Three Dutch WWII ships sunk in 1942 have vanished from the ocean floor

Image: Reuters/Beawiharta
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The ocean is vast and shipwrecks are difficult to locate. That means surprising discoveries are still possible: In October, divers in the Black Sea found 20 wrecks, some dating back thousands of years to the time of the Byzantine empire.

Disappearances, however, are less easy to fathom. But that’s what has happened to three Dutch warships which sunk in the Second World War, and had rested on the bed of the Java Sea, a strip of ocean between the Indonesian Islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Two of the ships have gone, and the third only partly remains.“The wrecks of HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java have seemingly gone completely missing. A large piece is also missing of HNLMS Kortenaer,” the Dutch defense ministry confirmed in a statement published by the Guardian.

As many as 2,200 people were killed when the ships were sunk in a battle with Japanese forces. “The desecration of a war grave is a serious offence,” the Dutch ministry said.

Sonar imagery confirms divers are looking in the right place, because imprints of the ships, and part of the Kortenaer, remain in the sea bed, the Guardian reports. The three wrecks were discovered in 2002, and a visit was planned to them in 2017 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942.

Other wrecks in the area have been pillaged by scavengers taking parts including brass fittings and shell casings. Still, the size of these wrecks—thousands of tonnes of steel and other materials—makes their complete disappearance particularly surprising. They could have been scavenged to sell the metal, but there is no clue in the prices of metals like steel or aluminum, both of which have seen modest increases in the last six months, but are trading for less now than they were five years ago.

Two facts about the Java Sea could make it attractive, however. It’s sandwiched between bodies of land, meaning the journey to the wrecks isn’t onerous. And it’s relatively shallow. The sea is only about 150 feet deep at its deepest point.