Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Ghost Ship: the SS Ourang Medan

The end of September is here and Autumn is in full sway. The leaves are turning, the air is crisp and the nights are dark, so naturally it's time to turn on the central heating or, if you're lucky, stoke up the fire and get stuck into a good ghost story. And, as always, I have the perfect story for you to scare yourself with.

"𝕋𝕙𝕖𝕚𝕣 𝕗𝕣𝕠𝕫𝕖𝕟 𝕗𝕒𝕔𝕖𝕤 𝕨𝕖𝕣𝕖 𝕦𝕡𝕥𝕦𝕣𝕟𝕖𝕕 𝕥𝕠 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝕤𝕦𝕟, 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝕞𝕠𝕦𝕥𝕙𝕤 𝕨𝕖𝕣𝕖 𝕘𝕒𝕡𝕚𝕟𝕘 𝕠𝕡𝕖𝕟 𝕒𝕟𝕕 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝕖𝕪𝕖𝕤 𝕤𝕥𝕒𝕣𝕚𝕟𝕘..."

Allegedly a photo of one of the dead crewmen,
it's source is untraceable and therefore unreliable.
Sometime in 1947, ships in the Malacca Straight started to receive
distress calls from a Dutch merchant ship, which had run into 
trouble. This wasn't unusual in that area, but the content of the messages was. "All officers, including Captain dead, lying in the chartroom and on bridge. Probably whole crew dead." came the panicked message from the ships radio operator. This was followed by a string of garbled morse code, utterly untranslatable, as if the sender was so hysterical that they couldn't send properly. Minutes of silence followed before one last message was transmitted from the stricken vessel. Just two words. "I die." After this, there was nothing but radio silence. The ship, the SS Ourang Medan, couldn't be hailed. Coordinates had been given during the distress calls and an American vessel, by the name of the Silver Star, decided to check the situation out. Understandably unnerved by the chilling distress calls, they still hoped that they might save someone, anyone. Their hopes of finding survivors were soon dashed as they sighted the ship. The Ourang Medan was dead in the water, floating with the tide, nobody in sight. Once again all attempts to hail the crew were met with silence. Apprehensively, the rescuers boarded the silent vessel and were greeted with a sight beyond their wildest nightmares. Below deck, the ship was so cold that the rescue team could see their breath, it was like walking into a meat locker. Highly unusual for such a hot part of the country. But what truly sent chills down their spines wasn't the temperature, every member of the Ourang Medan's crew was dead. Bodies littered the decks. Twisted and contorted, their faces frozen in expressions of terror, as if they had seen something truly horrific in their final moments. Not even the ships dog had been spared, a fearful snarl forever fixed upon its face. It was the sight of the radio operator, slumped at his station, that sent the rescue party running. After much discussion it was agreed that they would at least tow the stranded ship back to port, so that the authorities there could investigate it properly. Before they could do so, thick smoke began to billow from the depths of the Ourang Medan. Fire soon followed the smoke and the crew of the Silver Star barely had enough time to cut their tow ropes and get themselves to a safe distance before an explosion rocked the other ship. It's said the force of the explosion was so strong that the SS Ourang Medan was actually lifted from the water as it was torn apart, sinking, never to be found.

