This is a bit off topic for “To the Sound of the Guns” and the sort of news item I prefer to send over to my pal XBradTC. However, I think this is a story those interested in Civil War shipwrecks, and beyond that even Civil War battlefields, should take interest.
On Friday the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran this story:
Survivors, historians and Defence personnel have been horrified to discover that the wreck of HMAS Perth, which was sunk by the Japanese in 1942, is being destroyed by commercial salvagers in Indonesian waters.
Australian authorities have tried to keep the scandal a secret, fearing the issue might add fuel to the ongoing diplomatic tensions between Australia and Indonesia.
The warship, which sank in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, is the last resting place of as many as 355 Australian sailors who went down with the vessel after it was struck by multiple torpedoes.
But it has never been protected as an official war grave.
Australia and Indonesia are yet to ratify the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, a binding national treaty which would oblige both countries to protect such sites.
Since at least September, scuba divers have made official reports of large-scale damage to the wreck from a massive floating crane equipped with a salvage claw.
These reports have been made to the Australian embassy in Jakarta and to local officials in the Department of Environment and Heritage, and the Department of Defence. (Read more.)
There’s a video segment and additional information with the news article. As the citation above notes, there was no legal protection for this war grave. So any action to block further salvage rests with the respective governments.
A bit of background, the HMAS Perth sank in the battle of Sunda Straits, fought during the opening phases of World War II. The ship is well remembered by Australians. A modern frigate carries the name and memory of the Perth. So this is a touchy subject for many, to say the least. Like many shipwrecks close enough to the surface, divers have visited the wreck… to include commercial sport divers from what I gather… but there has always been an effort to keep the activity respectful.
And we cannot say this is just an Australian-Indonesian issue. The wreck of the USS Houston, another cruiser sank in the action, lays nearby. I think, but have not confirmed, that the Houston is protected by the UNESCO treaty.
Furthermore, with the cost of scrap metal on the open markets, there is ever more a threat to other wreck sites around the world. Although with respect to Civil War era wreck sites, it is more so the lure of “treasure” and “relics” as opposed to raw scrap metal. Of course we have a set of laws and regulations which protect, preserve, and govern access to the wrecks in American waters. Even when the wrecks are disturbed by officially sanctioned maintenance, reviews are made to ensure preservation and if necessary proper recovery. (For example, the long running story of the preservation and recovery efforts of the CSS Georgia.)
Beyond that, what about on land? Anyone who has picked up a National Park Service brochure knows metal detecting is illegal on the battlefields. Same goes for most state and local sites (and lump in there most sites owned by preservation groups). But with so much battlefield lands in public hands, “digging” does occur on Civil War battlefields. And in most cases the work is done without any regard for the archeological context that lies beneath. Or for that matter who’s grave is being disturbed.
I don’t wish to have readers interpret this as a “broad brush” condemnation. I know many in the hobby who have done right, and in many cases helped efforts to preserve, protect, and interpret Civil War sites. The hobby can and should police itself. However, there’s little difference in my mind from the people hauling steel from the HMAS Perth for sale as scrap, and the fellow using the metal detector to find musket balls for resale at some trinket store.
- Scavengers looting HMAS Perth (adelaidenow.com.au)
- Scavengers looting HMAS Perth (heraldsun.com.au)
- Claim HMAS Perth as war grave, govt told (sbs.com.au)
- Calls to make HMAS Perth as war grave (skynews.com.au)
- Divers pay tribute to HMAS Goorangai: tragic guardian of the bay (smh.com.au)