Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ourang Medan

Guest post by Alex 

Ourang Medan, November 13, 1939 (or earlier).

Today, for a change, a sea mystery from outside the Bermuda Triangle, in fact, from the other side of the globe. For six decades, the ghost ship Ourang Medan has been regarded among the greatest mysteries of the sea, right up there with the Mary Celeste and the Carroll A. Deering. Now, I may be able to present you the solution.

The yarn of the Ourang Medan is traditionally told thus:

In June 1947 or February 1948, two American vessels in the Strait of Malacca, the Silver Star and the City of Baltimore, picked up a distress call from a Dutch or Indonesian merchant ship by the name of Ourang Medan. (Indonesia was part of the Dutch Empire.) Ourang Medan is Indonesian or Malay and translates to Man from Medan, Medan being the largest city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The message was scary enough: "All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead." The radio operator of the Ourang Medan asked for a doctor and gave her position. Then followed nothing but a nerve-racking stretch of indecipherable Morse code.

However, the Silver Star was able to raise the Ourang Medan one last time. Her radio operator took leave for the happy hunting grounds with a laconic, "I die."

Then there was only silence. Or, more probably, static.

The City of Baltimore was farther away than the Silver Star, so she continued on her course. But the Silver Star raced all through the night toward the position of the stricken vessel at full steam, her crew hoping to find some survivors when they got there.

In the morning, the Silver Star sighted the Ourang Medan. She was an ancient steamer, but except for a slight list and a missing lifeboat apparently undamaged. Yet the decks of the ghost ship were deserted.

The Silver Star sent over a boat to investigate. When the sailors boarded the ghost ship, they were greeted by a grisly sight: Her decks were strewn with corpses.

Their faces were contorted as if they had died in agony — or of horror. Their eyes were staring and their rigid and twisted bodies seemed to be pointing their arms at something, something in the sky.

The sun? Some airborne horror that killed like Medusa, by its mere sight? Like the mother (ship) of all UFOs?

The crew of the Silver Star could find no injuries on the corpses. Nor could they find any survivors. As he had promised, the radio operator was dead in the radio shack, collapsed over his transmitter. Even the ship's dog was dead.

Then and there, fire erupted from one of the cargo holds of the Ourang Medan. Fearing the worst, the officer in charge ordered his men back into their boat. As soon as they were a safe distance away from the ancient steamer, the towering inferno spreading from her hold exploded into a fireball.

Gutted by fire and explosions, the Ourang Medan eventually slipped beneath the waves. Her wreck, if it was ever searched for, has never been found.

So the story usually goes, give or take a lie or two.

Among believers, one rational explanation is that the Ourang Medan was smuggling poison gas and nitroglycerine, which in the leaky rustbucket got mixed with seawater. The resulting poison gas vapors killed the crew, and the nitroglycerine reacting with the seawater caused the subsequent explosion. Another, less spectacular, rational explanation is that carbon monoxide from the smoldering fire may have been the killer. And, of course, as I said, the true cuckoos believe that the corpses allegedly staring and pointing were staring and pointing in the direction of the UFO whose little green pilots murdered them.

Skeptics point out that the only element of the story that can be verified is the Silver Star. There are no records at Lloyd's or otherwise that a ship called Ourang Medan ever existed. Likewise, except for vague magazine articles giving no sources, there is no evidence that such an incident ever happened.

Of course, according to true believer logic, that means that the government erased all mention of the Ourang Medan because she was on a black ops mission smuggling chemical weapons. That is the same logic like the religionists' that their god hid dinosaur bones to test their faith.

To a true believer, absence of evidence proves evidence was destroyed by his theoretical conspirators, and evidence to the contrary proves evidence was planted by his theoretical conspirators. For to a true believer, reality is obliged to conform to his pet theory.

On top of the lack of evidence, the story is bodaciously unlikely in itself. Why would the crew of the Silver Star be courageous enough to board a ship where for all they knew they would catch an instantly lethal plague, but cow… uh, cautious enough to not even try to fight the fire and claim salvage? Even an ancient rustbucket has some scrap value.

Maybe they were good Samaritans eager to die saving others, but uninterested in saving property and in profit? Maybe, as Winer suggests, they had no steam pressure to operate the fire pumps? Or maybe it was necessary for the story to work?

After all, if the Ourang Medan had not been boarded, no one would have discovered the corpses pointing at the… uh… UFO. But if she had not gone down with all evidence, there would have been a scientific investigation.

So… While the behavior of the Silver Star crew is rather illogical, it is absolutely necessary for that sorry story to work as fiction — which it almost certainly is. Want more evidence for that?

