Ominous tales of ghost ships like the Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste have been passed down from one generation of seafarer to the next for centuries, but as eerie as these haunted vessels are alleged to be there is another even more disturbing maritime phenomena that deals not with ships that have been abandoned, but those whose crew have mysteriously perished. Arguably the most disturbing of all these legends is the shocking case of the SS Ourang Medan.
According to widely circulated reports, in June of 1947 -- or, according to alternate accounts, February of 1948 -- multiple ships traversing the trade routes of the straits of Malacca, which is located between the sun drenched shores of Sumatra and Malaysia, claimed to have picked up a series of SOS distress signals. The unknown ship’s message was as simple as it was disturbing:
“All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” This communication was followed by a burst of indecipherable Morse code, then a final, grim message: "I die." This cryptic proclamation was followed by tomb-like silence.
The chilling distress call was picked up by two American ships as well as British and Dutch listening posts. The men manning these posts managed to triangulate the source of these broadcasts and deduced that they were likely emanating from a Dutch freighter known as the SS Ourang Medan, which was navigating the straits of Malacca.
A conscripted American merchant ship called the Silver Star was closest to the presumed location of the Ourang Medan. Originally christened “Santa Cecilia” by the Grace Line (W. R. Grace & Co.), the vessel had been renamed the Silver Star when the United States Maritime Commission “drafted” it in 1946.
Noting the terrified urgency in the message that came over the airwaves, the Captain and crew of the Silver Star wasted no time in changing their course in an effort to assist the apparently incapacitated ship. Within hours, the Silver Star caught sight of the Ourang Medan rising and falling in the choppy waters of the Malacca Strait.
As the merchant craft neared the ill-omened vessel, the crew noticed that there was no sign of life on the deck. The Americans attempted to hail the Dutch crew to no avail. That’s when the Captain of the Silver Star decided to assemble a boarding party. As they left the safe haven of the Silver Star, these unfortunate souls had no idea that they were about to walk into a living nightmare.
As soon as they boarded the Ourang Medan, the men swiftly realized that the distress calls were not an exaggeration. The decks of the vessel were littered with the corpses of the Dutch crew; their eyes wide, their arms grasping at unseen assailants, their faces twisted into revolting visages of agony and horror. Even the ship’s dog was dead; it’s once intimidating snarl frozen into a ghastly grimace.
The boarding party found the Captain’s remains on the bridge, while his officers’ cadavers were strewn about the wheelhouse and chartroom. The communications officer was still at his post, as dead as the rest, his fingertips resting on the telegraph. All of the corpses, according to reports, bore the same terrified, wide-eyed expressions as the crew on deck.
Below deck, search party members found cadres of corpses in the boiler room, but almost as disturbing as this grim find was the fact that the American crew members claimed to have felt an extreme chill in the nadir of the hold, even though the temperature outside was a scorching 110°F. While the search team could see clear evidence that the crew of the Ourang Medan suffered profoundly at the moment of their deaths, they could find no overt evidence of injury or foul play on the swiftly decaying corpses. Nor could they spy any damage to the ship itself.
The Captain of the Silver Star decided that they would tether themselves to the Ourang Medan and tow it back to port, but as soon as the crew attached the tow line to the Dutch ship they noticed ominous billows of smoke pouring up from the lower decks, in specific the Number 4 hold.
The boarding party scarcely had a chance to cut the towline and make it back to the Silver Star before the Ourang Medan exploded with such tremendous force that it "lifted herself from the water and swiftly sank.”
The crew watched the Dutch vessel disappear beneath the briny depths, no doubt breathing deep sighs of relief that the towline had not dragged them into the sea as well.
The watery grave that claimed the Ourang Medan effectively removed the freighter from the face of the Earth and forced it directly into the realm of myths and legends. This, of course, has made it one of the most enduring and intriguing maritime mysterious of the modern age, leaving us to ask the most basic question…
While rumors about the Silver Star’s grisly discovery circulated wildly along the trade routes of the East Indies, the first official account of the event would not be printed until May of 1952, in the form of the “Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council,” which was published by the United States Coast Guard. The testimony therein described the alarming state of the Dutch crewmen, even going so far as to state:
“Their frozen faces were upturned to the sun… staring, as if in fear... the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring.”
The first problem with trying to ascertain what happened to this now infamous Dutch freighter is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any official records that it ever existed in the first place. We know that the Silver Star was real -- although, by 1947, it had been reacquired by the Grace Line shipping company who dubbed the vessel “Santa Juana” -- but there’s no paper trail leading to the Ourang Medan.
