Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The SS Ourang Medan Fact or Fiction?

This is the strange and chilling tale of a Dutch freighter ship, the Ourang Medan, which sent out a SOS distress signal in June of 1947 while crossing the Straits of Malacca between Sumatra and Malaysia. 

Some state this tale is just an old sailor’s yarn told to amuse. But this explanation is too simplistic if the following is taken into consideration. Many ships heard this distress call and reported it. The incident was written about in 1952 in a U.S. Coast Guard publication. The result -- more than one person has tried to investigate it but it remains a mystery to this day.

Several Dutch, English and American ships heard this eerie distress call:

An officer including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew is dead.” A burst of indecipherable Morse code was heard and then these final words: “I die.” After this last grim message all was silent.

The two American as well as the English and Dutch ships that heard this disturbing message where able to “triangulate” or determine the location from where this message was sent. An American merchant ship, the Silver Star was the closest to this location so they quickly changed course. 

Within hours they spotted the Ourang Medan across the straits’ choppy waters. At first they tried to hail her by whistle and hand signals but when they received no response the Silver Star’s captain arranged for a group to board her.

What these Silver Star crewmembers discovered aboard the Ourang Medan is described as “a living nightmare.” The deck, wheelhouse and bridge where covered with dead bodies. 

Horrified this crew saw that each decaying face was frozen into an expression of terror. Each dead seaman was staring their eyes wide-open and their mouths agape. Each corpse was positioned with arms outstretched as if they were still locked in battle with some unseen assailant.

When the crew explored further they found more bodies below deck in the ship’s charthouse and boiler room. Each of these dead men also had a look of grim terror on their face. 

The ship’s communication officer was found dead sitting with his fingertips still on the telegraph. The crew quickly returned to the deck finding the chartroom and boiler room below were both extremely cold--this despite the temperature outside that day was a sizzling 110 degrees.

Their captain determined that they should attach a line to the Ourang Medan and tow her ashore but as his crew was doing this they saw the Ourang was on fire, smoke was billowing from below her decks. These men barely had time to cut the towline and make their way back to the Silver Star before the Ourang Medan exploded. It is said the Ourang rose with a tremendous force out of the water and then sank swiftly.

One statement from the Coast Guard’s testimony report entitled,  “Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Court” described the condition and alarming state these Dutch crewmen were found in:

“Their frozen faces were upturned to the sun…staring, as if in fear…the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring.”

In the years before and since the Coast Guard account was written rumors swirled about this strange incident. Besides the positions and expressions on these corpses, which pointed to the fact these sailors must have “suffered profoundly at their deaths” was the fact that no injuries or wounds were found on any of them. 

Plus the ship was not damaged in any way until it exploded. So the reason for their demise resulted in much speculation.

Researchers that have tried to determine what actually happened to the crew on the Ourang Medan have all hit brick walls. 

One reason this tale is considered a legend is that fact that there are no official records that this ship ever existed. But as I mentioned above, this does not mesh with the fact many ships heard the Ourang’s distress call, and it is believed by many that the Silver Star did change course and it did discover this ship. 

In contrast, an article published in the Fortean Times entitled A Cargo of Death states the Silver Star didn’t exist. It did.

Of course many have speculated what exactly caused these men’s deaths--which I find fascinating since in the same breath it is mentioned that this incident didn’t actually happen. Many theories have been suggested, some more far-fetched than others. 

One mentioned often is since this ship sank right after the Second World War it’s relative obscurity was used to transport chemicals used to make poisonous gas--it is stated if salt water hit these chemicals it would have killed the crew and then eventually caused the explosion. 

An interesting note about this theory is some believe that the real name of this ship was changed to disguise the fact that it was transporting these chemicals. Regardless, if this theory is believed one still has to wonder why this mixture of gases plus the salt water didn’t cause the ship to explode immediately.

Another theory states that the ship’s boiler must have malfunctioned causing a carbon monoxide leak. The crew then inhaled these fumes and died. But why did the seaman on deck not survive. Wouldn’t the fresh sea air have saved them? 

A third theory presented involves “methane bubbles” surfacing in clouds from a hole or fissure in the sea floor which then asphyxiated the crew. This theory is at fault because these bubbles could not have caused the ship to explode. One has to wonder if these bubbles could kill the entire ship’s crew?

Others speculated that pirates boarded the ship and attacked the crew but this was immediately ruled out because there were no marks found on any of the bodies. 

An article in Fate magazine in 1953 stated that since none of the mainstream reasons purposed were solid it could have been something paranormal that caused these deaths.

One rumor stated after this in 1965 involved a UFO. It was put forth that aliens must have attacked the ship. 

Another reason given is based upon the fact that the Silver Star crew experienced a feeling of immense cold in the Ourang Medan’s lower decks. This caused speculation that “ghosts” had something to do with the crew’s demise.

What really happened remains a mystery--that’s if this incident really occurred. This story is a good example of how tales regardless of whether they are based in fact of fiction take on a life of their own and become legendary.

Update: Here is a link to the Skittish Library with an interesting take on this story.


Unknown said...

They should make a movie out of this fascinating story. It is very creepy. I wonder if anyone that boarded the ship would have taken a picture?

Elly Mental said...

Hiya, I loved your post, very well written and interesting. I thought you might be interested to know I think I have proved its a hoax as I've discovered some new evidence from 1940 - http://skittishlibrary.co.uk/the-myth-of-the-ourang-medan-ghost-ship-1940/

Virginia Lamkin said...

I published your comment because you gave my blog a shout out in your article, thanks. You provide an interesting take on this story--so I placed a link to your article in the update above.

Elly Mental said...

Thank you!