Scavengers loot Australian WWII ship sunk in Java Sea

A recent dive on the wreck of the Royal Australian Navy’s World War II cruiser HMAS Perth revealed that due to illegal salvage activity, only 40 percent of the vessel is in place.

The findings are the result of a joint dive conducted by maritime archaeologists from the Australian National Maritime Museum and the National Research Centre of Archaeology Indonesia/Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (ARKENAS).

Perth was sunk with the loss of 357 lives following a fierce sea battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy on the night of 28 February 1942 off the coast of Banten Bay on the northwest tip of Java in Indonesia, where the shipwreck remains today.

“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 per cent 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,” Australian National Maritime Museum director Kevin Sumption said.

Limited salvage is known to have taken place on Perth since the late 1970s, and in 2013 recreational divers reported damage to the site by unidentified salvors.

“This dive, following on from multi-beam sonar work commissioned in late 2016 by the Museum and ARKENAS, confirms that the site has since been significantly disturbed. While some damage is a result of the Japanese torpedo strikes that sank the vessel in 1942, 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.

“This isn’t what we were hoping to find. The museum appreciates the support of the Indonesian Government to-date to conduct the research dive and we remain committed to continuing to work in close partnership with our Indonesian colleagues at ARKENAS and 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,” Mr Sumption said.

Director of ARKENAS Made Geria said, “The National Research Centre of Archaeology Indonesia (Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional) will always support the primary purpose of this project, which is to secure formal protection for the site of HMAS Perth, and to develop knowledge for the management of underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia.”

Earlier this year Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a joint statement during the President’s visit to Australia where they noted this year’s 75th anniversary of the loss of Perth and reaffirmed their commitment to work together to strengthen cooperation in the area of maritime cultural heritage in accordance with respective national policy, laws, and regulations.

The research dive was conducted on 14-17 May. It is the first detailed survey of the wreck since 2015 and follows up on a remote sensing survey of the site carried out by the museum and ARKENAS in December last year.

The expedition team will formalise its report on the state of the shipwreck including the site’s stability. This information will be used to prepare, in consultation with ARKENAS, a detailed site assessment and a case for declaration under the appropriate legislation of the Republic of Indonesia.