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By: Alex Postrado
What Happened To The SS Ourang Medan?
Among stories of the seas, those about ghost ships are certainly some of the most gripping.
Even the film series Pirates of the Caribbean seems to agree!
Just imagine seeing a phantom ship firsthand. Don’t you think that makes for a story worth telling for centuries?
There are ghost ship legends galore all over the internet, coming from all around the world.
Some of the best known among the bunch?
The Lady Lovibond 一 a ghostly vessel that allegedly sails around Kent every 50 years since the 1700s.
The Mary Celeste 一 a real-life brigantine that earned the ghost ship title after being discovered in 1872 with almost everything in it intact, except for those that went missing: the ship’s logbook, all lifeboats, and even the entire crew!
And lastly, who could forget the Flying Dutchman?
One of maritime mysteries’ greatest 一 the Dutchman is believed to be doomed to sail the oceans for all eternity!
Even today, some people are still swearing to have seen this ghost ship. But it is a claim that remains unproven to this point.
And while ghost ships 一 like the ones previously mentioned 一 are one thing, a strange vessel found carrying an entire dead crew is definitely another.
Just look at the tale of the Ourang Medan!
It is a stuff of folklore, mysteries, and nightmares 一 all in one.
Involving a distress call, a grim discovery, a fierce explosion, a sudden sinking, and an extremely confusing body of details.
No wonder it goes on unsolved to this very day!
The Puzzling Tale of the Ourang Medan
In 2019, Namco Entertainment released their horror-themed video game, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan.
Exploring a prologue, set after World War II, involving an American warship that witnessed the mystifying death of its whole crew, the game was 一 in more ways than one 一 reminiscent of the purportedly real-life mystery of the Ourang Medan.
Though despite the recently reignited interest in the Ourang Medan thanks to the Man of Medan interactive game, most still don’t realize that every time they play it, they are getting a glimpse of an about 80-year-old ghost ship story that still baffles many to this present day.
The events of the Ourang Medan mystery were said to have taken place somewhere in the 1940s.
The exact date, even the year 一 no one knows for sure. But, it all started with a call.
According to the legend, as a Dutch ship 一 known as SS Ourang Medan 一 sailed across the Strait of Malacca, a seemingly out of nowhere tragedy struck.
And nearby vessels were advised of the incident through a “horrifying distress call“.
The frantic Morse code read:
“S.O.S. from Ourang Medan. We float. All officers, including captain dead, lying in chartroom and on bridge, probably whole crew dead.“
After a few moments, the final word came.
At that point, everyone that learned about the message knew something serious was up. And two of the nearest cargo ships 一 the SS City of Baltimore, as well as the SS Silver Star 一, rushed to the rescue.
It was the Silver Star that ended up reaching the Ourang Medan first. Yet those that hurried aboard were shocked to the core by what they found.
Dead bodies everywhere!
The first were found on the upper decks and the rest, strewn all around the ship.
To add to the already puzzling scene, those who saw the lifeless crew of the Ourang Medan reported that the men were found “teeth bared, with their upturned faces to the sun, staring, as if in fear“.
The ship’s resident dog was even seen dead and frozen mid-growl.
No one could immediately make up what horror caused the demise of the sailors of the Ourang Medan.
And as the crew of the Silver Star tried to continue their investigation in the ghost ship, questions only kept on piling up.
A lifeboat from the Ourang Medan was missing!
Before anyone could even ask why, a fire suddenly broke out in the bowels of the mysterious ship, forcing everyone from the Silver Star to leave the scene.
Not long after, the Ourang Medan exploded into nothingness 一 with such massive force that ultimately caused the waves to quickly eat up the whole ship into the deep.
And with all that, the Ourang Medan instantly went down in infamy 一 perhaps, as rapidly as it sank.
Theories About the Ghost Ship
Naturally, a strange incident as that of the Ourang Medan would prompt quite a few questions yet not as many answers.
