oceanroamers

Providing management & consulting services to the marine, diving and tourism industries since 2003.

The world's biggest grave robbery: Asia’s disappearing WWII shipwrecks

The world's biggest grave robbery: Asia’s disappearing WWII shipwrecks

Dozens of warships believed to contain the remains of thousands of British, American, Australian, Dutch and Japanese servicemen from the second world war have been illegally ripped apart by salvage divers, the Guardian can reveal.

An analysis of ships discovered by wreck divers and naval historians has found that up to 40 second world war-era vessels have already been partially or completely destroyed. Their hulls might have contained the corpses of 4,500 crew.

Governments fear other unmarked graves are at risk of being desecrated. Hundreds more ships – mostly Japanese vessels that could contain the war graves of tens of thousands of crew killed during the war – remain on the seabed.

The rusted 70-year-old wrecks are usually sold as scrap but the ships also contain valuable metals such as copper cables and phosphor bronze propellors.

Experts said grave diggers might be looking for even more precious treasures – steel plating made before the nuclear testing era, which filled the atmosphere with radiation. These submerged ships are one of the last sources of “low background steel”, virtually radiation-free and vital for some scientific and medical equipment.

Crews pretending to be fishermen have scavenged the waters around Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

At depths reaching 80m, some wreck sites are accessible to divers.

In recent years, many shipwrecks have been mysteriously and illegally salvaged for metal.

Wreck sites are often considered war graves. Here are the ships known to have gone down with over one hundred lives lost.

The Guardian revealed last year that the wrecks of some of Britain’s most celebrated warships had been illegally salvaged, leading to uproar among veterans and archaeologists, who accused the UK government of not moving fast enough to protect underwater graves.

Three ships – HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter, and HMS Electra – contained the bodies of more than 150 sailors. All sank during operations in the Java Sea in 1942, one of the costliest sea skirmishes for the Allies during the war.

In 2014, the wrecks of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales and the graves for more than 800 Royal Navy sailors were found to have been damaged by scavengers.

Photos of ships

The UK’s Ministry of Defence demanded Indonesia protect the ships in its waters. “A military wreck should remain undisturbed and those who lost their lives onboard should be allowed to rest in peace,” a ministry spokesperson said.

Since then, divers in Malaysia have sent photos to the Guardian showing the destruction of three Japanese ships that sank off the coast of Borneo in 1944 during the Pacific War. And one of Australia’s most treasured ships, light cruiser HMAS Perth, has also been ripped up.

Dan Tehan, Australia’s minister for veterans’ affairs, told the Guardian: “The HMAS Perth is the final resting place for more than 350 Australians who lost their lives defending Australia’s values and freedoms, so reports the wreckage has been disturbed are deeply upsetting and of great concern.”

James Hunter, from the Australian National Maritime Museum, was one of the divers who discovered the Perth was “60 to 70% gone”.

Born in the mid-western US, he had been diving with his father since he was nine and worked as a maritime archeologist for close to two decades, including on the archaeological team that investigated the American civil war submarine H L Hunley.

Throughout his career, Hunter had heard of piecemeal salvaging of wrecks – stealing propellers and guns, or sometimes personal items of the crew. But last year, the museum heard stories from the diving community in Indonesia that ships were being destroyed whole-scale.

“I’ve been in this field for 20 years, and I have never heard of a historic wreck, especially a large 8,000-tonne steel hull, being completely removed. I couldn’t believe it. I almost refused to believe it,” he said.

But a month later, staring through the silty water in the Java Sea, Hunter saw how the salvagers had “ripped [the Perth] from one end to the other”.

“You may as well just go into a war cemetery and dig it up. It’s no different to me, at all,” said Hunter, who comes from a military family. “I was completely horrified.”

The US military has sent several delegations to Indonesia to try to protect its wrecks, several of which have been targeted.

Thousands of sailors rest at the bottom of the sea, and veterans argue that the vessels must be preserved as underwater war graves.

Depth graphic static

Large “crane barges” have been photographed above wreck sites, often with huge amounts of rusted steel on their decks. At the seabed, divers have found ships cut in half. Many have been removed completely, leaving a ship-shaped indent.

Cambodian, Chinese and Malaysian-registered vessels have been spotted above shipwrecks. In some cases, their crews have been arrested. In one case, the looters had acquired a letter from a Malaysian university which said the work was authorised as “research”.

