It was some time in the 1940s when a cargo ship sailing in the waters of the Strait of Malacca sent a shocking SOS message. That urgent plea for help was picked up by the crew of an American vessel. What they found when they reached the stricken S.S. Ourang Medan horrified the would-be rescuers, and it sparked a mystery that remains an enigma to this day.
The vessel which had picked up the call for help – the S.S. Silver Star – arrived at the Ourang Medan and some of the crew had time to board her. But there was little the Star’s sailors could do, and they were forced to beat a hasty retreat when the Ourang Medan caught fire. They got off the distressed ship just in time to watch it explode and sink beneath the waves.
Over the decades since this maritime tragedy, the tale has become one of the most puzzling maritime mysteries of the era. And even America’s premier intelligence agency – the CIA – was dragged into the saga. The organization kept a letter about the Ourang Medan top secret right up until its release to the public in 2003.
That letter – dated December 1959 and addressed to CIA director Allen Dulles – contains horrendous details about the fate of the Ourang Medan and her crew. We’ll come back to those horrifying revelations shortly, but first let’s explore the full story of what happened to the ill-fated Ourang Medan all those years ago.
As we’ve mentioned, the Ourang Medan was a cargo ship and she was sailing through the Strait of Malacca sometime in the 1940s. The date is somewhat vague because different sources give conflicting times. The years 1947 and 1948 have both been cited as the relevant date, and even as far back as 1940. We’ll discuss other uncertainties inherent to this story a little later.
In any case, sometime in the 1940s this Dutch merchant vessel was navigating its way through the 550 miles of the Strait of Malacca. This is a key international trade route that links the Indian and Pacific Oceans – running between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
The Strait of Malacca is one of the world’s busiest and has more than 94,000 vessels sailing through its narrow waters each year, according to Al Jazeera. Furthermore, McGill-Queen’s University Press notes that this shipping highway is responsible for transporting some 25 percent of all the world’s trade. Goods passing through include everything from palm oil to Indonesian coffee and the products of Chinese factories.
The strait is 40 miles across at its narrowest and stretches to 155 miles at its widest. And with the huge volume of traffic that sails through this narrow channel, it’s unsurprising that marine accidents are no rarity. No fewer than 34 shipwrecks – some from as far back as the late 19th century – litter the seabed of the strait’s busiest shipping channel.
Dutch and British colonialists appeared in the 19th century and in the 1940s the Strait had become an important focus for WWII naval battles. In May 1945 during the Battle of Malacca Strait, British Royal Navy ships sank the cruiser Haguro. As a result, some 900 Japanese sailors lost their lives – including two admirals.
So, the sinking of the Ourang Medan was hardly the first maritime disaster in the Malacca Strait, but it’s arguably the most baffling one. As we’ve pointed out, this story has more than one version, with key details and dates varying in different accounts. But for now, we’ll stick to the version of events that says the incident took place on June 27, 1947.
On that day in 1947, it’s said, two ships picked up a shocking SOS message transmitted by the Ourang Medan. These were two steamers: the American Silver Star and the City of Baltimore. The urgent radio plea for help asked for a doctor to come to the aid of the ship. So the Silver Star headed towards the Ourang Medan’s location.
When the Silver Star had heard the SOS message, she was around 210 nautical miles from the Ourang Medan’s given position. Radio directional equipment calculated that it would take them around 19 hours to cover the distance. The City of Baltimore actually had a doctor aboard, but it was even further away – some 800 nautical miles distant.
In fact, the SOS call-out said that several members of the Ourang Medan’s crew were already dead. And then the Morse code became unintelligible but for one last phrase. Chillingly, the radio operator tapped out just two words, “I die,” and then the transmission abruptly dropped out. For the Silver Star’s crew, this must have been a harrowing moment.
When Silver Star eventually reached the Ourang Medan on the morning of June 28, no smoke was coming from the distressed steamer’s chimney. Her engines were clearly not running and the ship sat stationary in the sea. No flag was flying, and there was no sign of anyone onboard. Silver Star signaled her presence by sounding her siren, but no response came.
