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Ourang Medan: An Unexplained Maritime Mystery

Updated on March 9, 2013
The Straits of Malacca
The Straits of Malacca

Stories of ghost ships have been passed down from generation to generation of seafarer for hundreds of years. Names like The Flying Dutchman and The Mary Celeste instantly conjure mental images of ominous, fog enshrouded apparitions coming into view, seemingly materializing out of thin air. However, another class of maritime disaster conjures even more vivid imagery to fuel the imagination: that of ill-fated ships which were manned. The Ourang Medan was such a vessel. In June of 1947, this Dutch freighter was the scene of one of the most bizarre and unsettling events in the recorded history of sea travel.

At the time of the incident, the Ourang Medan was navigating a popular trade route known as the Straits of Malacca located between the sunny shores of nearby Sumatra and Malaysia. Weather was not a factor, as it was a typical calm and clear day according to reports. Several ships were within hailing distance when an urgent series of SOS distress calls were sent by the Medan. According to communications officers from these neighboring ships, a final chilling message received from the Medan left no doubt as to the serious nature of the situation. Purportedly, the Morse code received translated into: “All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” This initial proclamation was followed by a staccato burst of indecipherable code. Immediately after, a final haunting message came from the freighter…”I die.” This final cryptic punctuation to the message preceded a deafening silence.

The nearest vessel, a conscripted American Merchant ship named the Silver Star, immediately changed course and sped to the area from where the signals were emanating in the hopes of assisting an incapacitated ship. When the Silver Star and her crew arrived on the scene a few hours later, they were greeted by a freighter that was adrift and eerily quiet. After attempting to hail any living soul onboard the Ourang Medan for a period of time, the captain of the Silver Star decided to form a boarding party.

Unfortunately, upon boarding the other seemingly disabled vessel, the contingent from the Silver Star quickly realized that the disturbing distress calls that they received were legitimate. The erstwhile rescue party encountered a surreal scene which any contemporary mystery or thriller author might wish to come up with. The decks of the Ourang Medan were literally strewn with the corpses of the Dutch crew. Not only was every soul on board deceased; the final moments of their existence remained frozen in their presentation. The corpses’ arms were outstretched as if grappling with an attacker; the eyes of each were wide open and reflected a crazed look; and each face was twisted and distorted into a visage of terror and agony. It appeared as if the poor souls manning the freighter had died in a paroxysm of unimaginable fear. The captain’s cadaver was on the bridge with the remainder of the crews’ remains being located in the chartroom and wheelhouse. Even the communications officer who had sent the SOS featured the same terrified posthumous expression when was located in the telegraph room …with his fingertips still in contact with the telegraph. According to accounts, even the Ourang Medan’s mascot fell victim to this baffling demise. A dog was found dead on board—its face contorted into a frozen snarl which seemed to be evolving into a grimace.

Upon reaching the boiler room of the vessel, the boarding crew discovered yet another cadre of corpses. Perhaps as unnerving as this grisly find, however, is that the crew members from the Silver Star swore than the entire hold of the Ourang Medan was unnaturally cold…even in the boiler room! A fact that made this event even more unexplainable was that the temperature on that day was a stifling 110 degrees. Additional evidence to pique the curiosity of the believer in the paranormal is that there was no evidence. The ship showed no evidence of defective function, external sabotage, or damage; and the bodies of the deceased betrayed no sign of struggle or trauma, though they had clearly passed in a profoundly dramatic manner.

After his crew’s cursory examination of the Ourang Medan, the captain of the Silver Star decided to tow this floating tomb back to land. However, soon after securing the drifting vessel to their own ship with a tow line, the crew of the Silver Star observed dark black smoke beginning to billow out from the lower decks of the tag along boat. The crew narrowly averted adding to the pre-existing body count by cutting the tow line just in time. Moments later, the Ourang Medan exploded with such sudden ferocity that the ship was lifted from the water and then swiftly sank. This unexpected crescendo to the event fueled further speculation that the ill-fated craft had encountered something beyond the boundary between the natural and the supernatural.

Theories abound amongst the paranormal community. The ship is said to have encountered a malicious UFO; been attacked by vengeful pirates from a ghost ship; or been boarded by sea wraiths or harpies. Given the tradition of veteran lifetime mariners to enliven legend with tales of the supernatural; word of mouth had the entire region subscribing to one of these unusual explanations.

Opponents of a supernatural explanation cite a common practice which was rampant at the time. Speculation bloomed that the freighter may well have been smuggling wartime biological weapons or nerve agents which escaped containment during their voyage; that might, at least, explain the macabre position in which the decedents were found. Moreover, a 1954 pamphlet written by a German author lends credence to this theory. The publication, entitled: “Death Ship in the South Seas,” charges that the Number 4 hold of the Ourang Medan contained both nitroglycerine and potassium cyanide. This combination would be a volatile and dangerous concoction within the confines of a laboratory observing meticulous safety protocol, much less sailing the open seas. The author of this piece claimed to have access to two of the elusive members of the Silver Star crew--all of whom had seemed to have disappeared since the fateful event.

Intriguingly, the mystifying fate of the Ourang Medan has been hard to determine either way, because its very existence has been difficult to prove. Though rumors of the disaster spread like wildfire along the trade route, there was not any printed account of the events until May of 1952; when an account appeared in a United States Coastguard publication called Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council. However, there has been no official documentation ever produced which corroborates the existence of the ship. There is no mention of a ship named the Ourang Medan in Loyd’s shipping registers, any Dutch maritime records, or the Dictionary of Disasters at Sea 1824 – 1962 (a widely-regarded, all inclusive source). The proponents of the chemical weapons theory speculate that this lack of a legitimate registration for this legendary vessel is due to a governmental cover up. In essence, whichever government was using the Dutch freighter to haul its illicit cargo had to expunge the ship’s existence from the public record; then threaten the crew of Silver Star into silent compliance. But the conspiracy theorists did not have the final say.

Other theories still circulate as to the demise of the Ourang Medan. One posits that a naturally-explained occurrence is to blame. This school of thought maintains that the crew of the vessel suffered asphyxiation due to massive amounts of methane gas bubbling up from the sea floor. Yet another belief cites the lack of proven existence of the ship in question, and the unwillingness of any Silver Star witnesses to gain notoriety by sharing the tale, and calls it all a hoax.

Whether the crew of the Ourang Medan met a supernatural fate, fell victim to a lethal cargo, expired due to natural conditions, or ever even existed incites speculation. Regardless of a lack of resolution to the tale, the fate of this legendary vessel continues to be one of the most provocative maritime enigmas to this day.


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