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Possibly whole crew dead”: The Ourang Medan and the making of a mystery about a vanished ship of corpses

“I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. The time matters, too.” – Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.

For Rushdie and the purpose of his story, time was of the essence. It was a detail that needed to exist to make the story feel more real and form an instant connection to a particular time in history. The day when India won its independence. The work is fiction, but it was important.

On the other side, a lot of stories and scenarios that in all honesty are lacking crucial elements and details needed to make them feel real at least are still floating around. They are still debated on when, according to everything that is found to be missing, they probably ought to be placed in the “rumor and a hoax” bracket located in Loch Ness in Scotland–right next to Nessie and the “How to charge an iPod using electrolytes and an onion” instruction manual.

One story, in particular, is exactly like that. It is a rumor, a hoax filled with a lot of inconsistencies, unsupported claims, and huge gaps of crucial information, yet it grew to be one of the most talked about mysteries at sea over the last couple of decades. Without proof of any kind, some are still trying to “sell” it as a truth that is yet to be solved.

And this rumor starts with two different dates, one ship, one radio operator, and two parts of a confusing distress signal–an opener to a tale so magnificent that even the best horror fiction writer would envy it.

“All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead…”

Within seconds, “I die…”

It was a clear, sunny day of either June 1947 or February 1948, different accounts vary, when a chilling distress signal was allegedly picked up by several ships sailing the narrow stretch of water between Sumatra and Malaysia, the Strait of Malacca. According to all accounts, they petrified every single man who caught the disturbing SOS call of what was then believed to be a man dying in fright and terror.

As if the signal appeared out of nowhere. Out of those Lovecraftian depths of the unknown.

Naturally, the nearest ship, the Silver Star as some would claim, changed course to give assistance almost immediately, once British and Dutch listening posts that also picked up the macabre distress signal revealed the coordinates and confirmed that it came from a Dutch freighter, SS Ourang Medan, which means “Man from Medan” in Indonesian. It was not far from them.

Not wasting any time, the Silver Star rushed to give aid to this ambiguous ship and investigate the cryptic message. The crew members soon saw the ship in the distance. It seemed lifeless, and crew members were nowhere to be seen on deck. The captain tried to make radio contact, but it was to no avail; no one answered back. He tried again and again until he assembled a boarding expedition and went aboard. According to every story there is, and there are plenty, what they were greeted by when they set foot on the deck was like a horror movie at its finest.

There was not a single man alive, the tales tell, only corpses scattered around the deck of the vessel. Everyone had an iced face expression twisted abnormally that spoke of agony endured, but there were no signs of a struggle of any kind on their bodies, nor the ship for that matter. The ship was intact. People’s hands were reaching towards something, their eyes and mouths wide open as if all were screaming in terror and pain.

Inside the ship, the same sight. The captain’s body was found on the bridge, the officers spread all over the chartroom floor. Every single one was exactly where he should have been in accordance with his duty. Even the engineer’s corpses were strewn down below, and the radio operator who presumably sent the distress signal was standing stone cold petrified with his hand still on the telegraph. According to all reports, it seems that all were tormented by something inexplicable and died in the same way, for almost all looked alike, including the dog with its snarl just as frozen as everyone else’s faces were. Moreover, the boarding party strangely felt a chilling breeze down below in the boiler room of the ship where temperatures were, well, boiling hot. The corpses were reported to be decaying faster then they would under normal conditions.

Unable to explain and naturally scared to death themselves, the crew of the Silver Star beat a hasty exit, leaving the bodies, as they intended to tie the ship to theirs and tow it to the nearest port. But, in a strange twist of events, just as the men reached the deck of their own ship, the Ourang Medan released a belch of smoke from somewhere down below and exploded with such force that she lifted herself from the water and swiftly sank,” taking everything along to the depths of the sea, never to be found again.

Without hard evidence left to be scrutinized, a mystery about a death ship was born that simply refuses to disappear, along with the enigma of what might have happened. What, indeed, happened to the crew of the Ourang Medan?

No one really knows for sure. There are no official reports, no witnesses that came forward, no results from the site of the explosion. None! Many have tried to offer a plausible answer, although most of them far-fetched to say the least. They include conspiracy theories of a ship loaded with bioweapons that leaked and a meticulously conducted cover-up government operation afterwards; a pirate ship smuggling nitroglycerin or potassium cyanide that might have spilled and killed everyone; natural phenomena such as methane clouds from a fissure released from the earth below the ship; sea monsters and yes, last but not least, aliens, what else.

Aliens and monsters aside, every scenario has some “most likely” plot, and names are mentioned to give it credibility, although there is a remarkable lack of actual evidence to support any of them. Most of their claims bring nothing new except for more controversial claims with no proof at all to back them. Most only stipulate as to why pieces of evidence are nowhere to be found.

As we said before, facts matter, and in this story, their lack is kind of absurd. Not only was there no evidence of a shipwreck, there was no ship at all. No records mention a ship named Ourang Medan, though many tried to prove it existed. Marine radio communication is followed and usually meticulously recorded, but no radio operator reports exist, nor can the Ourang Medan be found in Lloyd’s Register of Ships. Nor is there any other kind of official record relating to the incident.

The story was first published in 1948, by Silvio Scherli of Trieste, as a three part article in the Dutch-Indonesian trade and advertising magazine, De locomotief. It was, apparently, a story told to him by a missionary, who heard it from a man claiming to be the sole survivor of the Ourang Medan. In later years, the story was reprinted in various publications and with various embellishments. In 1952, the legendary tale appeared in the U.S Coastguard’s Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council.

Painstaking investigation over the decades by marine historians has not even revealed of a ship named Silver Star. There was a Silver Star Park sailing the seas at that time, but it was in the waters around Brazil. So it seems to all be a hoax, just a spooky story for sailors to tell on dark nights. But–is it? Scherli’s source mentions that the ship was carrying “an unregistered cargo” and that most of the crew were overcome by fumes that leaked from the containers. Some of these historians wonder if there could be a link with the Japanese Unit 731, who were granted immunity by the U.S. at the end of World War Two despite their reputation for grisly human experiments. Or is this simply an avenue we should leave to the conspiracy theorists?

Shirō Ishii, commander of Unit 731
Shirō Ishii, commander of Unit 731

If we look to the movies for a comparable scenario, there is one from 2007 that tells a tale of a man, a modern man in modern times. A scientist who invites his dear friends to his house, all scientists from different fields, among whom is a theologist. Throughout what is his impromptu goodbye party, he tells them that he is Jesus Christ and has been alive for more than 14,000 years. What follows is a story of how that might actually be true. In what they first perceive to be an unlikely scenario, the question is discussed and the group find themselves compelled to offer plausible explanations. By adding their own individual expertise from their respective fields, unwillingly they turn fiction into a feasible truth, and we as viewers are left to chose what’s what.

Admirable throughout, it is the product of Jerome Bixby’s brilliant mind; he wrote the story over the course of 40 years. It was filmed at last and named The Man from Earth.

Read another story from u: No traces found today of SS Baychimo, the “Ghost Ship of the Arctic” that roamed the seas unmanned for decades

The story about the Man From Medan (Ourang Medan) and Silvio Scherli, who it is largely agreed probably made the whole thing up, has generated so much speculation that we can safely choose to call it a legend. Or, not, the choice is ours. After all, everyone loves an unsolved mystery.

Anyhow, until actual proof is found, one line which is actually a great opening to a great book is perhaps best fitting to be a closure to this intriguing story.

“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Martin Chalakoski

Martin Chalakoski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News