Although the Ourang Medan was listing slightly at her starboard side, the ship had no obvious damage. However, one of the lifeboats was absent from its davits from which cables dangled. Having failed to raise any reply with the ship’s siren, one of the Silver Star’s crew tried hailing with a bullhorn. But again, there was no response.
Silver Star’s crew now launched one of her boats. Nine crew members plus the ship’s first officer made their way across the sea to the eerily silent Ourang Medan. The would-be rescuers estimated that a steamer the size of the Ourang Medan must have sailed with a crew of around 40. Yet as they approached her, there was no sign of life.
Four of the Silver Star men then boarded the Ourang Medan. Shortly after they did, the sailors came across the first bodies. The dead mariners – all of whom seemed to be Asians – appeared to have suffered agonies but there were no apparent signs of physical injury. The operator who had presumably sent that last spine-chilling message, “I die,” was found lifeless, slumped over his equipment in the radio room.
The boarding party rooted around for the ship’s log and any other papers the Ourang Medan might have carried, but they were nowhere to be seen. The Silver Star men surmised that whoever had managed to escape aboard the missing lifeboat must have taken them. However, as they searched the ship, events took a distinctly threatening turn.
Smoke began to appear aboard the Ourang Medan indicating that fire was breaking out. The first officer ordered his men to disembark the ship pronto and they clambered back into Silver Star’s boat – setting off for their ship. They’d just got far enough away to be safe when several violent explosions tore through the Ourang Medan.
The blasts did not immediately sink the ship, but she was now turned into a blazing hulk. All of those on the Silver Star watched with horror as the Ourang Medan burnt fiercely for several hours. Finally, she flipped on to her side and then sank beneath the waves in waters with a depth of more than 15,000 feet.
It seems that the Silver Star’s captain had no explanation for the shocking events that he and his crew had been unfortunate enough to witness. However, he did apparently suspect that the Ourang Medan may have been carrying munitions and perhaps chemicals of some kind. His men had noticed a strange smell when they were aboard the now sunken ship and such a cargo could explain the explosions.
That narrative of what happened to the S.S. Ourang Medan has several mysterious angles, but it’s a clear enough story. However, this tale has intrigued various researchers over the years and when they made attempts to verify aspects of the story, some worrisome discrepancies emerged. The first of those is the question of whether the Ourang Medan actually existed.
If you’re trying to track down the story of a ship that sailed at any time since the 18th century, the first stop is the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping in London, England. It publishes a comprehensive listing of all sea-going vessels over 100 tons in weight each year. Yet it contains no record whatsoever of the Ourang Medan. And nor do maritime records in the Netherlands, even though she was supposed to have been a Dutch ship. Other shipping authorities also have no record of the vessel.
And then there’s the question of the ship which allegedly picked up Ourang Medan’s distress signal and went to try and help her. Well, it turns out that the Silver Star itself is another mystery vessel. American shipping outfit Grace Line did have a ship by that name, but it had been rebadged as the Santa Juana in 1947 after only a year with the Silver Star name. And there is no record of this ship being involved in a highly unusual incident in the Strait of Malacca in 1947 or 1948.
Now let’s return to the fact that the dates of the Ourang Medan sinking are, to say the least, uncertain. One researcher – an Englishwoman called Estelle Hargraves who has a website called the Skittish Library – has been an indefatigable hunter for the truth about this tale. And she found something that really does upset the apple cart.
A December 2015 post on Hargraves’ website revealed some astonishing new evidence. She’d discovered reports about the tragedy of Ourang Medan in British newspapers. But these articles did not describe an event from 1947 or 1948; they were published in 1940. Hargraves noted that it was formerly believed that the first mention of the tragic ship’s story came in a Dutch-Indonesian publication in 1948.
Furthermore, it had been believed that the earliest report in English had come in 1952 in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council. Yet Hargraves had unearthed English language reports in two British newspapers. These were the Daily Mirror and The Yorkshire Evening Post, which were both dated November 1940 and credited the Associated Press news agency.