Some researchers have speculated that if the Ourang Medan was a genuine ship that it likely hailed from Sumatra, which at the time was a colony of the Netherlands in what was referred to as a the Dutch East Indies. “Ourang” is Indonesian for “man” and “Medan” is the biggest city on the island of Sumatra, which would designate this enigmatic freighter the “Man from Medan.” But, while the etymology of the name might give some clue as to its origin, there are no bureaucratic records of the Ourang Medan.
Author and historian Roy Bainton, who’s done some of the most exhaustive and revealing investigation on the subject of the SS Ourang Medan, met dead end after dead end in his pursuit of the true story of the “death ship.” First he went to the usual sources, but was unable to find any mention of the ship in Lloyd's Shipping registers or the Dictionary of Disasters at Sea, 1824-1962.
Then he contacted the United Kingdom Admiralty, the Registrar of Shipping and Seamen and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich all of whom told him that the only place to check Dutch Shipping records was in Amsterdam. Bainton searched the Dutch records as well as the Maritime Authority in Singapore to no avail.
Just as he was about to give up his investigation and write the whole thing off as just an old sailors’ yarn, Bainton was contacted by Professor Theodor Siersdorfer of Essen, Germany who had been pursuing the case for the better part of 50 years and was the first to reveal the names of the two American ships that had heard the Ourang Medan's SOS calls.
Siersdorfer also led Bainton to a 32 page German booklet written in 1954 by Otto Mielke, entitled“Das Totenschiffin der Südsee” or “Death Ship in the South Sea.” Mielke seemed to know a lot about the Ourang Medan's route, cargo, tonnage and engine power and even, allegedly, the Captain's name. One is forced to wonder whether or not Mielke had contact with one of the Silver Stars' notoriously difficult to find crewmen.
Mielke’s pamphlet was also the source of the June, 1947 date and added yet another compelling piece to the puzzle, which helped to reignited Bainton’s interest in the project. This intriguing new bit of possible evidence was that the Number 4 hold of the Ourang Medan may have been filled with a pair of exceedingly lethal and highly illegal substances. According to Bainton:
“…there is a tantalizing, possible explanation as to her crew's demise and her disappearance from the records. Mielke mentions a mixed, lethal cargo on the Dutchman 'Zyankali' (potassium cyanide) and nitroglycerine.”
Needless to say this would be a dangerous enough concoction in a laboratory with the highest safety protocols, but in a cargo hold on the rough seas it was a potential nightmare; one which might explain not only the inexplicable demise of the Dutch crew, but the subsequent explosion that claimed the freighter herself.
Even more terrifyingly, according to Bainton, is the conjecture that the Ourang Medan may have been smuggling nerve gas or even more insidious biological weapons manufactured by a sinister assembly of Japanese scientists whose experiments were so heinous that many of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi’s in the name of science pale by comparison. This diabolical faction was unassumingly referred to as…
The unit was designed to be a clandestine research and development department whose sole agenda was to create the most deadly forms of to chemical and biological weapons known to man and thus insure the victory of the Japan over any potential enemy.
Ishii established Unit 731 (code named “Tongo Unit”) during the Second Sino-Japanese War, but didn't really make his terrible mark until he oversaw the construction of new research facilities in the Imperial Japanese Army occupied Pingfang district of Harbin, China. It was there that the scientists of his division conducted some of the most deplorable biological experiments known to mankind during World War II.
Even more inexcusable was the fact that this grotesque cabal used human beings -- including women and infants -- in their appalling experiments, which included everything from exposure to sub-zero temperatures to the vivisection of human guinea pigs to study the effects of toxic materials on living organs.
Nevertheless, General Douglas MacArthur, presumably in the interest of national defense, covertly granted immunity to Ishii and his staff in exchange for providing the U.S. with their biological warfare research, regardless of the unspeakable acts they had committed -- the magnitude of which was reported by Bainton:
“Unit 731's brief was to find a chemical, gas or biological weapon to win the war. Hideous, inhumane experiments were carried out on helpless Australian, American, Russian, Chinese and British prisoners -- some of the worst war crimes ever committed.”
As to why these hazardous materials were packed onto the Ourang Medan when they could have just flown it directly to a secretive laboratory, Bainton speculated that perhaps the U.S. government -- or another world power -- decided to use as slow and inconspicuous vessel as the Dutch freighter to transport such treacherous cargo for reasons of both safety and concealment:
“So how was this deadly cargo moved around the South China Sea and through the Straits of Malacca during this troubled period? Not by air; the prospect of a cargo plane crashing with several tons of deadly gas on board was too horrendous to consider. No, you hired an insignificant old tramp steamer, preferably with a low paid foreign crew, stowed the cargo in disguised oil drums and, like all serious smugglers, hoped for the best, and a blind eye from authority.”
