There are international treaties in place to preserve the sanctity of shipwrecks from recent wars. They are designated as war graves and it’s illegal to disturb them.
But two Dutch navy submarines that were sunk in 1941 have recently disappeared from the sea bed off Malaysia.
The two Dutch subs, HNLMS O 16 and HNLMS K XVII, were sunk by the Japanese in December 1941. But now they, and the bodies of the 79 crewmen they carried, have gone.
Although Dutch and Malaysian officials recently signed an international agreement to underline protections surrounding wrecks in the area, unscrupulous deep-sea scavengers have been dying to law to haul up valuable metal parts from the wrecks to sell as scrap.
In some cases, entire vessels have been illegally salvaged.
“It is a very sad message. It is shocking to all the relatives, but at the same time it does not surprise me at all”
Salvagers can make upwards of $1.3 million (about £1,000,000) per vessel from the steel hull alone.
Additional components, such as copper cables and bronze propellers, can yield even greater profits.
Jet Bussemaker – a former Dutch minister responsible for veterans who also happens to be the granddaughter of Anton Bussemaker, the commander aboard the HNLMS O 16 when it sank – told The Guardian about three cases during her time as minister of having to report a warship missing.
“As a minister, I had to report to the chamber that three other warships had disappeared from Indonesian waters.”
“There were already indications at that time that the O 16 had been tampered with.”
Dutch Defence Minister, Ank Bijleveld, told IFL Science that the relatives of the submarines’ crews have been notified of their disappearance and a memorial was held recently.
As many as 40 ships sunk during World War 2 have been pillaged by illegal salvagers, including the Royal Navy’s HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales in 2014, and the HMS Exeter and HMS Encounter in 2016.
In total, over 4,500 American, Australian, British, Dutch, and Japanese servicemens’ bodies remain aboard the endangered wrecks.