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After 70 years, ghost ship with dead crew remains a mystery

Seventy two years ago this summer, the legendary ghost ship “SS Ourang Medan” was found adrift at sea, with its whole crew dead for unknown reasons. To this day, the ominous ship remains a chilling mystery that has become a nautical legend around the world.

Explanations abound as to what caused the crew to die in a most ghastly way and then caused the ship to explode suddenly and unexpectedly when rescuers attempted to tow her to port.

The Dutch freighter Ourang Medan was traveling through the Straights of Malacca in June 1947 when the vessel sent out a chilling SOS signal:

“All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.”

This was followed by some indecipherable Morse code, and ended with the cryptic final words: “I die.”

The message was received by two listening posts—a British and Dutch—near Malaysia and Sumatra. After they had triangulated her position, they alerted ships nearby where the Ourang Medan was located.

The U.S. merchant ship Silver Star was the first to reach the Ourang Medan following the SOS. They waved and shouted but saw no signs of life on the deck, just an ominous silence.

When the Silver Star sent a rescue team aboard the Ourang Medan to investigate, what they found was a bone-chilling nightmare: the whole crew had been killed in a most ghastly-seeming way. Their eyes were wide open in horror, mouths agape as if screaming their last breaths, their arms outstretched as if fending off some invisible killer.

Unable to explain what had happened, the Silver Star decided to hook a line onto the Ourang Medan and tow her to the nearest port. The attempt failed, however, as thick smoke began billowing from the lower decks of the Dutch ship, disrupting the rescue attempt.

The crew desperately evacuated the smoking vessel and cut the line just before the Ourang Medan exploded with such force that the ship was thrown out of the water. The vessel sank to the bottom of the ocean, taking with her all clues of what caused the explosion, and what had killed her crew…

…So goes one version of this mysterious nautical tale.

Theories abound as to what caused Ourang Medan’s inexplicable end. One cryptic fact about the vessel is that currently, there are no records whatsoever that the ship ever existed, making it quite literally a “ghost ship,” while leading some to believe that the incident was part of some transnational cover-up.

Some add to the theory that the vessel had been carrying an illegal shipment of lethal nerve gas as part of the war effort, on behalf of several countries, including the Netherlands, United States, Japan, Germany, China, as well as others. This could have motivated a cover-up and the expunction of all records of the vessel’s existence after the plan had been foiled.

The beat-up old Dutch ship would have provided the most inconspicuous cover for transporting the illicit cargo overseas; however, even a small leak of the deadly chemical would quickly kill everyone on board. A mix of saltwater and nitroglycerin in the cargo may then have caused the explosion, which sank the ship.


And there are more theories: another claims that pirates killed the Ourang Medan’s crew, while another theory explains that the crew was asphyxiated by clouds of noxious methane that gurgled up from a fissure on the seafloor. Yet another explanation is that an unnoticed fire in the ship’s boiler system might have caused the demise of the vessel. Carbon monoxide also could have caused their deaths.

The rescue team who boarded the Ourang Medan described feeling an “extreme chill” in the hallways of the Dutch vessel even though the temperatures were above 40 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit) outside. This, along with the terrifying expressions on the faces of the crew, led to the theory that the crew died of terror.

Although the events surrounding the Ourang Medan shall perhaps never be fully known, her story has all the elements of a good mystery: inexplicable deaths, government conspiracies, deadly weapons, pirates, ghosts, and aliens!

Could it have been as simple as nerve gas killing the crew? What do you think happened to the ghost ship Ourang Medan and her crew?