The SS Ourang Medan was a ghost ship which, according to various sources, became a shipwreck in Dutch East Indies waters after its entire crew had died under suspicious circumstances. Skepticism exists about the truthfulness of the story, suggesting that the ship may have never actually existed, but has become something of a legend.
The earliest known English reference to the ship and the incident is in the May 1952 issue of the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, published by the United States Coast Guard. The word Ourang (also written Orang) is Malay or Indonesian for "man" or "person", whereas Medan is the largest city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, giving an approximate translation of "Man from Medan". Accounts of the ship's accident have appeared in various books and magazines, mainly on Forteana. Their factual accuracy and even the ship's existence, however, are unconfirmed, and details of the vessel's construction and history, if any, remain unknown. Searches for any official registration or accident investigation recorded have proven unsuccessful.
The story's first appearance was a series of three articles in the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad (February 3, 1948, February 28, 1948, and March 13, 1948). The story is mostly the same as the later versions, but with significant differences. The name of the ship that found the Ourang Medan is never mentioned, but the location of the encounter is described as 400 nautical miles (740 km; 460 mi) southeast of the Marshall Islands. The second and third articles 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 avoided the authorities. The survivor, an unnamed German, died after telling his story to the missionary, who told the story to the author, Silvio Scherli of Trieste, Italy. The Dutch newspaper concludes with a 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."
Silvio Scherli is said to have produced a report on Trieste "Export Trade" on September 28, 1959.
New evidence found by The Skittish Library shows there were 1940 newspaper reports of the incident taken from the Associated Press in British newspapers The Daily Mirror and The Yorkshire Evening Post. There were significant differences in the story, the location being the Solomon Islands, and the SOS messages different from later reports. The story still appears to originate with Silvio Scherzi in Trieste.
According to the story, at some point in or around June 1947 (Gaddis and others list the approximate date as early February 1948), two American vessels navigating the Strait of Malacca, City of Baltimore and Silver Star, among others, picked up distress messages from Dutch merchant ship Ourang Medan. A radio operator aboard the troubled vessel sent the following Morse code message: "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 confused dots and dashes later two words came through clearly. They were "I'm dying." Then, nothing more. When Silver Star crew located and boarded the apparently undamaged Ourang Medan in a rescue attempt, the ship was found littered with corpses (including the carcass of a dog) "[s]prawled on their backs, the frozen faces upturned to the sun with mouths gaping open and eyes staring, the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures", with no survivors and no visible signs of injuries on the dead bodies. A fire then broke out in the ship's No. 4 cargo hold, forcing the boarding parties to evacuate the Dutch freighter, thus preventing any further investigation. Soon after, Ourang Medan was observed to explode and sink.
Unsecured hazardous materials cargo
Bainton and others hypothesize that Ourang Medan might have been involved in smuggling operations of chemical substances such as a combination of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin or even wartime stocks of nerve agents. According to these theories, sea water would have entered the ship's hold, reacting with the cargo to release toxic gases, which then caused the crew to succumb to asphyxia and/or poisoning. Later, the sea water would have reacted with the nitroglycerin, causing the reported fire and explosion.
Another theory is that the ship was transporting nerve gas which the Japanese military had been storing in China during the war, and which was handed over to the U.S. military at the end of the war. No U.S. ship could transport it as it would leave a paper trail. It was therefore loaded onto a non-registered ship for transport to the U.S. or an island in the Pacific.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Gaddis puts forward the theory that an undetected smoldering fire or malfunction in the ship's boiler system might have been responsible for the shipwreck. Escaping carbon monoxide would have caused the deaths of all aboard, with the fire slowly getting out of control, leading to the vessel's ultimate destruction.
The story has appeared in various magazines and books on Forteana, beginning with a 1953 article in Fate Magazine. Authors such as Jessup speculate that the crew might have been attacked by UFOs or paranormal forces prior to their deaths. Circumstantial evidence cited by these sources includes the apparent absence of a natural cause of death, the reportedly terrified expressions on the faces of the deceased, and rumors that some of the dead were "pointing" towards an unknown enemy.
Several authors note their inability to find any mention of the case in Lloyd's Shipping Register. Furthermore, no registration records for a ship by the name of Ourang Medan could be located in various countries, including the Netherlands. While Bainton states that the identity of the Silver Star, which was reported to have been involved in the failed rescue attempt, has been established with some certainty, the lack of information on the sunken ship itself has given rise to suspicion about the origins and credibility of the account. Bainton and others have put forward the possibility that accounts of, among others, the date, location, names of the ships involved, and circumstances of the accident might have been inaccurate or exaggerated, or that the story might be completely fictitious.
- Bainton, Roy (September 1999). "A Cargo of Death". Fortean Times. p. 28. Archived from the original on 2007-02-05.
- "We Sail together". Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council (U.S. Coast Guard) 9 (5): 107. May 1952.
- "alphaDictionary: orangutan". Retrieved 2007-04-20.
- "Een Mysterie van de Zee". De locomotief : Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad. February 3, 1948.
- "Ondergang der "Ourang Medan"". De locomotief : Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad. February 28, 1948.
- "Mysterie der "Ourang Medan"". De locomotief : Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad. March 13, 1948.
- Readings in policy and practice for international business, Edwin F. Wigglesworth, T. Ashwell, 1959
- Gaddis, Vincent (1965). Invisible Horizons. Ace Books, Inc., New York. pp. 125–126. ISBN 0-441-37177-9.
- Edwards, Frank (June 1953). "Strangest of All". Fate Magazine.
- Raybin Emert, Phyllis (1990). Mysteries of Ships and Planes. Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-8125-9427-4.
- Winer, Richard (2000). Ghost Ships. Berkley. ISBN 0-425-17548-0.
- Jessup, Morris K. (1955). The Case For the UFO. Citadel Press, New York. pp. 88–90.
- CIA memo describing incident This is not a CIA "memo." It is a copy of a letter sent to the C.I.A., in 1959, by a party calling themselves, "C.H. Marck, Jr." There are many "Assistants to the Director" at C.I.A. In fact, most unsolicited communication from the American public is directed to an assistant, as was this piece. -K80
- An episode of the Thinking Sideways podcast about the ghost ship, featuring an interview with Roy Bainton.