The Myth of the Ourang Medan Ghost Ship, 1940

The story of the ghost ship the Ourang Medan has never been as famous as that of the Marie Celeste, despite being more gruesome in its details. The entire crew, ship’s dog included, were found dead with their mouths open and their eyes staring, and yet there was no sign of what had been responsible for their deaths, bar some desperate SOS messages sent during the tragedy. It’s a mystery in more ways than one – not only has much time been spent trying to unpick what might have happened on board via many, ever-more fanciful, theories, but there’s a large school of thought that says the story is actually pure fiction.

Nothing’s been conclusively proved either way, except….I think I’ve found some evidence that will change this story for good. As far as I’m concerned, I think my new information proves that it’s merely a modern fabrication, an urban legend, or whatever the nautical equivalent of that would be.

There are a lot of interesting blogs detailing what is known of the story or, rather, what is not known. There’s Seeks Ghosts, and M. B. Forde’s site too. There’s a lot of differing details and speculation, so I’m going to tell the story as it appears on Wikipedia.

The story first appeared in the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper, The Locomotive, or De locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad in instalments between 3-28 February 1948 and is, in brief, this.

At some point around June 1947, a SOS message in Morse code was sent by the Dutch freighter ship, the Ourang Medan. The ship was in distress in a position 400 nautical miles south-east of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and the messages were both cryptic and chilling. As received by the US ships the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star, the first message said “S.O.S. from Ourang Medan * * * we float. All officers including the Captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge. Probably whole of crew dead * * *.” Some morse gibberish followed, and then the second, and final, message sent by a doomed radio operator was received. It simply said “I die.”

The Silver Star located the Ourang Medan and its crew boarded the ship, which appeared to have suffered no damage. They found the crew were dead to a man, and all the corpses lay on their backs in the aforementioned manner – eyes staring, mouth open as if screaming, looking as if they were “horrible caricatures” of themselves. The crew of the Silver Star found nothing that explained the situation and planned to hook up the ship to tow it into the nearest port. But before they could do this, a fire broke out in one of the cargo holds and the would-be rescuers evacuated back to their own ship. Shortly afterwards, they saw the Ourang Medan explode and sink into the water, never to be seen again.

Other, later, versions of the story conclude that the date was actually February 1948, and the position of the ghost ship was instead in the Straits of Malacca, in Indonesian waters. The tale had apparently originated from a surviving German crew member of the Ourang who swam ashore to Toangi atoll in the Marshall Islands. There, he told his story to a missionary, who in turn told it to Silvio Scherli of Trieste, Italy.

Mr Scherli was the source of the story in the Dutch newspaper. The reason the crew member gave for the mystery was that the ship had been carrying an illicit load of sulphuric acid, and fumes escaping from broken containers had overpowered the crew. There have since been many other theories about what other top secret cargo the ship may have been carrying instead – being not long after the end of the Second World War, a cargo of poisonous gases has been suggested.

There are a few issues with the story – not least that there is no official registration for a ship named the Ourang Medan and, while the Silver Star did exist, by 1948 it was renamed the SS Santa Cecilia and more often to be seen around Brazil, not the Strait of Malacca.

Following the 1948 Dutch articles, there appeared the earliest known English reference to the story, published by the United States Coast Guard in the May 1952 issue of the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council. The original narrator Silvio Scherli also apparently wrote a report on it for the Trieste “Export Trade” publication of September 28, 1959.

Wikipedia, December 2015

Wikipedia, December 2015

1952 was the earliest known mention of the story in English – that is, until now.

If the incident occurred in 1947-48, the first reporting of it was in 1948, and the first mention in English was in the US in 1952 – then how come I’ve found British newspaper articles on the subject from 1940? Written at least 7 years before the tragedy was even supposed to have happened. Peculiar, eh?

