According to The Guardian, the wrecks of three British warships and a US submarine sunk during one of the most disastrous Allied naval engagements of World War II have been almost totally destroyed for their scrap metal
175 metre heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, destroyer HMS Encounter and 91 meter American submarine USS Perch have been stripped from the seabed, while much of the destroyer HMS Electra has also been looted. Dutch ships HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java, and HNLMS Kortenaer have also been totally removed, to the horror of surviving veterans and the families of those no longer with us.
The Battle of the Java Sea (27 February 1942) and the smaller naval clashes that followed it represented the last roll of the dice for the Dutch East Indies. The combined American-British-Dutch-Australian Command suffered an overwhelming defeat with five ships lost and 2,300 souls with them, while the Japanese seized Java – now part of Indonesia – and with it the oil needed to continue their vicious expansion into China, South East Asia and the South Pacific.
The tragic irony is that these wrecks had only recently been returned to us. For over half a century many of the vessels lost in the Java Sea remained lost, until SCUBA diver Kevin Denlay and the team on board the M/V Empress finally located the resting place of HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java in 2002, HMS Electra in 2003, HNLMS Kortenaer in 2004, USS Perch in 2006, and HMS Exeter and HMS Encounter in 2007 (you can find out more on pacificwrecks.com). We spoke to Denlay to get his unique insight into just what it is that we’ve lost.
When you and your colleagues found the wrecks, how did their condition compare to other sites you’ve seen?
I realise it may sound odd to refer to the wreck of a warship sunk in battle as ‘pristine’ but that’s how they were. That is unseen and untouched by human hands since the day they went down. Save for some being draped in part by snagged and discarded trawler netting, and a surprisingly small amount of decay from the years spent on the seabed, they lay there undisturbed, almost just as they had sunk. The lighter constructed smaller destroyers showed considerable battle damage of course, as matter of fact Kortenaer was broken clean in half and lay in two separated sections, with the forward section completely upside down.
However, the larger sturdier cruisers, save for the areas damaged by the torpedoes which sunk them, were remarkably intact; Exeter a little less so as she had been engaged in a running gun battle for some time prior to taking the two torpedoes that spelled her ‘coup de grace’. And they only had a light patina of coral growth covering their features, so compared to many wrecks I have dived they were ‘pristine’. I have to say it was a real privilege over the years (from 2002 through 2007) to have been involved in the discovery of, and first dives on, so many virgin (i.e. undived / untouched) shipwrecks in the Java Sea and off Malaysia aboard the dive vessel MV Empress.
Out of the seven vessels was there one that really stuck with you?
Well, it was Hr. Ms. Java that was my favourite to dive (until we discovered HMS Exeter that is). I can’t really say why though, there was just something about that wreck that was really captivating to me. But the dive that features most clearly in my memory is the day I descended for the first dive on an unknown wreck and out of the gloom came a 4” twin barrel gun mount! After five years of searching I immediately knew we had finally found HMS Exeter. After all, there was no other warship left to discover in the Java Sea with a gun mount like that, as we had already discovered all of the other contenders over the previous five years!
However, I really can’t put into words the feeling of elation I felt as there is just something really really special about making the first dive on a previously undiscovered shipwreck. As the saying goes “only a diver knows the feeling” of discovering a virgin shipwreck.
So my abiding memory is to have literally traveled into the past and ‘walked the decks’ of these famous warships sunk in the heat of battle so many years ago. They were nothing less than awe inspiring sights and a real ‘time capsule’ into the past. But now they are gone forever!
Discovering the wrecks clearly brought a lot of people, survivors and their family, some resolution after so many years. Did you hear from any personally?
Yes, I heard from quite a few surviving veterans themselves over the years (and/or members of their families if the veteran had already passed on). And you know, every one of them was happy that we found their old ship. Every one! So I felt humbled that I had a hand in bringing some closure to so many people. However, one of the highlights of my diving career was to personally meet four of the actual crew off HMS Exeter that survived her sinking – and then spent the rest of the war in brutal Japanese Prisoner Of War camps – and journey back out into the Java Sea with them in 2008 aboard HMS Kent for a memorial service over their old ship. Talk about a walk down memory lane!
In your opinion, how can wrecks like this be protected from scavengers? And should they be protected or are we too sentimental about these things?
To answer you first question, if you’re asking about wrecks in Asian waters, they cannot. Save parking a gunboat over every wreck 24/7/365 that is. And of course that is not practical. Even both HMAS Perth and USS Houston, effectively in swimming distance from shore in a heavily populated area, have both been systematically stripped over the years. After all, there has to be a collective (governmental) will around the world to really protect them in the first place, and if the truth be known, there simply isn’t. And if there is money to be made the temptation will always be there. Why, even the British Government themselves didn’t seem too perturbed about the non-disturbance of a ‘war grave’ when they OK’d the salvage of the gold aboard HMS Edinburgh [off the Norwegian coast] many years ago, herself a war grave.
Yes, there was a huge amount of gold there, and I am not saying it should not have been salvaged, but that still smacks of the “don’t do as I do, do as I say” adage, which you can’t expect everyone to follow when you yourself set a bad example.
As to your second question, I am rather ambivalent about the protection issue. I certainly do not think they should be commercially salvaged, as I like many others (survivors, theirs families, and the families of those lost, etc.) have a direct connection to the ships. Nevertheless, I have for many years advocated that specific artefacts should have been allowed to be retrieved and handed over to the authorities for museum display so that future generations actually have something tangible to see / touch to remind them of those lost ships and the brave men that went down fighting on them. Now any chance of that happening is gone forever and I feel very sad about that.
On the other hand, to many folk those wrecks are just lumps of rusty decaying metal on the seabed that the sea will one day essentially completely reclaim anyway. So to them it seems inane to leave the wrecks rotting away when a buck can be made by salvaging them. Besides, many folk simply have no concept of a shipwreck being a ‘war grave’.
Anyhow it’s a moot point now for almost all of the WWII warship wrecks in Asian waters, as the horse has well and truly bolted. That is, literally every single WWII warship wreck I have either been involved in the discovery of out there (almost a dozen), or have simply dived on there, has now either been completely salvaged (as in entirely gone), or has been very heavily salvaged to one degree or another. It’s no less than the end of an era for historical shipwreck diving in Asian waters!