The Chinese dredge ship “Chuan Hong 68” has been caught yet again salvaging the remains of sunken WWII vessels in the South China Sea for scrap metal and in doing so, destroying the undersea graves of hundreds of sailors that are protected by law.
Chuan Hong 68 has a long history of illegally salvaging undersea wrecks for their high value scrap metal, such as phosphor bronze, aluminum, steel, and copper. Smelted steel that predates nuclear testing is exceptionally valuable due to a low radioactive isotope count, which makes its highly sought after for medical and scientific instruments.
In April 2017, the vessel was detained by the Indonesian Navy under suspicion that it had illegally salvaged the resting places of the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Sagiri (121 crew lost), as well as Japanese troop transport ships Hiyoshi Maru (5 crew lost) and Katori Maru (10 crew lost, unknown number of Japanese soldiers lost), in the Riau Islands. It was also believed that the vessel salvaged the remains of the Dutch tanker Seven Skies (Exploded and sank in 1969, 4 crew lost).
Chuan Hong 68 fled to Malaysian waters, where the crew was again detained by Malaysian authorities, but was eventually able to escape into international water.
Since then, Chuan Hong 68 has continued plundering undersea wreckages, where it is wanted by Indonesia for the illegal salvaging of the Dutch light cruiser HNLMS De Ruyter (367 crew lost), cruiser HNLMS Java (512 crew lost), and destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer (40 crew lost) in the Java Sea.
These salvaging operations are highly lucrative, as evident by the Chuan Hong 68’s upgraded tools. A source familiar with the vessel’s operations told the New Strait Times that “Ten years ago, it resembled a dilapidated barge. But it is now fitted with high-technology equipment. They operate mechanically and entirely from the surface of the barge, which is equipped with cranes sporting huge metal claws.”
“The claws can plunge more than 200m deep. It chops up the ship and pulls up hundred tonnes of metal in one go,” the source added.
HMS Prince of Wales salvage update: Sentinel-2 EO ?@10m resolution captured the Chuan Hong 68 working on the wreck from early April-May 2023. While ripping apart the grave of 327 RN sailors it released an oil slick over 2.5km long. We believe we are the first to report this. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/I6oivXR3uO
— MASTArchaeology (@MASTArchaeology) May 22, 2023
Chuan Hong 68 was recently stopped over the wreckage of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, both of which were sunk by Japanese bombers off the coast of Malaysia in 1941 and resulted in the combined loss of 836 crew. Chuan Hong 68 had previously been caught attempting to salvage the sites in 2015.
There is evidence that the Chinese vessel was able to salvage portions of the two vessels, with Malaysian authorities discovering scrap metal, gun barrels, and unexploded ordnance believed to be from the Prince of Wales and Repulse at a scrap yard in Kota Tinggi.
Director general of the Museum of the Royal Navy, Professor Dominic Tweddle, released a statement on Tuesday condemning the illegal slavaging, stating that “We are distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. They are designated war graves. We are upset at the loss of naval heritage and the impact this has on the understanding of our Royal Navy history.”
“What we need is a management strategy for the underwater naval heritage so that we can better protect or commemorate these ships. That may include targeted retrieval of objects. We want the Royal Navy to develop a policy we can help deliver. If resourced correctly, the existing Royal Navy loss list can be enhanced to be a vital tool to begin to understand, research and manage over 5,000 wrecks before they are lost forever.”
“A strategy is vital to determine how to assess and manage these wrecks in the most efficient and effective manner. Above all, we must remember the crews who served on these lost ships and all too often gave their lives in the service of their country,” the statement concluded.