The wrecks of several warships that were sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942 have mysteriously disappeared, after marking the graves of their respective sailors for nearly three-quarters of a century. Officials are blaming commercial scrap metal scavengers for looting the site, having pilfered ships that belonged to the American, British and Dutch navies. But at least one salvage expert is skeptical about this being the work of ordinary scavengers.

The Battle of the Java Sea took place on February 27, 1942, and saw the defeat of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) fleet in the area, leading to the occupation of the Netherlands East Indies by Japanese forces. Of the fourteen Allied ships involved, only two survived, the others having been sunk over the course of the battle against the much larger, and better equipped, Japanese fleet.

During preparations for the 75th anniversary of the battle, the Netherlands Ministry of Defence confirmed that two of the Dutch wrecks, HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java, had completely disappeared, and a large portion of HNLMS Kortenaer had gone missing. The only indication that the ships had been there to begin with were the indentations left in the seafloor, as evidenced by 3D sonar maps.

Further investigation found that the British ships HMS Exeter and HMS Encounter had also vanished, with only a portion of HMS Electra remaining. The wreck of the USS Perch, a U.S. submarine lost in the battle, was also found to be missing.

"An investigation has been launched to see what has happened to the wrecks, while the cabinet has been informed," according to a Dutch defense ministry statement. "The desecration of a war grave is a serious offence."

While metal scavengers have been looting the many WWII wrecks that lie at the bottom of the South Pacific, Paul Koole, of the Dutch salvage company Mammoet, is skeptical about the idea that the disappearances are due to run-of-the-mill looters, citing not only the size of the wrecks (HMS Exeter was a 575-foot, 8,300 ton vessel) , but also the depth that the ships were resting at, under 230 feet (70 meters) of water. "It would be almost impossible to salvage this. It is far too deep."

"To say that the wreckage had gone suddenly, doesn’t make sense," explains Indonesian navy spokesman Colonel Gig Sipasulta. "It is underwater activities that can take months, even years." A investigation involving a closer inspection of the seabed is expected to be launched, and will hopefully yield more clues as to the fate of the missing warships.