Inside the navy’s search for war grave robbers in the South China Sea

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Rare look at Canadian sailors’ life at sea
People serving in Canada's military find it challenging to avoid being homesick when deployed on overseas missions for long stretches. It's one reason why recruitment numbers are low. – May 31, 2023

More than 80,000 vessels travel through the South China Sea every year — but the Royal Canadian Navy‘s HMCS Montreal has been on the hunt for just one.

“We were made aware of a Chinese de-rigging vessel that is reportedly dredging over (the) HMS Prince of Wales wreckage site,” said Navy Lt. Stephen Sipos, an operations officer on the HMCS Montreal currently deployed in the area.

Global News has a team on board the ship.

HMCS Montreal is on a six-month deployment from its home base in Halifax and over the last 10 days, Global News documented the work of the ship’s crew and the realities of leaving their families behind for a mission on the other side of the world.

And this week, that work included trying to thwart suspected grave robbers.

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HMS Prince of Wales was a British ship sunk by Japanese torpedoes in 1941.

While the British navy ship currently bearing the same name is an aircraft carrier, the ship in question was a battleship. Its sinking happened just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and killed 327 on board.

Combined with the sinking of HMS Repulse on the same day nearby, which killed more than 500, the attacks marked one of the “worst disasters in British naval history,” according to the U.K.’s National Museum of the Royal Navy.

And the crew of HMCS Montreal was searching for a Chinese boat allegedly willing to disturb those graves for a shot at Second World War memorabilia.

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“We’re not here to escalate any tensions, we’re here to be a reporting asset for the navy,” Sipos said.

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To find it, the Cyclone helicopter on board the Montreal has been dispatched

But after more than an hour’s worth of flying, no luck. An unsuccessful mission — but with a positive twist.

“We weren’t able to locate them today, which is good because it means they weren’t in the vicinity of the wreckage they were pillaging,” said Capt. Zach Austin of  HMCS Montreal.

The next day, Malaysian authorities seized the Chinese boat and on board, found scrap metal and cannon balls believed to be from HMS Prince of Wales.

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According to Reuters, officials from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) pounced on the Chinese vessel when it anchored in Malaysian waters in east Johor without permission on May 29.

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In a statement, Johor Maritime Director First Admiral Nurul Hizam Zakaria said the vessel was manned by 32 men including the captain. The crew comprised 21 Chinese nationals, 10 Bangladeshi nationals and a local. They were aged between 23 and 57 years.

The British High Commission has condemned the “deplorable” salvors who they said were unlawfully desecrating the war graves.

Malaysian authorities have also launched an investigation.

– with files from Reuters

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