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The Probable Hoax of the Ourang Medan

The story of the S.S. Ourang Medan is well-worn territory by this point, and plenty before have pointed out that the story was likely a fabrication from the start. However, let’s back up a bit and explore the story at face value before addressing the evidence that this mysterious shipwreck never existed.

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The Story

In 1948 in the waters of the Straits of Malacca, two American ships — the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star — picked up distress messages from Dutch merchant ship the Ourang Medan. In Morse code, the message was “S.O.S. from Ourang Medan. We float. All officers including the captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge. Probably whole of crew dead.” A few more dots and dashes were transmitted before a final message of “I die.”

The Silver Star eventually came upon the Ourang Medan, but upon receiving no response from the ship, a boarding party was sent. The members of the party discovered that the ship appeared to be undamaged, but it was filled with the corpses of the crew.

The communications officer was supposedly found with his fingertips still on the telegraph, presumably having died not long after sending his final message. The bodies of the majority of the crew were found on their backs, faces frozen in fear, mouths agape, and eyes staring straight ahead, but with no visible injuries. The ship’s dog was found in a similar condition, face forever frozen in a snarl at an unseen enemy.

This particular day was unbearably hot, with temperatures reaching over 100° Fahrenheit, but while exploring the hold of the Ourang Medan, some of the boarding party claimed to feel an extreme chill.

The Silver Star intended to tow the Ourang Medan to a nearby port, but before they had the chance, a fire suddenly broke out in the Number 4 cargo hold. The boarding party were forced to abandon any further investigations and quickly evacuate. Not long after, the Ourang Medan exploded and sank, leaving the cause of the crew’s deaths a mystery.

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First Appearances in Print

The first time the story of the Ourang Medan appeared in print was in the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De Locomotief, in a series of three articles published in February and March 1948. The initial story is very similar to later retellings, though not identical.

This version originated with a survivor of the doomed crew, an unnamed German man, who was found by an Italian missionary and the native people on the Taongi Atoll in the Marshall Islands. According to the missionary, the man told him that the Ourang Medan was sailing from a small Chinese port to Costa Rica and deliberately trying to avoid the authorities. They were carrying sulphuric acid that had been badly stored. During the voyage, fumes leaked out of the container, and this is what resulted in the deaths of the crew.

The man died not long after telling his story, and the missionary later passed this story on to the writer of the articles, Silvio Scherli of Trieste, Italy.

For the newspaper’s part, there seemed to be quite a bit of skepticism. Along with the final article was this disclaimer: “This is the last part of our story about the mystery of the Ourang Medan. We must repeat that we don’t have any other data on this ‘mystery of the sea’. Nor can we answer the many unanswered questions in the story. It may seem obvious that this is a thrilling romance of the sea. On the other hand, the author, Silvio Scherli, assures us of the authenticity of the story.”

The most well-known English-language printing of the story was in the May 1952 issue of Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, a publication of the United States Coast Guard, which some have suggested lends credibility.

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Theories

Those who have taken the Ourang Medan story as fact have come up with a number of theories to try and explain the strange discovery made by the Silver Star boarding party.

Because of the bizarre condition in which the bodies of the crew were found, and also because of the added detail that there was an unusual chill felt in the hold, many believe that the only explanation must be in the realm of the paranormal. Those generally aren’t particularly detailed theories, but instead vague gestures in the direction of ghosts or aliens.

Of note in this category is a CIA document dated December 5, 1959, written by C.H. Marck, Jr. to a redacted person. Marck seems to have taken the story at face value, opening with, “I have just read a weird story concerning the Dutch vessel S.S. Ourang Medan. I will be indeed grateful for your opinion of this story. Also, do you think ‘something from the unknown’ is involved?”

Marck goes on about unsolved historical mysteries, writing, “I feel sure that the S.S. Ourang Medan tragedy holds the answer to many of these airplane accidents, and unsolved mysteries of the sea. Also, I have often thought about the many sightings of huge fiery spheres rising from the ‘sea,’ or disappearing into the ‘sea,’ by ships captains and crews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” For those who are confused, Marck seems to be linking the Ourang Medan story with stories of underwater UFOs.

A more realistic theory suggests that the Ourang Medan was attacked by pirates, who killed everyone on board and then sabotaged the ship. However, this does not seem to explain the condition in which the crew and ship were found. Surely, if humans were responsible for the death of the crew, there would be obvious signs of it.

