A “Rice Bowl Wreck” prior to illegal salvaging. (Image: Jason Fowler/Flickr)

Late last year, the Netherlands defense ministry confirmed that two of its ships lost during World War II had disappeared from the bottom of the Java Sea, likely the result of illegal salvaging. Now, a trio of Japanese shipwrecks off Borneo have likewise been torn apart for scrap, highlighting what appears to be a growing problem.

As reported in The Guardian, the three shipwrecks—the Kokusei Maru, Higane Maru, and Hiyori Maru—have been stripped to practically nothing. Collectively known as the Usukan Bay Wrecks (also known as the “Rice Bowl Wrecks” on account of their cargo), all three are within a kilometer of each other, and are prized by recreational divers for their near-pristine condition and rich aquatic life. The three cargo ships were torpedoed off the coast of Borneo in 1944 by US forces, and may still hold the remains of dozens of crewmen.

The incident bears a striking resemblance to the disappearance of two Dutch wrecks lost during the Battle of the Java Sea. In both cases, blame is being pointed directly at illegal salvaging operations. But in the case of the missing Japanese wrecks, there appears to be some complicity from a local university.

According to The Guardian, scuba divers reported a large Chinese vessel, known as a “grab dredger,” using a crane to pull up the shredded remains of the Japanese wrecks, which were likely torn apart by explosives and other equipment. Looters are on the lookout for valuable metals, including steel, aluminum, and brass. Propellers, which are made of phosphor bronze, are among the most valuable objects on these sunken vessels, fetching over $2,500 a ton. These efforts, though seemingly arduous and insensitive, can clearly have a big payoff.

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After being turned away from the site by the workers on the Chinese salvage vessel, scuba diver Monica Chin arranged for a team of divers to investigate. “It totally broke my heart,” she said after viewing photos of the damaged ships. “It made me cry. I just can’t believe it ... I wish the pictures were wrong. I wish that it was not true.” Another diver, Mark Hedger, says upwards of 98 and 99 percent of two of the wrecks are simply “gone,” describing one of the ships as an unrecognizable “heap of metal piled up into a ball.”

Shockingly, an investigation by Chin led her to the archaeology department at the University Malaysia Sabaha (UMS). The archaeologists said the salvage work was authorized by the university for “research” purposes. A UMS official said the Japanese vessels contained three tons of “toxic materials” that were harming the environment, a claim disputed by the divers. But after coastal residents learned of the salvage and filed a formal complaint, the university issued a letter to the company it commissioned to hire the Chinese-registered vessel, withdrawing that authorization. It would seem either the university is corrupt, or it’s completely incompetent and unaware of what’s happening at the sites.

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As for the claim that the operation was an effort to clean-up toxic materials, that’s dubious at best. According to international law, naval shipwrecks remain the property of their nations (in this case, Japan). The looters—even if sanctioned by the university—had no legal business dismantling the ships and extracting the metal without authorization from Tokyo.

“The government’s policy is to leave underwater war graves as they are if it has been confirmed that they contain the remains of crewmen,” a Japanese ministry official told The Guardian, adding that Japanese wrecks need to be protected by the government of the territory where they rest.

It’s very sad that this is happening, and sadder still that the Japanese government isn’t making more of a fuss. The Dutch, on the other hand, are launching a full investigation into the disappearance of their vessels. There are still hundreds of WWII-era ships and subs at the bottom of the ocean, and it would be a shame to see them disappear. As noted, these wrecks are not just important historical sites, they’re also war graves. Best to leave such sites alone.

[The Guardian]