In February 1948, macabre distress calls were picked up by numerous ships near Indonesia. The chilling message was, "All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead." This message was followed by indecipherable Morse code then one final grisly message... "I die."
Through triangulation, the ships identified the vessel as the Dutch freighter SS Ourang Medan and located its approximate position within the straits of Malacca. Of the two American merchant ships that heard the Ourang Medan’s grim message, the 6,507tn Silver Star was the nearest and she raced to the aid of the stricken vessel.
When the rescue vessel arrived on the scene a few hours later, they tried to hail the Ourang Medan but there was no response to their hand and whistle signals. A boarding party was sent to the ship and what they found was a frightening sight that has made the Ourang Medan one of the strangest and scariest ghost ship stories of all time. All the crew and officers of the Ourang Medan were dead. As a May 1952 report of the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council put it: “their frozen faces were upturned to the sun, the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring…” Even the ship's dog was dead, found snarling at some unseen enemy. A trip to the communications room revealed the author of the SOS messages, also dead, his hand still on the Morse sending key, eyes wide open and teeth bared. When nearing the bodies in the boiler room, the rescue crew felt a chill though the temperature was near 110°F. Strangely, there was no sign of wounds or injuries on any of the bodies.
The decision was made to tow the ship back to port but before they could get underway, smoke began rolling up from the hull. The rescue crew left the ship and barely had time to cut the tow lines before the Ourang Medan exploded with such a force that she "lifted herself from the water and swiftly sank”.
To this day, the exact fate of the Ourang Medan and her crew remain a mystery. Some say that pirates killed the crew and sabotaged the ship, others claim that she was transporting an illicit cargo of chemicals such as potassium cyanide and nitroglycerine (both of which become dangerous when combined with sea water). The condition of the bodies found aboard and haunting distress call, however, has led to more rampant speculation...ranging from the inhalation of carbon monoxide to some kind of nefarious UFO intervention. In the end, nobody really knows what happened.
Then again, did the Ourang Medan ever concretely exist? The first mention of the Ourang Medan was in a publication put out by the US National Coast Guard. One would think that meant sources were well documented. But perhaps this isn’t the case.
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 some investigators of this case state 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. Other researchers 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.
What really happened to the Ourang Medan? Did the ship ever exist? No record of it anywhere would certainly seem to indicate that it didn’t. Was there a cover-up because of top secret cargo? Until a specialized scuba crew can reach the supposed wreckage the only ones who know for sure rest at the dark bottom of the sea.
Ghost Ships: True Stories of Nautical Nightmares, Hauntings, and Disasters
The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena
Short Sea Sagas
Sunken Ships in the World's Waters, Vol. 7: Shipwrecks off the Coasts of Indonesia, New Zealand, and the Solomon Islands