The Strange Story Of The Ourang Medan
By James Donahue
As the story is told, two American vessels steaming in the Strait of Malacca in Indonesian waters
sometime during the summer of 1947 picked up a distress radio signal from a Dutch merchant ship, the Ourang Medan.
The radio operator on the Ourang Medan sent the following Morse code message: "All officers including
captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead." This was followed by a final message: "I die."
After that, the ship’s radio went dead.
This chilling message was received by the freighters City of Baltimore and Silver Star plus British
and Dutch listening posts. The radio operators at the various sites triangulated the source of the signal and determined that
it came from the Dutch freighter SS Ourang Medan, also navigating the straits of Malacca.
The Silver Star was closest to the distressed ship and steamed to the scene. They found the Ourang
Medan riding dead in the water and its decks littered with the gristly scene of the corpses of the crew. It was said the men’s
eyes were wide, their faces twisted as if they died in agony and horror. Even the ship’s dog was found dead.
The crew members apparently died at their posts. The bodies of the officers were found on the bridge,
others in the engine room, all dead. It appeared that they all died unexpectedly, and that whatever killed them occurred in
an instant of horror. Yet the Americans from the Silver Star said they saw no evidence that any of the corpses were victims
of foul play. There were no apparent injuries to the bodies, no blood or signs of struggle.
The captain of the Silver Star ordered a tow line attached to the ill-fated vessel. His plan was to
tow the ship to a nearby port and let authorities there try to determine what had happened. But just then billows of smoke
began pouring from the Number 4 hold. Shortly after this there was an explosion on the Ourang Medan and the ship sank, thus
taking any evidence of what had killed its crew to the bottom of the sea.
This is the legend as it has been circulating around the ports of the world, and even reported in
a few magazines that specialized in mystery tales. An official report even appeared in the May, 1952 U. S. Coast Guard’s
"Proceedings of the Merchant Marine
But did it really happen? It appears there was a ship called the Silver Star on the seas in 1947.
It was originally a Grace Line freighter known as the Santa Cecilia until seized by the United States Maritime Commission
for wartime duty and given its new name. But no record of any ship called the Ourang Medan appears to exist.
Naval historian Roy Bainton conducted exhaustive research on this "death ship" story. After turning
to Lloyd’s Shipping registers, the Dutch Shipping records and even places like the Maritime Authority in Singapore,
he was about to conclude that the Ourang Medan story was nothing more than an old sailor’s yarn.
Then Bainton found a German booklet titled "Death Ship in the South Sea" by Otto Mielke, that gave
details about the Ourang Medan, its route, cargo, tonnage and even the name of the captain.
Bainton wrote that Mielke’s booklet suggested that the Number 4 hold of the Ourang Medan was
filled with "a mixed, lethal cargo on the Dutchman ‘Zyankali’ (potassium cyanide) and nitroglycerine."
Bainton suggests that the vessel may have been smuggling nerve gas or other insidious biological weapons.
This would have explained the sudden demise of the crew and then the explosion that sank the ship. Even the ship’s name
may have been faked to hide its real identity.
The alleged incident occurred just two years after the conclusion of the last great world war in history.
Was it possible that a terrible wartime concoction had been smuggled from a Japanese hiding place for some illicit purpose
elsewhere in the world, and the ship that was carrying it thankfully failed to reach its destination?