The SS Ourang Medan reportedly exploded in the Strait of Malacca sometime in the 1940s after its crew died under mysterious circumstances — but is it all just an eerie legend?
In the 1940s, a bizarre story began circulating in newspapers around the world. A ship called the SS Ourang Medan had reportedly exploded near Indonesia after its entire crew died under mysterious circumstances.
Different versions of the tale varied slightly, with one even claiming that a lone survivor had washed up on the shore of the Marshall Islands. And with each version of the story came new theories about what had really happened to the ship.
Some said the vessel was attacked by pirates. Others claimed it was smuggling dangerous chemicals that suffocated the crew and caused the ship to explode. And a few conspiracy theorists even believed the incident had supernatural causes.
Since it first appeared, the legend of the Ourang Medan has been repeated again and again — but did the ship ever really exist? And if so, why are there no records of it?
The Eerie Legend Of The SS Ourang Medan
The story of the SS Ourang Medan differs depending on the source, but one of the most popular versions of the tale states that the ship was traveling through the Strait of Malacca at some point during the 1940s, according to Ripley’s.
Another ship that was nearby picked up a strange message coming from the Ourang Medan: “We float. All officers, including the captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge. Probably whole of crew dead… I die.”
An American vessel called the Silver Star set out to investigate. When the ship came across the Ourang Medan, a group of men boarded it to find a grisly sight awaiting them.
The entire crew was dead, “teeth bared, with their upturned faces to the sun, staring, as if in fear…” Even the ship’s dog had died mid-snarl. Strangely, however, none of the bodies showed any signs of physical injuries.
The crew of the Silver Star was about to tow the SS Ourang Medan to port when they noticed smoke billowing from the vessel. The rescuers made it to safety just before the ship exploded. The Ourang Medan then sank to the bottom of the sea, never to be seen again.
Many versions of the legend end there. However, one report claimed there was a lone survivor who provided more details about the ship’s fate.
A Survivor Tells His Chilling Story
As reported by The Shipyard Blog, one account of the SS Ourang Medan spoke of a man named Jerry Rabbit.
Rabbit reportedly washed up on the shore of the Marshall Islands in a lifeboat with six dead crew members ten days after the Ourang Medan exploded. He made contact with a missionary and told him a peculiar tale of survival.
Rabbit said that he had joined the crew of the Ourang Medan in Shanghai. He claimed that 15,000 crates of unknown cargo were loaded onto the vessel before it set off for Costa Rica. It was only then that Rabbit realized he had joined a smuggling operation.
When Rabbit heard his fellow crewmen complaining of stomach cramps, he grew suspicious. And when a crew member died, he knew he had to find out what the ship was carrying. He peeked at the vessel’s logbook and discovered that the crates from China held sulfuric acid, potassium cyanide, and nitroglycerin. Rabbit suspected that the sulfuric acid was leaking, creating a gas that was slowly suffocating the crew.
As more men started dropping dead, Rabbit and six others sneaked away in a lifeboat. None of his crewmates had survived the journey, and Rabbit himself died soon after repeating his strange tale.
Aside from one story printed in a 1940s newspaper, there is no record of Jerry Rabbit’s existence. In fact, there is no record of a ship by the name of SS Ourang Medan at all.
Did The SS Ourang Medan Ever Exist?
According to Lloyd’s Register of Ships, which has kept a record of every merchant ship since 1764, per Encyclopedia Britannica, no ship by the name of SS Ourang Medan was ever documented. And there are no official incident reports about the ship’s sinking.
What’s more, no evidence of the wreck was ever found in the Strait of Malacca or elsewhere.
According to Ripley’s, a German researcher named Professor Theodor Siersdorfer once found a 1953 publication titled The Death Ship in the South Seas that offered evidence about the incident.
The book suggested that the Ourang Medan was indeed carrying potassium cyanide and nitroglycerine, which caused it to explode. If the ship sank either during or directly after World War II, the secrecy surrounding the vessel would make sense. Those materials were sensitive items to be transporting at the time.
However, one reported account of the ship does not mean that it truly existed.
As Michael East, a history and true crime writer, told How Stuff Works, “There is no shipping record of a vessel under that name. Nobody ever came forward to say they knew the ship or had served on her. Equally, the inconsistent dates constantly stand out, as does the changing location.”
Indeed, the fact that so many versions of the story of the SS Ourang Medan have appeared over the years points to the tale being more fictional than truthful.
The first newspaper account reportedly appeared in 1940 in Britain. However, it didn’t make its way to the U.S. until around 1948, when news of the Ourang Medan was printed in reputable publications such as The San Francisco Examiner. Why did the stories emerge eight years apart? And what caused many of the details in them to differ so drastically?
Today, there are still many questions that remain unanswered about the mystery of the SS Ourang Medan — so many, in fact, that the ship’s tale has been relegated almost completely to the realm of legend.