Sunken Australian warship HMAS Perth ransacked by illegal scavengers

Only 40% remains of final resting place of 353 Australian sailors who drowned off Java in second world war, archaeologists say

HMAS Perth and crew at Fremantle on 6 August 1941. The ship sank off the Java coast in 1942 and 353 of the crew of 681 were killed. Photograph: Commonwealth of Australia 2017, Department of Defence

One of Australia’s most treasured second world war warships has been illegally salvaged for metal, devastating the war grave of more than 300 sailors, maritime archaeologists say.

An Australian-Indonesian expedition conducted a dive on the wreck of HMAS Perth, which sank in 1942 following a fierce battle against the Japanese navy off the north-west tip of Java.

Kevin Sumption, the director of the Australian National Maritime Museum, said: “It is with profound regret we advise that our joint maritime archaeologist diving team has discovered sections of the Perth missing. Interim reports indicate only approximately 40% of the vessel remaining.

“The research team has found evidence of large-scale salvage on the site, including what appears to be recent removal of material from the wreck,” he added.

The dive was the first detailed survey of the ship since 2013, when scuba divers reported recent damage to the wreck as well as sightings of a salvage barge with a large crane on board floating above the site.

HMAS Perth, a light cruiser, is the latest of dozens of second world war-era ships to be confirmed as having been illegally salvaged during the past few years.

HMAS Perth with disruptive camouflage. Photograph: Commonwealth of Australia 2017, Department of Defence

Frank McGovern, 97, was a gunner during the battle that sank HMAS Perth. After the third torpedo hit and he had run out of ammunition, McGovern heard the order to abandon ship. “I just went over the side, the rescue boats were full of shrapnel,” he told the Guardian. “My brother worked in the engine room. His action station was down there. He didn’t make it out.”

After several hours in the water, McGovern and others found a lifeboat and attempted to reach the Java shoreline but were intercepted by the Japanese. He spent the next three and a half years as a prisoner of war.

“It comes at some sort of a shock to know it’s not a war grave,” he said. “Only two of us are left out of the 682 on board.

“We have learned through the years that quite some damage had been done to the superstructure. We hoping now that through negotiations with the Indonesian authorities something might be done about it.”

Crews seeking to sell scrap steel and other metals estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have left few sunken vessels intact in the South China Sea.

The Guardian revealed in November that the wrecks of three British ships and a US submarine that sank during the war had been nearly completely destroyed. In February, divers in Malaysia sent photos to the archaeology best  showing the destruction of three Japanese ships that sank off the coast of Borneo in 1944 during the Pacific War.

The commercial salvaging of war wrecks, often using explosives, has upset veterans, historians and politicians, who want to preserve the final resting place of sailors who went down with their ships.

The illicit business has targeted scores of vessels sailed by Dutch, British, American and Australian servicemen that were overpowered by Japanese forces during battles in the Java Sea. Those battles led to the Japanese occupation of the entire Dutch East Indies.

Their recent disappearance from the seabed has tested relations between Indonesia and governments in Australia, Britain, the US and the Netherlands. Myriad Japanese wrecks are also believed to have been ripped apart. Britain has requested Indonesia investigate and take “appropriate action”.

The joint dive to HMAS Perth was scheduled for October but the early onset of the monsoon season delayed it. An expedition to scan the seabed in December was also unsuccessful after poor weather conditions affected the sonar findings.

Sunda Strait, where HMAS Perth lies. Photograph: Google Maps/Commonwealth of Australia 2017, Department of Defence

The full results of the dive, conducted to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Sunda Strait, during which HMAS Perth was sunk, will take several months to be analysed.

Starting its life as a British warship, HMAS Perth was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy in 1939 and sailed to the World’s Fair in New York before the war broke out.

During the next three years, it aided the evacuation of troops from Greece, battled Vichy France forces off Syria and engaged in the Battle of Crete. It operated alongside the Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Java, the USS Houston and HMS Exeter, Electra and Encounter – all ships that have been partially or completely salvaged.

On 28 February 1942, the Perth ran out of ammunition. Its captain attempted to force a passage through the Sunda Strait but the ship was struck by Japanese torpedoes.

Most of the Perth’s crew tried to abandon ship. The Australian navy says it is doubtful any of the life boats were successfully launched.

“During the abandon-ship operation, Perth was under fire from several destroyers at close range and many hits were scored and casualties caused. Many were killed or wounded in the water by the explosion of the last two torpedoes and by shells exploding in the water,” according to the Australian Navy.

HMAS Perth arriving in Port Jackson, Sydney. Photograph: Commonwealth of Australia 2017, Department of Defence

More than half of the crew, 353, did not survive the sinking. Many are believed to have been trapped inside the ship and remained there, 35 metres below the water.

More than 100 men died in captivity and after the end of hostilities, 214 men were repatriated to Australia.

Sumption said divers found that while some of the damage to the ship was a result of the Japanese torpedo strikes “and the expected degradation of the site over the last 75 years, there are signs the removal of this material is a result of salvage with some salvage equipment visible around the site”.

HMAS Perth has never been protected as an official war grave as Australia and Indonesia have yet to ratify the Unesco convention on underwater cultural heritage.

“This isn’t what we were hoping to find,” said Sumption, adding the museum remained committed to working with Indonesian authorities to secure formal protection of the site and protect what remains of the shipwreck.

“As the site lies in Indonesian territorial waters, it is important that we continue to work in close partnership with our Indonesian colleagues.”

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