The legends of the sea are diverse and many. From tales of sirens to sea serpents, mythology and superstition have long been the favoured tale of the old sailor. However, perhaps the most popular of all, and most open to retelling and embellishment, is the tale of the ghost ship. While the Flying Dutchman may be the most famous of these yarns, that is not to say there haven’t been authentic stories of ships abandoned by their crew in mysterious circumstances. These real life events have served as inspiration for many ghostly tales of terror at sea. One such story is the account of the SS Ourang Medan, a ship that was apparently found adrift without a soul on board… if it ever existed at all.
As the most familiar tellings of the story go, it was either in February of 1948 or June of 1947 that a series of distress calls were sent from the Dutch merchant ship the Ourang Medan in the Far-East, the location of the vessel given as the Straits of Malacca which lay between Sumatra and Indonesia. The ship, whose name translates from Malay as “Man of Medan” was a cargo steamer of some 5,000 tonnes and said to be 40-years old at the time of the incident, having passed through a dozen owners prior.
The calls were a series of desperate SOS messages, the sender declaring that “We float. All officers including captain dead, lying in chartroom and on bridge, probably whole crew dead…”. Following the initial messages, the sender became incoherent, sending meaningless morse code until one final statement, “I die.”
Picked up by the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star, both ships rushed to the Ourang Medan’s aid. Upon boarding the apparently undamaged boat, they found the radio operator dead, his finger still on the morse key. His eyes were wide in terror. Further searching the ship, the rest of the crew were all found the same way, laying dead on their backs of apparent fright. Even the ship’s dog had not escaped whatever terrible fate had befallen the Medan. There was no sign of injury to any of the corpses and no survivors, although some tellings of the tale suggest one lifeboat and crewman was missing. As the Silver Star prepared to tow the stricken ship back to port, fire is said to have broken out in the hold, sending the rescuers fleeing back to their own ships. A subsequent explosion sent the Ourang Medan to a watery grave.
What killed the crew of the Medan has long been a matter of speculation, with most reasonable theories suggesting that the contents of the ship’s hold are likely to have been the cause. One of the suggested actual cargos of the vessel has been a mixture of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerine or another unnamed nerve agent. A leak in the hold mixed possibly damaged storage containers with saltwater, creating a deadly gas cloud. Seawater mixing with nitroglycerine would have caused the reported subsequent explosion. Another theory claims that the crew could have been overcome with a simple case of carbon monoxide poisoning when a faulty boiler or fire aboard the ship unleashed fatal fumes. Both a fire or faulty boiler could have equally caused the reported explosion.
Case closed? Not quite.
The origin of the story of the SS Ourang Medan appears to be near contemporary to the setting, with recent investigations by the researcher Estelle Hargraves revealing that the earliest known source is far earlier than the familiar tellings have told.
It was in November of 1940 that the British national newspaper The Daily Mirror and regional Yorkshire Post reported the sinking of the Ourang Medan off the Solomon Islands, the original source being the Associated Press. These initial reports say that the ship requested first a doctor and then a warship and it was a British merchant ship who was first on the scene, not the City of Baltimore or the Silver Star. The account agrees that the entire crew were dead and subsequently the ship was sunk by an explosion.
“We were about 200 miles south-west of the Solomon Islands when we intercepted the following signal, ‘SOS from the steamship Ourang Medan. Beg ships with short wave wireless get touch doctor. urgent.’ With our short wave set, we relayed the call for help. Medical stations in Germany, Rome and France replied. We informed the Ourang Medan and asked her to transmit her request. The Ourang Medan replied with its auxiliary transmitter, ‘Probable second officer dead. Other members crew also killed. Disregard medical consultation. urgent assistance warship.”
British marine officer, as quoted by the Associated Press
The messages that are noted in these very first accounts differ wildly from the retellings that would be told in later years, with no mention made of the call for medical assistance or a military response.
“The ship gave her position and went on, ‘crew has…’ At this point, the message broke off with words which we failed to make out. Still, we repeated the Ourang Medan’s message with our wireless and annulled the appeal to the medical centres. We made wild guesses at what had happened… mutiny… piracy… prisoners revolt. At the end of 16 hours, we sighted a big ship on the horizon. It flew no flag, was listing slightly to starboard, and the propeller motionless. From our bridge, we could see it was the Ourang Medan. There was no sign of life on the quarter deck and no reply to our shouts through a megaphone.”
British marine officer, as quoted by the Associated Press.
Likewise, with the accounts of the boarding, the original version of the tale makes no mention of crewmen stricken in terror, nor a deceased dog. It also opens the possibility that the entire crew wasn’t dead.
