“The ship of death” – that is what the American sailors boarded the ship in distress called the Ourang Medan. The entire crew of the ship was dead. Eyewitnesses assured that the faces of the crew were turned to the sky and distorted by torment.
Save our souls
In June 1947, British and Dutch radio stations received a very strange SOS signal, which someone transmitted in Morse code. The message transcript read:
“This is the Dutch ship, Ourang Medan. The captain and all the officers are dead in the cockpit and on the bridge. Perhaps the whole crew is dead.”
Then came an incomprehensible series of dots and dashes, but they still managed to decipher the end of the message. Somewhere in the expanses of the Indian Ocean, an unknown radio operator clearly tapped out:
“I am also dying.”
Despite the brevity of the message, a few distress ships managed to receive the distress signal not far from the Strait of Malacca, which separates the island of Sumatra from Malaysia. Among these ships, by a strange coincidence, there were two American ships that were the first to establish the approximate location of the ship in distress. One of them – Silver Star (“Silver Star”) – went to the rescue of “Medan”.
Despite the fact that the width of the Strait of Malacca is only 40 kilometers, the length of the strait is more than 800 kilometers, so the drift ship was not immediately found. Sailors with Silver Star immediately noticed something was wrong – no one answered the greeting signals, and even a soul was not visible on the deck. Therefore, the captain of Silver Star decided to send a boat with a reconnaissance detachment to Medan.
The Americans who got on board got a terrible picture: the deck and bridge of the ship were littered with corpses. Even the dog died – apparently, the favorite of one of the officers. The radio operator who transmitted the SOS was found in the radio room – he was also dead, and his hand still lay on the transmitter. What terrified the Americans most of all was the fact that most of the dead lay with wide eyes and contorted faces, which testified to unbearable torment at the time of death. The sailors wanted to go down into the hold to inspect the cargo, but quickly abandoned this idea – an incredible cold reigned inside the ship, in some places the corridors were covered with hoarfrost.
After consulting with the captain, the Silver Star sailors decided to take the Medan in tow and deliver it to the nearest port, where it would be possible to find out the cause of the death of the sailors. But as soon as the ship was towed, a trickle of smoke appeared over the deck of the ill-fated ship – a smoldering fire began to break out. This was a paradox – despite the polar cold, fire raged inside the ship.
Photo © Andrew H. Hochheimer
The members of the Silver Star team barely had time to cut off the towing ropes and escape from the ship, when in the hold of the Medan there was such a strong explosion that the ship lifted above the water, and then it quickly sank, forever depriving the Americans of the opportunity to find out what happened.
The Research Begins
60 years later, American researchers became interested in the story of Medan. But they were surprised to find that the only document confirming the authenticity of the story of the Medan crew was a brochure published by the US Coast Guard in 1952. The brochure published the testimonies of sailors boarding the “flying Dutchman.” This proved that the story really happened.
As it turned out, the US archives confirmed the existence of the Silver Star ship. According to the papers, it was sold in the same 1947 to Grace Line and received a new name – Santa Juana. But finding documentary evidence of the existence of the Dutch vessel Ourang Medan was not so simple. Neither in the International Register of Ships, nor in the Singapore Maritime Archive, nor in the archives of Amsterdam, a ship of that name has ever been.
But it turned out that the traces of the ship must be sought in … Germany. The scientist Theodor Sirsdorfer, who devoted 50 years to the study of Medan and managed to establish the names of American ships that received the SOS signal (the second was a vessel called City of Baltimore), found a brochure by another German author – Otto Milke; the brochure was called Das Totenschiff in der Südsee (“Death Ship in the South Sea”) and was published in 1953.
In it, the author spoke in detail about the Ourang Medan ship, indicated its technical characteristics and claimed that the ship really died with the crew in 1947. Moreover, Milke shed light on the causes of the death of the ship, hinting that the fourth compartment in the hold of the ship was indeed filled with dangerous cargo, which caused the death of the crew – potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin.
Photo © Andrew H. Hochheimer
Versions for the Crew Death
But there was an even more terrible version of the death of the Medan crew, and it led from Nazi Germany to another country with a militaristic regime – Japan.
Division 731, which the Japanese called the “division of Togo,” was founded in 1932 by the Japanese bacteriologist Shiro Ishii and gained such terrible fame that people did not call it “cannibal lair”. The task of the department was to develop the deadliest bacteriological weapons and the most terrible poisonous substances.
In Harbin’s laboratories, the Japanese tested these substances on prisoners of war – Chinese and Russians, as well as on the civilian population of China – on women and children. The Japanese doctors did not stop the suffering of people – they opened the victims alive to see the effects of poisonous gases on their internal organs, froze the still alive “patients” and infected them with various combinations of infections.
Despite the war crimes of scientists, the Americans granted them immunity in exchange for research results. For transportation of toxic substances of unit 731, Medan, a ship of Sumatran or Malaysian smugglers, not registered in any of the marine registers, whose task was to take out the deadly substances to the United States, could be chartered. In the hold of the Medan, containers were leaked, the crew died, and the gas managed to disappear by the time the Americans approached.
However, this is only one of many versions of the death of the team “Medan”. Some researchers suggested the impact on sailors of powerful ultrasound, which can occur in the ocean and kill people. Conspiracists believed that the team was killed by the undead or met with a UFO. Scentists spoke of a cloud of methane that rose from the depths of the Strait of Malacca, covered the ship, and the crew simply suffocated without oxygen.
Photo © Historic Mysteries
The version with the Nazis was continued – the researchers found a publication in the Indonesian newspaper Lokomotiv dated February 3, 1948. It said that after the explosion on Medan, a boat with a starving man was thrown ashore on one of the Marshall Islands. This man spoke German and told the translator that the Ourang Medan actually belonged to Germany and sank 400 miles southeast of the Marshall Islands. In 1945, it supposedly transported containers of nerve gas, but, learning about the surrender of Germany, it began to hide, moving from port to port and moving on to South America. The Germans’ journey was interrupted by an accident – one of the containers was depressurized, the team died.
But there is another plausible explanation for what happened on the ship. Perhaps the smugglers’ vessel was transporting such a seemingly ordinary cargo as ammonium nitrate. This is a fertilizer that is used in the manufacture of explosives. After getting into the hold of sea water, ammonium nitrate entered a chemical reaction with water and began to decompose, releasing laughing gas, which causes drug intoxication and dulls vigilance. At the same time, a decrease in temperature occurred, since the reaction proceeds with the absorption of heat, which could explain the severe cold in the hold. And the introduction of ammonium nitrate into the reaction with any alkali that came on board could lead to the formation of ammonia, the choking from which could explain the terrible torment of the crew. Heating the fertilizer near a steam or diesel engine could lead to heating of the cargo,
Most likely, the violation of safety rules during transportation of hazardous chemicals is to blame for the death of the crew. The smugglers simply pushed the containers into the cargo compartments of the ship and went to sea, hoping for good luck. But this time she turned away from them.