Someone is stealing shipwrecks from Southeast Asian waters – more specifically, sunken warships, that are prized for their scrap metal value.
Many warships sunk in World War I and World War II have been vandalised for their bronze propellers, the copper in their boilers and even for their scantlings and hull plating.
Vessels built before 1942 are particularly prized because they have steel that was smelted before atomic bomb testing put radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere, therefore this 'low-background' material is invaluable when it comes to making sensitive scientific instruments.
On 25 October 2014 The Telegraph ran the headline "Celebrated British warships being stripped bare for scrap metal".
The Telegraph went on to state that scrap dealers had been scavenging the wrecks of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales.These British battlecruisers were sunk off the coast of Malaysia in 1941, and were the resting place of more than 800 Royal Navy sailors.
Just over two years later, The Guardian printed a story on 16 November 2016, stating that three British ships and a US submarine that had sank in the Java Sea during WWII, had been destroyed by illegal scrap metal scavengers.
3D mapping of the sea bed had revealed that the wrecks of HMS Exeter, (heavy cruiser) and HMS Encounter (destroyer) have been almost totally removed. The destroyer, HMS Electra, had also been scavenged, although a “sizeable section” of the wreck remains. The mapping has also revealed that the US submarine Perch, whose entire crew were captured by the Japanese, has been totally removed.
The Netherlands defence ministry also discovered that three of its shipwrecks had also disappeared in the Java Sea. There is now empty sea bed where HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java, and HNLMS Kortenaer used to be. (These wrecks were only located in 2002)
“The desecration of a war grave is a serious offence”
The commercial salvaging of war wrecks has caused significant upset among veterans, historians and governments who want to preserve the final resting place of sailors who went down with their ships.
In the last few days it looks as though Indonesian authorities have caught a perpetrator.
The Maritime Executive has reported that Indonesian authorities allege that the 8,000 gt Chinese grab dredger Chuan Hong 68 was responsible for illegally scavenging the wrecks of the pre-WWII Japanese destroyer Sagiri, plus the passenger vessels Hiyoshi Maru and Katori Maru, the steamship Igara and the tanker Seven Skies. It is the second time that maritime authorities have caught the Chuan Hong 68 in as many months.