Jakarta: Australia and Indonesia will conduct a joint dive of the World War II shipwreck HMAS Perth off the coast of Java next month amid fears the vessel, which is believed to hold the remains of 40 to 60 men, is being destroyed by illegal salvagers.
Efforts to protect the wreck comes as three Japanese ships that sunk off the coast of Borneo during the 1944 Pacific War by US forces have reportedly been torn apart for scrap.
The research dive on HMAS Perth will be the first detailed survey of the wreck since 2014, following the shock discovery the previous year that the cruiser and other WWII wrecks in the vicinity had been looted for scrap metal.
A sonar survey of the HMAS Perth carried out by the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Indonesian National Research Centre of Archaeology in December was inconclusive as poor weather conditions impacted on the quality of the images taken.
The museum's director, Kevin Sumption said the dive would confirm the condition of the wreck, if it had been recently interfered with by salvagers, its corrosion and its historical and archeological significance.
"We are very aware that there are concerns in the community and we are doing everything we can, working in close partnership with our Indonesian partners, to secure formal protection of the site," Mr Sumption said.
Indonesian National Research Centre of Archaeology director I Made Geria said that based on the results of the sonar survey and dive, it would take immediate action to secure underwater heritage protection for the site.
"[We] understand the significance of the Perth wreck, both historically as a WWII vessel and the final resting place for over 300 sailors."
HMAS Perth, alongside American cruiser USS Houston, was sunk with 353 crew by the Imperial Japanese Army on March 1, 1942, during the Battle of the Sunda Strait.
In three remarkable years she had helped evacuate Allied troops from Greece, fought against Vichy forces in Syria and lost 13 men in the Battle of Crete.
The journey of HMAS Perth and USS Houston from the Battle of the Java Sea to the Sunda Strait, where both were sunk on the night of February 28/March 1, 1942. Photo: Royal Australian Navy
Colin Bancroft, whose father Arthur survived the torpedoing of the HMAS Perth and forced labour as a Prisoner of War on the Burma-Thai railway, welcomed the efforts being made to preserve the ship.
"Unless the next generation speaks up there is no-one to protect the legacy of those great men who survived these times."
Mr Bancroft said his father had fortunately been unaware of the salvaging of the ship. He died before 2013.
"It would be quite distressing for the remaining two survivors knowing their ship mates were entombed [on the HMAS Perth]."
The salvaging of shipwrecks around Indonesia and Malaysia has provoked outrage, with revelations last year that Dutch ships sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942 had vanished entirely. This gave added impetus to the push to save HMAS Perth.
Naval shipwrecks have huge amounts of scrap metal, including steel, aluminium, brass and copper and the re-sale value is extremely high.
"The multiple propellers are highly sought after - they are often made of phosphor bronze and weigh up to 15 tonnes each," said University of Sydney PhD student Natali Pearson.
"Current market rates value phosphor bronze at almost $4000 per ton."
HMAS Perth National Association president Lyle Phillips said the association was pleased by news of the dive.
"Hopefully the result will end up being increased protection for the site from salvaging that is still taking place," he said.
But military historian Pattie Wright worried it would be too late. "It's taken three years - in that time there's a fair chance that Perth has been salvaged," she said. "I know why it did [take so long] but probably we haven't managed to save her."
The March dive will be preceded by commemorative exhibitions in Indonesia and the United States to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle.