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What Happened to the Ghost Ship SS Ourang Medan?

In early February 1948, a strange and urgent Morse-code SOS, three dots, three dashes and three dots again, came from a Dutch cargo ship, the S.S. Ourang Medan that sailed through the Strait of Malacca. This strait was a much-used passage between the island of Dutch-governed Sumatra, Indonesia and British Malaya. Allegedly, in its vicinity Dutch and British listening posts and the U.S. vessel, Silver Star received the distress messages. The timing of the distress signal was curious, for the “sea was calm and the weather clear.” 

The Morse-code distress call came in once again. But, as a report about the event recalls, after a brief pause, a string of dots and lines were sent that shocked the stations receiving them. When deciphered, they spelt: “… All officers, including Captain dead, lying in the chartroom and on Bridge ….  Probably whole crew dead…” A series of frenzied gibberish dots and lines followed, before the closing message came in, simply stating “I die.” And then nothing more. Upon investigation of the ship, indeed, the entire crew was found deceased, supposedly with shocked expressions on their face. But the rescue parties could not identify anything that could have caused it. The mystery of the S.S. Ourang Medan became one of the greatest mysteries in nautical history, and to this day there has been no conclusive answer to what happened… or if it even happened.

The Incident

Now, I want to preface that this mystery and its documentation are shrouded in mysteries itself. But official CIA files declassified under the Freedom of Information Act show that even if the event didn’t happen, the CIA did acknowledge its rumours by replying, instead of dismissing letters asking about it. Okay, so what supposedly did happen? I’m going to go with one of the declassified letters sent to the CIA on December 5th, 1959, which was declassified by the CIA in 2003. 

The letter the CIA received, page 1

So, listening posts and nearby ships received the distress calls from the S.S. Ourang Medan. Following the strange distress calls a rescue mission was set up. Rescue ships from Dutch Sumatra and British Malaya quickly embarked on their search for the troubled vessel. One of the ships found the vessel, about 80 kilometres away from where they pinpointed it from the messages. Some sources stated the U.S. Ship Silver Star was closest, and reached the Ourang Medan as it lay motionless in the water. Other sources make a note of an unnamed ship investigating. The vessel circled the Ourang Medan multiple times, but could find no movement on-board and establishing contact seemed impossible. Its crew decided to board the ship. Using smaller boats, sailors went over to investigate the ship, laying still in the water. 

When the boarding party entered the Ourang Medan they stumbled upon a frightful scene. It was dead-silent, with the emphasis on the dead. The captain lay dead on the bridge, bodies of officers and sailors alike lay sprawled on deck and in the wheelhouse, chartroom and wardroom. Perhaps more shocking was what they found in the radio-shack. The party found the sailor that sent out the distress message. He was still sitting in his chair, slumped over the keys he used to send the distress signal. The men explored the rest of the ship and found bodies of the crew everywhere, from their cabins to the passageways and the engine compartment. Even the ship’s dog lay on board lifeless. Some reports state that although the weather was pleasantly warm and calm that day, the party that boarded the boat, reported it was considerably colder on deck.

A 1952 copy of the “Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council”, published by the United States Coast Guard, written four years after the incident, describes the state the dead sailors on the ship were in: “Their frozen faces were upturned to the sun, the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring… the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures. Yet the bodies seemed to bear no sign of injury or wounds.” And that is quite weird, because, well, other reports reiterate that there was no damage found on the ship nor any injuries on the crew. Due to the absence of superficial damage to the ship, it excluded a rogue submarine attack or a collision with something as a cause.

The letter the CIA received, page 2

The boarding party returned to their ship and decided the logical course of action was to tow the vessel to the nearest port and investigate the matter. But there wasn’t an extensive investigation. Upon assembling the tow, smoke emerged from a compartment of the ship below deck. Suddenly fire rapidly spread through the entire ship, making it impossible to extinguish.

