The Death Ship SS Ourang Medan
It's another of those classic mystery ships from nautical lore. Sometime around 1940, somewhere in the western Pacific, the cargo ship Ourang Medan sent out a distress call via Morse code. The first ship to arrive was greeted with a grisly scene. The Ourang Medan was apparently undamaged, but also uncrewed — until the rescuers went aboard and found everyone dead. And not just dead, gruesomely dead — all uninjured yet splayed out flat on their backs, their eyes and mouths wide open in silent screams of horror, many still at their posts. The rescuers made preparations to take the Ourang Medan in tow, but before they could, a fire broke out below decks and they evacuated just in time to see the vessel explode and sink beneath the waves. And ever since, people have wondered what could have been the explanation for what happened to the crew and to the ship; and some have even wondered whether the story is even true at all. Today we'll have a look at the evidence.
When you set out to read what's available online about the Ourang Medan, one of the first things you'll find out is that it's probably no more than just a fictional story concocted by someone. There's even a strong piece of evidence favoring this: nobody has ever found any record of a ship by that name. The name, by the way, is in Indonesian: ourang means man and Medan is the name of the capital city of the North Sumatra province; so it translates roughly to "Man from Medan". The original sources of the story, however, are from relatively prestigious and reliable sources such as the Associated Press and the United States Coast Guard. So I start to wonder whether this is just another urban legend to debunk, or whether it's a case of over-eager debunkers who have got it wrong. Both happen, and the answer lies not in guesswork, but in research.
For a long time, all that was known about this story came from a serialized publication in the Dutch language Indonesian newspaper De Locomotief in February and March 1948. According to De Locomotief, the tragedy took place in June 1947, southeast of the Marshall Islands. The US flagged ships City of Baltimore and Silver Star received the following message in Morse code:
There was a bit of nonsense keying for a few minutes, and then a final intelligible message:
The Silver Star was the first to arrive on the scene, and they boarded it and found the dead crew as previously described. The newspaper's final installation stated that they had no more information, but the story's source, a Mr. Silvio Scherli of Trieste, "assured them of its authenticity".
If you're wondering how a headline-making shipwreck in the western Pacific would make it into Indonesian newspapers only through a tip from some guy halfway around the world in Trieste, Scherli explained. He learned about the story from a missionary who had just come to Trieste from one of the Marshall Islands called Taongi, where he'd been stationed. There he cared for an officer of the Ourang Medan who died a few days after making it to shore in a lifeboat. Thus the story got from the Marshall Islands to Trieste, and thence to Indonesia.
A few years later, the story was given perhaps its most compelling stamp of legitimacy when it was reported in English in the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, a publication of the United States Coast Guard, in 1952. It was a single paragraph in an editorial about various famous seafaring mysteries, and it gave the same version of events we've already discussed, but with two changes: it said the event happened in February 1948 and it gave the location as the Straits of Malacca. Both discrepancies are likely just careless errors; the article was one of fanciful storytelling and not hard facts. The author may have simply grabbed February 1948 from the date of De Locomotief's publication, and he could have gotten the Straits of Malacca from the location of Medan.
A few German authors also researched extensively and published about the tale, but without really uncovering anything new. It was a mystery, nobody knows what happened, and there was one glaring problem with the story. There is no record of any ship ever being named the Ourang Medan. This is not just conjecture; it's not possible for any commercial vessel built or registered to escape notice by all the world's shipping registers. There was another another problem too: the ship that was probably the Silver Star had actually been named the Silver Star Park, launched in 1943 but renamed the Santa Cecilia in 1945, upon which it was relocated to Brazil. There had been no Silver Star in the Pacific in 1947. And this is where the story remained for decades: an urban legend, lots of independent research, and these two pretty serious problems.
But then the era of searchable text on the Internet dawned. Old publications began to be digitized, and it became possible for researchers to skim through the papers of the 20th century like never before. With every popular legend come throngs of enthusiastic researchers hungry for more information. And they found it. At least two important discoveries were made that gave us the answer to the question of the authenticity of the Ourang Medan.
The first of these was posted by a semi-anonymous blogger named Alex to Bermuda Triangle Central in 2013. What he found was a 1941 issue of a Vichy French tabloid called Sept-Jours (Seven Days), containing an article called "After Twenty Months, the Mystery of the Ourang Medan is Solved." What's that? A 1941 report of an incident that didn't happen until 1947? It was worthy of a close study.
