Authorities Detain Chinese Ship Suspected of Salvaging U.K. WWII Wrecks

May 30, 2023 6:15 PM
Photo of a Chinese salvage ship suspected of raiding U.K. Royal Navy WWII wrecks. Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency Photo

The Malaysian coast guard detained a Chinese bulk cargo ship carrying unexploded shells that may have been looted from United Kingdom Royal Navy World War II wrecks HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, which were both sunk by torpedoes days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency is questioning the 32 member crew about the ship’s recent activities in its waters. Investigators from several Malay law enforcement agencies and the Malay Heritage Department are searching the ship for suspicious cargo that could be connected to the illegal scavenging of other World War II wreckage sites or taken from unexploded ordnance caches discovered in a recent raid on a Johor scrapyard.

USNI News reported last week that international attention has been focused on Chinese dredging and salvage operations by Chuan Hong 68 as the ship tries to retrieve specialized steel, aluminum and brass fittings used in the warships’ building.

The illegal salvage operation in Malaysia showed how vulnerable historic heritage sites are to thieves intent on plundering war graves, the director general of the Museum of the Royal Navy said in a statement.

The Royal Navy termed the dredging of the historic wreckage site “disgraceful.” Eight-hundred forty crew members lost their lives in the attack carried out by Japanese bombers.

In response to questions from USNI News, the Naval Historical and Heritage Command noted the importance of the sites as war graves.

The sites also “can carry significant cultural importance and be associated with some of the most formative moments in the course of a nation’s or global history. For all these reasons and more, sunken military craft should be respected and allowed to rest undisturbed,” the command said in its answers.

The statement added that when the U.S. wreckage site is out of American territorial waters, the Navy “works closely with the Department of State and host countries to ensure the preservation of sunken military craft abroad, which may also represent protected cultural heritage resources of those nations in whose waters they have come to rest.”

Illegal salvage earlier this year over the suspected site. Photo via New Straits Times

In addition, sunken military ships also may contain hazardous substances like oil and unexploded ordnance, making salvaging or dredging extremely dangerous.

U.S. law protecting the sites include the Sunken Military Craft Act and Navy regulations implementing that implement the legislation. Violations can lead to $100,000 per day fines, confiscation of the vessel and liability for damages, NHHC added.

A patrol boat conducting normal operations detained the Chinese vessel, registered in Fuzhou, China, on Sunday afternoon for anchoring without permission about 20 miles off Tanjung Siang, the Malay maritime agency posted on its Facebook page.

The Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur and Agence France-Presse reported that the agency had seized the shells, corroded metal, and gas torches to cut it from the wreck. The Malays were also inspecting a crane aboard the Chinese vessel.

USNI News reported five years ago that the U.K. Ministry of Defense was so concerned over the illegal dredging of wreckage sites, scavenging and looting that it dispatched a task force of survey vessels to the region to investigate the wrecks’ status. The ministry said then it would also monitor the water by satellite to keep track of activity near the sites.

Indonesian authorities have placed charges against Chuan Hong 68 for illegal scavenging in its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Malaysian authorities detained the ship briefly, but the vessel and crew escaped. The ship’s present whereabouts are unknown.

Meanwhile, on Thursday NHHC confirmed the identity of a wreck site 90 miles off Okinawa as USS Mannert L. Abele (DD-733). It’s one of 3,000 shipwrecks and 15,000 aircraft wrecks the U.S. Navy is responsible for globally.

The Sumner-class destroyer was on radar picket duty when it became the first warship to be sunk by an Okha, a Japanese suicide rocket bomb, on April 12, 1945. The human-guided weapon was capable of speeds of up to 600 miles per hour.

The command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch used information provided by Tim Taylor’s “Lost 52 Project” to confirm the identity. Taylor is the chief executive officer of Tiburon Survivor. The project takes its name from lost American submarines in World War II.

Taylor’s father was serving on a nearby sister ship when Mannert L. Abele was struck and sank in a manner of minutes.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox