It’s July 2019, and various media outlets are reporting a shocking story. The remains of two Dutch submarines – sunk by Japanese mines during the Second World War – have disappeared. And what is especially shocking about this tale is that these two wrecks contained the bodies of 79 submariners who lost their lives when the vessels were lost. In other words, they were war graves.
The two submarines, HNLMS O 16 and HNLMS K XVII, had languished at the bottom of the sea for almost eight decades. But now all that was left of the two subs were a few scattered pieces of metal and ghostly silhouettes etched into the sand. But how could these rather large shipwrecks simply have disappeared from the seabed?
HNLMS O 16 and HNLMS K XVII were sunk days apart from one another back in December 1941. This occurred after they each separately crashed into a defensive line of Japanese mines. These had been laid at the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand, which is also known as the Gulf of Siam.
The mines destroyed the submarines as they sailed past Malaysia towards the South China Sea. 42 men were sailing aboard HNLMS O 16 when she collided with a mine on December 15, 1941. One man survived. Six days later, there were 36 seamen aboard the K XVII when she hit a Japanese mine on December 21, 1941. All hands perished.
So for many decades, those two stricken submarines rested on the seabed, effectively acting as watery graves for the men who had gone down with them. But in 2019 the two wrecks simply vanished. What could possibly have happened to them? Before we examine the reason that the subs disappeared, let’s get to know the two Dutch naval vessels better.
K XVII was the older of the two vessels, so we’ll start with her. She was one of five K XIV-class submarines commissioned by the Royal Netherlands Navy. Submarine K XIV was the first of those, launched in July 1931. K XVII was the fourth. The Royal Dutch Navy’s engineer J.J. van der Struyff designed all five of the K XIV-class subs.
Shipbuilders at the Wilton-Fijenoord company’s yard in the Dutch city of Rotterdam started work on K XVII on the first day of June 1931. Construction of her sister vessel, K XVIII, started on the same day at that Wilton-Fijenoord shipyard. K XVII’s pressure hull was built to a design that used rivets throughout and employed 0.55-inch thick steel, with an additional outer skin of 0.12-inch steel plates.
This thick steel skin meant that K XVII was a heavy beast, with a submerged displacement of 1,045 tons. She was some 200 tons heavier than the previous generation of Dutch submarines. This exceptionally strong hull allowed K XVII to dive to a depth of as much as 328 feet. The gap between the pressure hull and the outer plating accommodated fuel tanks, torpedo tubes, ballast tanks and other equipment.
The interior design of the submarine incorporated six separate compartments. Compartment one housed the torpedo tubes, as well as crew berths. The submarine’s rechargeable batteries were stowed in the second and third sections – as were the officers’ sleeping quarters. The submarine’s control room was in the fourth compartment back from the prow.
This fourth compartment was the key section of the vessel, where all the instruments were housed and above which the conning tower and bridge rose. The fifth chamber contained the machine room and the sub’s diesel engine. The rearmost section at the stern had another pair of torpedo tubes and the submarine’s electric motor.
After her launch in July 1932, K XVII officially became a Royal Netherlands Navy ship in December 1933. Her planned role was to protect the colonial islands of the Dutch East Indies, territories which are now part of modern Indonesia. After some cruises on the Baltic Sea, K XVII sailed for the Dutch East Indies, where she arrived with her sister submarine K XVIII in March 1935.
K XVII’s home port was now Surabaya on the island of Java, the principle city of the Dutch East Indies. In the coming years the submarine took part in a variety of exercises around the Dutch East Indies as part of a squadron of submarines. Then, in 1939 the Second World War broke out and so K XVII became a part of the defense of the Dutch East Indies from a possible German or Italian attack.
We’ll freeze-frame the story of K XVII at the start of World War II for the moment, while we learn more about the submarine HNMLS O 16. She was, in many ways, a departure from the earlier design of K XVII and a different naval architect named G. de Rooij drew up the plans. The Royal Netherlands Navy had asked for a submarine that was heavier, yet faster.
