Salvagers are Ransacking World War II Era Sunken Ships

In 1942, off the coast of Indonesia, one of the most significant naval engagements ever took place.During this engagement, known as the battle of the Java Sea, the ships of both the allied powers and the Japanese empire were sunk. Over 70 years later, however, these ships are still playing a large part in the economy of the Indonesian coast, serving a second role as abundant sources of salvage for the Indonesian crews, who rely on the salvaging trade for their own livelihood.

The ships serve as a source of valuable metals as well as radiation free steel, which is used in medical and scientific instruments, and are excavated using massive cranes and barges as well as divers. The crews of these expeditions are, in the eyes of some, doing something little better than grave robbing, but to the workers themselves, it is just a job like any other.

Indeed, little concern has been expressed by the salvagers for the estimated 4500 remains found in now partially or entirely salvaged vessels all over Asia. Several diving expeditions, including one led by the Dutch in 2017, have been appalled to see entire wrecks missing. But it is this concern for the dead that is met with a sort of indifference by the workers, with many stating they are just doing their job, and have no emotional link or connection to the sunken ships or the bones found within them.

The Royal Navy heavy cruiser HMS Exeter sinking after the Battle of the Java Sea, 1 March 1942.
The Royal Navy heavy cruiser HMS Exeter sinking after the Battle of the Java Sea, 1 March 1942.

Indeed for many, the point of interest was not the presence of bones, but the size of them, stating that they were larger than any Indonesian bones that they had seen, a very macabre observation. According to the low-level workers interviewed, after finding bones, their only instructions were to give them to supervisors, after which they did not know what became of the remains, though there is speculation that some workers are paid a decent rate by the bosses on site to bury the bones.

The disappearance of the wrecks, though not of particular concern to locals, has caused international outrage to those who belong to the original nations of the ships. The government of the Netherlands, in particular, has been lobbying the Indonesian foreign ministry to intervene. Britain, on the other hand, has called the salvaging a breach of international law, especially as rumors that the remains from some sunken warships had been merely dumped in a shallow mass grave. The reason for the Dutch, in particular, having interest, lies in the fact that the battle of the Java Sea cost them not only their colony of Indonesia, but also nearly 900 sailors, compared to Britain’s 200 seamen.

Repulse is at the bottom, having been hit by a bomb, 10 December 1941
Repulse is at the bottom, having been hit by a bomb, 10 December 1941

Indeed, while the foreign reservations about salvaging the wrecks appear to be sentimental, any Indonesian reluctance comes from a unique brand of superstition. Some claim that the wrecks are haunted and bring misfortune such as limps or accidents. Indeed, one salvager has claimed that a bullet he brought up from the wreck, blew off the top of his little finger. Nevertheless, it seems that the looting of mementos has not stopped, even though it gives credit to the government’s case that these ships are knowingly being excavated.

The chance of any of these small items being a critical piece of evidence in the government’s efforts to build a case, is nonetheless tiny. Indeed, the entire lawsuit against the salvage companies is shaky. Despite salvagers apparently being able to tell they are cutting into warships, and knowing the history of the area, there is little reliable proof to build a legal case. This means that, for the time being, companies will continue to profit from forever destroying these priceless final resting places en masse.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE