The Slow Disappearance Of Second World War Wrecks At The Hands Of Illegal Salvagers

Dutch Amdiralen class Destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer in the 30s

Dutch defense minister Jeanine Hennis has told Members of the Dutch Parliament in a written briefing that three of the nation’s warships sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942 have largely disappeared.

The remains of the cruisers HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java, and the destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer were declared a war grave after their discovery in 2002 off the Indonesian coast.

Two of the cruisers are no longer there, along with a part of the destroyer, she told MPs recently. Divers discovered the extent of illegal salvaging during preparations for the 75th anniversary of the battle.  Dutch, British, American, and Australian ships didn’t fare well in the action that occurred on February 7, 1942, and about 2,200 were killed, including 250 people of mixed Dutch and Indonesian origin that included 900 Dutch citizens.

The minister said determining what happened to the ships is of utmost significance to the Netherlands since they are of considerable historical value.

The Battle of the Java Sea is part of their collective memory, Hennis said.  Each wreck is a silent witness to the sad events and is the background to the numerous stories about the friendship of between crews and the horrors of war.

Last year, the New Straits Times reported that divers acting illegally disguise themselves as fishermen to salvage the ships, stripping the wrecks of prized metal in the area. There are more than 100 ships and submarines from the Second World War in the South China Sea in the region, Dutch News reported.

It is believed the HMS Repulse and the HMS Prince of Wales – both destroyed by the Japanese navy in 1941 – have also been plundered.  A few years ago, military officials with the US said there were indications that the wreck of the USS Houston was being salvaged and unexploded ammunition was gone.

Ian Harvey

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