What Really Happened To The SS Ourang Medan?

ss ourang medan ghost ship

In or around June 1947, two American ships – the Silver Star and City of Baltimore – received morse code distress messages from the Dutch merchant vessel SS Ourang Medan near the Strait of Malacca:

S.O.S. from Ourang Medan – we float. All officers including the Captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge. Probably whole crew dead.”

After the initial message, another came through but was garbled with confusing dots and dashes. The only decipherable portion included just two words:

“…I die.”


In the May, 1952 issue of Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, the U.S. Coast Guard reported the Silver Star had located the troubled Ourang Medan with the assistance of nearby listening posts shortly after it received its call for help. The crew eventually boarded the ship, which appeared undamaged, and made a horrifying discovery: each deck was littered with bodies.

“[They were] sprawled on their backs, [their] frozen faces upturned to the sun with mouths gaping open and eyes staring; the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures.”

ourang medan

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The Ourang Medan’s captain was discovered on the bridge, with his officers located nearby in the wheelhouse and chart room. The ship’s dog was also found deceased, reportedly staring into the distance and snarling at an unidentified threat.

Authors Vincent Gaddis (Invisible Horizons) and Frank Edwards (Strangest of All) wrote about how after inspecting each corpse, the Silver Star’s crew did not see any signs of injuries. Additionally, no survivors were ever found.

According to Historic Mysteries:

“During the search efforts, the rescue party noticed several things that struck them as odd or strange. The local temperature was in excess of 100°F but members of the team felt an ominous chill emanating from somewhere.”

The boarding parties were quickly forced to evacuate the doomed vessel after a fire erupted in the No. 4 cargo hold. According to eye-witness reports, the Ourang Medan exploded with such intensity that it was lifted out of the water. It later sunk, preventing any further investigation of the incident.

Did the SS Ourang Medan even exist?

Some researchers are skeptical about not only the story, but whether the ship itself even existed. To support their doubts, they oftentimes refer to a lack of registration records or their inability to find any documentation of the case in Lloyd’s Register. Also, the Silver Star was officially called the ‘Santa Juana’ in the 1940s, before it was later purchased and renamed by the Grace Line Shipping Company. This, not surprisingly, adds even more confusion.

Others have insisted the Ourang Medan was registered in the Dutch colony of Sumatra (located in the East Indies), citing its name as evidence: Ourang means “man” in Indonesian and Medan is a large city in the region, so the words “Ourang Medan” could be translated into “Man from Medan.”

Possible causes

A few theories exist which might explain what precipitated the tragedy that occurred aboard the ill-fated ship. These theories include: carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, loose hazardous materials and paranormal phenomena.

Gaddis, the author we mentioned earlier who wrote Invisible Horizons, thinks a fire that went undetected for a lengthy period of time might have caused CO poisoning, resulting in the deaths of the Ourang Medan’s crew. The ship’s boiler system may have also malfunctioned, causing the same result. Eyewitness reports of the ship exploding and then sinking, as well as the blistering heat felt by the Silver Star’s search party, could support this theory.

Roy Bainton, the author of A Cargo of Death, believes the vessel was involved in smuggling operations of hazardous cargo, such as nitroglycerin and potassium cyanide, or even various nerve agents. If sea water breached the Ourang Medan’s hold, its reaction with these deadly materials would have released toxic gases that could’ve caused poisoning or asphyxiation. A fire and subsequent explosion could have also taken place.

ourang medan nerve agents

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Historic Mysteries talks about the possible origin and purpose of such cargo if the ship was indeed a smuggler:

“Biological weapons manufactured by Japanese scientists as the result of insidious experiments that even the Nazi regime would baulk at, could well have been smuggled out of Japan. Known as Unit 731, it was designed to be a secret research and development meant to create the most dangerous chemical and biological weapons to help establish Japanese supremacy.”

“Is it feasible that Unit 731 was smuggled on a nondescript merchant vessel with a foreign crew to avoid drawing unwanted attention to what was taking place?”

Lastly, the story has piqued the interest of those who ponder about paranormal and UFO phenomena. Per Wikipedia:

“[It] has appeared in various magazines and books on Forteana, beginning with a 1953 article in Fate Magazine. Authors such as Morris K. 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.”

Will we ever know what truly happened on board the SS Ourang Medan? Perhaps not, but the tale itself is frightening enough to make someone think twice about sailing the high seas.

Main image credit: hervemichel.fr

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