I’ve found mentions in two UK newspapers – The Yorkshire Post and The Daily Mirror, dating from subsequent days in November 1940. Here they are:

From the Yorkshire Evening Post, 21st November 1940:

And The Daily Mirror, 22nd November 1940:

The Daily Mirror, 22nd November 1940

The Daily Mirror, 22nd November 1940

The full pages, just to show they are indeed from 1940 –

Yorkshire Evening Post, 21st November 1940

Yorkshire Evening Post, 21st November 1940


Yorkshire Evening Post, 21st November 1940

Yorkshire Evening Post, 21st November 1940

And –

The Daily Mirror, 22nd November 1940

The Daily Mirror, 22nd November 1940


The Daily Mirror, 22nd November 1940

The Daily Mirror, 22nd November 1940

These articles are available on the endlessly fascinating British Newspaper Archive, if you want to check yourself.

The details in both reports are the same, although it’s more expanded in The Yorkshire Post. The reason for this is that they’re both from the same source – The Associated Press. As the AP says, it’s “the world’s oldest and largest newsgathering organization.” If it originated there, I would speculate that there must be an awful lot more newspapers in the world who reported this story in November 1940.

Many details are the same as the 1948 version, with notable exceptions. There’s nothing of the lurid details of how the dead crew looked; the ship is a steamship, not a freighter; and the location has changed again. In this first report, the ship was found south-east of the Solomon Islands.

Here’s a map of that Pacific area, I’ve marked the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands and the Strait of Malacca:

See how they’re a very long way away from each other, although admittedly in a sparsely populated region? In 1940, it’s the Solomon Islands, in 1948 it’s suddenly 1300 miles north in the Marshall Islands, and finally it’s located a whole 4000 miles further west in the Strait of Malacca. I think it would be hard to have been so mistaken as to where this ship was found.

Significantly, the SOS messages are markedly different. This is very interesting.

The first says “SOS from the steamship Ourang Medan. Beg ships with shortwave wireless get touch doctor. Urgent.” The second – “Probable second officer dead. Other members crew also killed. Disregard medical consultation. SOS urgent assistance warship.” The article says the ship then gave her position and ended with the final, incomplete, message “crew has…”

I suppose there was no need to mention warships the next time the story was dusted off, in post-war 1948.

Another notable difference is that the story claims to come directly from a merchant marine officer from the rescuing ship. Not a washed-up survivor from the sunken ship telling his story to a missionary. That rescuing ship wasn’t named here, and for that matter it wasn’t named in the 1948 version either. The detail of the Silver Star was thrown in later down the line, on its journey from newspaper report to legend.

BUT, and I think this is the crux of the story, we have the same detail that the information comes from Trieste, and was dated that very Thursday morning as well – in other words, that same day it appeared in the evening paper.

Trieste is the crucial link, as we can therefore assume that Silvio Scherli of Trieste is the same person involved in this story, as he was in the later version. If he was the source of the 1940 story, then there’s simply no way he could have truthfully reported on the matter in 1948, describing it as a new incident. It could be the case that there was another source of the story in Trieste in 1940 – perhaps someone who told it to Silvio? If the story came from Indonesia, say, then the sources could be numerous. But Trieste seems too specific, and too distant, to have many witnesses or other people who knew about this story from far away. The Associated Press archives, or other newspaper stories which blossomed from their reports, might be the key here.

The Locomotive stated clearly that the entirety of its information came from Scherli – it ended its series with a very sceptical “This is the last part of our story about the mystery of the Ourang Medan. We must repeat that we don’t have any other data on this ‘mystery of the sea’. Nor can we answer the many unanswered questions in the story. It may seem obvious that this is a thrilling romance of the sea. On the other hand, the author, Silvio Scherli, assures us of the authenticity of the story.

What’s that I can smell? Is it a broken casket of sulphuric acid, or is it somebody’s pants on fire?

