The Dutch and British warships, along with a US submarine, were downed in the 1942 Battle of the Java Sea. The battle was one of the worst naval defeats for the allies in WWII.
The Japanese Navy crushed a coalition of warships from the U.S., Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands, sinking at least eight ships in several days of fighting off the coast of what is now Indonesia.
In the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the battle, a diving expedition recently made a disturbing discovery.
The wrecks of at least four Dutch and British warships completely disappeared off the bottom of the sea, leaving Indonesian officials baffled.
“It hasn’t been identified whether it has moved or whether it has been stolen. The point is it is not there, where it was once there,” says Arrmanatha Nasir, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman IDN Missing Dutch Ships.
Britain and the Netherlands condemned the disappearance.
The relatives and governments of sailors who died on board view the undersea wrecks as maritime war graves that should be respected and protected, just like any other World War II cemetery where hundreds of fallen soldiers are buried.
In 2014, the U.S. Navy held a ceremony over the final resting place of the USS Houston, a cruiser that fought to the death against the Japanese alongside the Australian ship Perth. Both eventually sank with a combined loss of life of more than 1,000 sailors.
“My dad was able to survive the sinking, he literally was the only person that got out of the lower deck turret number 1 team, because he was a young man only 17 years old,” says John Schwarz with the USS Houston Survivors Association and Next Generations.
After the war, Otto Schwarz started a survivor’s group that is now led by John, who is now deeply worried about the disappearance of the other ships in the region.
“We’re on egg-shells. We are very anxious and very disturbed. We’re just praying and hoping that no further damage gets done to either our ship or any others,” he says.
Two years ago, U.S. Navy divers visiting the Houston discovered scavengers systematically looted the wreck.
Experts say hoisting an entire warship off the bottom of the sea would be logistically challenging. But if you could do it, professional Indonesian ship-breakers say the scrap metal from one vessel alone would easily be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“To do things such as we’re talking about, would be equivalent for someone to go into Arlington National Cemetery with an excavating equipment and start digging up coffins and graves. It’s the same thing,” John Schwarz says.
The Indonesian and Dutch governments have agreed to launch a joint investigation to solve the mystery of what happened to the final resting place of so many sailors.