The Underwater Legacy of the Java Sea: The Battle of the Java Sea in World War II

Under the waves of the Java Sea lies a hidden history, where remnants of the past are preserved in the depths. From ceramic artifacts to sunken shipwrecks, these underwater treasures hold tales of a bygone era. However, many of these sunken vessels face threats not only from natural deterioration but also from human actions, such as the rampant theft of scrap metal from ships, especially those dating back to World War II.

One such case came to light a few years ago with the disappearance of the wrecks of Dutch ships that sank in the Java Sea. The Karel Doorman Fonds sent divers to assess the condition of the HNLMS Java and HNLMS De Ruyter. Upon reaching the site of the HNLMS De Ruyter, diver Pete Maisle was surprised to find no trace of the ship’s wreckage. Instead, he discovered a depression on the seabed that hinted at the ship’s former presence. The sunken wrecks of the HNLMS Java and HNLMS De Ruyter lie in waters near Bawean Island, representing vessels involved in the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27, 1942.

The loss of these shipwrecks has drawn serious attention from the Dutch government, not just for their historical significance but also due to international norms regarding sunken warships. According to Dwi Kurnia Sandy, Salma Fitri Kusumastuti, and others in their article “Permasalahan Bangkai Kapal Perang II di Perairan Indonesia” (2020), sunken warships are generally regarded as “war graves” in international relations, although this is not based on any formal international law.

The Battle of the Java Sea was a significant naval confrontation in the Pacific theater of World War II. It began with Japan’s surprise attack on the United States’ Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which prompted the U.S. to enter the war, marking the start of the Pacific War. Japan’s swift advance in the region, including Southeast Asia, led to reactions from several countries, including the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), under the leadership of Governor General Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer.

The Dutch East Indies declared war on Japan a day after the Pearl Harbor attack, followed by Japan’s declaration of war on the Dutch East Indies in early January 1942. Japan’s interest in the Dutch East Indies was driven by its need for natural resources, particularly oil, especially after the U.S. cut off its oil supply in mid-1941.

By January 11, 1942, Japan had captured several oil-rich cities in the Dutch East Indies, such as Tarakan, Balikpapan, Samarinda, and Palembang. In response, the Allies consolidated their forces to defend Java from the Japanese. A naval task force, led by Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, was formed on February 2, 1942, consisting of ships from the Dutch, American, and Australian navies.

However, the Allied forces faced challenges in coordinating their efforts due to a lack of joint training and communication difficulties. This was evident in an incident in the Badung Strait on February 19–20, 1942, where the Japanese successfully attacked and captured Bali.

The decisive Battle of the Java Sea took place on February 27, 1942, near Bawean Island. The Allied fleet, reinforced with additional ships from Tanjung Priok, engaged the Japanese fleet, supported by air power. Despite a valiant effort, the Allies struggled with communication and coordination issues, leading to their defeat. The HNLMS De Ruyter, commanded by Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, was torpedoed and sunk during the battle, along with several other ships. The defeat allowed the Japanese to land troops on Java in early March, leading to the eventual capture of the Dutch East Indies by Japan on March 8, 1942, through the Kalijati Agreement.

The Battle of the Java Sea stands as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by the Allies in the early stages of World War II and the ultimate sacrifice made by those who fought bravely in defense of their nations. The sunken wrecks of this battle serve as silent witnesses to the tumultuous events of the past, reminding us of the importance of preserving and honoring our shared history, even beneath the waves of the sea.