The SS Ourang Medan was a Dutch cargo ship that sent out a distress call, but by the time help arrived the entire crew were dead with their eyes open, staring ahead with a look of incredible horror on their faces. As she was about to be towed to land the ship exploded, and sank to a watery grave – refusing to give up any answers as to what happened on her salty decks.
The first mention of the SS Ourang Medan and all its suddenly dead crew was in a periodical published by the United States Coast Guard. Allegedly, the ship sent out a distress call, it went something like this:
“All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” This message was followed by indecipherable Morse code then [the words] “I die.”
Help arrived as you can imagine – and only after a few hours. It was too late. Everybody on board was dead. As the rescue party boarded they saw a gruesome sight – the entire crew was at the doorway of decomposition with their eyes open, their arms outstretched, and their lifeless faces twisted in absolute horror. The ship’s dog was dead as well – found with a tooth-filled snarl on its lips.
The Medan itself was completely undamaged, and the sailors had no visible wounds to explain their mass-demise. Before the boat could be explored further flames exploded out of the cargo hold, and the would-be rescuers were forced back to their own vessel. Then the death-ship exploded, and sank out of man’s reach. Had the other ship’s crew not managed to cut the ropes holding the two barges together, perhaps both would have plunged together.
There are several theories as to how all those men died – ranging from the inhalation of carbon monoxide to some kind of nefarious UFO intervention. In the end, nobody really knows what happened.
You know what else nobody knows? If the Ourang Medan ever concretely existed or not. As we already stated, the first mention of the Medan was in a publication put out by the US National Coast Guard. One would think that meant sources were well documented. But perhaps this isn’t the case. Wikipedia seems to think so anyway:
“Several authors note their inability to find any mention of the case in Lloyd’s Shipping Register. Furthermore, no registration records for a ship by the name of Ourang Medan could be located in various countries, including the Netherlands. While Bainton states that the identity of the Silver Star, which was reported to have been involved in the failed rescue attempt, has been established with some certainty, the lack of information on the sunken ship itself has given rise to suspicion about the origins and credibility of the account. Bainton and others have put forward the possibility that accounts of, among others, the date, location, names of the ships involved, and circumstances of the accident might have been inaccurate or exaggerated, or that the story might be completely fictitious.”
So did the ship ever exist? No record of it anywhere would certainly seem to indicate that it didn’t. This point is counter-argued with a barely-post WWII mentality saying that some sort of top secret chemical cargo may have required absolute secrecy – and then triggered all those deaths.
The rescuers found the ship drifting in waters near Indonesia and they made the decision to board. Once aboard the ship, what they found was shocking. The entire crew, including the dog who was growling at an unseen enemy, were all dead and lying in terrifying positions. Their “teeth bared with their upturned faces to the sun, staring as if in fear…” The bodies had no visible signs of injuries. As the rescue party neared the bodies in the broiler room, they felt a chill, even though the temperature was near 110 degrees Fahrenheit. As they were searching the ship, a fire broke out and they were forced to leave. As the rescuers watched, the ship blew up violently, further adding to the mystery because on one could return to find out what happened. There are several theories that might explain what happened.
The most likely, and the only one that would also explain why there is no record of the ship, is that it was carrying unsecured hazardous materials like potassium cyanide and nitroglycerine, or even wartime stocks of nerve agents. If sea water had entered the ships hold and reacted with the nitroglycerine, it would have caused the fire and the explosion, along with making everyone pass out.
The next theory, which is more likely to happen but would not explain why there is no record of the Ourang Medan’s or its accident, is carbon monoxide poisoning. This theory says that an undetected, smoldering fire or a malfunction in the ship’s boiler system caused the ship to wreck. The escaping carbon monoxide would have caused the deaths of all aboard, the fire would have slowly grown out of control, and the ship would have eventually blown up.
The other theories all center on the paranormal. Aliens, ghosts, and even alien ghosts, are all suspects and all have ways to explain the deaths and the expressions on the crews’ faces. These theories are further fueled by the explosion of the ship. As long as we have no evidence to prove the ship’s existence, wreck, or even who was on the ship, we will never know. The only boundary to the theories is our imagination and what we are willing to believe.
