'Metal Pirates' Are Scrapping Parts From Sunken World War II Wrecks

The fate of battleship remains may rest in the hands of countries that don't own the ships.
Gas masks

A gas mask in the hold of the Kiyosumi Maru, a Japanese ship sunk in the Chuuk Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia during World War II.

Media credits

Stephen Masters via Flickr

Joshua Learn, Contributor

(Inside Science) – "Metal pirates" are looting sunken World War II ships for bronze propellers and other pieces of scrap, tearing slabs of metal from historical vessels that sometimes serve as maritime graves.

"In more recent years it’s not the treasure that’s making people go look for wrecks, it’s the metal," said Kim Browne, a lecturer in international law at Charles Sturt University in Australia and the author of a new study in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology. "The metal and bronze and all the casings of the electrical components of the ship bring in large amounts of money." 

But many of the vessels now rest in the waters of countries that were largely victimized in World War II, and their local governments aren’t always keen to protect wrecks that symbolize a troubling colonial history. Moreover, many of these sunken ships, aircraft, and even some submarines also contain explosive ordinance, oil or chemicals that can pollute the surrounding marine environments. 

Sunken treasure in watery graves

According to Browne’s research, Axis and Allied powers built more than 120,000 ships in the years leading up to and during World War II. Thousands of these were sunk around the world, including many that engaged in battles in the South Pacific and now lie in shallow waters or lagoons within the jurisdiction of Pacific countries. For example, dozens of ships were lost in the waters of the Solomon Islands, and the waters surrounding the Federated States of Micronesia contain 65 sunken Japanese vessels and 245 known airplanes. Although the countries these vessels are flagged with still own them, access to them is controlled by the nations that govern the waters where they now lie.

"This means that the flag state must rely on the coastal state’s goodwill to grant access along with the coastal state’s criminal and/or heritage laws to protect the site from looters," Brown said in a follow up email.

But some of these ships, or at least parts of these ships, began to mysteriously disappear in recent years. The HMAS Perth, one of Australia’s most treasured warships, has been plundered for scrap metal, as have Dutch and British ships and a U.S. sub sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea. A single bronze propeller may bring tens of thousands of dollars and an entire wreck may contain as much as $1 million in metal, giving plenty of motivation for scrappers, she said.

It’s not entirely clear who the metal pirates are. Most of the world’s large ship scrapping yards and recycled metal markets are in India, China or Bangladesh, although some also exist in the Philippines and Malaysia. While many of these yards are legitimate processing plants, Browne’s paper notes that some Malaysian companies may be working with an international syndicate in search of rare steel that predates nuclear bomb testing and is free of background radioactivity -- important for some scientific and medical testing.

Browne’s research examined news reports of ships being illegally scrapped. It also explored the international legal framework that sets the rules for scrapping of these types of ships, as well as the sometimes opposing cultural viewpoints.

On the one hand, countries like the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands and Japan are concerned about the potential loss of ships with historical significance -- some of which serve as the final resting place of their crew members.

"There are still human remains in these wrecks," said James Delgado, senior vice president of a U.S. cultural resources company called SEARCH that works with underwater wrecks. Delgado was not involved in Browne’s study, but he has worked for over four decades as a maritime archaeologist and historian. His latest book, "War at Sea," will be released later this summer.

In Indonesia, people scrapping these vessels use cranes and giant metal claws that can rip off whole parts of the ships. These large sections have included bones, which were then buried in mass graves on the shoreline by welders and other scrappers, according to a report by The Guardian. Other remains may not even get that level of respect. Delgado recounted  a firsthand story of a salvage company spraying debris including glasses, fabric and watches off the metal parts they bring up.

"You don’t need much imagination to know what that silt is actually composed of," Delgado said. "In some cases bones have actually been exposed and kicked off the sides of barges."

Save the ships?

Some Pacific countries aren’t particularly keen on using resources to protect wrecked ships that were used to invade them during the war. "Some of those islands really suffered at the hands of the Japanese, Browne said. "There’s not a great love for the old World War II wrecks."

Complicating the issue further is the threat of pollution. Many vessels were sunk with live bombs or ammunition that can leak chemicals like lead or mercury into the water as they deteriorate, not to mention the physical danger they pose if they are triggered. Some vessels were also sunk with oil in their tanks. All these pollutants can cause problems for aquatic ecosystems and local people who depend on fishing for their sustenence or livelihood.

Because many of the wrecks are in remote locations and the countries that owned them aren’t exactly stepping up to remove potentially polluting vessels, illicit removal by "metal pirates" may actually be the only removal option available in some cases, Browne said. "There’s no right or wrong answer to the dilemma," she said.

Still, while many of the island countries would like to see the wrecks removed from their coastal waters and lagoons, Browne said that illicit removal is much worse than regular salvaging operations, since the looters have little concern for any spills they might cause.

Delgado agrees. "I’m not going to argue that every ship sitting on the [sea] bottom should be left there," he said. "But there are some ships that should not be subjected to this type of recovery."

Browne said that the various countries that have a stake in these wrecks need to come to a better understanding over their protection.

"If these wrecks are going to survive, we need to think about how we can change the international law to protect or at least acknowledge World War II wrecks," she said.

Author Bio & Story Archive
Joshua Rapp Learn (@JoshuaLearn1) is an expat Albertan based in Washington, D.C. He reports on science for publications like National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian, Scientific American, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Science and Hakai.