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Metal pirates sell WWII ‘ghost ships’ to the highest bidder

There were thousands of pirates looting ships in the Caribbean during the Golden Age. Recently, scrapyards have seen a surge in unusual metals turning up on-site. It turns out, pirates are not yet extinct.

Bronze propellers and steel plates from World War II aircraft and vessels are worth upwards of US$ 5000 a piece. An entire wreck is valued at least a million dollars. It’s interesting to note that around 120 000 ships were manufactured in the years leading up to WWII.

The metal piracy trend made global headlines in 2016, when various sunken warships and submarines disappeared from their watery graves in the Java Sea. Naval reseachers found out the vessels ‘went missing’ with the help of a sonar 3D map.

Stolen from the depths

‘In recent years it’s not the treasure that’s making people go look for wrecks, it’s the metal,’ says Kim Browne of Charles Sturt University in Australia. She published a study on ‘ghost battleships’ in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology. ‘The metal and bronze and all the casings of the electrical components of the ship bring in large amounts of money,’ the lecturer confirms.

Salvaging the parts is no easy job considering the operation takes place in the deep – sometimes at 70 metres (230 feet) underwater. It’s likely these illegal scrapping activities take months, maybe even years to complete.  

‘The illicit removal of the wrecks illustrates the jurisdictional difficulties maritime powers face in preventing unauthorised interference with their sunken military property,’ Browne notes. So far, remnants of American, Australian, British, Dutch and Japanese warships have largely been the victim of ‘metal pirates’.

A WWII tank burried underneath the waves.

Do not disturb

Unlike traditional treasure hunters, these modern pirates are known to recover potentially unexploded ammunition as well. Cutting into WWII wrecks may also release oil into the ocean. Therefore, the scrappers pose a ‘significant risk’ to the marine environment.

Besides, the WWII wrecks are historically significant, Browne urges.
The combat vessel USS Indianapolis was sunk in 1945 after delivering components of the atomic bombs to an island in Micronesia.

Another famous example is Australia’s light cruiser HMAS Perth – it serves as a ‘war grave’ to 353 sailors. Archaeologists claim only 40% of the vessel remains intact due to ‘heavy plundering’. Other wrecks include thousands of WWII fighter planes.

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