Why are Chinese scrap metal merchants raiding WWII graves?

When Winston Churchill reflected on being told that the HMS Repulse had been sunk by the Japanese in December 1941, he wrote in his memoir: “in all the war, I never received a more direct shock.”

508 men went down with the ship, and with them went the Allies hopes of a quick victory in the Pacific War. 

The wreck of the Repulse remains both a symbol of one of the most significant battles of WWII and the grave of the officers and crew that died that day. 

Well, at least, what’s left of the wreck is. Because at $4,900 per tonne, the metal within the ship’s phosphor bronze propellers is an attractive target for Chinese merchants with no time for sentimentality. In 2014 it was discovered that the wreck of the Repulse had been seriously damaged by salvagers.

It is a similar story throughout the Pacific, which is littered with Japanese, American, British, Dutch and Australian shipwrecks from WWII.

In 2016 it was discovered that three Dutch wrecks had vanished from the Java Sea. The wrecks of the HNLMS De Ruyter, Java and Kortenear were found in 2002, but had been almost entirely salvaged by the time the Netherlands attempted to revisit on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea.

The wrecks had been declared a sacred war grave for the 900 Dutch and 250 Indonesian nationals who went down with them. Theo Vleugels, director of the Dutch War Graves Foundation, told the ANP news agency: “The people who died there should be left in peace.”

In 2017 The Guardian reported that three Japanese ships, the Kokusei Maru, Higane Maru and Hiyori Maru had been illegally salvaged off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. 

The wrecks had been known locally as the Rice Bowl Wreck, Upside Down Wreck and Usukan Wreck, and were famous for their location within pristine water conditions and their near perfect state of preservation. 

The destruction of the wrecks was traced back to a Chinese vessel which was ostensibly carrying out ‘research’ on behalf of the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS).  

Upon investigation of the Chinese vessel, officers from the Sabah Marine Department found materials from the wrecks, including an anchor. 

Explosive damage at Rice Bowl Wreck

Posing as research or fishing crews is a favoured tactic of the salvagers, who often use explosives to break down the wrecks. This typically results in the utter destruction of the sacred sites.

The market for metal from WWII-era shipwrecks is particularly lucrative because of the rarity of ‘low-background steel’. 

Low-background steel could only be produced prior to 1945, after which point the atmosphere had been contaminated as a result of the testing and use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The steel is highly sought after, and is used in medical and scientific equipment. 

All naval shipwrecks have sovereign immunity under international law, and cannot be tampered with without the permission of the respective sovereign nation. Protecting wrecks is a near impossible task however, particularly in deep waters.

Shallow wrecks close to shore, such as the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, have been successfully protected, largely owing to the inability for illegal salvagers to act clandestinely. 

Commonwealth War Graves has been able to successfully protect sacred sites on land in hostile locations such as Syria and Somalia, but the seas are harder to police. 

The affected nations have launched separate investigations into the desecrations, but there are disagreements over who has authority to punish the actions. In any case, the perpetrators are difficult to identify or track down.

In recent years, the only high profile persecution of illegal salvagers took place off the coast of the UK. Owners of the Dutch ship Friendship were fined £250,000 for trying to illegally take steel and copper from the WWI-era wreck of the HMS Severn. 

The UK’s Ministry of Defence has condemned the “unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains”, and lobbied the Indonesia authorities to take “appropriate action” for disturbances of wrecks within its waters. 

The Netherlands pressured the Indonesian Government to look into the disturbances back in 2018, but such investigations do not seem like a priority for the local authorities. Speaking at the time, Dutch Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld said: “The Indonesian authorities confirmed they were looking into the reports and will see whether new information comes to light…and will inform us if it does.”

In 2016 the Japanese Diet launched an eight-year remains recovery initiative, seeking to locate an estimated 1 million unrecovered Japanese WWII war dead. The exercise is seen as one of the final episodes in the nations ‘healing’ from a conflict it has never quite come to terms with. Efforts are in a race against time as salvagers continue to act virtually unopposed. 

Without pressure from local authorities or education on the sacred nature of the sites, WWII-era wrecks are nothing more than a goldmine for opportunistic salvagers. Without stronger international efforts to stop the desecrations, the men that went down with their ships during the Pacific War will never truly be at peace. 

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