The illicit business, which appears to have rocketed in the past 18 months, remains shrouded in mystery, with some archeologists suggesting selling corroded scrap metal was not worth the costly process of removing it from the sea bed.

“If you look at the amount of money you would be spending to salvage on this scale, the return you would get just to get a bunch of corroded metal, it just doesn’t seem like it adds up,” said Hunter, the marine archeologist.

Another point of confusion is the fact that plenty of accessible modern wrecks in the area have not been targeted. “If you’re simply looking at steel to melt down, go after a modern wreck ... I don’t understand why you would target a ship that is 75 years old and has got marine growth all over it and the metal is all corroded.”

Salvaging can take several weeks for larger ships. Here is how it’s done.

Archeologists believe the criminals might be turning a profit because the hulls are one of the world’s few remaining deposits of “low-background” metals. Having been made before atomic bomb explosions in 1945 and subsequent nuclear tests, the steel is free of radiation. This makes even small quantities that have survived the saltwater extremely useful for finely calibrated instruments such as Geiger counters, space sensors and medical imaging.

Some ancient ships, often centuries-old Roman vessels in European waters, have also been salvaged for their lead, which is also low-radiation and is used in nuclear power stations.

Martijn Manders, the head of the maritime programme at the cultural heritage agency of the Netherlands, has been looking at mystery of three Dutch wrecks that disappeared in the Java Sea.

“We still have people who are living and served in the Battle of the Java Sea or were directly involved in other ways. They see that the ships are being torn apart, which is very painful.”

While there might be small amounts of lead on the second world war wrecks, looters appeared to be more interested in the thick steel hulls, he said, pointing to the fact that salvagers dumped a large part of one ship, the HNLMS Kortenaer, back on the seabed.

That vessel was a lighter destroyer type and its hull was much thinner and more corroded. “All the iron in that ship was extremely rotted and of no value whatsoever,” Manders said.

Others said a booming demand in China for scrap metal might make the salvaging profitable without selling low-background metals. Even poor quality steel can bring in about £1m ($1.3m) a ship, according to some estimates, especially with the added brass from pipework, valued at about £2,000 a tonne, and copper wiring, roughly £5,000 a tonne.

Whatever the motives for destroying historical treasures, hundreds more wrecks that sit in south-east Asian waters are at risk from illegal salvaging.

Many ships from the second world war – some with possibly up to 5,000 dead sailors entombed inside – lie several hundred metres down, way below safe diving limits and have not been assessed since the new wave of salvaging started. But Hunter warned equipment was becoming available to remotely salvage these ships.

“Now we’ve got technology that is enabling people to find and potentially salvage wrecks in extremely deep water. This threat is getting bigger,” said Hunter. “And as the technology develops and as it gets cheaper and as it gets more accessible, I honestly believe this going to become a bigger problem.”

Sources: US Navy, Royal Navy, Australian Department of Defence, Dutch Ministry of Defence, wrecksite.eu, combinedfleet.com

Original author: Guardian
Original author: Admin

Copyright

© INDEPTH - THEDIVEPROFESSIONAL

Rate this blog entry:
0
Blue Planet II episode highlights how plastic is k...
Garmin Descent Mk1 Dive Computer: Breaking Down th...
 

POPULAR

15 March 2017
I can just see Cousteau the father of diving turning in the grave. After the disastrous management of the Calypso by the late captain's last wife, now the last bastion of Cousteau's legacy Aqualung ha...
10600 Hits
23 February 2017
After the 20th shark attack off Reunion Island since 2011 occurred earlier this week, the world’s greatest surfer made a comment that “there needs to be a serious cull on Reunion and it should happen...
5850 Hits
23 May 2017
A Red Sea diving liveaboard had to be evacuated on Saturday, 13 May after what appeared to be a galley fire broke out. According to one of the 23 guests, who were left with few possessions between th...
3128 Hits
19 May 2017
PADI CEO Releases Statement on New Owners Story brought to you by DIVEMAGAZINE The Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) was sold in March this year to a private consortium known only a...
2355 Hits
19 May 2017
We take a look at the best diving movies of all time, from thrilling underwater epics to Hollywood blockbusters featuring incredible subaquatic scenes. The underwater realm struggles t...
2101 Hits
12 April 2017
March 15, 2017 at 9:19 PM Researchers have created a new model for predicting decompression sickness after deep-sea dives that not only estimates the risk, but how severe the symptoms are likely to b...
1840 Hits