Questions left unanswered in Sabah WWII wreck 'tell-all' session

KOTA KINABALU: A tell-all session on the mystery "disappearance" of three Japanese World War II shipwrecks in Sabah's northern waters has shed little light on why they were removed in the first place.

The session was chaired by state tourism, culture and environment minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun and attended by Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), which was carrying out a marine archaeological research project on the wrecks, and private collaborators Ugeens Berjaya Enterprise.

However, the initial explanation by Universiti Malaysia Sabah that the removal was to clean up Usukan Bay – where the wrecks were located – of 3,000 tonnes of potentially toxic bauxite in the cargo holds of the three ships, changed at the briefing.

UMS marine archeologist Baszely Bee Basrah Bee said they were uncertain whether there was actually bauxite in the ship and this was only an assumption based on historical records.

Ugeens Berjaya Enterprise deputy manager Abdul Rahman Md Saad also denied recovering any treasure (rumoured to be the fabled Yamashita Gold) from Japanese transport ships Higane Maru, Hiyori Maru and Kokusei Maru, torpedoed and sunk by Allied submarines 74 years ago.

He said they only recovered pieces of porcelain, anchors and ship nameplates, which had been turned over to the Sabah Museum.

"We salvaged the stern and bow and left the cargo holds which we believe contain bauxite," he said, adding that the structure of the wrecks were fragile and would eventually disintegrate.

However, the current whereabouts of the wrecks were left unanswered, with Abdul Rahman saying they were placed somewhere in the sea and had given the coordinates to the museum.

Under heated questioning, it was revealed that Sabah Museum did not have the authority to allow Ugeens Berjaya exploration rights to the wrecks, which were located nine nautical miles from shore when it only had authority up to the three nautical mile point.

Based on approvals from the Sabah Museum, the Marine Department stated in a letter to Ugeens Berjaya that it had no objection to any salvage works.

Masidi said these "missteps" had led to this fiasco and the state would draw up strict guidelines and policies to ensure the remaining 27 WWII wrecks in Sabah waters are preserved for posterity.

The quiet salvage operations since Jan 11 shocked Masidi as well as divers and fishermen in the area.

The work was carried by a China-based salvage company hired by Ugeens Berjaya.