Up to now, the earliest known reference to the Ourang Medan incident was in the May 1952 issue of the US Coast Guard's Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council. ("We Sail Together," Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, May 9, 1952, pp. 107–110.) Yes, being featured in a government publication lent that tale undeserved credence. Yay, government.

Yet, through a simple search on eBay, I found a copy of the Vichy French magazine Sept-Jours (#45, September 7, 1941) that had the more or less complete story of the Ourang Medan in it (p. 9, "Après Vingt Mois — Le Mystère de l' 'Ourang-Medan' Est Éclairci," i.e., "After Twenty Months, the Mystery of the Ourang Medan Is Solved"). It predates the earliest commonly known version by eleven years.

This article, in turn, refers to an earlier article on the Ourang Medan in an earlier issue of the same magazine (#13, December 29, 1940). According to Sept-Jours, the Ourang Medan incident took place on November 13, 1939, predating the earliest traditional date for the incident by about eight years.

In the 1941 article, the ship that finds the Ourang Medan is not the Silver Star, but an unnamed American destroyer (or torpedo boat, torpilleur in the original; the French don't seem to make much of a distinction). That should come as no surprise, as the Silver Star was built only in 1942 (as the Santa Cecilia, 6,507 tons; 1946 to United States Maritime Commission, renamed Silver Star; 1947 reverted to Grace Line, renamed Santa Juana; scrapped 1971).

According to the article, Ourang Medan means "black man" in Malay. What's more, the story is set in mid-Pacific, not in Indonesia.

It claims the Ourang Medan was notorious in the South Sea for transporting convicts from Australia to penal islands. When she was too decrepit even for that, the Australian government sold her to a millionaire pirate, a suspected smuggler, drug dealer, and white slaver (that's at least what I think négociant de chair humaine means), who had eluded the police forces and navies of four or five countries.

One day, Sir Harry Charles Luke, the British governor of Fiji, heard that among a tribe on the main island of Viti Levu there lived a man who had arrived in a boat bearing the name Ourang Medan. The governor had that man dragged into the government offices in Suva and interrogated. The mysterious stranger told the story of the last voyage of the Ourang Medan.

Only the captain (cum owner, cum pirate) and the officers of the Ourang Medan were Europeans. The sailors were Malays or Polynesians, poor, poorly treated, and almost rightless.

In October, in Singapore, the Ourang Medan loaded 2,500 carefully sealed boxes. Then she headed for Sydney. But after several days at sea, the captain suddenly changed his mind and announced that they would go to Panama.

That meant a trip all the way across the Pacific, potentially dangerous, given the state of the ship. The men were frightened. But the captain stated that he had enough provisions on board and promised them a big bonus upon arrival.

On November 7, a sailor unscrewed the cover of a wind scoop. He collapsed, and the others thought he had fainted. But he was dead.

Shrugging it off as a heart attack, the captain had the corpse quite unceremoniously dumped overboard. Over the next couple days, more men died, and the rats jumped overboard, a sure sign the ship was doomed.

The sailors mutinied, demanding that the captain take them back to Singapore. That was when the radio operator sent the distress call. The survivors fled in two lifeboats, but only one boat with our sole survivor made it to Viti Levu.

The report was wired to Singapore, the authorities there investigated, and the truth was revealed. The Ourang Medan had been carrying nitroglycerine, potassium cyanide, and sulfuric acid, which had not been properly stowed. The containers broke, the chemicals reacted, and hydrogen cyanide poison gas filled the holds and the ventilation system. The explosion that destroyed the ship was caused by overheated nitroglycerin that spontaneously ignited when the ventilation fan stopped working.

That, lassies and lads, was the (presumably) original story of the Ourang Medan. It was on fucking eBay (I paid 3 euros plus shipping from France), and it was too hard to find for all those triangular researchers of the last six decades, Gaddis, Edwards, Winer, and the whole bunch of sensationalists.

Right, some of them died before there was any eBay, but they could have looked in a library. Yet that's the sort that makes fun of Kusche for doing all his research in the library instead of in the field.

But enough gloating at defenseless mystics. Where does that leave us?

First, now that we know that the Ourang Medan yarn predates the Silver Star, the last link to reality has been severed. The Silver Star was the only verifiable fact in the whole Ourang Medan yarn. With the mystery predating the Silver Star, it loses any possible claim to veracity.

True, the Sept-Jours article has Harry Luke as a link to a real person, but I think we can recognize a pattern of name-dropping here. Just like the later versions of the story used the real Silver Star to lend them credibility, the original story used Harry Luke. There are enough inconsistencies re the dates, locations, vessels, and personages in the various versions to be sure that they all are fiction with a fact or two thrown in for color.

Second, as a simple search on eBay netted me two earlier articles that no researcher seems to ever have found, there's no way we can be sure that the stories in Sept-Jours are the earliest incarnation. For all we know, that Ourang Medan nonsense may have been around in one form or another — minus radio distress call, poison gas, and UFOs, but still about a ghost ship full of corpses — as a silly season canard and a sailors' yarn since the beginning of the Age of Steam, and before that about a sailing ship Ourang Medan since the European discovery of Sumatra, and before that about a Roman galley called Man from Mdina (in Latin) since antiquity.

But couldn't the Sept-Jours tale be true, after all? Couldn't the Ourang Medan have been on a black ops mission for the Allies, who then covered up that embarrassing incident? Well, then the Allied governments must have gone to great lengths to have it buried, so thoroughly that it was forgotten after World War II and that no one before me ever found a trace of it.

Then the US government must have destroyed the whole crew of the destroyer that found the Ourang Medan, for so many men could not have kept a secret for decades. That would be a dastardly crime, but not impossible. The US government could simply have said the destroyer was destroyed by a U-boat.

Then the British government must have coopted or murdered everyone who knew the results of the investigations in Fiji and Singapore. If the knowledge was limited to government officials, that might be possible. Yet the article sounds like the results were public knowledge in Singapore. ("The truth was revealed.") If that's so, a cover-up would have been impossible.

But the cincher is, the story claims that the Ourang Medan was a notorious convict transport in Australia and Oceania, and that the Australian government once owned her. Of course, the Australian government could have destroyed all records on her. But it would be impossible to coopt or murder all the residents of coastal Australia and Oceania that must have known a "notorious" vessel.

As no such mass murder is known, there cannot have been any cover-up. As the Sept-Jours version is not widely known and there was no cover-up, the story is nonsense.

What's more, I found me a copy of the December 29, 1940, issue of Sept-Jours with the original account of the Ourang Medan yarn (p. 6, "Le Premier Récit d'un Grand Mystère de la Mer," i.e., "The First Account of a Great Sea Mystery"). (Now, can we trust the hoaxer that wrote it that this canard is indeed the origin of the Ourang Medan nonsense, because he says so, or did he recycle an even older sailors' yarn?) The article gives the classic version of the discovery of the Ourang Medan plus several additional details, most of which corroborate that the story is fiction.

The article features a blurry, grainy photo of a man in a naval uniform, allegedly the second officer of the Ourang Medan, lying on the floor, a pair of binoculars at his fingertips. It is probably posed. And why is there no photo of the ship herself? Because you cannot stage that in a newsroom.

The position is given as 200 miles southeast of the Solomon Islands. 

The article implies that the story was big news internationally and only not reported in France before because France was preoccupied with World War II. If that is true, why are there no records of the Ourang Medan incident being reported in the international press at that time?

The hoaxer claims that the distress call of the Ourang Medan was relayed as far away as Australia, Panama, Italy, France, and Germany. If that is true, why are there no records of that?

He (or she, by the way) also claims that the radio operators remembered the Ourang Medan as a ship that had recently transported convicts from Britain to Australia. If she was that well-known before the war, why did no one remember her when the story resurfaced after the war? If she picked up convicts in Britain, why are there no records of her there?

The Australian Broadcasting Company allegedly relayed the SOS as coming from the Sea of Micronesia. Yet both articles place the Ourang Medan in Melanesia (between the Solomon Islands and Fiji or off Fiji, respectively). A mistake by the Australian Broadcasting Company, or more sloppy writing courtesy of the hoaxer?

Unlike in the second article, the American torpedo boat or destroyer arrives only when the Ourang Medan is already on fire. She is discovered by an unnamed merchantman instead.

The American warship is identified as "torpilleur américain No. 716." That doesn't seem to make sense. The US Navy never had so many torpedo boats that one would be numbered 716. The destroyer DD-716, the USS Wiltsie, wasn't laid down before 1945. The USS Balduck was briefly classified as DE-716, but even she wasn't laid down before 1944. There was a submarine chaser USS SC-716, but the boats of her class were built between 1941 and 1944, again far too late to be afloat and cruising in 1939. Unless there's another Navy numbering scheme I'm unaware of, this ship appears to be pure fiction.

