Military shipwrecks are viewed as underwater graveyards, but some illegal salvage divers view their metal hulls as goldmines. Their quest for scrap metals and valuable materials has led to the partial or complete destruction of up to 40 World War II ships in southeast Asia, according to a detailed account by The Guardian.

Crews of divers pretending to be fishermen or researchers have raided submerged ships around Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. They might have been looking for steel scrap metal, or copper cables, phosphor bronze propellers, and radiation-free steel, the last of which is used in scientific and medical equipment.

Some ships have been found cut in half, while others have been completely removed. But these divers aren't just destroying history, according to veterans and archaeologists—they’re also desecrating grave sites, as the 40 destroyed or damaged ships may have held around 4500 corpses. They belonged to World War II servicemen from countries including the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, and Japan.

Important British warships like the HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter, and HMS Electra—all of which sank in the Java Sea in 1942—have fallen victim to scavengers. So have the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, which sank off the coast of Malaysia in 1941.

Australia, meanwhile, has suffered the loss of the HMAS Perth, which met its end in 1942, near the islands of Java and Sumatra. Nearly 60 to 70 percent of its hull is gone, according to archaeologists. And Japanese ships have also been destroyed, with hundreds still remaining vulnerable underwater. All of these ships likely had the bodies of crew members onboard.

UK and U.S. officials have requested that Indonesia protect historic sunken warships. In the meantime, Cambodian, Chinese, and Malaysian-registered vessels have all been spotted hovering around wrecks, and shipwreck scavenging appears to be on the rise. The UK Ministry of Defence is asking the Indonesian government to step in, according to a spokesperson quoted by The Guardian: "A military wreck should remain undisturbed and those who lost their lives onboard should be allowed to rest in peace."

[h/t The Guardian]