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Tragedy on the S.S. Ourang Medan – Fact or Legend?

by Les Hewitt

Maritime history is full of tales of ghost ships and sea serpents. Not all of these are true and accurate accounts or if they are, they are prone to exaggerations and embellishment. Stories like these are hotly debated between believers and skeptics. While some of these tales originate centuries ago, one of the more curious tales is mere decades old. This is the story of the S.S. Ourang Medan

Ourang Medan

Did a mysterious tragedy occur on the S.S. Ourang Medan or is it all just a legend?

Ominous Radio Message From An Unknown Ship

Depending on which report is accurate, a curious radio message was received by numerous ships traveling along the Straits of Malacca, situated around Sumatra and Malaysia in either June 1947 or as late as February 1948. At the time, the origins of this message – an SOS – were not known. The message itself was divided into two parts, separated by Morse code that could not be deciphered. Those that received this message insisted that the transcript went:

All Officers, including the Captain, are dead. Lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead. … I die.

Nothing else was transmitted after this chilling conclusion. Two ships, both American, picked up the messages and felt compelled to investigate. With the help of British and Dutch listening posts, the coordinates of the vessel thought to be transmitting were triangulated.  It was the Dutch freighter S.S. Ourang Medan.  An American merchant ship, the Silver Star, was sent to the coordinates. Given the content of the distress calls, the Captain of the Silver Star wasted no time in navigating to the new heading. Several hours later, the look-out on board the Silver Star spotted the stricken Ourang Medan. Even as the rescue ship pulled alongside, no signs of life could be seen visually. All efforts to contact the crew failed, forcing the Captain of the Silver Star to organize a search party.

Something Horrific Happened On Board The S.S. Ourang Medan

The moment that the search party boarded, it was obvious that the messages were horribly accurate. The decks of the Ourang Medan were littered with the corpses of the Dutch crew. The victims were found with wide-eyed horror and their faces twisted into sheer terror, arms trying to fight off … something. Not even the ship’s dog escaped the terror of whatever had taken place. The canine was discovered to be in the midst of snarling at the cause. The Captain was found, as one might have expected, on his bridge. The remainder of the Bridge Officers were found in the wheelhouse and Chartroom. The Radio Operator, who presumably sent the distress call, was found at his station. The engineering crew was also found at their stations with precisely the same expressions on their faces.

During the search efforts, the rescue party noticed several things that struck them as odd or strange. The local temperature was in excess of 100°F but members of the team felt an ominous chill emanating from somewhere. Another oddity was the conditions of the victims. All of them had suffered but none had any injuries to note of. They were also decaying quicker than they should be. The ship itself didn’t appear to have suffered any damage. When the search party returned to the Silver Star, the decision to tow the Ourang Medan for salvage was quickly taken. It was only when the ships were tethered together that smoke was discovered below decks, specifically the No. 4 cargo hold. Within seconds of the tow rope being severed, the Ourang Medan exploded with enough force to lift it out of the water before sinking to the seabed.

The U.S. Coast Guard Report

The first official mention of the incident was made by the United States Coast Guard in May 1952. in addition to the witness testimony of the state of the crew themselves, the published account added that they were all found with:

their frozen faces upturned to the sun… staring, as if in fear… the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring.

Fact or Legend?

One of the arguments cited against this ever taking place was the registry of the Ourang Medan. Officially speaking, it appears as though it never actually existed, although the Silver Star was a real vessel.  But at the time the Ourang Medan was supposed to have been floundering, the Silver Star was operating under another registration: Santa Juana. The Grace Line shipping company had bought rights to the ship and renamed it.

In contrast, those that believe in the Ourang Medan story insist that the ship was registered in Sumatra. At the time, Sumatra was a Dutch colony that formed part of what was known as the Dutch East Indies. In Indonesian, Ourang means ‘man’ and Medan is the largest city on the island of Sumatra. Hence the registered name Ourang Medan literally means ‘Man from Medan’. No records have been produced to back up this ascertain. Even Lloyd’s Shipping registers and the Dictionary of Disasters at sea 1824-1962 has found no mention of the Ourang Medan.

The Booklet “Das Totenschiffin der Südsee”

Professor Theodor Siersdorfer of Essen in Germany has spent much of the last 50 years researching the story of the Ourang Medan. Siersdorfer was the first to mention the names of the American ships that originally went in pursuit of the Ourang Medan and refers anyone interested in their own research to a German booklet written in 1954. The author of this publication was a man called Otto Mielke and seemingly knew a lot about the mysterious ship. Not just the route it took, the cargo it carried, but the name of the Captain.

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This booklet, called Das Totenschiffin der Südsee, established the date as June 1947 and is often rumored to have been authenticated by a crewman aboard the Silver Star. It was also this booklet that mentioned the cargo hold and what might have been stored inside. According to this booklet, the cargo holds contained potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin. If this is actually true, then it could explain why there are no official records anywhere. Certainly having these combustible items on a rough sea is tantamount to negligence of the most severe kind. It could also explain the subsequent explosion shortly after the salvage attempt was made.

Shirō Ishii, Biological Weapons and Unit 731

shiro ishii ourang medan

Shiro Ishii, commander of Unit 731

There are those who speculated that the ship was actually carrying a far more sinister and altogether more dangerous cargo. Biological weapons manufactured by Japanese scientists as the result of insidious experiments that even the Nazi regime would balk at could well have been smuggled out of Japan. Known as Unit 731, it was designed to be a secret research and development meant to create the most dangerous chemical and biological weapons to help establish Japanese supremacy. Unit 731 was formed sometime in 1932 by a Japanese bacteriologist called Shirō Ishii who conducted terrible experiments during the Second World War. Is it feasible that Unit 731 was smuggled on a nondescript merchant vessel with a foreign crew to avoid drawing unwanted attention to what was taking place? If so, what went horribly wrong?

Comparisons to the Philadelphia Experiment have been made by some UFOlogists. Wraiths have also been blamed for whatever happened aboard the ill-fated ship. The unnatural deaths of the entire crew have lent some form of credibility to these and other causes that imagination have conjured up in the last half a century. Even undead pirates, like the crew of the fictional Black Pearl, were blamed.

Was the tragedy on the S.S. Ourang Medan a genuine event or just a mariner’s seafaring tale designed to scare, frighten or dissuade?

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Pulled 5 December 2015

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