A Mystery wrapped in a Mystery

An explosion and fire sank the Ourang Medan and its secrets.
An explosion and fire sank the Ourang Medan and its secrets.

“YOU’RE RIGHT, RUSS. I have always been tantalized by the mystery aboard the Ourang Medan—what actually caused the deaths of the crew members? I am sure you have seen the artists’ renditions of the casualties.”

“Yes, so awful, but there is a bigger mystery that tantalizes me, Ed.”

“What would that mystery be?” Professor Edward Kentwood asked his good friend. Plates of steamed clams sat before them at O’Hara’s Pub.

Russell answered. “I have always taken this story about the Ourang Medan to be a true, factual mystery. Then one day, much to my disappointment, I read somewhere that no one knows if it is true. Several facts about the case can be verified independently, but there is not one incident where the facts can all be put together to make a true story. It is such a good story it deserves to be true.” Ross winked at his old friend.

“Are you joshing me?” Ed asked. “I always took it to be true, myself.”

“No matter how much reading I do, searches I make, I cannot find anywhere that the story is verified. It is all conjecture, involved parties are all dead. It has been relegated to the category of… legend, romantic sea thriller.”

“Hmmmmm.” Ed uttered this sound as he broke open a clam. Ross could tell that his friend was having a brainstorm by the expression on his face. Sure enough, he soon said, “I have an idea that might be worth pursuing. I have got a lot of very good diggers in my Maritime History 201 class at the university. I will put them on it as a special project for bonus points. If there is anything out there, one of them will find it.”

     “Excellent idea!” Russ exclaimed. “I don’t think they will find anything, but it is worth a try and I may have an enticement myself—for finding the answer.”

*     *     *

     The forty-eight students in Professor Edward Kentwood’s Maritime History 201 class watched with curiosity as he pulled down a map of the Pacific Ocean. It was mostly a blue expanse sprinkled with tiny dots—island clusters. To the right of this map, he pulled down another map, this was of North, Central, and South America—the Americas.

“We are going off-lesson a bit today because I want you to help me solve a mystery,” Professor Kentwood announced as he walked over to the map of the Pacific. “These are the Marshall Islands.” He pointed. Then he pointed to a key at the bottom of the map. “These are nautical miles. Who wants to come up here and show me where four hundred nautical miles southeast of the Marshall Islands would be?” He motioned to a student with a raised hand and the student came forward and pointed out the general area. “Thank you, Andrew. That is correct.”

Professor Kentwood walked a few steps back to his desk to look at some notes, then, he started talking again. “Around June of 1947, two American ships in the Strait of Malacca…” The professor wheeled around and pointed to the straight. “…got distress signals from a vessel calling itself the Ourang Medan, a Dutch merchant ship. It was located approximately at the spot Andrew just pointed out on the map, four hundred nautical miles southeast of the Marshalls. The messages the two American ships, the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star, got were creepy and eerie. They went something like this: confused dots and dashes, not making any sense. In the middle of the tangled message was a real message that stated, ‘SOS from Ourang Medan…we float…all officers including the Captain are dead in the chartroom and on the bridge…probably whole crew dead…’ then there were more confused dots and dashes making no sense, but the last chilling message was, ‘I die…’

Most of Professor Kentwood’s class gasped at this last revelation. “If you thought that message was shocking, what I am about to tell you next will really seem creepy,” he continued. “The Silver Star was actually able to locate the ship. Some of the Silver Star’s crew boarded the Ourang Medan to investigate, when they could spot no one moving about on the deck.   The Ourang did not appear damaged in any way, but the members of the ship’s crew were now corpses. The sailors had died on their backs, arms outstretched, eyes open and mouths open in frozen terror. There was also the corpse of one dog. The sailors from the Silver Star had enough time to do a rough examination of the bodies before a fire broke out in one of the cargo holds. There examinations found no evidence of violence on the bodies—there were no wounds. There was no evidence of fighting or rioting. As the fire grew, the crew of the Silver Star knew they must leave. The cargo could contain explosive materials. Shortly after they had made their way back onto the Silver Star, there was an explosion on board Ourang Medan, and more fires. It did not take it long then, to sink, and disappear beneath the waves.”

