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June 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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More on those Disappearing Warships

how does an entire shipwreck disappear?

from the June, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Undercurrent reported in both January and March of this year that the wreck of several enormous warships, sunk near Borneo during the battle of the Java Sea in 1942, had disappeared. The HNLMS Java and HNLMS De Ruyter, the Australian submarine HMAS Perch, the HMS Encounter, HMS Electra and the HMS Exeter are simply gone.

The mystery continues. A team of research divers tasked with assessing the condition of the two Dutch vessels found that the wreck of HMS Electra had been gutted, a huge section the Dutch warship HNLMS Kortenaer was missing and an eighth vessel, the USS Houston, was mostly intact, but was clearly in the process of being salvaged.

These were not trivial vessels. The Perch was as long as a football field, and the De Ruyter, the biggest of them all, was more than 560 feet (170m) long, and they have disappeared.

WWII warships were heavily built. The armored Exeter displaced 8520 tons. When it comes to scrap, the hulls offer lots of structured steel to recover. No modern steel is radiation-free, thanks to all the nuclear tests that have occurred, so radiation-free steel sunk before the advent of the nuclear age has added value, because it is in demand for technical applications -- in particular, the development of nuclear energy weapons. It can raise up to $4000 per metric ton.

In 1942, the USA, the UK, Australia and the Netherlands made a hastily formed alliance to try to stem Japanese encroachment in what is now Indonesia. Soon 14 Allied vessels were in a battle with a crack Japanese cruiser squadron and lost 10 ships and 2,100 sailors within two days.

Australian wreck diver Kevin Denlay has been diving WWII wrecks since the early 1990s, and his team found these Java Sea wrecks in 2002. Since then, a fledgling leisure diving industry began to grow around them. Initially, they were plundered by some less-than-scrupulous divers for their brass and bronze fittings, especially the HMAS Perch and USS Houston, effectively within swimming distance of the shore.

It's put a big dent in the region's embryonic underwater tourism industry.

Eventually, pirate salvagers using heavy lifting equipment made off with the more valuable parts, those made of brass or copper, even as they moved on to less-valuable metals such as aluminum. Such salvage operations usually leave a lot of unwanted debris in their wake.

What is unusual about the missing Java Sea wrecks is that not a single nut or bolt remains. Denlay suggests that a large barge equipped with a heavy lifting crane would have been needed to raise a whole battle fleet in such a way and says he can't figure out how nobody noticed or reported such a massive undertaking.

How could wrecks like this have been protected from illegal salvage? To quote Denlay, "If you're asking about wrecks in Asian waters, they cannot. Save parking a gunboat over every wreck [full time], that is."

To lift such an enormous amount of scrap in such a clinical and clandestine way probably required the resources of a nation-state and the cooperation of regional and local officials. Only big imprints of where the wrecks lay at 165 feet (50m) on the bottom leave testimony to their existence. It's put a big dent in the region's embryonic underwater tourism industry, and the desecration of those that were registered as war graves is a serious offense.

On the 8th May this year, The Maritime Executive reported that the 8000-metric tonne Chinese grab dredger Chuan Hong 68 was finally arrested by Indonesian authorities for allegedly scavenging the wrecks of the Japanese destroyer Sagiri, the Hiyoshi Maru, the Katori Maru, the steamship Igara and the tanker Seven Skies, after being previously chased and escaping to Malaysia.

UK newspaper The Guardian found that a university and a maritime authority in Indonesia were involved in licensing some operations to salvage the disappeared WWII wrecks. Photos taken by locals of a vessel over the wreck sites correspond closely to the Chuan Hong 68.

In the meantime, we are left to speculate which country needs radiation-free steel for its nuclear industry and might prefer to procure that metal in a secretive manner?

(sources: Guardian)

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