One of the British ships was HMS Exeter, a British cruiser sunk by the Japanese during the second Battle of the Java Sea. Among the dead on March 1, 1942 was 19-year-old Able Seaman Michael Fleming, the son of Richard and Christine Fleming of St. John's.
Fleming, right, was a member of the eighth contingent of Royal Navy volunteers to leave Newfoundland during World War 2.
According to The Guardian, the British ministry of defence has expressed serious concern about the illegal salvage and asked the Indonesian government o investigate and "take appropriate action" to prevent further disturbance of British shipwrecks that are also the graves of British servicemen and women.
The researchers who made the discovery were surveying the area on behalf of the Dutch government in advance of the 75th anniversary of the deadly engagement that saw three Dutch ships sunk by the Japanese with a cost of 900 lives. Plans for the commemoration included placing plaques at the resting place of the three Dutch warships, which had only been discovered in 2002.
According to The Guardian, the researchers widened their search when they found the Dutch wrecks had been destroyed by illegal salvagers. They found the wrecks of three British warships and that of the Gato-class American submarine USS Perch had also been destroyed. The location of the British wrecks had only been confirmed as recently as 2008.
DutchNews.nl reports that the Netherlands ministry of defence revealed the findings of the research team to Dutch parliamentarians in a written briefing. More than 100 ships sank in the South China Sea during the Second World War. The illegal salvage operations have also reportedly decimated the wrecks of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, sunk by Japanese planes at the start of the war in December 1941.
A 2015 report by the New Straits Times said that the illegal salvors are often from Vietnam and Thailand and disguise themselves as fishermen. The smaller operators cherry-pick the sites and often resort to blasting to break up the wreck. Larger operations, like the ones in the Java Sea likely involved large cranes that simply removed the wrecks piece by piece in chunks. The illegally salvaged wrecks feed the global market for steel and non-ferrous metals for industrial use.
The United States Navy conducted an official examination in 2013 of the wreck of the cruiser USS Houston. The examination found conclusive evidence of "unauthorized disturbance" of the site, including the removal of unexploded ordnance. Houston was part of the American contribution to the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) naval force that found in what the Americans call the Battle of the Sunda Strait.
According to a United States Naval Institute story on the wreck disturbance, divers have been plundering the wrecks for decades. The ships' bell from Houston turned up in an auction in the 1970s. An Australian survey confirmed that sections of HMAS Perth had been removed entirely, as had some of the ships turrets and gun barrels.