KOTA BELUD – Three Japanese ships that sank off the coast of Borneo (at Usukan Bay in Kota Belud to be precise) during the second world war have been destroyed in an apparent illegal metal salvage operation, according to photos taken by divers and passed to the Guardian (a UK-based newspaper and portal)
The sunken cargo transporters, believed by divers and historians to be the Kokusei Maru, Higane Maru and Hiyori Maru, were torpedoed during the 1944 Pacific War by US forces and are likely to still hold the remains of dozens of crewmen.
Collectively, they are known as the Usukan wrecks, and their near-pristine state and rich coral and marine life has attracted recreational divers to Malaysia’s Sabah state. All three are within a kilometre of each other.
The looting of Australian, American, British, Dutch and Japanese warships for scrap metal in south-east Asian seas has caused outrage, with veterans and governments arguing that the vessels must be preserved as underwater war graves for sailors, according to the Guardian.
Quoting scuba diver Monica Chin who said local fishermen called her late last month to say a large Chinese vessel with workers on board was using a crane to tear apart the Japanese ships.
Photos and video footage taken by the fisherman and passed to the Guardian show a large ship with a giant crane for hoisting underwater material. Ship-tracking websites describe the vessel as a “grab dredger”.
Chin arranged for a group of divers to visit the site, which she said was until last year in a “beautiful condition. It’s an underwater museum.”
She remained on the boat while a team descended to investigate. When they surfaced, they showed her the photos. “It totally broke my heart,” she said. “It made me cry. I just cant believe it … I wish the pictures were wrong. I wish that it was not true.”
Locally, the three wrecks are known as Rice Bowl Wreck – named after its cargo of hundreds of bowls – Upside Down Wreck and Usukan Wreck.
Another diver, Mark Hedger, who works as an instructor in Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, used to make the 75-minute boat trip to the wreck sites with customers.
He wrote a statement on what he found during a recent dive, saying the Usukan and Upside Down wrecks were “98% and 99% gone”.
The Rice Bowl wreck, he said, was an unrecognisable “heap of metal piled up into a ball”.
“I was speechless … There was what looked like a cable over the top of the pile of metal, maybe from the salvage ship.”
When Chin asked authorities about the salvaging, they showed her a letter saying the work was authorised as “research” by the local Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) archaeological unit.
The New Straits Times, according to the Guardian, reported that the vice-chancellor of the university said the Japanese cargo vessels contained three tonnes of “toxic materials” that were harming the environment. Local divers dispute this claim.
After the divers and residents of coastal communities complained, the Sabah Marine Department issued a withdrawal letter to the company commissioned by UMS to hire the Chinese-registered vessel.
Naval shipwrecks are granted sovereign immunity under international law and remain the property of their nations, in this case Japan. This protection makes it illegal to destroy them without permission from Tokyo, said the report.
A Malaysian fisherman had also filed a police report after he said the Chinese crew ordered him and others to pull up their fishing nets and leave the area.
However, by that point, the ships were destroyed. The Sabah Marine Department later sent a team of officers to the vessel and found that material from the wrecks were on the ship, including an anchor.
Tokyo has not officially claimed or identified the Usukan wrecks.
The Japanese foreign ministry said it was unaware of the wrecks and directed the Guardian to the health ministry, which deals with the remains of deceased Japanese soldiers.
“The government’s policy is to leave underwater war graves as they are if it has been confirmed that they contain the remains of crewmen,” a health ministry official told the Guardian.
The official added that wrecks were considered the responsibility of the government of the territory where the sunken ships lie.
Over the past two years, the Japanese government has stepped up efforts to recover the remains of more than 1.1 million of its soldiers and civilians killed during the second world war.
The remains are spread across a vast area that stretches from Russia in the north, through East Asia and to Pacific islands and Japanese territories such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Veterans and marine historians warn that dozens of ships of historical and sentimental value sitting on the bed of the South China Sea are being desecrated by illegal salvagers.
Crews pretending to be fishermen have scavenged the waters around Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, looting the wrecks for parts, including steel, aluminium and brass.
Some of the propellers, often the first items to be stolen, are made of phosphor bronze scrap metal, valued at over £2,000 (RM11,000) a tonne. The ships are also a source for highly desirable low-background steel, which is extremely hard to find.
Last year, the Guardian revealed that three British ships and a US submarine that sank in the Java Sea during the second world war had been blown apart and salvaged for metal.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence said it condemned the “unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains” and requested Indonesian authorities investigate and take “appropriate action”.
The Netherlands defence ministry is also conducting an investigation into the disappearance of three of its own shipwrecks, all sunk in the Java Sea. “The desecration of a war grave is a serious offence,” it has said in a statement. – This article is reproduced from the Guardian which has claimed it as ‘EXCLUSIVE’.