[Perth] has been hammered and the once impressive six-inch A1 and A2 turrets are gone, the bow is flat and … the wreck is more hazardous than before – even for general swimming around, with lots of live ordnance, wire and overhanging metal.1
Death by a thousand cuts
The shipwreck of HMAS Perth (I) lies in waters between Java and Sumatra, a victim of the Battle of Sunda Strait in 1942. A joint survey project between the museum and Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (Indonesia) has recorded the devastation caused by extensive illegal salvage.
HMAS Perth (I) during World War II – Battle of the Java Sea
HMAS Perth (I) was one of three Leander class light cruisers commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1939. It saw active service off South America and in the Mediterranean, before returning to Sydney for a major refit. Following the capture of Singapore on 15 February 1942, Perth was ordered to join the American, British, Dutch and Australian (ABDA) military forces at Batavia (present-day Jakarta) on the northern coast of Java. ABDA was formed in an attempt to block an anticipated Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).
On 27 February 1942 the ABDA Fleet, commanded by Dutch Real-Admiral Karel Doorman, intercepted a Japanese invasion fleet consisting of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, 14 destroyers and 10 transports. The Allied force comprised Perth; HM Ships Exeter, Jupiter, Electra and Encounter of the British Royal Navy; the Dutch vessels HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java, HNLMS Kortenaer and HNMLS Witte de With; and American warships USS Houston, USS Alden, USS John D Edwards, USS John D Ford and USS Paul Jones.
Although both fleets were evenly matched in terms of firepower, the ABDA force was hampered by language differences, communication problems and a lack of air support. In addition, only six of Houston’s 8-inch guns were operable because its aft turret had been damaged during a Japanese air raid.
The engagement, now known as the Battle of the Java Sea, proved a disaster for the ABDA force. Within seven hours, De Ruyter, Java, Kortenaer and Jupiter were sunk and Exeter was badly damaged and attempting to make for Sri Lanka, accompanied by Encounter.
Guardians of Sunda Strait: HMAS Perth (I) and USS Houston
Perth and Houston were the only two large Allied ships to survive the battle and they retreated to Tanjong Priok. Both vessels took on limited supplies of fuel and ammunition then attempted to evade the Japanese fleet and escape to the southern Javanese coast via Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java.
At around 2300 on 28 February 1942, Perth and Houston encountered a second Japanese invasion fleet off St Nicholas Point on the northwest tip of Java.
Perth and Houston attempted to evade their antagonists but began to take substantial hits from the Japanese, who were aided by longer-range spotlights and aerial reconnaissance.
A torpedo damaged Perth’s forward boiler and engine rooms, destroyed the forward damage control position and disabled the ship’s forward gyrocompasses, which were vital to the guidance of its main armament. After three more torpedo strikes, the cruiser heeled over to port and sank around 0025 on 1 March 1942 with the loss of 353 crew. Houston briefly fought on alone, but it too was struck by a series of torpedoes and sank two miles (3.7 kilometres) south of Perth’s loss location.
1967: HMAS Perth (I) found, largely intact
In 1967, Perth’s wreck site was discovered by Australian diver David Godwin Burchell about three nautical miles (4.8 kilometres) north-east of St Nicholas Point. In his book The Bells of Sunda Strait, Burchell reported that Perth lay almost intact – except for shell and torpedo damage – on its port side on a relatively flat sandy bottom in about 35 metres of water. The starboard side of the vessel – which is uppermost and closer to the surface – was in approximately 21 metres of water.
Working with members of the Indonesian Navy, and with the permission of both the Australian and Indonesian Governments, Burchell recovered a number of items from Perth. These were later presented to the Australian War Memorial, the Royal Australian Navy and branches of the Returned Services League.
Additional salvage work, including removal of all of Perth’s 4-inch guns, some of the bridge structure, and at least two of the cruiser’s four phosphor-bronze propellers, occurred in the early 1970s. The ship’s bell was also recovered around the same time and presented to the Australian War Memorial in 1974.
