A recently released Navy report says the wreck of the USS Houston — sunk by the Japanese off the Java coast at the outset of World War II — is leaking fuel and being picked clean of metal and dangerous munitions by salvagers and divers, creating a potential ecological disaster and endangering the remains of sailors and Marines entombed there.
The Houston was sunk in Banten Bay along with Australia’s HMAS Perth on March 1, 1942, in what was later dubbed the Battle of Sunda Strait. The ship went down with more than 1,000 aboard and as much as 350,000 gallons of fuel and diesel oil. Fewer than 400 survived.
U.S. and Indonesian navy divers checked the wreckage in June during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training 2014 exercises. It was the Navy’s first formal site assessment since the ship’s discovery decades ago. The Naval History and Heritage Command worked with the navies during the dive.
“The operation produced convincing evidence that the wreck of Houston, which serves as the final resting place for hundreds of sailors, contains potentially live ordnance, is seeping oil and is also being irreparably damaged by the unauthorized disturbance of the site,” said the final report on the assessment, released last month.
It called for protective measures to avoid “increased risk of desecration of human remains, serious structural damage to the wreck, and adverse environmental effects.”
The assessment was performed by Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1, Company 1-5, which began its work in Banten Bay on June 10 with support from the USNS Safeguard, according to the report. They completed 14 dives, with the Indonesian navy participating in several.
They were tasked with documenting battle damage as well as the orientation of the vessel and its debris field, along with environmental hazards, ordnance and any visible human remains.
Much of the vandalism and theft was observed in the area of the exposed port side.
Navy officials said they are coordinating with Indonesia to stop the desecration of the Houston, which has become a popular dive spot.
Paul Taylor, an NHHC spokesman, said Indonesian naval units will continue to chase off suspicious people spotted near the wreck and make arrests if possible.
“Representatives from both countries are determined to do what they can to protect and preserve the site, located a mile off Indonesia’s coast,” Taylor wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “It has the attention of both our navies, and we take any such disturbance very seriously.”
Taylor said the Navy will plan follow-up dives to monitor any continued damage and will work with Indonesia to see what “cultural, educational, deterrent and enforcement efforts might be employed to discourage disturbance.”
Last year, Frank Craven — an Australian diver with family ties to the HMAS Perth — dove on the site and took a trumpet and several other artifacts from the wreck, he told Stars and Stripes. He returned some artifacts to the Houston and handed the trumpet over to the Navy; it’s in the possession of the NHHC in Washington.
According to the report, divers documented missing rivets and large metal pieces of the hull. More disturbing was the documentation of tools used to pillage the ship, including a rudimentary surface-supplied oxygen delivery system to support local divers during prolonged underwater operations, a dredge that permitted access inside the hull and a new hacksaw, which indicated recent vandalism.
“Dredges of this type are commonly utilized in salvage or archaeological operations to excavate through and remove compacted sediment,” the report said. “The condition of the dredge indicates it has been present on site for some time, while it is still being weighed down by a rectangular metal frame and what may be an adjacent cinder block, suggesting its continued use.”
They also documented the absence of most portholes on the exposed port side.
Divers also observed piles of shells and ordnance on the exposed port side near a secured bag to haul it out and casings and ordnance in the vicinity of the dredge.
“As no assessment has been conducted on any of the seemingly intact pieces of ordnance, any such ordnance must be presumed active, and therefore potentially a public safety hazard,” the report said.
Taylor said the removal of old ammunition is of grave concern due to the danger, and the amount of fuel on board is also a concern.
The ship — one of 17,000 ship and aircraft wrecks worldwide — went down with as much as 350,000 gallons of fuel and diesel oil, the report said. Preliminary estimates suggest about a quarter of the oil was lost due to battle damage.
Divers documented oil slicks on the surface, the report said, requesting further study to fully grasp the problem.
Taylor said a Navy panel took up the issue in September and is “continuing to work toward response recommendations” for the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy.
Divers documented no human remains or evidence that remains had been tampered with. However, they said the remains in and around the ship are at risk if the vessel’s destruction continues.
“It is likely that any human remains, if extant, might be preserved within the hull or buried in the adjacent sediment, rather than exposed on the deck or port side of the hull,” the report said.
The Navy has generally maintained a policy of letting sailors and Marines lost at sea remain with their sunken vessels, which they consider to be hallowed war graves.
The report recommended a lengthier site survey to assess battle damage versus theft, public safety and environmental concerns, and possible security measures.
John Keith Schwarz, a representative from the Houston’s family group, the USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association & Next Generations, said the report confirmed long-held suspicions about salvage and environmental damage to the ship.
“The ship needs to be left alone and not disturbed nor intruded upon by ANYONE,” Schwarz wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.
“We call upon citizens of all nations to respect and to leave undisturbed the final resting place of those courageous American and Australian crewmen of USS Houston (CA-30) and HMAS Perth who are ‘still standing watch over Sunda Strait.’ ” his group said in a statement last year.