Mystery at Sea – SS Ourang Medan

The South China Sea has been an area of considerable political and territorial dispute for some time; in fact, it is a headline in the news today. Even the name has been subject to controversy, with the Philippines recently renaming it the West Philippine Sea, and Vietnam choosing to refer to it as the East Vietnam Sea. The name itself may not be relevant, however, as this article is about its historical significance as a graveyard for ships. Many were sunk by torpedoes and mines during wartime conflicts; some were lost because of adverse weather conditions and various shipping hazards in the area, and others remain the unexplained ghost ships of the sea. Oceanographers are quick to point to the possibility of rogue waves that simply come out of nowhere and are responsible for numerous maritime disasters.

A reasonable explanation usually satisfies our curiosity, but some mysteries at sea seem to defy all logic. In June 1947, a disturbing SOS message was heard across the ocean from somewhere within the Straits of Malacca; the exact location was never confirmed. Merchant ships have sailed through the Straits of Malacca linking the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea without incident for years, although this important shipping lane can be a target for hijackers. Dutch and British listeners identified the ship as the Dutch freighter SS Ourang Medan, but the American Grace Lines Silver Star was the nearest ship to answer the distress call. The message was brief and strangely worded, “All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge.” “Possibly whole crew dead.” The jumbled Morse code that followed could not be read, so there was no indication of what had happened or who had been able to send the final mysterious message, “I die.”

The Silver Star rescuers arrived to find the ship afloat in a calm, peaceful sea, but no sound could be heard or movement detected from the Ourang Medan. Even more disturbing was the scene they discovered upon boarding the ship. Bodies of the crew were strewn across the decks; the captain and his officers were found lying dead above deck, and the communications officer was also deceased with his hand still resting on the Morse code sending key. As the rescuers descended into the boiler room, an ominous chill seemed to fill the air, although the temperature reading showed 110 degrees. No one was alive on this ship of death, not even the dog, but oddly enough, no one appeared to have any injuries to their bodies. Their eyes were open to the sun, and their faces appeared frozen in similar macabre grimaces of horror and disbelief. Some bodies were found with arms upraised as though reaching for help or possibly in defense from something or someone from above.

The mystery of the SS Ourang Medan has perplexed historians and mariners for years. Since the ship exploded and sank rapidly before it could be towed, this might explain why some believe that methane gas had arisen from the bottom of the sea and overpowered the ship’s crew. Another theory, however, suggests that a timer had been purposely set to detonate the ship and its cargo upon discovery before any further investigation could be carried out. According to one marine historian, Roy Bainton, there was no evidence of the Ourang Medan in Dutch shipping records, and the Singapore Maritime Division provided no answers to his queries. Lloyds Shipping Records had no verification of the ship’s registry, logbook, or a list of the crew, so it could be assumed that the Ourang Medan was a fictitious name. This is quite possible if the CIA were involved as they often used the generic Atlas Steamship Company to register ships carrying unrecorded cargo to be used in covert operations. During his investigation, Bainton did encounter another avid researcher, German Professor Siersdorfer, who was able to provide the names of the two rescue ships, Silver Star and City of Baltimore, but the Grace Line owners also remained silent, and no records were ever made available.

Refusing to believe this was just an old seafaring tale, the researchers proposed another more plausible explanation. Perhaps the ship was carrying a dangerous, combustible cargo intended for use in the development of biological or chemical warfare. Certainly, an old Dutch steamship would attract little attention in the busy shipping lanes of the Malacca Straits. Definite facts are known – Japan’s Unit 731 carried on this type of research using human experimentation during WWII; after the war, immunity was granted to many of the personnel in Unit 731, and Shiro Ishii, the head of the department, moved to Maryland to continue research. The ship’s crew may have been hired on shore and were probably completely unaware of the cargo onboard or the secret smuggling mission they were on. It is highly unlikely that any foreign government at the time would admit to being involved in violating the Geneva Convention.

Strange things do occur in wartime; plots and international conspiracies are not unusual. They may offer some vague explanation for mysteries such as the SS Ourang Medan, but without any real evidence, they certainly leave us in doubt. There are those who will insist that aliens and UFOs arrived and made contact with the ship and its crew. Yet, we have no reason to believe that really happened, and no explanation for their purpose in being there. Although a few curious, dedicated researchers will continue to speculate on this mystery at sea in hopes of finding answers, chances are we may never know what really happened onboard the SS Ourang Medan in June 1947.

Sharon L Slayton

Filed Under: Travel mysteries

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