And de Rooij was able to fulfill this brief with a vessel that was 13 feet longer and 130 tons heavier than K XVII – but still faster in the water than her predecessor. That increase in speed was made possible by de Rooij’s innovative hull configuration and the use of a different type of steel. Workers at the Koninklijke Maatschappij De Schelde shipyard in the port of Vlissingen started building O 16 in March 1933.
HNMLS O 16 joined the Royal Netherlands Navy in October 1936. She started her service with a voyage to Bermuda and Washington D.C. Next, she was on convoy duty as a counter to a blockade of the Mediterranean by the Fascist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. After a further period based in the Netherlands, O 16 sailed for the Dutch East Indies in 1939.
In June 1939 O 16 docked at Tanjung Priok, the port that serves the Indonesian city of Jakarta on Java. So now both K VII and O 16 were in position on the seas of the Dutch East Indies. Eventually, the initial threat of a possible Italian and German attack soon faded. But the Dutch forces in the East Indies would fight on, albeit in the face of another nation’s hostile intentions.
This new threat came from the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which dragged the U.S. into World War II. Also in that month, the Dutch government – now in exile in London – declared war on Japan. Indeed, the Japanese had their eyes on the prize of the East Indies’ oil and rubber resources, which were especially valuable in times of war.
In fact, there was now a delay in Japan’s declaration of war on the Netherlands and its East Indies colony. The Japanese were anxious that once they had announced hostilities, the Dutch might destroy their own oil plants. Nevertheless, Japan did declare war in January 1942. But actually, attacks on Dutch East Indies territory had already started the month before.
Now the Americans, the Australians and the British joined with the Dutch in the defense of the East Indies from the Japanese. A key part of those defenses were the 25 American and 16 Dutch submarines stationed in the waters around the islands. These included K VII and O 16. A variety of other vessels from the Allied navies were also in position.
The two submarines in our story, K VII and O 16, had sailed to the South China Sea on December 6, 1941. This was actually before Japan’s formal declaration of war. The submarines’ mission was to shadow a Japanese fleet that seemed to be heading with hostile intentions towards Malaya, at the time a British colony.
On December 12 O 16’s crew identified a Japanese troopship heading for the Bay of Pattani in the Gulf of Thailand. The submarine’s commander – a man named Anton Bussemaker – ordered his crew to pursue the Japanese craft. This enemy vessel now joined several other troop transporters at anchor in the Pattani Bay. It was an excellent chance for O 16 to destroy some Japanese vessels.
O 16 now launched torpedoes and succeeded in sinking three of the Japanese ships, amounting to over 25,000 tons of enemy vessel destroyed. The next day, O 16 and K XVII were ordered to sail for Singapore. This would have involved maneuvering south out of the Gulf of Thailand and along the east coast of Malaya.
Unfortunately, the route of both submarines meant that they would unwittingly be sailing through a Japanese minefield. It was O 16 that first struck a mine on December 15, 1941, at around 2:30 A.M. The vessel broke in two and sunk to the bottom of the sea. As we heard earlier, there was only a single survivor from the crew of 42.
The man who escaped from the stricken submarine was Boatswain Cornelis de Wolf. Later, he was able to give an account of his almost miraculous survival in a report to Dutch naval authorities. When O 16 hit the mine, de Wolf was on the submarine’s bridge with five others, including Commander Bussemaker.
According to de Wolf, “Our faithful O 16 disappeared into the waves in less than a minute.” De Wolf now found himself in the water with four of his colleagues. They believed they could hear Bussemaker calling in the distance. But they couldn’t find him and they never saw the commander again. The five survivors had no choice but to swim for it.
Using the moon and stars to navigate by, the five men swam towards where they believed there were some islands. Indeed, when the sun rose on the morning of December 15, there were some outcrops of land on the horizon. By then, one of the five survivors – a seaman named Van Tol – had already sunk beneath the waves, despite de Wolf’s attempts to help him.