Another theory suggests that methane gas spewed from a fissure in the sea floor. The unfortunate crew of the Ourang Medan were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were asphyxiated by a cloud of gas that had engulfed the ship.

One theory put forth by Vincent Gaddis — an American author credited with inventing the term “Bermuda Triangle” — has suggested that there may have been an undetected fire or a boiler system malfunction that caused the deaths. In this theory, the later explosion was caused by the fire that continued to spread unnoticed.

For those that believe the story, there seems to be one primary theory that is the most convincing. This theory suggests that the Ourang Medan was potentially involved in smuggling chemical substances, such as potassium cyanide, nitroglycerin, or nerve agents, and during this particular trip the chemicals had not been stored safely. Seawater entering the hold reacted with the chemicals to produce and release toxic gas, and the crew died of asphyxia or poisoning.

This theory also explains the explosion, as seawater reacting with certain chemicals could have reacted violently.

An offshoot of this explanation links the Ourang Medan to the infamous Unit 731, with speculation that the ship was transporting nerve gas the Japanese military had stored in China. The nerve gas came under the control of the United States military after the war, but a registered US ship could not transport it because it would have left a paper trail, so the non-registered Ourang Medan was used instead.

Still from Man of Medan, a game loosely inspired by the Ourang Medan story.

Still from Man of Medan, a game loosely inspired by the Ourang Medan story.

Researching the Ship

Efforts have been made to locate any evidence that the Ourang Medan ever existed. Often when the story is retold, the fact that the Ourang Medan could not be found on Lloyd’s Register is cited as the most likely evidence that the ship did not exist. However, this is not the end of the road for researchers.

Roy Bainton extensively researched the case of the Ourang Medan for decades, checking registries in multiple countries in which the ship might have originated, and still hitting multiple dead ends. Eventually, Bainton was contacted by a German professor named Theodor Siersdorfer, another long-time researcher of the story, who, in addition to revealing the names of the rescue ships as the Silver Star and City of Baltimore, also informed Bainton of a certain German booklet.

This 32-page booklet was titled Das Totenschiffinder Südsee, or Death Ship in the South Sea, and was published in 1954 by Otto Mielke. However, in an article published in 1999, Bainton seems to doubt the authenticity of the details provided by Mielke, writing, “Mielke seems to know a lot about the Orang Medan's possible route and cargo but fails to give further detailed sources; this is a strange omission because his details, right down to the tonnage, engine power and Captain's name, of the Silver Star, are thoroughly referenced.”

Bainton does not outright dismiss the story, but it does appear that even after decades of research, he had not found conclusive evidence that the Ourang Medan existed.

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The Evidence Against

Though the lack of evidence that the Ourang Medan even existed made most people assume that the story was fiction, a recent discovery by Estelle Hargraves of The Skittish Library reveals what is likely the actual original report among British newspaper archives.

In 1940, reports taken from the Associated Press were published in the Daily Mirror and Yorkshire Evening Post. These reports bore some similarity but were not identical to the later version of the story — this one occurred in the Solomon Islands and the SOS messages differed.

This version was told by a merchant marine officer from the rescuing ship. According to him, the first message was “SOS from the steamship Ourang Medan. Beg ships with shortwave wireless get touch doctor. Urgent.”

A second message came through not long after: “Probable second officer dead. Other members crew also killed. Disregard medical consultation. SOS urgent assistance warship.” The ship’s location was transmitted, along with the incomplete message of “crew has.”

Most noteworthy about these reports is that they originate in Trieste, Italy. The conclusion Hargraves comes to is that Silvio Scherli didn’t get the attention he wanted when he originally spread the story, and thus decided to rework it for another try in 1948.

This can’t be known with complete certainty, but it is a very compelling argument.

Unsolved Mystery or Hoax?

So is the story of the Ourang Medan one of the great unsolved mysteries of the sea? The answer is most likely no. Though it can’t be known for sure, the lack of evidence that the bizarre events that took place on the ship occurred or even that the ship itself ever existed would seem to suggest that this story was fiction from the beginning, potentially made up by Silvio Scherli of Trieste, Italy.

Of course, evidence for the story being a hoax is also not absolute, which is enough for some to continue debating what happened even now.