First signs of illegal salvage
With the advent of scuba diving and cheaper international airfares, Perth and Houston became popular technical diving attractions. Several hundred divers visited both sites annually, many of them publishing images of their visits in diving magazines such as Scuba Diver, Triton and Advanced Diver Magazine.
In late 2013 recreational divers notified the Australian government that Perth was being salvaged by commercial divers. Most of the cruiser’s superstructure had been removed, along with both forward 6-inch gun turrets, the amphibious aircraft catapult, portside crane and forward deck.
The story was immediately picked up by national and international media, and many people – including those whose family members died on the cruiser – were dismayed to learn that Perth was not protected under heritage legislation. Further, because Perth was a shipwreck, it was not considered an official ‘war grave’.
Alarmed that illegal salvage was disturbing the wreck of a sovereign warship that could still contain remains of some of the hundreds of sailors lost during the Battle of Sunda Strait, Australia’s then-Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, immediately wrote to his counterpart, Admiral Dr Marsetio, the Chief of the Indonesian Navy. The RAN also asked the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) to lead a maritime archaeological survey of Perth to assess the site and document damage to its surviving hull, artefacts and features.
Unfortunately, the project was delayed by a number of unforeseen issues, including domestic and international politics, complex visa and research permit requirements, security clearances, inclement weather and rough sea conditions. Consequently, the museum and its Indonesian research partner, Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (ARKENAS), could not undertake a preliminary remote sensing survey of Perth and Houston until November 2016.
Australia and Indonesia lead a joint investigation into the extent of illegal salvaging
In May 2017, the museum maritime archaeologists Dr James Hunter and Kieran Hosty travelled to Indonesia to conduct an in-water survey of Perth’s wreck site. They were joined by Indonesian archaeologist Shinatria Adhityatama (ARKENAS) and Yusuf Arief Afandy from the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, as well as oceanographer Turmudi M Hum from the Preservation Office. Officer Busro from the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Armed Forces) and two local dive guides rounded out the survey team.
Upon arrival at the wreck site, the team found it marked by a makeshift buoy and intermittent slicks generated by bubbles of oil and/or aviation spirits leaking from breaches in Perth’s surviving hull.
Perth is not considered a particularly deep dive, but the site is subject to an oceanographic phenomenon known as the ‘Indonesian through-flow’. This strong current runs through the Sunda Strait, makes swimming difficult, if not impossible at times, and reduces underwater visibility to a few metres.
During our descent the remains of Perth loomed up out of the green water of the strait and we found that the buoy line had been tied off to an exposed steel bulkhead on the vessel’s uppermost (starboard) side. We found the bow largely collapsed onto the seabed, most likely due to the effects of a Japanese torpedo strike on this section of the ship during the Battle of Sunda Strait. The remains of the bow structure, consisting of deck and hull plating, steel hull frames and remnants of the starboard deck capstan, lay scattered on the seabed. Other than the cable locker, no evidence existed of any intact internal compartments such as the lower mess, shipwright’s store, paint store, lamp room, aviation spirit compartment or the compressor room.
Moving aft, the starboard hull is relatively intact in places, and rises between six and eight metres off the seabed. However, Perth’s two forward 6-inch turrets (‘A’ and ‘B’) – which weighed more than 90 tonnes apiece – have now completely disappeared. Their absence was undoubtedly the result of deliberate industrial-level salvage that occurred sometime after 2013 and before 2015, when the site was inspected by ARKENAS archaeologists and US Navy divers.
Extensive evidence of salvage
As we surveyed the wreck we also observed that after the 2015 inspection, and before the 2016 ANMM/ARKENAS side scan and multi-beam sonar survey, some 60 percent of Perth’s starboard hull plating had been removed. This covers an area from just below the main deck to immediately above the turn of the bilge, and extends for a length and height of about 141 feet (43 metres) and 26 feet 3 inches (8 metres), respectively. The zone of missing hull plating roughly corresponds with the portion of starboard hull that was originally protected by a belt of 3-inch (76-mm) thick armour plate overlaying 1-inch (25-mm) thick hull plates.
