Humans have sailed the oceans for thousands of years, and it goes without saying that of the millions of sea voyages that have been made, some have ended in failure. Ships sink, ships get lost, ships break up in storms. And in several cases throughout history, the fate of the journey has turned out to be an eternal mystery. At times, a ship is found in unexplained chaos, such as with the entire crew dead, and there is no real explanation for what happened. The maritime industry even names such ships “ghost ships.” And despite the many ghost ship legends that date back centuries, before modern technology helped make sailing a safer job with more certain outcomes, such ships have appeared in maritime logs recently.
One such mystery is the SS Ourang Medan, a Dutch cargo ship. The ship sailed around the 1940s and disappeared between 1947 and 1948. It is said that this ship was sailing towards Costa Rica by successfully avoiding the marine apparatus, but after that there was no news. There is no clearer record of the SS Ourang Medan so people cannot explain it any further.
Between June 1947 or around the end of February 1948, many ships sailed along the Strait of Malacca near Sumatra. Malaysia then received a terrible SOS from an unidentified ship. The SOS message is in two parts with mysterious morse code, and no one has been able to decipher it yet. The message read, “All officers, including the Captain, are dead. Lying on the chart space and the bridge. Maybe the whole died. I die.” After that terrifying message, there was no other communication from the mysterious ship. The signal was also picked up by two American ships indicating the location of the mysterious Dutch freighter.
After drifting aimlessly, the SS Ourang Medan was finally found by the SS Silver Star, which is 740 km southeast of the Marshall Islands on a rescue mission. As the Silver Star approached the Dutch freighter, there was no sign of life, forcing the merchant ship’s captain to board another ship to find out the cause of the lack of communication with the crew. However, when the search team stepped onto the deck of the SS Ourang Medan, the crew of the Silver Star boarded it, only to make a horrific discovery: the crew were all dead, even a dog, their faces supposed to be glued to cries of pain. The position of the corpses looked like they were trying to push and fight something. As was the case with the crew, the Captain was found on the bridge, the other officers were found in the chariot and wheelhouse. Even the radio operator who was suspected of sending the SOS was in his place with the same expression.
Not only is the phenomenon of the death of the entire crew in a fearful condition considered frightening, but the shipwreck also creates a strange and haunted impression. Upon entering the SS Ourang Medan, the crew of the SS Silver Star felt an unreasonably cold condition. Even though the outside conditions at that time reached 43 degrees Celsius. Another oddity was that the bodies of the dead crew members did not suffer any injuries to explain their deaths. It was also seen that the corpses decomposed faster than usual. The third oddity when it was the ship itself did not seem to have suffered any damage. That was why Captain Silver Star ordered the SS Ourang Medan to be pulled back for rescue. The next oddity was that when the ships were tied together, smoke could be seen coming from cargo room no. 4 of the freighter. This made Silver Star sever the tow rope attached to the now smoking ship. Moments later, the SS Ourang Medan exploded with great force. The power that rises from the water before the ship descends and sinks to its eternal resting place.
Why S.S. Ourang Medan is considered a mystery because no ship by that name had sailed that year, nor was there a ship named the Silver Star. Even in the Dictionary of Disasters at sea 1824-1962 or Lloyd’s Shipping registers. Based on its name, people speculated that the ship was registered in Sumatra, a Dutch colony at the time. The word ‘Ourang’ is translated as ‘man’ in Indonesian, while ‘Medan’ is the largest city in Sumatra. There is also speculation that the SS Ourang Medan did not exist due to a lack of registration. Or the fact that the crew who first saw the freighter were very secretive about the incident.
Due to the lack of clarity of data and documentation, the phenomenon of SS Ourang Medan was once considered a news hammer to seek sensation. However, in May 1952, the United States Coast Guard recorded the first official account of the SS Ourang Medan with witness statements. The testimony came from the rescue crew and the discovery of the dead crew. Then, what was the cargo of the ship carrying that caused the explosion on the SS Ourang Medan? There have been many theories made about the mysterious circumstances of the vessel and its death. But one of the most logical sounding theories was put forward by Professor Theodor Siersdorfer of Essen in Germany. For 50 years he dedicated his life to understanding what happened to the SS Ourang Medan and its crew. Siersdorfer based many of his findings on the German booklet published by Otto Mielke in 1954 “Das Totenschiffin der Südsee.” This booklet has been endorsed by one of the rescue crews on the Silver Star, releasing mysterious facts. It states not only the name of the captain but also the route of the ship, as well as the cargo hold containing Potassium Cyanide and Nitroglycerin. Both chemicals are known to be very dangerous and volatile. That’s why the two chemicals are not recommended to be transported by rough seas. So, could it be that chemical weapons were the reason for the crew’s gruesome deaths?
Another strong theory is associated to a biological weapon related to the recently ended World War II, designed and manufactured by Japanese scientists led by a Japanese bacteriologist named Shiro Ishii. Ishii is part of Unit 731 which conducts dangerous experiments on American, British and Australian prisoners of war. This included making dangerous biological and chemical weapons to help Japan eliminate its enemies. The theory states that the experiments and biological weapons of Unit 731 were secretly sent from country to country which ended up leaking onto the ship. Thus, killing its crew and causing the final explosion that sank the SS Ourang Medan.
Those are the two most likely theories about the SS Ourang Medan and its mysterious ending. Meanwhile, other theories do not have much evidence include UFOs, methane bubbles, and boiler room fires. Although there are still possibilities that could be the cause of this ghost ship tragedy, but one thing is certain: this tragic event is one of the most interesting cases in maritime history.