The strait of Malacca near Sumatra has long borne witness to trade ships’ passage. Ivory, cloths, perfumes, glassware and precious stones have passed through the Pacific waters of the strait, stowed in cargo holds to settle in far-flung places around the globe. Over the centuries, the majority of these merchantmen reached their destinations. On the other hand, the silent peace was broken one day in June 1947 when a prohibiting SOS message drifted across the airwaves: “All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge.” Said the message. “Possibly the whole crew is dead.” And then, silence.
Within a couple of hours, the Silver Star came upon the sight. The serene sea gently lapped in the Ourang Medan hull, as well as the crew, were nowhere to be seen above decks. The boat was hailed by the American ship with hand signs and whistles, calls but there was no answer. Nothing onboard that the craft that was strange proceeded. A boarding party was immediately constructed and what they discovered was so striking that it has made the Ourang Medan one of the most bizarre and most disquieting nautical puzzles of time, eclipsing even the Mary Celeste in gruesome detail (if not in infamy). The distress call was picked up by several ships and British and Dutch listening articles which, as the freighter, SS Ourang Medan, identified the vessel through triangulation and situated its position over the straits of Malacca.
The SOS message was right; each member of the team of the Ourang Medan lay dead. The priest lay lifeless on the bridge, his officers at the chartroom, the wheelhouse and wardroom all. Their eyes were open, faces towards the relentless sunlight, a few with expressions and arms of terror upon their attributes. As a May 1952 record of the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council put it “their frozen faces were upturned to the sun the mouths were open and the eyes staring…” The Silver Star’s boarding party noted that the ship’s dog was dead, its face locked in a tormented grimace that reflected that of its masters’. A visit to the communications area revealed the SOS messages’ writer perished, his hand on the Morse sending key, teeth bared and eyes open. There was no indication of accidents or wounds on some of those bodies.
The choice has been made to tow the boat back to port, but smoke began emanating from beneath decks, probably originating in Number 4 hold, before they could get penalized. The boarding party returned to the Silver Star and barely had time to cut the tow lines before the SS Ourang Medan burst with such force that she “lifted herself from the water and immediately sank”. Bainton proceeds to hypothesize that it was deadly leaking gas that resulted in the crew’s demise saying that the evolution of the nerve agents was outlawed under the Geneva Convention. Thus perhaps shadowy governmental forces erased the Ourang Medan from the shipping registers–a cover-up.
Unit 731 was a vital research and development department within the Imperial Japanese Army which was devoted to chemical and biological warfare. They used human beings as part of the experimentation and consequently were responsible for several of the most scandalous war crimes carried out by personnel. Unit 731’s study methods were unremittingly appalling. Shiro Ishii, the mind of the department moved to work on research.
At last, as with a number of these puzzles, it’s improbable so for today, the SS Ourang Medan stays a tale to tell with a look on nights and that the facts will be discovered.
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