The boarding party managed to escape the fire, but as they sailed away to a safe distance, an incredibly loud explosion occurred on the Ourang Medan. Following this, the ship rapidly sank with its crew and potential evidence of their deaths. Nobody has been able to retrieve the remains of the vessel or its crew to this day.

Theories

Because of the strange nature of the case surrounding the Ourang Medan, people have suggested some mysterious ‘secret’ caused it. Theories range from carbon monoxide poisoning, to the illegal shipping of poisonous material that started leaking, to a supernatural force. For example, the letter sent to the CIA in 1959 suggests that “the tragedy holds the answer to many aeroplane accidents and unsolved mysteries of the sea.” The writer, C.H. Marck writes about fiery spheres noticed by ships crews and captains, disappearing into, or rising up from the sea during the 18th and 19th centuries.

He remarks how old English chronicles and ancient books mention these fiery spheres, such as Roman soldiers reporting these sights. It’s a bit of a large jump from the Ourang Medan and the general hypothesis to some mysterious fiery spheres. That’s probably what the assistant to Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, thought when he sent a reply simply stating “they acknowledge and thank” Marck for his letter and “although unable to answer” his questions, they think it’s “interesting and appreciate the concern in these matters.” In other words, they dismiss him in a profoundly polite way.

At first sight, a more likely course of events was that of the Ourang Medan smuggling illegal contraband, such as the explosive liquid nitroglycerine or sulphuric acid. It would also be somewhat of an explanation why the Ourang Medan didn’t appear in any shipping registers, or perhaps was removed from there. If it was a poisonous cargo-load that leaked during transit, perhaps the fumes killed off the entire crew. It could potentially explain the explosion as well, if the nitroglycerine leaked and had contact with its surroundings leading to an exothermic process. But if this was the case then the rescue party certainly didn’t notice any of it. 

Right, so carbon monoxide poisoning is another explanation. A simmering fire below deck could have emitted the poisonous gas slowly killing everyone on board. While this could also explain the fire and explosion, it is very unlikely for several reasons. To begin with, how is it possible the crew didn’t notice any smoke coming from below deck? It doesn’t explain the facial expressions or paleness of the bodies either. Generally, carbon monoxide poisoning is painless and causes a flushed face and red eyes. Not to mention that the crew above deck could not be poisoned by the carbon monoxide, as the gas flows away with enough ventilation. All in all none of the rational explanations seem satisfying… and perhaps that is because a very strong case can be made for the Ourang Medan tragedy never happening at all.

Missing details

Okay, so there are several details concerning the case that make it rather difficult to properly explain how the story reached the public and what might have happened to the ship and its crew. To begin at the beginning: the Dutch Cargo Vessel S.S. Ourang Medan wasn’t registered anywhere. I suppose you could say the S.S. Ourang Medan was a ghost ship before it became an actual ghost ship. 

There are some articles that claim the ship was registered in Sumatra, although none offer any credible registers. Not to mention that the Silver Star, although it did exist in 1948, was renamed the year before to SS Santa Cecilia and sailed mainly around Brazil, not the Pacific. Yet I suppose this could be explained if the Ourang Medan was used to smuggle contraband. If that was the case perhaps someone with influence simply ensured the ship was removed from registers to prevent a real investigation.

But another curious inconsistency in the story is about the date the Ourang Medan was discovered, but also about the date that it was published about. The letter to the CIA said it happened in February 1948. And Estelle, an author from the Skittish Library, really did the research on this one. She dug up every news article she could find, in various languages, documenting the dates the Ourang Medan popped up in articles. And that’s where the timeline gets very weird. So the Marine report I cited to describe the state of the crew on deck was published in 1952. Yet a British newspaper, the Yorkshire Evening Post, published about the Ourang Medan on November 21st 1940. That’s eight years before it supposedly happened. It’s the article on-screen right now. It detailed an eyewitness account by a merchant marine officer that supposedly was on the ship receiving the distress calls and was among the boarding party. The content of the distress call is different, but it’s certainly about the Ourang Medan. The location doesn’t exactly match up either: it reports that the ship was discovered to the south-east of the Solomon islands… way to the east of the Strait of Malacca.