It seems a likely theory that this “romance of the sea” began and ended with Mr Scherli. And if so, perhaps he got the taste for embellishing his story as the years went on – adding the staring eyes and gaping mouths and changing the location. Ourang Medan translates as “Man from Medan” in Indonesian or Malay and perhaps the city of Medan in Indonesia, which is directly adjacent to the Malacca Strait, may have belatedly felt like a more suitable location for a ship bearing its name.

It’s an area where mysteries could, and obviously did, thrive – in fact the Marshall Islands have also been proposed as the site where Amelia Earhart crash-landed.

In the end, my theory is that Silvio didn’t get quite the notoriety he sought the first time round, the news buried by the events of the ongoing world war. Perhaps he sat on it until the war ended, world news quietened down, and tried again. But maybe there’s more still to be found in how this story got off the ground.

Either way, don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

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16 Responses

  1. Steven Hargraves says:

    Another piece of sterling investigative reporting.

  2. Gary Adams says:

    I have an interest in mysterious stories like this one, and I always thought the the lurid details in this story seemed fishy. This is an excellent piece of reporting. Thank you so much for getting to the truth of this matter.

  3. Estelle says:

    Thanks so much!

  4. HD says:

    Dear Bishop,
    I was intrigued with your article about: “The Myth of the Ourang Medan Ghost Ship”. A couple of days ago the story was posted on Facebook and since I am a bit of a war history buff, Fb may have selected me to show me info about the Ourang Medan. I started googeling the subject and read the story in Dutch in the references 5,6,and 7in the following Wikipedia article.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ourang_Medan
    This story gave the most complete account of the disaster, more than any other article on internet. However many questions remain.
    First of all, this event must have happened around the time when the papers published this news item in November 1940. At that time China was at war with Japan. Also in Europe WWII was in full swing. So not much attention had been given to this disaster. At the same time Japan was taking over many Islands in the Pacific, which became a threat to the security of the USA. The sole survivor ended up on the Toangi Atoll, an atoll in the Marshall Group. Here it begins, the Toangi Atoll is uninhabited due to lack of freshwater. During the war the Japanese had an outpost there, but dismantled it soon after the soldiers could not sustain themselves. So I also suspect that a missionary would not station himself on a uninhabited island. The account in the Indonesian Dutch newspaper is very detailed. The crew consisted out of the captain, the first mate and a second mate???????? as being the only Europeans. The rest of the crew were Chinese or a mixture thereof. In the forties of the previous century things were totally different and there is no comparison with the time we live in now. One example the “zoutzuur” what was the main part of the cargo, Dutch for hydrochloric acid, was in these days stored in huge glass bottles of about 70 cm high and about 50 cm in diameter. These bottles were put in a woven basket and straw was used between the glass and the basket to prevent breakage. In the ships papers the first mate found, after the captain had died of poisoned fumes in the machine room, was stated, that the packaging of the freight was not suitable for transport via sea. Normally the first- or second mate supervise the loading of the ship in a harbour with experienced dockworkers. This also seems not to have happened. The ship was loaded by inexperienced peasants, while the ship was anchored in a river somewhere in China obviously outside the warzone. The ship was heading for Costa Rica and after unloading the cargo, it was planned that the freighter would go to a breaker in Panama for scrap metal. She was a 40 year old coal fired steamship. It had been at one stage converted in a troop transport ship by the Chinese army and was totally unsuitable to use for further exploitation. It seems that this was a smuggling operation as they also avoided the normal shipping lanes. The ship by itself must have been insured, as the captain suggested to the first mate who had no identification papers like most of the crew, to create a fire on its way to Panama after having unloaded its cargo. So in that case when they were rescued, they had a good excuse for the authorities to obtain new identification papers.
    I suspect that the sole survivor did not die in arms of a Franciscan priest, but had to sit out the war in the pacific. And that he was the illustrious person who contacted the Dutch newspaper in the former Dutch colony, called at that time Dutch East Indie with his story. Therefore in 1948 it became in the news again. With suspect I mean suspect, as I don’t know of course for sure, but he would not give his name while he mentioned the name and nationality of the captain. He indicated he had been for a while on the run for whatever reasons with many weird adventures. So this could have been the reason that he wanted to remain anonymous. However, he may have needed to get this adventure of his chest.