Bainton surmised that sea water could have entered the ship's hold, reacting with the perilous cargo to release poisonous gases, which then caused the crew to suffocate. At this point the onrushing salt water might have reacted with the nitroglycerin, creating the explosive effect that was said to cause the ship’s ultimate demise. Bainton even went on to speculate as to why the United States would go to such extreme lengths to expunge from all records the very existence of the freighter:
“If we accept, due to the nature of her crew's deaths, that she was carrying deadly gas or chemicals and if indeed she was a Dutch vessel had this news broken it would have been a major embarrassment for any government involved, especially in the light of the Geneva Convention. Hence the dead ends faced by any researcher. The story exists because, like the gases, it escaped.”
So are we to believe that this was the ultimate fate of the Ourang Medan and her crew? Was this merely a tragic accident that was the result of a combining dangerous chemicals with nitroglycerine on rough seas? If this is a genuine account of what transpired, then it seems like it’s as valid a possibility as any, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only option that researchers have come up with. Perhaps the strangest I’ve encountered is that the unfortunate crew was the victim of…
In 1953, Frank Edwards and Robert V. Hulse retold the basics of the legend for Fate Magazine and in his 1955 book “The case For the UFO,” astronomer, author and noted "Philadelphia Experiment" researcher, Morris K. Jessup, hypothesized that the crew of the Ourang Medan may have been attacked by extraterrestrials for reasons unknown.
Other Fortean enthusiasts have theorized that the unlucky Dutch crew may have had a Scooby Doo-like run-in with vengeful wraiths of the sea or a ghost ship full of surly, undead pirates. The dubious proof, which supporters of the paranormal option use to confirm their theory, is the evident lack of a natural cause for the deaths as well as the purportedly petrified expressions etched onto the faces of the doomed sailors. Add to this the unnatural chill in the cargo hold and the assertion that some of the deceased sailors were reaching up towards what was assumed to be an unknown adversary and you have all the ingredients for a hoary seafarers’ tale.
This is scant evidence indeed for a supposed interaction with either evil aliens or malevolent phantoms, but one can hardly blame yarn spinning mariners for trying to add a little spice to a story told around campfires on stony shorelines to wide-eyed children… or even novice deckhands. So, if we pressume for the moment that the paranormal is out then we must be dealing with…
Okay, assuming that the deaths aboard the Ourang Medan were caused by neither supernatural forces or atrocious weapons of war then could it be a chilling natural phenomenon or even a simple accident that claimed the lives of these Dutch sailors’? Mayhap an incident involving…
Perhaps the most fear-provoking theory proffered by those who believe that the demise of the Dutch freighter was explicable by natural means is that the crew of the Ourang Medan was asphyxiated by clouds of noxious methane that gurgled up from a fissure on the sea floor and poisoned the sailors before eventually engulfing the ship.
As terrifying as the thought of random bursts of methane destroying vessels after killing the crew may be, this explanation seems farfetched as it does not account for the thunderous blast described by the crew of the Silver Star. So if it wasn’t methane bubbles that were responsible for the tragedy, then perhaps it was a…
Author Vincent Gaddis, in his 1965 book “Invisible Horizons,” put forward the premise that an unobserved fire or failure in the ship's boiler system might have been responsible for the demise of the vessel.
He claimed that carbon monoxide could have leaked up causing the deaths of all aboard while the fire slowly grew; eventually igniting the fuel and causing the craft to explode.
While this is a sound theory, perhaps the truth is even simpler than a fire or maintenance error and all of this is nothing more than a…
Despite Bainton’s proposition that the records may have been eradicated by a savvy group of governmental conspirators, the fact that there are no registration records for the Ourang Medan remains a troublesome detail.
Combine this with the reality that no survivors of the Silver Star have ever felt compelled to come forward and tell their harrowing tale and you’ve got all the earmarks of a good, old fashioned ghost story concocted by sailors to while away the long hours at sea.
That having been stated, the fact that the United States Coast Guard seems to have confirmed the tale, and that other noted nautical authors have invested so much time and so many resources in availing themselves of the truth, lends and aura of credibility to the whole proceeding.
When all is said and done, if anyone really knows what happened to the Ourang Medan and her crew then they’re not talking, but whatever the truth is behind this unfathomable tragedy, it remains one of the most perplexing and downright scary maritime enigmas of the 20th Century... and while it might not be as famous as the plethora of other ghost ships said to sail the high seas, it is every bit a terrifying.