Perth’s armour belt was strategically placed to protect its magazines and shell rooms, lower steering positions, forward and aft steam turbine (engine) rooms, and boiler rooms from damage. Up until sometime in late 2015 or early 2016, the armour belt and associated hull plating had prevented direct diver access to any of the above compartments.
Deliberate removal of Perth’s armour belt, underlying hull plating and most of the vessel’s internal steel frames has radically altered the overall appearance of the site from a relatively intact and recognisable ship’s hull to a three-sided box. It is now possible to descend directly from the surviving outer starboard hull plating in 21 metres of water to the inner port hull plating in 37 metres of water. During this transit, one passes through the gutted remnants of the ship’s internal compartments and cellular double bottom.
While corrosion and battle damage could account for some missing armour belting and hull plating, most absent hull components have been deliberately removed by commercial salvage. Similarly, small areas of what appear to be stockpiled copper and copper-alloy cable and piping were noted atop the surviving starboard hull. These items appear to have been systematically removed and set aside for later recovery, and are probably being targeted for their metallic content. Because Perth’s internal architecture has been so detrimentally affected, its surviving deck plating is starting to peel away from existing bulkheads, and will very likely collapse to the seabed at some point in the future.
Some 3,000 tonnes of metal has been removed from the wreck
Since 2015, Perth’s internal compartments have been systematically salvaged, and its bulkheads, decks and internal fittings removed. Additionally, three of the vessel’s four Parsons geared steam turbine sets, as well as three condensers and four Admiralty-type three-drum boilers, have been illegally salvaged. Individually, these are extremely large and heavy pieces of machinery that would have required considerable resources and effort to displace and recover. There is no possibility whatsoever that they could have been completely removed via natural processes; consequently, they must have been deliberately removed through salvage activities.
Approximately 70 metres of Perth’s articulated stern has also disappeared since October 2015 – a section of hull extending from the stern post through to the aftermost engine room bulkhead. Absent too are the vessel’s four propeller shafts, two aftermost 6-inch gun turrets (‘X’ and ‘Y’), 6-inch shell magazines, ammunition lobbies, officers’ wardroom and cabins, gyro room and steering gear compartment. Again, the removal of these elements of armament and ship’s architecture is clearly a deliberate act of salvage and must have been carried out using substantial equipment, such as crane-operated grab mounted on a barge.
Since 2013, both of the ship’s 4-inch and 6-inch shell magazines and associated cartridge magazines have also been breached, and some of their contents have been salvaged or dispersed elsewhere throughout the site. Nonetheless, the site still retains a significant quantity of exposed 4-inch and some 6-inch shells. Their dispersal indicates human rather than natural intervention. Some of the shells are also leaching picric acid – a chemical component of the fuse used to detonate them – which makes them not only toxic to handle but also highly unstable.
Evidence of ongoing small-scale salvage was also noted in the form of lifting slings (wrapped around various hull components), a chain block, water dredge hose, and a hammer and chisel. However, these activities – while damaging – are relatively small scale when compared to the industrial-scale salvage that has also occurred, and would not have caused the vast majority of damage observed by the survey team.
Why salvage wrecks such as HMAS Perth (I)? The answer: ‘low background’ metals
While all salvage is destructive in nature, the greatest impact to Perth has been caused by planned, large-scale commercial salvage of the site that was first observed in 2013.
Underwater salvage is a complex, risky and expensive commercial enterprise. Costs associated with such work would seem to outweigh any profit made from the sale of corroded steel, iron and copper-alloy metals. While the motives behind large-scale salvage of Perth’s remnants remain unclear, the possibility exists that the work is related to current demand for ‘low background’ metals.
Historic shipwrecks – particularly those of large, steel-hulled warships sunk before July 1945 – are one of the world’s few reliable sources of ‘low background’ steel, lead and copper alloys. These sites contain thousands of tons of metal that has been isolated from increasing amounts of atmospheric radiation caused by above-ground atomic detonations that commenced with the Trinity atomic bomb test in July 1945.