  5. Estelle says:

    Thanks – incredible how detailed that report is! I love your theory, and maybe, who knows? To me though, I think that if that had been the case why wouldn’t the story in 1948 include the extra drama of a shipwrecked castaway for 8 years? In 1948 it’s written as a very recent thing, with a different SOS, etc. Plus – no one’s found any evidence that a ship called Ouran Medan was ever registered…..

    • HD says:

      That is a very good question. I give you my thoughts. The newspaper called: “De Locomotief” was located in Indonesia in a city called Semarang at the island of Java. Semarang is a city with a major harbour. I suspect that first of all Mr Silvio Scherli, if it was him, after the war was finished, he could get out of hiding from the Marshall Islands from the Japs and return to his profession as seafarer. I can imagine that through his ordeal he would have what we now call PTSD. He wanted to get his story heard. In 1948 he could have made the hoax SOS call in the strait of Malacca by himself. Knowing that in this very busy waterway they would never trace him making a false SOS call with the wrong coordinates. After having made that call from the ship he continued sailing and moored in the harbour of Semarang. Over there he may have connected the newspaper and got his story published. OK about not being registered with Lloyds London. In the link below I found the following statement:
      “Searching the Dutch shipping records in Amsterdam seemed only to deepen the mystery. There was no mention of the ship at all, and my enquiries to the maritime authorities in Singapore drew a blank.
      https://shortoncontent.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/the-ss-ourang-medan-death-ship-updated/
      The story starts in 1940 in China which was at that time at war. When ships sink during a war they are usually not covered by an insurance. De captain who Silvio Scherli called a criminal, may have been the owner of the ship. Combined with his smuggling operation he may not at all have gone to Lloyds in London, but assuming the ship was insured there are always alternatives. Lloyds is very pricy compared with other insurers. The captain could have been lying to Silvio about setting the ship on fire, just keep him off his back.
      So the ship was assumed to have been registered in The Netherlands. Using their flag does not mean it is registered. Especially when one is involved in smuggling and has already a shady crew onboard, many without identification papers.
      I did Google the name Silvio Scherli and everything what came up was related to the Ourang Medan. I closed off my computer and after I opened it later on up again, I had suddenly the following link showing on my screen.
      http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?gl=IMG_PASSLISTS&rank=1&new=1&MSAV=0&msT=1&gss=angs-g&gsln=Scherli&uidh=000&so=2
      This webpage shows Mr Silvio Scherli entering the USA 10 times. With this we may conclude that he was not a immigrant, but has been on a crew list. One entry referred to him sailing on MS Vulcania Trieste as homeport. On one of the last entries he flew to the USA in 1956 if I remember correctly. He indeed came from Trieste, Italy and was born in 1901. With this info you can conclude that he was a seaman.
      Now another take, there was a blog on a Dutch website. They were going to and fro about the myth of the Ourang Medan. At one of the last entries one decided it was a hoax, because he had met during a social visit a Italian young man. He was sharing with him the story of the Ourang Medan. This young man said: “I know that story. As a boy I read always cheap adventure stories similar like James Bond etc. One day I bought another booklet with the full story about the Ourang Medan”. This blogger decided after having received this information from this Italian young man, that it was a hoax. Not knowing your discovery about the event happening around November 1940. While this blog was from 2012 and say the young man was 23 years old, we are then talking about him reading the story, say approximately 15 years ago or less.
      http://www.grenswetenschap.nl/permalink.asp?i=8931

  6. Estelle says:

    Interesting…….especially the info about Scherli. All the answers lie with him, don’t they….

  7. NoLiberals says:

    Your proof is very lacking. You show newspaper clippings that mention the Ourang Medan but none of them show a date. You only say they’re from 1940. The one clipping that does show the date has an illegible article that you can’t zoom into.