The macabre distress call was picked up by numerous ships and Dutch and British listening posts who, through triangulation, identified the vessel as the Dutch freighter SS Ourang Medan and located its approximate position within the straits of Malacca. Of the two American merchant ships that heard the Ourang Medan’s grim message, the 6,507tn Silver Star was the nearest and she raced to the aid of the stricken vessel.
Within a few hours, The Silver Star arrived upon a hushed sight. The calm sea gently lapped at the Ourang Medan’s stationary hull and the crew were nowhere to be seen above decks. The American ship hailed the Dutch vessel with whistles, calls and hand signals but there was no response. Nothing on board the strange craft moved. A boarding party was quickly assembled and what they discovered was such an alarming sight that it has made the Ourang Medan one of the strangest and disquieting nautical mysteries of all time, eclipsing even the Marie Celeste in macabre detail if not in infamy.
The SOS message proved correct; every member of the Ourang Medan’s crew lay dead. The crew’s corpses lay scattered on the decks. The captain laid dead on the bridge, his officers in the wheelhouse, chartroom and wardroom all deceased. More than this, their eyes were still open, faces upturned towards the pitiless sun, some with outstretched arms and expressions of sheer terror upon their features. As a May 1952 report of the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council put it: “their frozen faces were upturned to the sun, the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring…” The Silver Star’s boarding party noted that even the ship’s dog was dead, its face locked in a tormented grimace that mirrored that of its masters’. A trip to the communications room revealed the author of the SOS messages, also dead, his hand still on the Morse sending key, eyes wide open and teeth bared. Strangely, there was no sign of wounds or injuries on any of the bodies.
The decision was made to tow the mysterious ship back to port but before they could get underway, smoke began emanating below decks, probably originating in Number 4 hold. The boarding party hurriedly returned to The Silver Star and barely had time to cut the tow lines before the SS Ourang Medan exploded with such force that she “lifted herself from the water and swiftly sank”.
To this day, the exact fate of the Ourang Medan and her crew remain a seemingly impenetrable mystery. Speculation has been made that pirates killed the crew and sabotaged the ship, although this doesn’t explain the peculiar grimaces and lack of injuries on the corpses. Others have claimed that clouds of methane or other noxious natural gases could have bubbled up from fissures on the sea bed and engulfed the ship. Even more fantastical theories involving aliens and ghosts abound. Skepticism exists about the truthfulness of the entire story, suggesting perhaps that the ship may never have actually even existed, but what is certain is that while the Ourang Medan’s story is not the most well known, it refuses to disappear.
What really happened to the SS Ourang Medan? Over the decades several marine historians have sought to uncover the truth about the ship’s puzzling fate. Among these, Roy Bainton’s research stands out. He writes:
“Searching the Dutch Shipping records in Amsterdam seemed only to deepen the mystery. There was no mention of the ship at all, and my enquiries to the Maritime Authority in Singapore drew a blank.
“What follows is pure speculation, but there is a tantalising, possible explanation as to her crew’s demise and her disappearance from the records. A fellow researcher, Otto Mielke mentions a mixed, lethal cargo on the Ourang Medan ‘Zyankali’ (potassium cyanide) and nitro-glycerine. How this mixture could have gone unrecorded is a mystery, as the controls on such lethal cargoes, even 50 years ago, would have ensured reams of paperwork.”
Unit 731 was a secret research and development department within the Imperial Japanese Army that was dedicated to biological and chemical warfare. They used human beings as part of their experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II and thus were responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel. Unit 731’s research methods were unremittingly appalling. However, after the war ended, Douglas MacArthur (the then the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) secretly granted immunity to many of Unit 731’s personnel in exchange for providing The United States with their biological warfare research. Shiro Ishii, the department’s head moved to Maryland to work on bio-weapons research. Bainton continues:
“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. 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.”
As with many of these mysteries, it is unlikely that the truth will be uncovered and for now at least, the Ourang Medan remains a dark tale to tell on stormy nights.