And among the points to ponder upon were:
What triggered the death of the vessel’s crew? And what brought about the violent explosion that followed?
Well, there were several theories that surfaced across the years.
One of which signified that the Ourang Medan may be smuggling either biological weapons or hazardous chemicals, probably to be used during the Second World War.
This theory was further explored by German researcher Professor Theodor Siersdorfer who came upon a 1954 Otto Mielke booklet, titled Das Totenschiff in der Südsee 一 in English, The Death Ship 一 that offered “evidence” not only of the ship’s reality but also of what could have possibly led to the tragic fate of the crew aboard the Ourang Medan.
The Death Ship suggests that both “potassium cyanide and nitroglycerine were stored in the ship’s hold“.
When handled carelessly, sensitive stuff like these could lead to an explosion 一 thus, the “sudden accidental destruction” that sank the Ourang Medan.
Others believe that the cause could also be other nerve agents which may have reacted with seawater 一 releasing toxic gases in the process and inducing a form of mass asphyxia.
Fast-acting poisons 一 like, strychnine, which could easily kill within minutes 一 and carbon monoxide poisoning similarly add to the ever-expanding list of theories as to the mysterious deaths and the subsequent explosion involved in the story of the Ourang Medan.
While to some, the curious fate of the crew was definitely caused by something otherworldly.
Perhaps, a supernatural creature that dwells in the depths of the ocean.
Yet all of these assumptions only lead to practically “all kinds of dead ends” 一 leaving us all confused even to this modern day.
Real or Hoax?
The earliest recorded mention of the Ourang Medan came from Estelle Hargraves’s article, titled Mystery SOS From Death Ship, published in the Yorkshire Post and reported by the Associated Press on the 21st of November, 1940.
It tells the firsthand story of a British World War II Marine officer who was allegedly among the men that came to the Ourang Medan crew’s rescue after receiving a distress call.
Similar to other versions of the story which only cropped up over the next few years, an explosion indeed caused the sinking of the strange vessel. And due to this, nothing much was learned either about the ship or its crew.
But, a number of details from Hargraves’s story also contradict future accounts 一 the best known, being: no dog was found anywhere in the ship.
In 1948, Dutch newspaper De Locomotief also recounted the nautical tale 一 pointing to a certain Silvio Scherli as the source of information.
Scherli was said to live in Trieste, Italy, where he supposedly met a missionary that was told of a story of a death-carrying ship by a sailor who purportedly survived it.
In other words, a story that came from someone, who knew someone, who also knew someone else. Basically, the formula for urban legend origins!
That is why, regardless of the details given, many still doubt the reality of the Ourang Medan incident.
Especially, once told of the fact that the Lloyd’s Shipping Register 一 or any other official seafaring register, for that matter 一 never included a ship, named SS Ourang Medan.
Furthermore, there were at least three varying dates mentioned in separate publications.
Descriptions of the ship and its passengers also differ and the precise location of the sinking can’t seem to ever be pinpointed 一 with people, claiming that the events happened near Malacca, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, and even Costa Rica.
So, in the end, no one knows for sure whether or not the Ourang Medan ever existed.
It is plausible that over the years, reporters only jazzed up a plain real-life encounter into becoming a mysterious maritime tale in an effort to make it more intriguing.
The hints at possible warfare motives, the inexplicable deaths, and maybe even the explosion 一 a quick way to say that there is absolutely no way of proving the ship’s existence now that it is all swallowed up by the sea 一 all point to that direction.
Nevertheless, there is one remaining possibility: That, perhaps, the Ourang Medan was never real.
Just a fantastical legend, told to remind us that as much as there are horrors here on land, the deep sea still goes on uncharted. And we don’t know what it holds.
And while we continue to list theories to explain the Ourang Medan puzzle, the contrasting details of the legend we have come to know today permit it to live on as one of the greatest “unsolved mysteries of the sea”.
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