Santa Juana

Erased from Time: The Ourang Medan

The ocean provides ample opportunity for unsolved mysteries. Bodies of water make up 71% of the Earth’s surface, and so much of it is still unexplored, leaving the perfect setting for things to just… disappear.

One of these things was the Ourang Medan, a Dutch freighter that was on its way through the Straits of Malacca in June 1947 when its entire crew, including the dog, suddenly, and quite horrifically, died.

Or so the story goes.

Photo courtesy of  Dan  via Flickr

Photo courtesy of Dan via Flickr

Disasters at sea are not, by any stretch of the imagination, uncommon. Neither are ghost ships. But what sets the Ourang Medan apart from all those other stories is the seemingly endless twists and turns the story takes, as well as the silence that follows what was supposed to have been such a terrible event in maritime history.

Allow me to start at the beginning.

In June 1947 an SOS signal was received by two nearby American ships, as well as British and Dutch listening posts. The SOS was as follows:

“All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” This was cut off by unidentifiable morse code, and finally: “I die.” Then there was nothing.

One of the American ships that had picked up the distress call was The Silver Star, and they were the ones who responded. What they found when they arrived was ghastly.

After a failed attempt to grab the crew’s attention, the crew on board The Silver Star decided to board the Ourang Medan and scope things out for themselves. What they found was the deck littered with the bodies of the crew members, all dead. Every single crew member was dead and frozen in a state of horror, arms up as though defending off an attacker, mouths and eyes wide with fear. Even the ship’s dog was discovered dead with a snarl frozen on its face.

Photo Courtesy of Alex Iby via Unsplash

Photo Courtesy of Alex Iby via Unsplash

Upon further investigation, they found the body of the operator who they assumed to have sent the SOS still sitting by the telegraph machine. His fingers were still on the keys.

The decision was made to tie the Ourang Medan to The Silver Star, and tow it to shore. But just as they began their journey, smoke began spiraling up from below deck, and The Silver Star’s had just enough time to cut the ropes between them before the Ourang Medan exploded and sank beneath the waves.

Even the details above are pseudo-facts, but they’re the only parts of this whole mystery that anyone can seem to agree upon. Some argue that the ship took its journey in February of 1948, instead of June of 1947, others insist that the Ourang Medan was a steamship, not a freighter. No one even knows agrees on where exactly the ship was. While some say it was the straits of Malacca, others say it was southeast of the Marshall Islands. The confusion is endless.

But the strangest part of all: there exists no historical record of the Ourang Medan anywhere. Not in any newspaper, not in any ship registries from that or any other time, not anywhere. There is no proof that the ship ever existed.

The theories of what happened to this ship on the day its crew died, and afterwards, are seemingly infinite. Truly, I would need a lot more space than I’m given to write this post, but for a more in-depth account of what did and could have happened, please check out Rob Morphy’s article “Death Ship: The Ourang Medan Mystery”.

But allow me to summarize some of the more popular theories around this mysterious ship:

Chemical Leak (Natural and Manmade)

Many theorize that the Ourang Medan and its crew were brought down by some kind of chemical spill or gas leak. Some have suggested that methane bubbles or some such in the water itself, that brought the crew down. After all, it wouldn’t be the first maritime story of a ship being brought down from seemingly supernatural causes when there could have been a more logical explanation. But this wouldn’t necessarily account for the fiery explosion that brought the ship down.

Others site carbon monoxide poisoning as a possibility. Perhaps the ship was operating on a faulty boiler, and the ship eventually filled with carbon monoxide, eventually bringing the entire crew down. The flaw in this theory, however, is that the ship—at least above deck—was open space. The carbon monoxide would just have dissipated into the air, and the crew outside of the boiler room would have been just fine.

Unit 731

Photo Courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

Photo Courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

Suggestions that the Ourang Medan had ties to Unit 731 is the most detailed theory about the Ourang Medan. In short, Unit 731 was a unit in the Imperial Japanese Army that researched and developed biological and chemical warfare during World War 2. They were known for human experimentation so horrific that some claim it made the Nazis human experiments look tame in comparison.

Many believed that the Ourang Medan was actually a ship under Unit 731’s control, and that they were using it to transport dangerous chemicals. It was believed that they chose a ship over a plane or some other form of transport because it would be slower and therefore more inconspicuous.

The theory is that a bit of water got into the ship’s cargo hold and reacted with the nitroglycerine (one of the many chemicals theorized to have been aboard that ship), causing the explosion that brought the ship down.

Government Cover-up

Because of the supposed connection to such atrocious war crimes, the government eradicated all mentions of the ship from any and all possible records in history, leaving the ship to sink not only into the water, but into myth as well.

This could also explain why, despite The Silver Star being proven to have existed (at the time it was named the Santa Juana, and was later purchased and renamed by another company), no crew members ever attempted to tell their story. Perhaps they were so traumatized by what they saw, they refused to speak about it. Or perhaps they were paid off, or forced into silence. The latter keeps more with the government cover-up theory.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone will ever really know what happened to the Ourang Medan, or if it was anything more than a ghost story passed around by seafarers creating some late night spooks for new recruits and gullible deckhands. Perhaps it was just an accident, a mix of unfortunate but natural circumstances that brought the ship down. Perhaps it was more nefarious than that.

Perhaps history will never know.

Photo Courtesy of Milo McDowell via Unsplash

Photo Courtesy of Milo McDowell via Unsplash


Feel free to comment below with your own thoughts of what could have happened!


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Maggie Kendall

Maggie Kendall spent the first fifteen years of her life furiously avoiding all things horror, but then her friend forced her to watch Paranormal Activity, and there’s been no turning back. She still checks the bathroom mirror for Bloody Mary before getting in the shower.