Although atmospheric radiation levels have gradually decreased since the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, modern metal foundries – especially those that use blast furnace technology – are affected by remnant radioactive particles. Consequently, modern steel cannot be used to manufacture or house finely calibrated scientific and medical instruments such as Geiger counters, whole body counters, lung counters, photonics and aeronautical and space sensors.
While no human remains were observed during the 2017 survey, conditions noted by the survey team strongly suggest human remains exist within and around the remains of Perth’s hull. This is especially true of areas that retain significant sediment deposits. Areas of extensive sedimentation observed during the 2017 survey include the inner port hull plating of the aft engine room, aft boiler room, forward engine room and adjacent forward boiler room (between Frames 86 and 151), as well as the inner port hull plating between Frames 53 and 71. The latter area is adjacent to the forward 4-inch magazine and ‘B’ Turret shell room.
Although damage to Perth’s archaeological deposits has been tremendous, the 2017 survey team nonetheless observed significant, complex and deep deposits of artefact material. Small finds within these deposits included uniform buttons, buckles, a pair of spectacles, leather shoes, rubber boots, cotton clothing fragments, a glass deck light, ceramic tiles, firebricks and small arms ammunition. The areas of highest artefact density included the inner port side hull plating of the forward engine room and forward boiler room, as well as the inner port side hull plating adjacent to the forward 4-inch magazine and B Turret shell room.
Upon its return to Serang, the team reported back to ARKENAS, the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. All were informed of what the team observed and discussions commenced regarding what could be done to protect the remains of Perth for the future.
Protection for HMAS Perth (I)
While Perth has been extensively damaged, there is some good news. Since the survey concluded, we have written a technical report of investigations that illustrates the threat posed to this significant historical and archaeological site. ARKENAS has proposed that the site be declared a Situs Cagar Budaya (Cultural Heritage Site) under Indonesian cultural heritage legislation, while the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries also intends to list the site as a Marine Conservation Zone.
Perth has great historical significance for many Australians, given its well-known last stand against almost insurmountable odds during the Battle of Sunda Strait. The site also holds emotional significance as the last resting place of at least 353 Royal Australian Navy, (British) Royal Navy and Royal Australian Air Force personnel who perished during the engagement.
Perth’s loss still resonates today, and is acknowledged through the activities of commemorative organisations such as the HMAS Perth Association and USS Houston (CA-30) Association, as well as museum exhibitions such as Guardians of Sunda Strait, which was curated by the museum and is currently travelling to venues in the United States (including Houston, Texas), Australia (Perth and Sydney), and Indonesia (Jakarta).
Vale David Manning, HMAS Perth (I) survivor
On Wednesday, February 21 2018 former RAN sailor and HMAS Perth (I) survivor David Manning died in Victoria. Mr Manning survived two major naval battles – The Battle of the Java Sea and the Battle of Sunda Strait whilst serving on HMAS Perth (I), and then, following Perth’s sinking was captured by the Japanese and put to work, along with other Perth survivors, on building the notorious Thai-Burma Railway in southern Thailand. Mr Frank McGovern is now the sole survivor of the 683 men who fought on board Perth against insurmountable odds when it encountered the Imperial Japanese Navy fleet off Banten Bay, Indonesia on the evening of February 28 and the morning of 1 March 1942.
The Australian National Maritime Museum, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and their Indonesian research partners Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (ARKENAS) are currently working with the Indonesian Government to have the site of HMAS Perth declared a marine protected area.
— Kieran Hosty, Curator Technology and Archaeology, with Dr. James Hunter, Curator RAN Maritime Archaeology, and Shinatria Adhityatama.
The 2017 HMAS Perth Project would not have been possible without the contribution of Captain Katja Bizilj, RAN, former Naval Attaché (Australian Embassy, Jakarta), Dr Andrew Fock, Drs I Made Geria, Head of National Research Centre of Archaeology (Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional), Captain Nick Hart, RAN, Naval Attaché (Australian Embassy, Jakarta) and Professor Ronny Rachman Noor, former Education and Cultural Attaché (Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, Canberra).