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The S.S. Ourang Medan was a ghost ship, which according to various sources, became a shipwreck in Indonesian waters after its entire crew had died under suspicious circumstances. Skepticism exists about the truthfulness of the story, suggesting that the ship may have never actually existed, but has become something of a legend.
The earliest known English reference to the ship and the incident is in the May 1952 issue of the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, published by the United States Coast Guard. The word Ourang (also written Orang) is Malay or Indonesian for "man" or "person", whereas Medan is the largest city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, giving an approximate translation of "Man from Medan". Accounts of the ship's accident have appeared in various books and magazines, mainly on Forteana. Their factual accuracy and even the ship's existence, however, are unconfirmed, and details of the vessel's construction and history, if any, remain unknown. Searches for official registration and/or accident investigation records have proven unsuccessful.
The story's first appearance is a series of three articles in the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De locomotief : Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad (February 3, 1948, February 28, 1948, and March 13, 1948 ). Although the story is mostly the same as the later versions, there are significant differences. The name of the ship that found the Ourang Medan is never mentioned, but the location of the encounter is described as 400 nautical miles south-east of the Marshall Islands. The second and third article describe the experiences of the sole survivor of the Ourang Medan crew, who was found by a missionary and natives on Toangi (sic) atoll in the Marshall islands. The man, before perishing, tells the missionary that the ship was carrying a badly stowed cargo of sulphuric acid, and that most of the crew perished because of the poisonous fumes escaping from broken containers. According to the story, the Ourang Medan was sailing from an unnamed small Chinese port to Costa Rica, and deliberately avoiding the authorities. The survivor, an unnamed German, died after telling his story to the missionary, who told the story to the author, Silvio Scherli of Triest, Italy. The Dutch newspaper concludes with a disclaimer: This is the last part of our story about the mystery of the Ourang Medan. We must repeat that we don't have any other data on this "mystery of the sea". Nor can we answer the many unanswered questions in the story. It may seem obvious that this is a thrilling romance of the sea. On the other hand, the author, Silvio Scherli, assures us of the authenticity of the story. Silvio Scherli is said to have produced a report on Trieste "Export Trade" on September 28, 1959.
According to the story, at some point in or around June 1947 (Gaddis and others list the approximate date as early February 1948), two American vessels navigating the Strait of Malacca, the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star, among others, picked up distress messages from Dutch merchant ship Ourang Medan. A radio operator aboard the troubled vessel sent the following Morse code message: "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 * * *." A few confused dots and dashes later two words came through clearly. They were "I die." Then, nothing more. When the Silver Star crew located and boarded the apparently undamaged Ourang Medan in a rescue attempt, the ship was found littered with corpses (including the carcass of a dog) "[s]prawled on their backs, the frozen faces upturned to the sun with mouths gaping open and eyes staring, the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures", with no survivors and no visible signs of injuries on the dead bodies. A fire then broke out in the ship's No. 4 cargo hold, forcing the boarding parties to evacuate the Dutch freighter, thus preventing any further investigation. Soon after, the Ourang Medan was observed to explode and sink.
Bainton and others hypothesize that the Ourang Medan might have been involved in smuggling operations of chemical substances such as a combination of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin or even wartime stocks of nerve agents. According to these theories, sea water would have entered the ship's hold, reacting with the cargo to release toxic gases, which then caused the crew to succumb to asphyxia and/or poisoning. Later, the sea water would have reacted with the nitroglycerin, causing the reported fire and explosion.
Gaddis puts forward the theory that an undetected smoldering fire or malfunction in the ship's boiler system might have been responsible for the shipwreck. Escaping carbon monoxide would have caused the deaths of all aboard, with the fire slowly getting out of control, leading to the vessel's ultimate destruction.
The story has appeared in various magazines and books on Forteana, beginning with a 1953 article in Fate Magazine. Authors such as 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.
Several authors note their inability to find any mention of the case in Lloyd's Shipping Register. Furthermore, no registration records for a ship by the name of Ourang Medan could be located in various countries, including the Netherlands. While Bainton states that the identity of the Silver Star, which was reported to have been involved in the failed rescue attempt, has been established with some certainty, the lack of information on the sunken ship itself has given rise to suspicion about the origins and credibility of the account. Bainton and others have put forward the possibility that accounts of, among others, the date, location, names of the ships involved, and circumstances of the accident might have been inaccurate or exaggerated, or that the story might be completely fictitious.