAS Perth site being declared Indonesia’s first maritime conservation area in 2018, coinciding with the 76th anniversary of the ship’s loss.
World War Two shipwrecks are also protected under an Indonesian law from 2010 concerning cultural conservation, cited Nia Naelul Hasanah Ridwan, a research director at Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.
But local law enforcers and governments may still be unaware that historical shipwrecks are considered cultural heritage, and let looters go free, she said. The problem is also a regional one, she added.
We have to educate and raise awareness (that) even though the shipwrecks belong to other countries … we still have to protect them.
Indonesia has perhaps been “unfairly accused” of failing to preserve these sites, said Natali Pearson of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney.
“Ultimately, the vessels were in these waters to defend colonial interests. And there’s been limited co-operation over the past 75 years between the Allied countries that were involved and Indonesia,” she noted.
Still, she called for greater protection of underwater heritage. “We can’t ignore the ocean or what’s in it just because it’s out of sight, out of mind, hidden beneath the waves,” she said. “The ocean is the world’s greatest museum.”
Watch this episode of Undercover Asia here.