Yorkshire Evening Post, November 21st, 1940.
The Daily Mirror, November 22nd, 1940.

The next day the Daily Mirror published their article about it. They write that the fire lasted for a day, before it finally sank the vessel. It published the firsthand account of this merchant marine officer just like the Yorkshire Evening Post. 

It took seven or eight years for the story to surface again. Between February 3rd and 28th 1948 the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De Locomotief: Handels- en advertentieblad published multiple articles about the case. This story recollected the story of a U.S. ship receiving the distress message about the deceased crew, somewhere in June 1947 and locating the ship quite a bit to the south-east of the Marshall Islands. Now, the Marshall Islands are quite a long distance away from the Strait of Malacca, not to mention that there now are three different dates that the incident supposedly occurred on. 

But De Locomotief published another interesting detail: the source of the story. Because they didn’t have the 1952 Marine Report, obviously. The newspaper managed to interview a man that claimed he knew a missionary that spoke with a surviving German sailor of the Ourang Medan. After the tragedy, the sailor swam ashore on the Bokak atoll, where he told his story to a missionary on the island. This missionary reproduced the story to an Italian from Trieste, Silvio Scherli. According to Scherli, the ship was indeed smuggling sulphuric acid. When the fumes got out it overwhelmed the crew killing all of them. 

Article in De Locomotief

Two problems with this story, aside from the obvious reproduction of a story told to someone else. Firstly, the Bokak Atoll is uninhabited due to its lack of fresh water, so it is highly unlikely a missionary was present on the island. And secondly, although the 1948 article mentions Scherli by name, the 1940 English newspaper articles we discussed note that the story was written in Trieste, which happened to be Scherli’s hometown. And, well, Trieste is a beautiful city but it is on the other side of the world. It is nearly impossible two different witnesses reported it in that exact city. It is much more likely Scherli was behind both the 1940 and 1948 publications. There are some other inconsistencies between both stories of 1940 and 48. In 1940 a marine officer recalled the story, yet in 1948 it supposedly was recalled by a surviving crew member of the Ourang Medan.

The article in De Locomotief even emphasizes in closing that “they don’t have any other data on this mystery of the sea. The author, Silvio Scherli, assures them of the authenticity of the story.” In short, although it has been well over 80 years ago since this story was initially published in the newspaper, and over 60 years since the CIA acknowledged the case with a dismissive reply, any real credible answers are still missing. But it certainly makes for an interesting story, I’m sure you’ll agree. Thanks to the research on Skittish Library the earlier news articles surfaced. These support the notion that it is doubtful the Ourang Medan disaster happened. There are just too many inconsistencies that don’t add up. I’ll link the article in the description if you want to read some further about the event. 

But it wasn’t completely coincidental this happened around the Pacific area, because it definitely was an area for mysteries. Because to the south-east of the Marshall Islands lies Gardner Island. And this coral atoll supposedly is the final resting place of Amelia Earhart, who tragically disappeared in July 1937, as she was attempting to make a circumnavigational flight over the globe. I’ve created an entire video about that, if you’re interested.

Sources:

http://skittishlibrary.co.uk/the-myth-of-the-ourang-medan-ghost-ship-1940/
https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp80r01731r000300010043-5
https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80B01676R003800130059-5.pdf
https://www.dulcet.nl/2017/01/23/ourang-medan-mysterie/
https://www.de173.com/the-ss-ourang-medan/
https://www.delpher.nl/nl/kranten/view?query=ourang+medan&coll=ddd&identifier=ddd:010862872:mpeg21:a0050&resultsidentifier=ddd:010862872:mpeg21:a0050

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