The vessels were casualties of Japanese attacks during the bitter Battle of the Java Sea in 1942, and sank with considerable loss of life.
Exeter was among them, and the biggest ship at 10,500 tons laden. She was torpedoed on 28 February and sank in a depth of 60m south of Borneo. The wreck was located and identified by divers nine years ago.
Two of the other ships were Dutch, including the 6650-tonne HNLMS De Ruyter and the Java, and the other was the submarine USS Perch. A third Dutch vessel, HNLMS Kortenaer, is reportedly still in place but with a large section removed.
The vessels were reported to be largely intact when the first were discovered by sports divers in 2002, but their disappearance has now been revealed by a survey carried out ahead of next year’s 75th anniversary of the battle.
With nothing left but indentations in the seabed, the inevitable conclusion is that the ships have been illegally salvaged for their scrap metal. Salvage ships often pose as fishing vessels to disguise their activities as they use explosives to blast wrecks apart and remove the scrap. However, it is seen as highly unusual for every trace of such large vessels to be removed, because the operation would take so long.
The Dutch Government has already launched an investigation into the fate of the wrecks, which were classed as war graves. Such wrecks are meant to be protected under UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage of 2001.
Indonesia has refused to take responsibility for the destruction, pointing out that its navy cannot monitor all its waters at all times. “If they ask why the ships are missing, I’m going to ask them back, why didn’t they guard the ships?” navy spokesman Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta has told Agence France-Presse.
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