As Hargraves wrote on her website, “If the incident occurred in 1947-48, the first reporting of it was in 1948, and the first mention in English was in the U.S. in 1952 – then how come I’ve found British newspaper articles on the subject from 1940? Written at least seven years before the tragedy was even supposed to have happened.” As she remarked, “Peculiar, eh?”
And Hargraves presented facsimiles of the actual reports in the papers from the British Newspaper Archive to back up her findings. This 1940 version of the story is largely the same as the later accounts, with some key differences. The Ourang Medan is mentioned and so is her gruesome end. However, the Silver Star is not named. And the location has changed from the Strait of Malacca to somewhere south-east of the Solomon Islands – over 4,000 miles away.
So, to say that the tale of the Ourang Medan is murky hardly does it justice. Yet there were those in the U.S. who were seemingly deeply concerned about this mysterious maritime tale. And here we come back to what we mentioned earlier; the CIA’s involvement. That comes in the shape of a letter that a concerned U.S. citizen penned to the intelligence agency’s boss Allen Dulles in December 1959.
The letter writer was C.H. Marck Jr. And apart from the fact that he had a habit of sending letters to Dulles, we know absolutely nothing about the man. In his December missive, he begins by reminding Dulles that he’d already written him. Marck’s correspondence starts, “On May 29, 1958, I sent you a letter concerning crews disappearing from ships on the high seas…”
Marck continued, “… Well, I have just read a weird story concerning the Dutch vessel S.S. Ourang Medan…” He then goes on to describe just what it was that he’d read. He quotes the SOS message from the stricken ship, “… All officers including captain dead, lying in chartroom and on bridge… probably whole crew dead… I die.”
“When the boarding parties reached the Ourang Medan they found an eerie sight,” Marck continued. “There wasn’t a living creature on the ship. The captain lay dead [in] the bridge. The bodies of the other officers lay sprawled in the wheelhouse, chartroom and wardroom… And on all the dead faces was a look of convulsive horror.”
And Marck gets yet more lurid, “As a report of the Proceedings of the Merchant Council put it, ‘Their frozen faces were upturned to the sun, the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring…’” He went on, “Everyone was dead. Even the ship’s dog, a small terrier, was lifeless – its teeth bared in anger or agony.” Meanwhile, what Dulles made of this letter we do not know. Perhaps he never saw it – it’s easy to imagine that the director of the CIA gets a fair quantity of crank mail. And some of it may well go unread or be filtered out by an assistant.
And with all due respect to Marck, as the letter goes on, it does become increasingly florid. He finishes his message with, “Yes, the enchanting sea, what terrifying ‘secret’ does it hold? I feel sure that the S.S. Ourang Medan tragedy also holds the answer to this ‘secret.’” And earlier in his letter Marck asked, “Do you think ‘something from the unknown’ is involved?”
In any case, Dulles didn’t reply to Marck’s communications in person. In the case of the May 1958 letter he got an assistant to reply. The minion wrote, “Although we are unable to answer your questions, your letter is very interesting and we appreciate your concern in these matters.” It’s a reply that’s masterly in its dismissive yet polite bureaucratese.
But the real puzzle is, why did the CIA decide that Marck’s letter – and the assistant’s reply – should be kept secret for well over four decades until they finally released it in 2003? There’s no clear answer to that question. And, of course, that leaves us with the mystery of the elusive Ourang Medan. Did it even exist? If it did, what happened to the vessel?
There is no shortage of theories as to what caused the tragedy on Ourang Medan, if there was indeed such a ship. One historian, Roy Bainton, has suggested that the boat may have been carrying lethal chemicals which leaked and overpowered the crew. Or perhaps a huge methane bubble burst from the seabed – killing the sailors. Then again, carbon monoxide from a faulty boiler could have poisoned the mariners. One Morris Jessup even thought that aliens might have been responsible.
Clearly, the ideas about what might have killed the crew of the Ourang Medan range from the at least plausible to the completely laughable. And ultimately, we have no concrete evidence that this tragic ship even existed. However, we are at least left with a macabre mystery whose intrigue has continued to entertain for seven decades and probably will for many years to come. After all, the CIA saw fit to keep it secret for 50 years.