Urban Legend or a Horrific Truth: The SS Ourang Medan Mystery

On the Straits of Malacca in the 1940s (the year varies depending on the source), a strange distress call came through to many ships sailing through the narrow stretch of water. The crackling desperate voice said, “All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and on bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.”

SS Ourang Medan / Newspaper Clipping / Japanese Experiment / Alien Spaceship.
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The SS Ourang Medan would go down in history with those final words. For decades, rumors have circulated of the crew being found dead after the distress call, with no obvious cause. The Medan wasn’t the first ship to meet a mysterious fate, but no one is exactly sure what happened or if it was real.

Mysterious Distress Call

Sometime in the 1940s, a bizarre distress call came that an entire crew and captain had died on a ship. It was followed by indecipherable morse code and the final three words, “I am dying.” Two American ships, the State of Baltimore and the Silver Star, picked up the distress call.

A dated photo from the ship.
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With the help of UK monitoring systems, the two ships were able to triangulate where the distress call came from. The Silver Star quickly rerouted and headed towards the SS Ourang Medan. The call was confusing, and some of it was hard to understand, but they were on their way to help.

An Eerie Discovery

When the Silver Star arrived, they noticed no signs of damage to the Ourang Medan. They tried to communicate with the ship, but there was silence on the radio. After several calls, the Silver Star crew formed a boarding party to see what had happened on the ship and what they found was horrible.

An image of a ship in distress on a stormy sea.
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As they boarded the Ourang Medan, they found the deck littered with the dead bodies of the ship’s crew. Their bodies were contorted, some of them were still pointing at something, and all of their faces had frozen looks of terror. It was as if they saw something unimaginable before they died.

A Haunting Scene

The Silver Star crew went to the bridge where they found the captain and his officers also lying dead with the same horrible expressions. The man who had made the distress call was still holding onto the telegram when they found his body. Even the ship’s dog was dead.

A photo of an engine order telegraph.
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The dog still had a snarling expression on its face, with its lips peeled back as it had been growling at something. The crew noticed that none of them had any physical wounds, and there was no sign of foul play. They weren’t going to leave the Ourang Medan behind, so they decided to tow it.

They Wondered What Happened

Just as the crew started to attach a tow line, someone noticed a fire had broken out in cargo hold four. They quickly got off the Ourang Medan, just in time. The ship burst into flames and exploded. The blast was so strong that it sent the ship flying into the air before it sunk below the water.

A view of an open sea and sky.
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Just as quickly as the Silver Star had found the Ourang Medan, it was gone with any evidence that could explain what had happened to the crew. Luckily the Silver Star crew members evacuated, and there was no damage to their ship, but they couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed.

The Ship’s Strange Origins

Writer Win Brooks has reported about the ship frequently, providing a harrowing account of it’s voyage and mysterious fate. According to him, the Medan was 40 years old at the time it disappeared. The 5,000-ton cargo steamer ship’s name means “Man of Medan” in Malaysian.

An image of a ship in the open sea.
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A masculine name for a ship breaks typical traditions because ships are usually female. The Medan passed through the Strait of Malacca with 23 crew members, including a captain and workers native to Indonesia. However, it is unknown what the ship was carrying or where it was going.

Many Theories About the Ship

When people heard stories of the Ourang Medan, there were many theories about what could have happened to the crew and what caused the fire. While it remains a mystery to this day, many believe the ship was carrying nitroglycerine and potassium cyanide.

An image of a bottle containing potassium cyanide.
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If the potassium cyanide reacted with the seawater, it could have caused a deadly reaction and silently killed the entire crew. The water possibly reached the nitroglycerine as the day went on, causing a fire and an explosion. However, the Silver Star crew was not affected.

Why Would They Be Carrying That?

It’s suspected that they were smuggling Japanese chemical weapons towards the end of World War II. The chemicals were then confiscated and being quietly transported back to the US. They could have been doing illegal and reckless things to keep the operation quiet.

An image of Japanese staff conducting a chemical experiment.
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The Dutch were a naval nation, and they were one of the few countries that traded with Japan in the ‘40s. The Japanese were isolated and didn’t trust many countries for trade. It would explain why a Dutch ship was carrying these chemicals.

Silent Killer

Another theory that people suspected was a boiler malfunction, causing a carbon monoxide leak. The carbon monoxide silently killed the crew, but the Silver Star members weren’t on the ship long enough to be affected by the deadly gas, and they didn’t detect it because it was odorless.

