AirAsia search in Java Sea graveyard for WWII naval battle

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The Java Sea, where a massive search operation is underway for AirAsia Flight QZ8501, is also the graveyard for one of the largest naval engagements of World War II.

Old wrecks, whether from battles or peacetime disasters, have occasionally given false leads to modern searches.

Indonesian search and rescue agency official S B Supriyadi said on Friday (Jan 2) the hunt for the AirAsia plane had detected a metal structure but it proved to be a false lead, “possibly a ship which sank”, AFP reported.

While it is unlikely to have been an old warship, the Java Sea was the scene of a disastrous defeat for the Allied navies by invading Imperial Japanese forces as they swept through the Dutch East Indies.

In the Battle of the Java Sea on Feb 27, 1942, a combined force of Dutch, US, British and Australian ships was hopelessly outmatched, suffering the loss of five warships and 2,300 sailors against Japanese losses of one damaged destroyer and 36 dead.

A second engagement by British and US forces on March 1 resulted in the sinking of three Allied warships with one Japanese destroyer damaged.

Bottom of the sea

Wrecks from these World War II battles remain at the bottom of the Java Sea and are popular with divers.

In August last year, US Navy archeologists, working with Indonesian navy divers, identified one as the cruiser USS Houston, which sank during the Battle of the Sunda Strait in 1942.

The US Navy said the ship, nicknamed “The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast,” was the final resting place of about 650 sailors and Marines.

In November 2013, Indonesian researchers made a surprise discovery of what is believed to be a German submarine that was torpedoed off Java during World War II.

Researchers believe the wreck – which contained at least 17 human skeletons – is U-168, which succeeded in sinking several allied vessels before itself being torpedoed by a Dutch submarine in 1944.

As well as the human skeletons, dinner plates bearing swastikas, batteries, binoculars and a bottle of hair oil were pulled from the wreck.

Japan occupied Indonesia during World War II, which was then still known by its colonial name of the Dutch East Indies. Tokyo and Berlin were allies during the war.

Source: AFP