Was the SS Ourang Medan a real ship?

The Dutch vessel was called the SS Ourang Medan, which translated from Malay to “Man of Medan,” the latter being a Sumatran island. So much has been written and discussed about the unimaginable incident that brought this ship’s name into the public spectrum. But what might be even more incredible is that this much heralded event…might not have ever happened.


Though accounts vary, most agree that the incident took place sometime in the 1940s after the end of World War II, probably 1947. Two American vessels, the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star, were passing through the Straits of Malacca when it received the following distress message in Morse code: “S.O.S. from Ourang Medan. We float. All officers including the captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge. Probably whole of crew dead.” After a bunch of random dots and dashes the transmission concluded with two words: “I die.”

A frantic search by the American ships and a few other vessels that had also heard the message resulted in the Silver Star reaching the seemingly undamaged Ourang Medan first. Upon boarding the merchant ship they indeed found corpses everywhere, the terrified faces gazing at the sky. There were no survivors—although one account said that a man did survive and told his story to a missionary somewhere in the Marshall Islands, before he died.

Corpses were everywhere, terrified faces gazing at the sky.


What killed the crew of the Ourang Medan? An attack by pirates—not out of the realm of reality in that part of the world—was ruled out, given that none of the men displayed any sort of injuries. They had just…died.

As the Silver Star made ready to tow the death ship to a nearby port, where further scrutiny might offer some clues as to what happened, a fire broke out in one of the cargo holds. The boarding party scrambled back to their vessel, where they watched the flames consume the freighter. Finally, after an unexpected explosion, the Ourang Medan sank like a stone.

Subsequent theories posited that the Ourang Medan might have been involved in illegal smuggling operations, with a deadly cargo of leftover wartime nerve agents or other chemicals. A combination of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin could have reacted with sea water seeping into the hold, causing toxic fumes that would have killed the crew. That same water could have reacted with the nitroglycerin and caused the explosion.


There are a number of reasons for the above question to be valid. To begin with, there is no mention of the incident in the official Lloyd’s Shipping Register, nor does the SS Ourang Medan appear to be registered anywhere else. The Silver Star’s logbook makes no mention of a rescue attempt, leading one researcher to posit that all circumstances of the incident might either be exaggerated, inaccurate…or total bullshit.

That said, given the possibility of the Ourang Medan’s deadly—and illegal—cargo, there might be those who would prefer that the whole incident remain nebulous. I can buy that. Word had even come out that what occurred there in the Straits of Malacca might’ve had supernatural or otherworldly implications.

We’ll probably never know the real story, and I suppose that’s what makes the mystery of the SS Ourang Medan so fascinating.


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