Three Dutch warships sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942 have largely disappeared from the sea bed, defence minister Jeanine Hennis has told MPs in a written briefing.
The wrecks of cruisers HNLMS De Ruyter and HMLMS Java and destroyer HMLMS Kortenaer were found by divers in the waters off Indonesia in 2002 and declared a war grave.
However, the two cruisers have vanished, as has part of the destroyer, the minister told MPs on Tuesday. The discovery of the illegal salvage was made by divers during preparations for next year’s 75 year anniversary commemorations, Hennis said.
The battle, involving Dutch, British, American and Australian ships, took place on February 27, 1942 and proved disastrous for the allies. Some 2,200 people died, including 900 Dutch nationals and 250 people of Indonesian Dutch origin.
The divers found traces of where the ships had been using underwater photography and sonar. The minister said it is extremely important to find out what has happened to the ships, which are of great historical value to the Netherlands.
‘The Battle for Java Sea is part of our collective memory,’ the minister said. ‘The wrecks bear silent witness to the the tragic events and form a backdrop to the many stories about the terrors of war and the comradeship between crew.’
The New Straits Times reported last year that illegal divers, often disguised as fishermen, were stripping sunken ships of valuable metals in the region. The South China Sea area is a graveyard for more than 100 ships and submarines from WWII, the paper said.
The wrecks of the historically important HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, both sunk by the Japanese navy in 1941, are thought to be among the ships plundered in the illegal salvage.
Two years ago, US military officials said there were signs that the wreck of the USS Houston, also sunk in the Battle for Java Sea, was being ‘disturbed’ and that unexploded ordnance was being taken.