“We launched two lifeboats with eight men in each and rowed across to the Ourang Medan and boarded her. Bodies sailors were lying about on the deck. We could find no sign of a wound on any of them. Death seemed to have taken them by surprise at their posts. On the captain’s bridge, we found the body of the second officer. We courted 12 bodies, three of them of deck officers, but we reckoned the Ourang Medan should have had a crew of about 40. The captain decided to search the officers’ quarters, but we heard an explosion in the ship’s hold. A column of smoke belched from the second hatchway. We rowed back to our ship, The explosions were repeated at short intervals we withdrew to a safer distance. Soon nothing was left out the blazing hulk of the Medan”
British marine officer, as quoted by the Associated Press.
Before the unveiling of the 1940 accounts, the earliest known source was three articles in the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad. The first of these articles was published on February 3, 1948, and followed on February 28 and March 13. The story would make it to the United States with the October 10, 1948 edition of The Albany Times. The Times article claims its own source is the Dutch weekly news magazine Elsevier Weekblad. The incident was then referenced in the May 1952 issue of the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, which is published by the United States Coast Guard.
The reports in De locomotief make no mention of the City of Baltimore or Silver Star and place the incident as 400 nautical miles southeast of the Marshall Islands. The ship was, in fact, sailing out of a Chinese port and headed for Costa Rica, deliberately trying to avoid the authorities due to their cargo being illicit. The articles feature the comments of the aforementioned sole survivor, a German, who is said to have been found by an Italian missionary washed-up at Taongi Atoll, an uninhabited coral atoll in the Ratak Chain of the Marshall Islands. The survivor was unable to overcome his ordeal. Before his death, however, he revealed that the Ourang Medan had been carrying a cargo of sulphuric acid that had been poorly stowed in the hold. The fumes overcame the crew who perished. The missionary would go on to tell the tragic tale to the author, Silvio Scherli.
Interestingly Silvio Scherli was based in Trieste, the location that the 1940 Associated Press report was filed. While there is no evidence that it was Scherli who filed the initial reports in 1940, it is distinctly possible that he recycled the tale, with some embellishment, in 1948. The potential duplicity by Scherli also opens up the possibility that the entire story is a hoax that he tried to profit from twice.
Roy Bainton, writing for Fortean Times, carried out an in-depth investigation into the case and discovered that there was no mention of the Man of Medan in any Dutch shipping records. The only potential ship of note was the simple Medan, but that was listed as scrapped before the outbreak of the Second World War. Similar enquiries to the Singapore Maritime Authority were likewise fruitless. Bainton, however, was presented with a 1954 booklet entitled Das Totenschiff in der Südsee (Death Ship in the South Sea) by the German Otto Mielke. The booklet revealed a wealth of new information on the case, including intricate knowledge on the Ourang Medan’s route and cargo, plus the size, tonnage and even the captain’s name of the Silver Star. Despite these apparent facts, Mielke placed the incident in June of 1947 and, as we have ascertained, the Silver Star was not present in the earliest accounts. By the timeframe listed, it had been renamed the Santa Cecilia. The ship was to be found in the waters around Brazil.
While never as famous as the Mary Celeste or perhaps even the SV Carroll A. Deering, interest in the case of the Man of Medan increased last year following the release of the video game The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan from Supermassive Games. Sticking close to the legend, the game features the protagonists boarding the still afloat Ourang Medan and becoming beset by false visions caused by a chemical leak in the hold.
There exists a distinct possibility that truth exists somewhere with the Man of Medan. Perhaps, at the height of war, a ship was indeed lost at sea, its crew dead from a case of poisoning. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that their cargo may have been an illicit gas, with the Japanese imperial army known for using such weapons. Indeed, following the war, there was a brief trade in all kinds of nerve agents. These weapons had been stockpiled across the far-east under Japanese occupation, including in Singapore. With the precise details lost in the fog of war, however, this tale became embellished by Silvio Scherli and others to make it a more thrilling and gripping read. Frightened faces, dead dogs and mysterious last messages sell newspapers.
Equally, there stands the immense possibility that not a word of the story is real, that Silvio Scherli invented the story in 1940 and simply returned to it in 1948 with some added flavour for the post-war audience. Other newspapers, having long forgotten an obscure tale from 1940, added embellishments of their own to create the legend we know today. Fake news, after all, is far from a modern invention. Yet, you have to believe that reports of lost shipping would have had some level of verification before being published at the height of the war. Whether pure fiction or part truth, the story of the Man of Medan remains a classic mystery of the sea. As De locomotief said at the end of their own articles in 1948, while “it may seem obvious that this is a thrilling romance of the sea… the author, Silvio Scherli, assures us of the authenticity of the story.”
I am a freelance long-form writer who writes on true crime, politics, history and more. I am entirely self-funded and if you liked this article, please consider a donation via Patreon as a token of appreciation or directly via PayPal. You can join my mailing list for the latest articles and also like my Facebook page. I’m also active on Twitter. I can be contacted for projects through my website MichaelEastWriter.com where you’ll also find lots more content.