At around 8:00 A.M. that morning, Senior Officer Jeekel perished, leaving de Wolf and two others still swimming. An hour later – after a British plane had passed overhead but failed to see the men – Seaman Kruijdenhof was done for. A Dutch plane also flew over, but it too didn’t spot them. Corporal Bram Bos slipped under the waves at about 5:00 P.M.
De Wolf now passed a night on his own in the water, estimating that he was between two or three miles from an island. During the next morning of December 16, de Wolf swam on. At about 5:00 P.M. he reached the land of Dayang Island. That is off the coast of Malaya by about 50 miles from where O 16 sank. Utterly exhausted after just under 38 hours in the water, he slept on the shore that night.
Finally de Wolf was rescued by inhabitants of the island, later making his way to Mersing in Malaya. Here, Australian troops found him and took him to the Allied navy base in Singapore. De Wolf won two medals for his incredible endurance and bravery. These were the Bronze Lion and the Distinguished Service Medal.
A few days after the sinking of 0 16, K XVII met the same fate in the very minefield that had sunk the other submarine. Indeed, on or around December 21, 1941, K XVII descended after hitting a Japanese mine. But none of her crew survived. All 36 of them perished.
So both of those submarines had now become war graves. With regard to O 16, fishermen had apparently known about its location for many years. But it wasn’t until 1995 that its remains were officially identified. It was a diver from Sweden named Sten Sjostrand who discovered the destroyed craft.
The remains of O 16 lay in some 175 feet of water about 22 miles off the coast of Malaysia’s Tioman Island. In fact, the wrecks of many World War II vessels a in the waters around this island. Indeed, it was in 1978 that another Dutch submarine wreck was found nearby. In 1982 this wreck was confirmed as that of K XVII.
In an ideal world, these war graves containing the remains of so many submariners should have been left in peace. But there is an industry in these waters of illicit marine salvage. It’s a kind of modern-day piracy involving the looting of World War II shipwrecks for anything of value that can be removed.
Indeed, the Guardian headlined a 2017 article with, “The world’s biggest grave robbery: Asia’s disappearing WWII shipwrecks.” The newspaper reported that as many as 40 wrecks which should have been respected as war graves had been wholly or partly stripped of valuable materials. The salvagers trade much of their booty as scrap.
But some of the materials seized by the illegal salvagers have a higher value than mere scrap. The robbers can get high prices for bronze propellers and copper wiring. And the steel used to build the sunken vessels has a particular quality. The ships were built before the nuclear era and have remained submerged, so their steel is almost free of radiation. Such steel commands high prices for specialist medical and scientific apparatus.
These illegal salvagers could have desecrated the final resting places of as many as 4,500 war dead. These would have come from both sides of the conflict – Dutch, Americans, British, Australians and Japanese alike. And sadly it seems that the wrecks of K XVII and O 16 have themselves suffered at the hands of unscrupulous operators.
By as early as 2013, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had run a report mentioning that salvagers had been seen at the O 16 site, lifting the wreck with a crane. And in July 2019 dreadful news emerged. The wrecks of both K XVII and O 16 had almost entirely disappeared.
The Guardian reported that only “a few remains of HNLMS O 16 and a mere outline in the seabed of the hull of HNLMS K XVI” were to be seen. And a prominent Dutch politician had plenty to say about that. She is Jet Bussemaker, whose grandfather was Anton Bussemaker, the commander of O 16.
Bussemaker – who formerly held the post of minister responsible for veterans in the Dutch government – told the Guardian, “It is a very sad message. It is shocking to all the relatives, but at the same time it does not surprise me at all… Where we have found graves, often after the great efforts of those involved, we are unable to save these places as war graves.”
The Guardian’s 2017 report on pirate salvagers estimated that the metal from a single World War II shipwreck could fetch up to as much as $1.3 million. But for the relatives of the war dead, it’s a tragedy. As Jet Bussemaker put it, “This is very bad. It gives no rest this way. That boat was the grave.”