The remains of these 3 Dutch ships are from the Battle of the Java Sea which was fought on February 27, 1942 between a hastily assembled battle group of Dutch, British, American and Australian ships led by the Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman and the overwhelming Japanese fleet steaming towards the Island of Java. It was a hopeless battle as they fought a larger, better armed and well-coordinated Japanese fleet knowing that their chance of survival was nil. Of the 5 cruisers and 9 destroyers of the battle group only 2 destroyers escaped.
We lived in Surabaya at that time and this is my memory of this disastrous naval battle as I tell it in my book:
“February had been a disastrous month from the beginning and it ended with a conglomeration of American, British, Australian and Dutch ships under the Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman losing the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27 and 28, leaving Java wide-open to the Japanese invasion force bearing down on it. Our world was crumbling. Knowing that they had little time left, our forces had burned the Navy yard, ammunition dumps, oil depots and warehouses in Tandjong Perak, the harbor of Soerabaja, creating clouds of black smoke that turned all of Soerabaja dark for two days and squeezed our hearts with fear and desperation.
The disastrous sinking of two Dutch light cruisers and two destroyers in the Battle of the Java Sea, taking most of the crews down with them, sent waves of grief and anguish through the Navy families in Soerabaja. That Admiral Doorman had decided to go down with his ship, following the best tradition of the Royal Netherlands Navy, was a source of pride as well as a stark symbol of defeat. Navy grieves for Navy and the subsequent news of the loss of eight of the Allied ships added to their burden.
With no force left to stop them, the Japanese Army invaded Java west of Soerabaja the following day.”
The wrecks of the cruisers HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java are completely gone and large parts of the destroyer HMLMS Kortenaer have also disappeared. How can that be? These wrecks were discovered intact by amateur divers in 2002 and now a new expedition to mark them in preparation of the 75th anniversary commemorations of the battle in 2017 finds imprints on the sea floor in sonar images but the cruisers are no longer there!
These wrecks are located only 100km (60 miles) off the north coast of Java near Surabaya, the headquarters of the Indonesian Eastern Fleet, at a depth of 70 meters (230 feet). While 70 meters does not seem that deep, salvaging these wrecks would have had to be a huge salvage operation over a long period of time.
THIS MAP SHOWS THE LOCATION OF THE WRECKS OFF THE NORTH COAST OF JAVA
Apparently illegal scrap metal scavenging has become commonplace in the seas around Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia and, now the Dutch expedition has let the cat out of the bag, accounts are appearing in the British press that 3 British ships have also disappeared. And there are more accounts and hints of scavenging of ship wrecks all over the area, including American and Australian.
There will be international investigations and finger pointing in all directions about what really amounts to desecration of sacred war graves and, hopefully, there will be some honest introspection of how these governments could allow this to happen.
My heart goes out to the families of about 2,200 people who died, including 1,174 Dutch and Indonesian Dutch. The bravery of these sailors was never well known and is now largely forgotten, but they deserve better.
I had friends whose father died on the HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java. So I have a personal stake in this developing story and intend to follow it and share what I find.