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Tales of mysterious events at sea are among history's most intriguing mysteries. Ghost ships are popular subjects, with the Mary Celeste being perhaps the most famous. But what of those that leave no traceable, tangible evidence of their existence, not even a rusted hull at the bottom of the ocean? Such is the case with the Ourang Medan.

The SS Ourang Medan was a Dutch freighter that disappeared without a trace in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Indonesia in June 1947, though some accounts move the incident up to February 1948. Its disappearance was preceded by a series of disturbing SOS calls. "All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge,” the first message read. "Possibly whole crew dead." A string of indecipherable Morse Code followed, concluding with the final eerie message, "I die."

One of the ships to pick up and respond to this chilling distress call was the American vessel Silver Star. When the crew of the Silver Star arrived and boarded the seemingly unharmed Ourang Medan, they were greeted with a ghastly discovery. The entire crew was indeed dead. The captain, crewmen, even the ship's dog, all dead. While none were injured, all appeared to have died in a state of sheer terror, some with arms outstretched, their eyes still open, mouths agape, and faces frozen in expressions of absolute horror. Oddly, too, they all lay with their faces turned toward the sun. When the search party entered the boiler room they encountered an unnatural chill, despite the high temperature of the room.

The crew of the Silver Star began immediately preparing to tow the vessel back to port, but it was too late. Smoke had begun pouring up from below deck. A fire had erupted in the hold, and the search party quickly disembarked and returned to the Silver Star. Moments later the Ourang Medan exploded and sank.

To this day it is unclear what happened to the Ourang Medan. The wreckage of the vessel was never recovered and there were no bodies on which to perform autopsies. What makes the case even more baffling is that the Ourang Medan does not appear in any Dutch shipping records. There is no known record of the vessel in writing. For all intents and purposes, the SS Ourang Medan never existed.

But as with all mysterious disappearances theories still abound, ranging from fanciful stories of ghosts and aliens to more plausible proposals of sabotage or an on-board accident. It is the latter of these more realistic explanations that is the current leading hypothesis. It has been proposed that the demise of the Ourang Medan and her crew was caused by a gas leak; the vessel may have been used to transport illegal nerve agents and her absence from the registries was a cover-up by unscrupulous smugglers. But unless said registries or the ship herself surface, all we are left with are theories.

With an event this unusual, theories will likely flow indefinitely with no resolution. And perhaps the story isn't true at all, but the product of an overactive and macabre imagination. But whether a bizarre true account or just a ghost story, the story of the Ourang Medan will continue to fascinate, intrigue, and frighten mystery lovers for decades to come.


The most chilling maritime ghost story ever told.

Ourang Medan was a Dutch cargo ship that sailed the waters near Indonesia in the late 1940s. Do a bit of research, and you'll find that Ourang is an obsolete shorthand of orangutan. Naming a ship is a creative endeavor, but in this case the colloquial ape refers to man — Man from Medan.

Mary Celeste gets all the glory. Mary Celeste had no bodies. She can be explained away by an alcohol leak and a sudden evacuation. Any skeptic worth his salt can plunge right to the heart of Celeste. Not so with the Man from Medan: the more you dig, the more confusing things get.

In June 1947, Ourang Medan broadcast a flurry of distress calls over the Straits of Malacca between Sumatra and Indonesia. Nearby ships at frequency heard thus:

"All officers including captain dead, lying in chartroom and on bridge, probably whole crew dead... "

Next, a series of desperate SOS signals.

After that:

"I die."

Response was swift.

The story becomes pretty apocryphal at this point. Consult different sources, and you will find different info. In a rare moment of humanity, Wikipedia admits that its own article lacks verification.

Purportedly, respondents entered a scene from a nightmare when they boarded Ourang Medan. Every single crew member was dead. Their faces were twisted in agony and pointed skyward. Even the dog was dead, face in a snarl. The rescue party was unable to find any sign of physical injury or disease.

The messenger was slumped in his chair, hand still on the telegraph button, grimacing.

Sources disagree on when the fire started.

Some say flames broke out in the hold while the rescue party still looked for survivors. Others say that another freighter managed to get a towing line attached to the doomed ship, and that the Man from Medan exploded and sank before reaching landfall. Either way, it burned up and met the ocean before anyone could get a corpse on land for an examination.

Did I say this was a ghost story?


Naturally, people have blamed UFOs. Faces turned skyward and all that. But they should know better. Like I said: the more you dig, the more confusing things get.

Much of what we know about Ourang Medan is thanks to marine historian Roy Bainton.

Scratch that — much of what we don't know is thanks to marine historian Roy Bainton.

Bainton found that Dutch naval records have nothing of an Ourang Medan. Men who have served decades on the waves have never heard of it. That my two-decade-old copy of Childcraft Annual contains a more thorough exposition than Wikipedia bespeaks the growing limp of our information age. But that's another writeup for another day.

Bainton had all but dismissed the story as a folk tale until he stumbled into correspondence with German Theodor Siersdorfer, who'd been on the case for some four and a half decades. Siersdorfer disclosed the names of two of the vessels that had intercepted Medan's bizarre distress calls, the more important being Silver Star — the crew of which had purportedly boarded the floating crypt.

Information on Silver Star is scant, coming almost entirely from a short booklet (again, German) penned by now-dead Otto Mielke: Das Totenschiff in der Südsee, or Death Ship in the South Sea. Mielke provides detailed information about the tonnage, cargo, engine size, and even the captain of Silver Star but becomes vague in describing her relationsip with Ourang Medan, professing some general knowledge of Medan's route and possible cargo but providing no verifiable details.

Apparently, Silver Star was under new ownership at the time of the supposed Ourang Medan disaster; she was named Santa Cecilia. If Mielke was bullshitting, he didn't do his homework.

If Ourang Medan was real, the deaths and subsequent explosions may be explained by chemistry. One wandering theory submits that the ship was carrying an illicit cargo of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerine. I'll spare you the tedium of chemical equations by explaining that the relationship between seawater and potassium cyanide and seawater and nitroglycerine is, respectively, poison gas and fire. The cargo hold is breached, water mixes with the potassium etc; the resulting gas generates a wave of excruciating death; subsequent combination of seawater with cartoonishly unstable nitroglycerine creates the fire and/or explosion.

After World War II, ethically unsound governments the world over engaged in merry trade of nerve gas and other agents of biological warfare. The stuff was too dangerous to transport by air: imagine a plane going down loaded with nerve gas. The vehicle of choice was the tramp-steamer manned by sadly oblivious, low-paid crew.


---. The 1979 Childcraft Annual: Story of the Sea. Childcraft International, Inc. 1979.

Bainton, Roy. "Cargo of Death."

---. "Curse of the Ourang Medan."



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