A photo of a Welder making boilers for a ship.
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However, many downplay this theory because the carbon monoxide wouldn’t have hurt the people outside. The crew members in the fresh air would have been safe because carbon monoxide only kills when you are in an enclosed space. Therefore, that theory is off the table.

Did It Even Exist?

Conspiracists who had heard of the Ourang Medan claimed an extraterrestrial event occurred, which is why some of the crew were pointing when they died. However, that is highly unlikely. Many simply think the ship never existed and was a fictional story.

A movie still of a Martian war machine.
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The Ourang Medan was never recorded on any maritime record. The ship’s name can’t be found on any records, even though every ship has to record routes, stops, and port destinations. However, how could it have not existed if there were official mentions of it?

The CIA Letter

In 2003, the CIA released a formerly classified letter under the Freedom of Information Act. The letter was sent from the assistant to the director of the CIA, C.H. Marck Jr., in 1959. Although the recipient is still classified, the letter told the story of the Ourang Medan.

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Marck Jr. wrote, “I feel sure that the SS Ourang Medan tragedy holds the answer to many of these airplane accidents and unsolved mysteries of the sea.” He talked about sightings of “fiery spheres” rising from the sea with reports dating back to 1067.

The Ship Held Secrets

As the letter stated, the event that occurred on the Ourang Medan could have unlocked secrets that dated back to the 1500s. Marck Jr. said old English chronicles, written in medieval Latin printed before 1500, suggest that these “fiery spheres” of destruction could have come from within the planet.

A painting of King Henry VI of England.
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Whatever he was implying, Marck Jr. finished his mysterious letter, saying, “Yes, the enchanting sea, what terrifying ‘secret’ does it hold? I feel sure that the SS Ourang Medan tragedy also holds the answer to this ‘secret.’” What was the CIA trying to hide?

The Silver Star

Although the Ourang Medan is not on any official maritime records, the Silver Star was a real ship. However, the ship’s logs show no record of a rescue mission. Could they have not recorded the rescue mission because they witnessed something classified?

An image of the Silver Star.
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The Silver Star was an American ship. Therefore, if the government were trying to hide something, they would have removed any record that another ship encountered the Ourang Medan. Whatever killed the Ourang Medan crew did not affect the Silver Star boarding party.

First Official Reports

While there were many accounts of the Ourang Medan in the ‘40s, the first official public reports came from a US Coast Guard article dated May 9, 1952, titled “We Sail Together.” It recounted the story of the Ourang Medan as having occurred in February 1948.

A photo of a US Coast Guard cadet in training.
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British newspapers made earlier mentions of the Ourang Medan throughout the ‘40s, but they were never official reports. The Yorkshire Evening Post and The Daily Mirror contain articles dated November 1940, but the Coast Guard and CIA stated it happened in ’48.

German Confirmation

Out of all the published mentions of the Ourang Medan, a German pamphlet provided the most detailed account of the ship. Author Otto Mielke wrote “Death Ship in the South Sea” in 1959, and the Silver Star crew authenticated his research, which included previously unknown facts.

A portrait of Otto Mielke.
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Mielke wrote about the ship’s last known location, its intended route, and mentioned that it might have been carrying unsecured lethal chemicals. If true, this would have been seen by authorities as the height of negligence, and the ship wouldn’t have been able to leave the port.

Smuggling Operation

If the government was transporting dangerous chemicals, they would have made sure there were no reports of it. This news would have been a major embarrassment to any government involved and could have caused more conflict during an already fragile post-war time.

An image of a port.
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The Ourang Medan might have had another name when it left the port, and its name was changed at sea to disguise its true identity; this might explain why it was not registered anywhere. It would also explain why the ship was so far off normal shipping routes.

Much More Dangerous Cargo

Suppose the nitroglycerine and potassium cyanide were the chemicals on board the Ourang Medan. Why hadn’t the rescue party succumbed to the lethal effects of the cyanide, which would have been highly concentrated by the time they arrived? There is also another problem.

A photo of an officer wearing a chemical/biological protection suit.
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While cyanide kills quickly, it does not result in a painful death. Why then were the bodies of the crew contorted in pain? Other researchers suggest that the ship was not carrying cyanide at all, but another substance known as sarin, an extremely toxic nerve agent.

Post-War Years

The Germans mass-produced sarin during WWII and shared it in large quantities with their Japanese allies. Following the defeat of the Axis forces, the Western allies were busy persuading German scientists to defect and procuring enemy war assets, of which sarin would have been one.