    This article is a Blair Witch Project style article. Nicely written, seemingly legitimate and seemingly credible but the evidence doesn’t stack up.

    • Estelle says:

      That’s why I posted the articles and the full pages – so you could read the articles themselves and also see the page they’re on with the date. you could zoom into them if you had an ipad or similar. There’s two pages that do have the dates. If you had a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive you could check them for yourself, if you so wished! I’ve posted up all the evidence I have and I can assure you those articles are real.

      Thanks so much for the nicely written compliment by the way, and I love the idea of a Blair Witch style article to “solve” a historical mystery actually, but it’s outside the remit of my blog which isn’t as imaginative as that! I just upload things from my old book collections and interesting things I’ve found in the archives.

  8. Salvador says:

    What a nice investigative job! I readed your reddit’s post’s comments, and as someone said, to find some data of Scherli would be interesting. Although it seems to be a hoax it might be also true, the 1948 articles could have been inspired and modified from the original 1940’s source and they used the Trieste reference to give it some reliability maybe. It would make sense as the Silver Star ship was renamed in 1947 as “Santa Cecilia” and wasn’t mentioned at first… what did Mr. Scherli win by fabricating this history twice after 8 years in a Dutch Newspaper?

    By the way, there is a mention of the existence of a Medan ship “but she had been scrapped before World War II” , but the author lacks of your discoveries and parts from 1947… http://web.archive.org/web/20070205223141/http://www.neswa.org.au/Library/Articles/A%20cargo%20of%20death.htm

    So there’s still a lot to investigate 😀 Greetings! (and please excuse my english).

  9. Salvador says:

    Oh and it seems the Silver Star was a Canadian ship actually… http://www.plimsollshipdata.org/pdffile.php?name=44b0971.pdf but it was built in 1943, probably added in latest version. Or as stated, everything happened in the italian writer’s head xD

    • Estelle says:

      Thanks Salvador, and thank you for adding some more information to the pot. I didn’t know the Silver Star had changed it’s name prior to 1948, that’s very interesting.

  10. Hans de Kraker says:

    Hello Estelle,

    Well done on the research. For Mr Noliberal, Estelle did leave all the information necessary to retrieve a copy of the newspaper article on the Yorkshire Evening Post of 21 November 1948. I did so and was able to retrieve a pdf of the page confirming the story so I cannot agree with you.
    I also found, like Mr HD, a conversation on a Dutch forum of “Border Scientists” a lot of information debunking -as you have done Estelle. I find the hypothesis of Mr HD very interesting and plausible. Could be PTSD and Silvio or someone else. It could also be that Silvio did – as suggested by the Border Scientist forum, recycle a popular existing story from a 1940’s comic/storybook from Italy and did so twice as the first time he did not have the achieved results. I also found a declassified letter from the CIA that refers to the incidents and seeking to correlate it with other events – downloadable from the CIA web site here:
    https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80R01731R000300010043-5.pdf
    I have to admit the CIA letter seems a bit thin on facts and farfetched but who knows what else they know and what they have on file. I am further digging on Indonesian, Dutch and Italian website’s (luckily I speak all) to see if I can dig up more.

    • Estelle says:

      Thank you Hans. The CIA letter is interesting – sounds like the chap who sent it in had read that 1952 article in the US Merchant Marine publication, seems to quote verbatim from the original article. But by the sounds of it, as it was his second letter, he didn’t get a reply from the CIA, who prob dismissed him as a crank! I’m interested to see if the Associated Press story from 1940 washed up anywhere else – I bet there’s reports in newspapers (maybe mostly local ones) all over the world.

  1. January 7, 2017

    […] used Ghost Ship ale for this, the name appeals to me ever since my investigations into the Ourang Medan. I also made a non-alcoholic version using ginger ale, but you don’t need the extra sugar for […]

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