Crew members of a Chinese vessel suspected of plundering World War II shipwrecks were recently detained by Malaysia’s coast guard.
On Monday, the Maritime Enforcement Agency revealed that the Chinese salvage vessel, identified as Chuan Hong 68, along with its 32 crew members, was caught anchoring without a permit off the eastern coast of Malaysia’s southern Johor state.
During the inspection, authorities discovered cannon shells aboard the bulk carrier, believed to be from the sunken British battleships the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Similar cannon shells were previously found at a scrapyard in Johor.
Around 840 British sailors reportedly died when Japanese bombers sank these battleships near the coast of Malaysia on Dec. 10, 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Registered in Fuzhou, China, the salvage ship was spotted by local fishermen in the vicinity of the shipwrecks in the previous month. Witnesses observed the vessel dredging the remains of the battleships and then unloading the salvage at a private jetty in Johor linked to a scrapyard capable of storing and melting metals.
The Chuan Hong 68 is also wanted by Indonesian authorities over its alleged plundering of the wrecks of Dutch warships in the Java Sea.
Its activities reportedly involved dredging with a deep-reach crane to obtain high-quality steel, aluminum and brass fittings used in the construction of the warships. This steel, produced prior to nuclear weapons testing, holds value for various scientific and medical applications.
A raid conducted at the scrapyard by authorities revealed relics, including unexploded ordnance, artillery shells and scrap metal believed to be from the Prince of Wales.
Dominic Tweddle, the director general of the Museum of the Royal Navy, emphasized the need for a management strategy to protect the historical artifacts in the underwater sites.
In addition to targeted recovery of the artifacts, Tweddle suggested utilizing the Royal Navy loss list to study and manage the over 5,000 wrecks believed to be in the extended economic zone of Malaysia.
We are distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for the 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… 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