Several days before a big Dutch trade mission visits Indonesia to enhance bilateral trade relations between both nations, there surfaced reports of three missing Dutch warships. These warships had been sunk by Japanese forces during the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942 and had been lying on the bottom of the Java Sea off the coast of Java ever since (or, more precise, were believed to be lying there). After divers discovered the wrecks in 2002, the site was declared a war grave. The Dutch government is demanding a full investigation into this violation of a war grave.
The three Dutch war ships - Hr. Ms. De Ruyter, Hr. Ms. Java and Hr. Ms Kortenaer - left Surabaya (East Java) on 26 February 1942 to prevent the Japanese from invading East Java. In those days Surabaya was the last major naval base in Southeast Asia for the Dutch and allied troops. The three Dutch ships were part of a fleet that went to combat the Japanese in the Java Sea consisting of Dutch, British, American and Australian warships, led by Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman. In this battle the Dutch (and Allies) were defeated, implying the door was open to full Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies. Many ships were sunk (including the Dutch ships).
It is assumed that on 27 February 1942 a total of 2,200 people died in this battle, including more than 900 Dutch soldiers and 250 soldiers of Indonesian-Dutch descent. Bodies were never recovered, instead they found their watery grave at the bottom of the Java Sea.
After amateur divers found the wrecks of the three Dutch war ships in 2002, the site was declared a war grave. Earlier this year, a new expedition, organized by the Karel Doorman Fund, tried to locate the site in preparation for the 75th commemoration of the Java Sea Battle in 2017. While sonar images detected the imprints, the wrecks itself were no longer there except for a small part of the Hr. Ms Kortenaer.
Due to the sheer size of the wrecks (at least 160 meters in length), it is impossible that they have simply disappeared, moved by tides. Instead it is believed that the wrecks have been sold as scrap metal by local salvage companies. It is not unusual for local scavengers - often disguised as fishermen - to steal parts of wrecks (especially seeking steel, aluminium and brass) in the seas around Singapore, Malaysia and Java, an area where more than 100 boats and submarines were sunk during the second world war.
But what makes this case rather mysterious is that two of the wrecks have vanished completely. If a ship would be carried away in one piece, then it would require massive equipment as well as huge costs (perhaps over USD $50 million) to bring it to land. Even if scavengers gain 10,000 tons of steel, it would still result in a loss after selling the steel. And, for sure, such a big expedition would not go unnoticed. It is also possible that scavengers gradually broke down the wrecks over a long period (around 15 years). Lastly, it is possible that the latest expedition did not read the sonar images correctly and the wrecks have been covered by sand.
The Dutch Defense Ministry said the desecration of a war grave is a serious offense and therefore it is extremely important to find out what has actually happened to these ships that are of great historical value to the Netherlands as the Battle of the Java Sea is part of Dutch collective memory.
It is prohibited under international law to violate sites that have been declared war graves, let alone recover wrecks, without the consent of (in this case) the Netherlands. Also the international humanitarian law protects such war graves.