No respect – beautifully-preserved WW2 shipwrecks being torn apart for scrap

The massive Japanese Battleship Nagato.
The massive Japanese Battleship Nagato.

There were three Japanese naval ships at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Borneo. Now, thanks to illegal salvage operations, there is only a pile of metal.

The Kokusei Maru, Higane Maru, and Hiyori Maru were all sunk in World War II by ships from the US Navy. Together, the wrecks were known as the Usukan Wrecks or the “Rice Bowl Wrecks” due to the cargo on the ships. Besides their cargo, the wrecks were believed to contain the remains of dozens of Japanese sailors making them war graves.

The varied sea life and the near-perfect condition of the wrecks made them favorites of recreational divers. The three wrecks are all within a kilometer of each other.

The increase in illegal salvage of Australian, American, British, Dutch and Japanese warships has led to outrage. Veterans and governments have stated that these wrecks must be protected be the governments that own the territories where the ships lie. Monica Chin was alerted by local fishermen to the fact that a large Chinese ship with a crane was tearing apart the Japanese ships.

The fishermen provided photos showing a large ship with a crane known as a “grab dredger.” Chin took a group of divers to visit the sites, and they brought back photos of the state of the wrecks now. Chin said the photos broke her heart. Until last year, the wrecks were in beautiful condition, like “an underwater museum.”

Chin said that she wished the pictures were not true.

Mark Hedger used to take customers to dive the wreck sites. He said that two of the wrecks are “98% and 99% gone” and the third is an “unrecognizable heap of metal.” Chin talked to the local authorities about the salvage, and they provided a letter stating that the work was authorized by the University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) archaeological unit.

The vice-chancellor of the university stated that the ships had three tons of toxic materials that were causing harm to the environment. Local divers dispute that claim.

When local residents and divers complained, the UMS issued a letter rescinding their authorization to salvage the wrecks. Naval shipwrecks have sovereign immunity under international law. The wrecks off Borneo were the property of Japan. It is illegal for them to be destroyed without permission from Japan.

Japan’s policy is to leave Navel wrecks where they lie, but in the last two years, they have been making an effort to repatriate their over 1.1 million war dead spread from Russia down to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Veterans and historians point out that there are dozens of ships with historical value on the ocean floor being preyed on by illegal scavengers.

Crews pretend to be fishermen and then loot wrecks for parts, aluminum, steel and brass. Propellers are typically the first to go. Often WWII-era ships used propellers made from phosphor bronze which sells for over $2,500 per metric ton. Ships from that era often contain low-background steel, which is extremely hard to find.

Last year, three British ships and a US submarine were salvaged illegally. The UK’s Ministry of Defence condemned the acts as unauthorized disturbances of wrecks containing human remains and called for the Indonesian government to investigate the crimes, The Guardian reported.

The government of the Netherlands is conducting its own investigation after three of its shipwrecks disappeared from the Java Sea.

Ian Harvey

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