A rumoured photo of the SS Ourang Medan, photographer unknown

The Truth Behind the Tale
There's nothing quite like a good ghost ship story, is there? And in my opinion, the tale of the Ourang Medan is just that, a scary story. But would it surprise you if I told you that some people believe that it's not a story, that the events I just told you about really happened? Not an old urban legend, it seems to have first appeared in a Dutch-Indonesian newspaper in 1948, but also appears in two American papers, one also in 1948 and another later in 1952. It worth mentioning that these articles differ from the version of the story we have now, with the first article neglecting to name the rescue ship and the American articles including a miraculous sole survivor, who tells his rescuers that the ship was carrying badly packaged chemicals which leaked and killed the crew, before dying himself. While stories do change over time, some people believe that this is a sign that the tale was deliberately changed as part of a cover-up. The rescue ship, the Silver Star, was indeed a real ship, but there is no sign of the SS Ourang Medan ever having existed. There is a Coast Guard report floating around, but that's highly likely to be fake, as it was made in 1954 and the incident itself happened in 1947. That's an 8-year gap between events. Oddly, the Ourang Medan was also referenced by the CIA in a report in 1959. Although written in 1959, the report wasn't released to the public until 2003 and you can read that report as a pdf here. So whats going on here? Three conspiracy theories have grown around this story. 
Theory one: The most popular of the three states that the Ourang Medan was part of a massive cover-up, one that resulted in it being wiped from all registration and shipping records, and even from the ships log of the Silver Star itself. Some theorise that the ship wasn't even Dutch, but was instead a disguised American military ship, covertly moving a newly developed and unnamed chemical weapon from one location to another. This ties in nicely with the Sole Survivor from the American articles, who claimed the ship was carrying chemicals. Conspiracy theories aren't really my vibe, but you know me, I would never mock anyone for their theories and I love a good mystery. So it's no surprise that I've sat and thought about this story. It is worth noting that out of the two theories, this one seems the most realistic, since the sinking of the SS Ourang Medan and it's mysterious cargo coincides with the year that the Cold War started. In this period, if a country had developed a new weapon, then they would want to transport it around secretly. The chemical weapon part is where it gets interesting, as to have the effect on the Ourang Medan's crew that it had, then it would have to be a nerve agent of some sort. While the chemical weapon known as VX could have had that effect and did need to be stored in cold temperatures, explaining the why the ship was like a walk-in freezer below deck, it wasn't developed until the 1950s, in Britain. But that doesn't mean they, and other countries, wouldn't have been working on it before then. Meaning the SS Ourang Medan, if real, could have been transporting an early prototype of the weapon. If it were an unknown chemical weapon, then another possible culprate could be an extract of Oenanthe, a type plant also referred to as Hemlock Water Dropworts. In ancient Sardinia, this plant was used for its neurotoxins, usually when sacrificing the elderly. If administered in high enough amounts, it twists the face in death, causing something referred to by scientists as the Sardonic Grin. This might sound cheery, but it's actually less of a cheerful smile and more of a twisted grimace; teeth bared, eyes wide, sounds familiar doesn't it? It's the exact look that the crew of the Ourang Medan had on their faces in death. 
Theory Two: Something in the ships boiler had malfunctioned, or was on fire and was leaking carbon monoxide gas. This seems incredibly unlikely, because the side effects of CO poisoning would have had the crew sending out a distress call long before they reached the stage they did as would a fire. Some of the Ourang Medan's crew were outside in the fresh air, where CO gas would have dissipated and, even though they would have been feeling a bit queazy, they wouldn't have been reduced to twisted corpses. Also, if the boiler was releasing enough CO to incapacitate the crew that quickly, then the rescue party from the Silver Star would also have been affected to some degree when they went below deck. They were not. They also reported no signs of smoke, which would have flooded the ship had there been a fire below deck.
Theory Three: Aliens did it. Out of all of the theories, this is (for me at least) the most far fetched of the bunch. Some people strongly believe that what happened on the Ourang Medan was a violent chance encounter with Aliens, which resulted in the gruesome deaths of all aboard and resulted in the ship exploding. Sadly this theory crops up a lot when something mysterious, with no apparent explanation, occurs. No signs of UFO activity or unexplained lights in the sky were sighted or reported by any of the other ships in the area.

The Ourang Medan in Popular Media
Oddly, although there are a lot of films based around the subject of ghost ships, there are none about the Ourang Medan. This is a shame, since the story would, if made by the right people, make a brilliant horror movie. The closest you'll find is The Man of Medan, an excellent game made the company Supermassive Games. The game itself is based around the idea of...well, I won't tell you. It may have been released last year, but you'll find no spoilers here. Available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, it's well worth a download if you enjoy a story-driven adventure/survival horror game with multiple endings based on your actions during the game.

So, what do you think, readers? A chilling tale to scare your friends or a true story that has been covered up? Personally, I'm hoping it is just a story, because after referring to the theories about it as conspiracy theories, I'm going to be very embarrassed if the first one turns out to be true. And completely mortified if the third one turns out to be true. Have any theories of your own, or anything to add to the ones I've mentioned? Let me know in the comments below, or link me in a Tweet

1 comment:

  1. So interesting and I couldn't say whether I thought it was real or just a story! I find anything about ships so fascinating x