“So is this story fact or fiction, Professor Kentwood?” Timothy Bell asked.

“That is what I am trying to find out. I have always believed it to be fact, Timothy. It was taught to me as fact, but it has recently been brought to my attention that it may not be. I have enough confidence in you people here, that you will be able to find out the truth. Is it fact or fiction? The person who finds out for sure will get extra credit, bonus points, on the semester grade. The friend of mine who is equally curious to know has promised an additional perk. I think it is a dinner for two at a fine restaurant in the area. His brother-in-law, owner of French Chalet, owes him a favor!” Professor Kentwood was encouraged by the expressions of enthusiasm about the room.

“This is going to be fun,” one of the more competitive students blurted out across an aisle.

“Okay here are the facts for you to work with—take notes if you wish. There actually were US Vessels in that area at the time with the names Silver Star and City of Baltimore, some reports state, but double check this anyway. Another friend was told the Silver Star was Canadian. The story of the Ourang Medan was first serialized in a Dutch-Indonesian newspaper in three installments appearing in February and March of 1948. The ship and the catastrophe were also mentioned in and issue of Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council published by the US Coast Guard in May of 1952. This is what always gave credence to the story for me. I admit that I never did read that account in the publication, though. In a side story, a lone survivor of the Ourang Medan somehow ended up on a nearby atoll. And we wonder how he ended up there. This was never explained. He told the missionaries that discovered him, that the doomed ship was carrying poorly loaded containers of sulfuric acid. The ship was taking this load to Costa Rica on the sly, and therefore avoided all authorities.” Professor Kentwood walked over to his map of the Americas and pointed to the location of Costa Rica.

“That is quite a distance,” Andrew said aloud. “What became of the sole survivor, Professor?”

“It is said that he died after some time, but, he was probably a German man. The missionary—one of the missionaries—that he told his tale of survival to ended up in Italy, and he told the story to a Silvio Scherli of Trieste, who retold the account in a report, ‘Export Trade.’”

“This sole survivor-sulfuric acid tale is second-hand and murky at best, but it was this survivor’s opinion that gases escaped from the poorly stowed cargo and asphyxiated the sailors. I must admit, from speaking with some of my more scientifically educated colleagues about this subject that they have offered the mode of death must have been some kind of gas fumes that later also caused the explosions. Some other theories included that the ship was transporting potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin—smuggling it for military purposes of some kind. Sea water coming into contact with some of these things could have had volatile and deadly results. Others have thought the deaths were simply due to carbon monoxide from a faulty boiler. There are many mentions of ships named Ourang Medan in articles and stories about naval life, but there is no actual listing of such a ship in Lloyd’s Shipping Register for any country, including the Netherlands for that time. By the way, the ship’s name translates as ‘Man (or person) from Medan’ in Sumatran. Fortean-centered publications seem to be the places that hold the record for the most stories and articles about the Ourang Medan incident. It has wandered into the paranormal phenomena category over the years. Find out what you can, and let me know what you discovered, with sources to back it up. There could be rewards awaiting you, my friends.”

The excitement in the room was palpable. The students picked up their materials to leave the room, but they seemed to break off into discussion groups as they were leaving. It was a hot topic and Professor Kentwood had been the one to press the hot button. He hoped at least one of them would have some reliable facts that proved the Ourang Medan Incident was the real deal. Some old fuddy-duddys had been trying to figure it out for years. Maybe some young, tech-savvy people really could.

Sara Marie Hogg’s latest book is Quite Curious, a collection of fascinating stories about the unknown and unexplained.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Sara, it always seems like the sea produces some of the strangest and most baffling mysteries of all. The oceans do hold a lot of secrets and only on rare occasions give them up.

    • Sara Marie Hogg

      It is full of them, isn’t it Caleb? At times I catch myself believing in mermaids. No telling what all is down there.

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