Jakarta – The Java Sea where a massive search operation is underway for AirAsia Flight QZ8501 is also the graveyard for one of the largest naval engagements of World War II.
Old wrecks, whether from battles or peacetime disasters, have occasionally given false leads to modern searches.
Indonesian search and rescue agency official S.B. Supriyadi said Friday the hunt for the AirAsia plane had detected a metal structure but it proved to be a false lead, “possibly a ship which sank”.
While it is unlikely to have been an old warship, the Java Sea was the scene of a disastrous defeat for the Allied navies by invading Imperial Japanese forces as they swept through the Dutch East Indies.
In the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27, 1942, a combined force of Dutch, US, British and Australian ships was hopelessly outmatched, suffering the loss of five warships and 2,300 sailors against Japanese losses of one damaged destroyer and 36 dead.
A second engagement by British and US forces on March 1 resulted in the sinking of three Allied warships with one Japanese destroyer damaged.
Wrecks from these World War II battles remain at the bottom of the Java Sea and are popular with divers.
In August last year, US Navy archeologists, working with Indonesian navy divers, identified one as the cruiser USS Houston, which sank during the Battle of the Sunda Strait in 1942.
The US Navy said the ship, nicknamed “The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast,” was the final resting place of about 650 sailors and Marines.
During the Battle of the Sunda Strait on March 1, 1942, the Houston and Australian cruiser HMAS Perth were sunk during an engagement with a vastly superior Japanese force.
The Houston’s captain received a posthumous Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism.
In November 2013 Indonesian researchers made a surprise discovery of what is believed to be a German submarine that was torpedoed off Java during World War II.
Researchers believe the wreck — which contained at least 17 human skeletons — is U-168, which succeeded in sinking several allied vessels before itself being torpedoed by a Dutch submarine in 1944.
“This is an extraordinary find that will certainly provide useful information about what took place in the Java Sea during World War II,” Bambang Budi Utomo, head of the research team at the National Archaeology Centre that found the vessel, said at the time.
As well as the human skeletons, dinner plates bearing swastikas, batteries, binoculars and a bottle of hair oil were pulled from the wreck.
Japan occupied Indonesia during World War II, which was then still known by its colonial name of the Dutch East Indies. Tokyo and Berlin were allies during the war.