The Strait of Malacca has long borne the passage of trading ships. Over the centuries, most of these merchantmen reached their destinations safely, however, one day in the summer of 1947 (or 1948) a forbidding SOS message drifted across the Strait’s airwaves: “All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” This was followed by some indecipherable Morse Code chatter, probably more SOS signals, and then one final grisly message: “I die.”
The macabre distress call was picked up by other ships and international listening posts. Through triangulation, they identified the vessel as the Dutch freighter SS Ourang Medan and plotted its approximate position to within the Strait of Malacca. Of the two US merchant ships that heard the Ourang Medan’s grim message, Silver Star was the nearest and she raced to the aid of the stricken vessel.
Within a few hours, Silver Star arrived upon a hushed sight. The calm sea gently lapped at the Ourang Medan’s stationary hull and the crew was nowhere to be seen above decks. The American ship hailed the Dutch ship with whistles, calls and hand signals but there was no response. Nothing on board the eerie craft moved. A boarding party was quickly assembled, what they would discover would prove such an alarming sight that it has made the Ourang Medan into one of the strangest nautical mysteries of all time—eclipsing even the Marie Celeste in macabre detail (if not in infamy). (I’m fairly sure that Ourang Medan translates into English as ‘Man of Medan’—Medan being a city in Indonesia.)
As Silver Star’s boarders discovered, the SOS message proved correct: every member of the ship’s crew lay dead. The crew’s corpses lay scattered in various places below deck. The captain was dead on the bridge and his officers in the wheelhouse, chartroom and wardroom were all dead too. More than this, all the corpses still had their eyes open and faces upturned, some with outstretched arms and expressions of sheer terror etched upon their features. As a May 1952 article in the rather official Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council put it: “there were dead men everywhere […] the frozen faces upturned to the sun with mouths gaping open and eyes staring, the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures.” Silver Star’s boarding party noted that even the ship’s dog was dead, its face locked in a 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, his eyes wide open and teeth bared. There was no sign of wounds or injuries on any of the bodies. The boarding party, according to one source, felt intense cold when on the lower decks.
The decision was made to tow the mysterious ship back to port but, before they could get under way, smoke began emanating from somewhere below deck (probably the number four hold). The boarding party hurriedly returned to Silver Star and barely had time to cut the lines and get to a safe distance before the baffling ship exploded with such force that she “lifted herself from the water and swiftly sank.” That’s the story, anyway.
Theories and Digging Deeper
So, what really happened to the SS Ourang Medan?
Speculators have said that pirates killed the crew and sabotaged the ship, although this doesn’t explain the peculiar grimaces and lack of obvious wounds 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, poisoning all on board. Carbon monoxide could have leaked from the engine room, killing the crew, say others. Even more fantastical theories involving aliens and ghosts abound, with the strange manner of the sailors’ deaths pushing researchers into thinking supernatural foul play was the only explanation. Sadly, first-hand evidence of any aspects of the story is elusive.
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 authorities in Singapore drew a blank.
“I was facing the distinct possibility that this was simply a hoary old fo’c’sle yarn… until Professor Theodor Siersdorfer of Essen, Germany entered the frame. He had read the plea [I placed] in Sea Breezes [a British magazine for old sailors] and I suddenly discovered that I was not alone; Siersdorfer had been on the case for 45 years.”
It seems that Siersdorfer furthered Bainton’s progress, providing the name of the Silver Star, amongst other things.
Bainton goes on to hypothesise that it was deadly gas, leaking from the cargo hold, that caused the crew’s demise. The development of such gasses was outlawed under the Geneva Convention and so perhaps shadowy governmental forces erased the Ourang Medan from the shipping registers—a cover up!
“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.”
(Otto Mielke wrote about the case in his thirty-two page 1954 booklet called Das Totenschiff in der Südsee (The Deathship in the South Seas)—I haven’t been able to find an English translation.)
There’s a problem with the steamer, Silver Star. It did exist, but not quite as most articles tell us. It was actually named Silver Star Park, and seemed to be Canadian in origin. By the time of its supposed encounter with the Ourang Medan, it was more likely to be plying its trade in Brazilian waters and had been renamed the SS Santa Cecilia (becoming SS Ilha Grande in 1949). Here’s its entry in Lloyd’s Shipping Register:
(There are two other possible candidates for our Silver Star, but, like this one, none of those are recorded as being anywhere near where the Ourang Medan was encountered.)
