Seventy-five years ago, United States (US) Navy oceangoing minesweeper USS Salute was in Brunei Bay as part of an Allied Task Force preparing for the June 10 amphibious landing of the Australian 9th Division in Muara and Labuan.
However, around 4pm on June 7, the Salute hit a mine, buckled amidships and sank just after midnight of June 8. Nine sailors perished in the explosion while the rest onboard were rescued by nearby ships.
The Salute was one of 17 US Navy minesweepers clearing mines from the coastline around the Bay to clear the path for landing. As US troops were fighting in Okinawa, Japan and the Philippines, over 250 US Navy ships and landing craft transported Australian troops to the beach as well as providing engineering and fire support.
According to a 2010 interview with survivor James J Hughs, “I was the officer of the deck. The skipper was up on the bridge and the only thing I can remember was looking for a place to land. I had blood running down my face and I don’t know how that happened.
“We tried to get everyone together, and we talked about towing the ship but it had sunk down to the main deck. We knew it couldn’t be saved. We had ships along with us exploding mines, and they came alongside and picked us up, so we didn’t have to get in the water.”
One the faithful day, he said, “We hit it about 4pm and it sunk about midnight. We were making the last run of the day. (Normally), when we stopped sweeping mines for the day, we gathered all the equipment and stayed in a certain area until the next day and swept again.”
He added, “The mine hit the area of mid-ship, right underneath the belly, and it came right up through all the decks. Anybody in the area was killed, especially those in the engine room. They didn’t stand a chance.”
For decades, the wreckage of the Salute has remained on the floor bed of the Brunei bay. The submerged decks are now coated in coral and are home to schools of yellowfin tunas and barracudas.
Charge d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Brunei Darussalam Scott Woodard, in a statement, said, “While the Australian did the land fighting and took most of the casualties in Brunei and other parts of Borneo, the US military contributed important and dangerous support, with over 40 casualties in Brunei – in the air, land and sea, while leading the Allied war effort around the region and around the world. Their sacrifice helped to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region with respect to peace, sovereignty and mutually beneficial trade.”
He also requested that “the divers treat the wreck respectfully as the final resting place of American sailors who died to liberate Brunei”.
Meanwhile, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Academic Fellow alumnus Firdaus Ismail said, “I did my Advanced Open Water course here. The ship is quite fascinating because you can see the damage. This is a pretty rare opportunity for divers because it’s more than just coral; it’s the history of the site.”
In 2017, the then-US Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam Craig Allen was quoted as saying: “I understand that local divers and others over the years have made efforts to honour Salute, even placing a memorial plaque in 2007 on behalf of the crewmembers and their families.”
The US and Brunei, he said, “have had friendly relations for the last 175 years, since the visit of the USS Constitution in 1845. As demonstrated by this sacrifice, the US paid in blood for our friendships. We lost nine brave sailors, and three were never recovered.”
One of the notable occasions in remembering the perished sailors was at the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2016 during which the US Navy and Royal Brunei Navy divers completed a dive on the shipwreck to honour the service of those lost while conducting an assessment on the wreck’s condition.