In the Sept-Jours version, the Ourang Medan was found in November 1939, by an American destroyer, not by the Silver Star — which makes sense, as the Silver Star Park had not yet been launched. This version had a whole backstory with the Ourang Medan as a penal transport vessel with an enslaved crew. And the lone survivor in the lifeboat landed in Fiji, not the Marshall Islands. But otherwise, the basics of the story are the same.
The other post-digitization discovery came in 2015 from Estelle Hargraves, an amateur British historian and bookworm (which is high praise). Simply by searching pre-war UK newspapers, she found articles in at least two papers from November 1940, the earliest printed references to the story yet found. These are the Associated Press syndicated reports we mentioned earlier. This earliest version of the story is essentially the same but with the following changes: it happened southeast of the Solomon Islands; the rescuing ship was not named at all, only given as a British merchant ship; the text of the SOS message was completely different; and originally there was no lone survivor making it ashore in a lifeboat at all; instead, all that was known of the story was reported by an unnamed officer of the unnamed British merchant vessel.
And now we come to the moment of truth. The dateline in those 1940 Associated Press articles gave the city of the story's origin as — wait for it — Trieste, Italy. The hometown of Silvio Scherli — the same Silvio Scherli who, eight years later, would tell an updated version of the story to Indonesia's De Locomotief. Hargraves also found that our friend Scherli published an article about the Ourang Medan himself in 1959, almost twenty years later, for the Trieste Export Trade magazine. Apparently Scherli was quite enthusiastic about the Ourang Medan tale — almost paternal, some might say.
Update: Listener Severin dug into the Italian language press and found the oldest version yet: October 16, 1940, written by Silvio Scherli himself in a paper called Il Piccolo. It tells the exact same version of the story as found in Sept-Jours. —BD
In 1940, Silvio Scherli told a tale to the Associated Press, which got itself a little ink. But then, World War II consumed the world, and his story was thoroughly forgotten. Eight years later, the war fading into memory, Scherli told an enhanced version to De Locomotief and "assured them of the authenticity" of this 1947 event. Hargraves wrote:
And so it turns out that the only source for the mystery of the death ship Ourang Medan is a man who, by his own words, lied profoundly about it. Lacking access to the Internet, Scherli made some errors that we can spot but that would have been hard to fact check in his day. First, he didn't realize that the Silver Star was no longer either the Silver Star or in the Pacific when he named it in his 1948 version. Second, the island where he landed his sole survivor to be cared for by the missionary, Taongi Atoll, is tiny, uninhabited, and has no fresh water. This part of Scherli's story is absolutely false. There were never any missionaries on Taongi, as there was nobody there for them to minister, and no way to sustain life. Finally, Scherli couldn't have known that if he made up the name of a ship — like Ourang Medan — that it would be trivial for us to falsify its existence today.
Much of the writings about the Ourang Medan expend a great deal of speculation on what could have killed the crew in such an unusual manner — all flat on their backs at their posts, eyes and mouths wide open — was it a poison gas, maybe something left over from World War II? And they speculate on what could have been in the ship's cargo holds that caught fire spontaneously and caused it to explode and sink. You will find no such speculation in this episode, because we've found sufficient reason to doubt that the event ever took place. Without a confirmed incident to explain, the search for explanations is superfluous. Remember Hyman's Categorical Imperative: Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained.
So what of our infamous Mr. Scherli? One researcher found his record on Ancestry.com. He was born in 1901 and did make his home in Trieste. From the large number of ship departure and arrival records attached to him, it appears that he had worked as a sailor, perhaps as a merchant mariner. Maybe on some trip to the South Seas he conceived his yarn of the Ourang Medan, perhaps even naming his ghost ship after the Indonesian port where he'd been ashore so many times. Those are the parts of the story we're not likely to ever find out, as they were never recorded. But we tip our sailor caps to Silvio Scherli, the author of one more piece of the fabric of 20th century seafaring legends.
Correction: From 1947-1954, Trieste was a "free territory" and not actually part of Italy. An earlier version of this correctly identified Trieste, Italy in Scherli's pre-WWII missives; but incorrectly in his 1948 version. —BD
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