As for the Zyankali gas theory: 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 in their experiments during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War Two 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, including vivisections carried on living children—without anaesthetic. After the war ended, the US secretly granted immunity to the head of Unit 731 and its physicians in exchange for exclusive access to their findings so, revoltingly, their abhorrent crimes went almost entirely unpunished. Shiro Ishii, the department’s head moved to Maryland to work on bio-weapons research. Roy 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.”
The first recording that I can find of this story seems to come from three 1948 articles printed in the Dutch newspaper De Locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad (The Locomotive: Advertisement and Trade Paper). They seem to support the escaping lethal gas theory.
From the Wikipedia entry regarding them:
“The second and third article describe the experiences of the sole survivor of the Ourang Medan crew, who was found by a missionary and natives on Toangi (sic) atoll in the Marshall islands. The man, before perishing, tells the missionary that the ship was carrying a badly stowed cargo of sulphuric acid, and that most of the crew perished because of the poisonous fumes escaping from broken containers. According to the story, the Ourang Medan was sailing from an unnamed small Chinese port to Costa Rica, and deliberately avoiding the authorities.”
The paper insists that it knows nothing more about the case than what has been printed, and that it all came from an Italian man named Silvio Scherli, although my Dutch is pretty verschrikkelijk. If you want to read the original text I’ve found it online: link.
The article does include a tantalising photograph and the caption seems to insist it is of the Ourang Medan. If that’s true (it surely isn’t) it’s almost certainly the only photograph in existence of the doomed ship. The caption translates roughly as: “The burned wreck of Ourang Medan shortly before it sank to the bottom of the ocean, with its secrets.”
So who was Silvio Scherli? Details are scant, but it seems that he was told the account while living in Triest by a missionary. This missionary in turn heard it from the last surviving member of the Ourang Medan’s crew—a German—who had related the end of his ship just before expiring. He said an “unregistered cargo” had leaked chemical fumes and overcome the crew. His lifeboat had made it to “Toangi Island in the Marshalls”. Six others were in the boat, but the German was the only one left alive. He was taken to hospital but died soon after.
Toangi Island is also called Bokak Atoll and, while I can find reference to the presence of Catholic missionaries in the Marshall Islands in 1942 within a research paper concerning drift patterns from the Smithsonian Institution, I can’t find their actual mission.
The peculiar thing about the Ourang Medan case is that, on one side, you have a distinct lack of records: nothing in Lloyd’s Register, nothing in the Dictionary of Disasters at Sea 1824-1962, and probably no Silver Star that sailed the Strait of Malacca. Yet on the other hand we have the story retold in the US Coast Guard’s Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council—a queer place to be writing made-up fantasies. Who knows, possibly the ship’s name was spelled incorrectly, possibly it was purposefully erased from record, maybe it was a false name that it sailed under in the first place due to nefarious goings-on.
As with many of these mysteries, it is unlikely that the truth will ever be uncovered. In some ways, though, it doesn’t really matter whether the whole thing is a good old yarn or not as the fascinating and gruesome nature of the tale serves its own purpose.
Perhaps it’s fitting to give the last word to the man who has plumbed the Ourang Medan’s depths more than any other man: Roy Bainton.
“I first heard this story as an Ordinary Seaman in the mess room on board an old tramp ship, the MV Port Halifax, whilst crossing the Pacific between Panama and Australia in 1960. Since then I’ve probably carried out more research into this frustrating yarn than anyone else, and I notice that whenever you Google the ship, my name comes up. But although I want to believe it all, (that’s the romantic side of being a writer) the more I dig the more phoney the whole thing begins to look, and I am amazed at the loose, sloppy re-interpretations of my research, tailored to please the credulous hordes who will allow no scepticism to spoil their Halloween spirit.”
So, there you go.
- ON THE ORIGIN OF DRIFT MATERIALS IN THE MARSHALL ISLANDS BY D.H.R. SPENNEMANN
Want more maritime weirdness? Try The SS Watertown’s Floating Faces.
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