In the early to mid-20th century, there were quite a few ways to become famous. But one sure way was to die under terrifying and mysterious circumstances on a ship in the middle of the ocean. That's how the crew of the SS Ourang Medan (and their dog) become infamous, with wide-open eyes and mouths twisted in horror. No one knows what happened to this ghost ship because shortly after it was discovered by a rescue boat, it blew up. At least, that was the story.
In 2019, the release of the Namco Entertainment video game, "Man of Medan," reignited interest in the horrifying mystery of the Ourang Medan, but the stories of this ghost ship have been in circulation for 80 years.
"I remember first reading about the Ourang Medan story many years ago as a child. Still, it never seemed to be one of the bigger mysteries that always got covered," says history and true crime writer Michael East. People love sea mysteries, he says, and that explains why the events surrounding the loss of the Ourang Medan have been told and retold with different details in each retelling, every time ending in the horrifying death of her crew.
Final Words From the Crew
The more popular and entertaining versions of the story begin in 1947 or 1948 when a Dutch freighter named the Ourang Medan sent a desperate SOS. The radio broadcast was picked up by nearby ships including an American ship, the Silver Star, in the Straits of Malacca, between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The message said, simply:
When the Silver Star arrived, the Ourang Medan was eerily still. No steam billowed from her engines, no shouts for help could be heard. The search party boarded the ship and found the bodies of the crew. Their faces were contorted in fear, mouths stretched in eternal screams and their eyes were open wide as if turned to stone by Medusa herself. Even the ship's dog died mid-snarl. Whatever terrorized the crew to death was gone without a trace.
There was no time to investigate the deaths or recover the bodies because shortly after the rescue crew arrived on board, smoke was seen rising from the cargo hold of the Ourang Medan. With seconds to spare, the rescue crew made it back to the Silver Star before the Ourang Medan exploded, leaving nothing but a story for the newspapers.
Where Truth Ends and Myth Begins
Variations on the story of the fate of the Ourang Medan circulated for years and so, like other mysteries of the sea, it's unclear where the truth begins, and where it ends. The first problem with the story is that there is no evidence that a ship named the Ourang Medan ever existed, says East. "There is no shipping record of a vessel under that name. Nobody ever came forward to say they knew the ship or had served on her," he adds. "Equally, the inconsistent dates constantly stand out, as does the changing location."
Some stories reported the ship was near the Solomon Islands, while others placed it in the Marshall Islands. The earliest known mention of the sinking of the Ourang Medan was found by researcher Estelle Hargraves. She discovered quotes from British marine officers in 1940 published in British national newspapers during World War II. These articles describe a distress call from the ship requesting help from a medic and a warship. In this version, however, it's a British merchant ship, not an American one, that came to the rescue of the Ourang Medan and found only the dead crewmen (no dog in this version). The only consistency in this telling compared to later versions is that the ship did explode, and nothing was recovered.
Where Did the Story go Wrong?
East points out that the pivotal character, a reporter named Silvio Scherli, may explain where the truth went sideways, "The [original] reports became embellished by others, primarily Silvio Scherli, who was looking to profit from the story."
In 1948, a Dutch-Indonesian newspaper, De locomotief, described the Ourang Medan sailing from a Chinese port to Costa Rica in an attempt to keep its illegal cargo a secret. This covert operation was divulged by the only remaining survivor of the ship, a German, who was found by a missionary washed up on Taongi Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The German eventually succumbed to his injuries, but not before revealing the ship was carrying sulphuric acid. The cargo, he said, was mishandled and fumes escaped their containers silently killing the crew, and ultimately causing the ship to explode. The Italian missionary who discovered the survivor told this story to none other than the writer, Silvio Scherli.
What’s interesting is that Scherli was based in Trieste in 1940, the place where the original 1940 report was made. No one can be certain that it was Scherli who made the 1940 report, reporting on it again in 1948, but if you believe in ghost ships, you can believe in humankind’s capability to deceive.
The Ghost Ship That Never Was?
Over time, the story of the Ourang Medan was retold and new storytellers embellished different details. Dates, locations and even the fates of the crew twist and turn with each new telling. Did dangerous chemicals kill the crew? Was there a survivor? What's more likely, says East, is the Ourang Medan never actually existed except in the imagination of the storytellers and their eager audiences.
"I believe a ship sank in mysterious circumstances, but it was likely during the Second World War as per the 1940 reports. However, it was likely never named Ourang Medan, and the journalist Silvio Scherli got hold of the story, filling in the gaps in what he'd heard with his own entertaining embellishments," says East. "There is often a truth hidden deep in most myths, but people's need to tell a better story takes over, meaning the truth is lost."