What's more, referring to a destroyer only by her number instead of by her name strikes me as rather un-American. It is, however, a typically German thing to do. The Germans never built many destroyers, and those they had often had no names, only numbers, and even those that had names were frequently referred to by their numbers only. This would appear to support my theory below that the hoaxer was a German.

The home port painted on the Ourang Medan's stern was "Sidney" [sic]. Another example of someone's stellar research.

The fire started in hold #2. That for a change is one claim that's not obvious nonsense.

When the first article was printed, the investigation into the incident had allegedly been going on for twelve months. If there was such a long investigation, why are there no records of that?

So we have nonsense, nonsense, and more nonsense. What, then, is the origin of the tale of the Ourang Medan? Nazi propaganda, that's what.

Just like the nazis' 1943 version of the Titanic movie. Both tales depict Western, capitalist, Allied society as breeding grounds for evil, capitalist pirates who sacrifice their crews on their coffin ships.

While obviously less costly to produce than a movie, the Ourang Medan article series goes even further propagandistically: The nameless captain (Nemo, huh?) of the Ourang Medan is a drug dealer and a white slaver. Thus, the story appeals to primeval fears among the stupid, the cowardly, and the weak, fears of drugs and rape, fears any authoritarian, fascist government exploits, fears only a strong, fascist government can supposedly protect you from.

The poor treatment of the native sailors? To put into perspective the poor treatment by the German occupiers.

The hydrogen cyanide gas? Maybe to distract from any rumors already spreading that the nazis were using it for mass murder?

Of course, aimed at the Western Allies, this propaganda would have been pointless. Anyone in the free world could have called or written to Australia, Singapore (not yet occupied by the Japanese), or Fiji, asked if anything about the Ourang Medan was known there, and upon being told no, concluded that the story was bogus.

But the people the propaganda was aimed at, the people of occupied and Vichy France, didn't have that luxury. They couldn't freely communicate with Allied countries and thus couldn't check the story.

It is of course not likely that this silly story was a major propaganda operation like Titanic. Hitler and Goebbels probably never heard of any Ourang Medan.

More likely, it was the homegrown product of Sept-Jours, in the spirit of collaboration. Just like Belgian cartoonist Hergé drew the anti-Semitic, anti-American Tintin comic book The Shooting Star to ingratiate himself with the nazi occupiers. Those collaborators told themselves, "This is just what is demanded now, and if we do it, hopefully the nazis will leave us alone."

Or was it homegrown? Or maybe rather heimgewachsen?

The Sept-Jours article matches almost blow by blow the account in the 1954 German pamphlet Dampfer "Ourang Medan" — Das Totenschiff in der Südsee (Steamer "Ourang Medan" — The Death Ship in the South Sea) by one Otto Mielke. This pamphlet was in fact the first issue of Anker Hefte (Anchor Pamphlets), a pulp magazine featuring fictionalized accounts of true sea adventures. Both versions are set in the South Sea instead of in Indonesia, both share some details like the rats abandoning the ship, and both have the poison gas solution related by a sole survivor, although the German version is set in 1947 and stars the Silver Star.

What's more, the Mielke account gives the position of the Ourang Medan as 20°S 179°W — which is consistent with the Sept-Jours version, but inconsistent with the Mielke account itself! This position is near Fiji, where Sept-Jours has the survivor land. Yet Mielke has his survivor make landfall at Taongi in the Marshall Islands, much farther north. If you look at a map, you'll see it's almost impossible to get from that position to the Marshall Islands without hitting Fiji first. So Mielke must have known the Sept-Jours version and rewritten it, but forgotten to change the position of the wreck when he changed the alleged landfall of the survivor.

What Mielke did during the war is not certain, but apparently he was a war correspondent with the nazi navy, the Kriegsmarine. So maybe the tale of the Ourang Medan originated with Mielke? Maybe as a war correspondent he wrote propaganda to be fed to papers in occupied countries as international news?

Maybe Mielke happened to read the scuttlebutt version of his own propaganda tale in the Coast Guard magazine after the war? Maybe he decided to kick off his pulp magazine with a fictionalized version of a fictional sea adventure, because it was more sensational? After all, it had been legitimized by the Coast Guard. Maybe he rewrote his own old canard with a postwar setting and the real-life Silver Star?

As Churchill allegedly had it, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." And a silly bit of Vichy or nazi propaganda may resurface like a U-boat to become the greatest postwar sea mystery.

RIP, Ourang Medan. You belong to the realm of Tales of the Gold Monkey, not to reality. 

As the article was getting long, I turned my complete findings into a book. If you want to read the full story of the Ourang Medan, get yourself a copy of The Ourang Medan — Conjuring a Ghost Ship