A worker in protective clothing stands in a particular storage area with guns armed with sarin gas.
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The US was heavily involved in chemical weapon research at this time, and the US military could have commandeered the Japanese supplies. To avoid the paper trail, they probably commissioned a non-descript freighter with a foreign crew to distance themselves from the operation.

The Contorted Bodies

While cyanide wouldn’t have caused painful deaths, sarin is different. It blocks the neurotransmitters responsible for signaling muscles to relax, which would explain the contorted positions of the dead crew members. It has no odor, so they wouldn’t have smelled a leak.

A photo of storage filled with packed sarin gas.
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Sarin can evaporate into a gas and spread quickly. By the time the Silver Star crew arrived, the nerve agent would have dispersed, which is why they weren’t affected by it. If this were true, it would explain why there aren’t records of this mission or the Ourang Medan.

Comparisons to the Philadelphia Experiment

The Ourang Medan seems like a government experiment that went horribly wrong. Many have compared this mystery to the Philadelphia Experiment. The Philadelphia Experiment is a conspiracy theory about a military experiment carried out by the US Navy.

An image of the military air force.
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Around October 28, 1943, the USS Eldridge was claimed to have been rendered invisible to enemy devices. The government said there was no such experiment conducted, and the details contradict the facts of the USS Eldridge. However, many people believed this was similar to the Ourang Medan.

Differing Reports

While many stories about the Ourang Medan have similar details, the accounts from British sources in 1940 were different. The distress call was similar, but the ship’s operator abandoned requests for medical help and demanded a warship to assist them as if they were being attacked.

A photo of a merchant ship.
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In this tale, a British merchant ship responded and found roughly 12 dead bodies with one lifeboat missing. An imminent explosion also forced them to abandon their search and evacuate the ship. This version didn’t include the frozen faces of terror described by other accounts.

The Possible Survivor

If the Ourang Medan had requested a warship, they could have been under attack by pirates. This version also concluded that chemicals caused the explosion. However, the British ship claimed there was a missing lifeboat, meaning someone survived the tragedy.

An image of an abandoned lifeboat embedded in the sand.
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Supposedly, the person was told not to abandon the ship but ignored the orders. After rowing away, he was found alive on a Pacific Island by an Italian missionary, Silvio Scherli. The survivor shared his tale before succumbing to the effects of the chemicals or time adrift at sea.

Silvio Scherli

The Italian missionary was actually a writer, Silvio Scherli. He was based in Trieste in 1940, the original place where reports were made that year. He apparently told Dutch news outlets of the ship and shared the story with other newspapers again in 1948.

A photo of a newspaper clipping at the time.
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In 1948, someone claimed to be an Italian officer on board the rescue ship, which could have been a lie made up by Scherli to sell his story. The Italian officer reportedly disappeared after sharing his story, maybe because he never existed, and it was Scherli all along.

Many Doubters

Many people think the story of the Ourang Medan is a conspiracy. The tale has been retold throughout the years, with storytellers embellishing different details. Dates, locations, and even fates of the crew have been twisted with each telling. Was it a government cover-up? Was there a survivor?

A dated picture of the Ourang Medan.
Source: Pinterest

With many different accounts of the Ourang Medan, people have started to think it never actually existed. Could Scherli have gotten ahold of the story and filled in the gaps in what he’d heard with his own entertaining embellishments? We may never know.

Still a Mystery

Despite the official mentions of the Ourang Medan, it is still unclear what truly happened to the apparent ghost ship. While it could have been a covered-up government mission or a tall tale spread around for decades, the truth of the Ourang remains a mystery.

An image of a ship in the sea.
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As there is no physical evidence of the ship, no one knows what really happened to the Dutch ship and its terrified crew. There are many loose ends, but one thing is for certain: it is one of the most fascinating cases in nautical history.

No Physical Evidence

In the apparent location where the Ourang Medan sank, the water reaches depths of 5,000 meters. While there are submarines that can reach these depths, no one has searched for remnants of the sunken ship. It would prove or disprove its existence.

A newspaper clipping on the Ourang Medan sank.
Source: Pinterest

However, factors such as currents and the damage from the explosion have to be accounted for. How much of the ship was still intact when it sunk? Could the current have shifted its location? Without this physical evidence, the stories are simply hearsay.

The story of the Ourang Medan has often been compared to the Philadelphia Experiment, so let’s take a deep dive into what happened to the USS Eldridge.