This is from the September 1999 issue of Fortean Times Page 28.
Fortean Times is a popular 'slick' in Britain dealing with the odd and
unexpected. It contains some new data. (Connection with Unit 731)
CARGO OF DEATH
In 1948, a Dutch freighter was found drifting near Indonesia. Its crew
all dead in postures of terror or agony.
Marine historian Roy Bainton
investigates, and uncovers hints of the sinister collusion of
post--World War II governments.
TEETH BARED, AND STARING.
This strange yarn began as an obscure, bizarre footnote in nautical
history. The story of the Orang Medan was one of those chilling
fo'c'sle tales told by old hands over a few beers on long crossings of the
Pacific or the Atlantic.
We've all heard the ghostly fable of the Mary
Celeste; like many similar stories, a modicum of determined digging
can usually strip away the romance and often leave us with the bare,
Not so with the Orang Medan. The more one digs, the more
fragments, hints and nuances appear. This is a story with a secret; a
secret buried somewhere in the guarded records of maritime officialdom.
Turn down the lamp, cue the creepy music...
In February 1948 (or June 1947, depending on which source one consults) a
series of distress calls were sent out by the Dutch freighter Orang
Medan in the Straits of Malacca between Sumatra and Indonesia.
"All officers including captain dead, lying in chartroom and on
bridge, probably whole crew dead... " This chilling message,
accompanied by a spate of desperate SOS calls, was followed by
indecipherable Morse code... then a final message just two stark words
Boarding parties found the dead radio operator, his hand on the Morse key,
eyes wide open. The entire crew even the ship's dog were discovered in the
same terrified posture, all dead.
According to a frequently mentioned document (which I have so far been
unable to trace) called The Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council,
the crew were found "teeth bared, with their upturned faces to
the sun, staring, as if in fear..."
Following this grim discovery, a fire broke out in the ship's hold.
boarding parties were forced to abandon her. Shortly after, a violent
explosion described in some accounts as so violent the vessel "lifted
herself from the water" and she quickly sank.
So, there you have it. It's a great yarn; but is it just an old seadog's
tale? Or perhaps, as some have suggested, a 50-year old April Fool joke,
composed by some bored tabloid hack?
The trouble is, it refuses to go away. If these men did die in such a
bizarre fashion, What killed them?
If they were "scared to death", what had they seen?
The story features in two seminal books of fortean lore:
M K Jessups's The
Case For The UFO (1955) and
Vincent Gaddis's Invisible Horizons (1965).
Most recently it was retold in Damon Wilson's Big Book of The
Unexplained (1998). The Borderland Sciences Research website refers to
an older source an article by Robert V Hulse in Fate magazine in
1953 yet Hulse, like all the others, only had the bare bones of the yarn.
I started with Lloyd's Shipping registers. There was no mention of the
case. Then that standby of all maritime researchers, The Dictionary of
Disasters at Sea, 18241962. Everything else was in there even the Mary
Celeste but no Orang Medan.
I contacted Britain's best magazine for old sailors, Sea Breezes, and
discussed the case with their editor, Captain Andrew Douglas, a retired
skipper with decades of service on the oceans of the world.
fascinated, but knew nothing although he did place a plea for information
in the next issue.
It was time to get , 'official'. I wrote to the Admiralty, the Registrar
of Shipping and Seamen, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. They
all told me the same thing if she was Dutch, you have to go to Amsterdam.
Searching the Dutch Shipping records in
Amsterdam seemed only to deepen the mystery. There was no mention of the
ship at all. There was a Medan, but she had been scrapped before World War
II. And my enquiries to the Maritime Authority in Singapore drew a blank.
I was facing the distinct possibility that this was simply a hoary old
fo'c'sle yarn… until Professor Theodor Siersdorfer of Essen, Germany
entered the frame. He had read the plea in Sea Breezes and I
suddenly discovered that I was not alone; Siersdorfer had been on the case
for 45 years.
WHAT KILLED THEM SO BIZARRELY?
The ensuing parcel of information from
Germany opened up new avenues the most exciting of which is, at long last,
the identity of the two vessels which received the Orang Medan's SOS calls.
One was the City of Baltimore; the second was the Silver
Star, owned by Grace Lines of New York, whose crew actually boarded
the stricken Dutchman.
Here the enigma deepens again. Most of the details of the Silver Star's
voyage are contained in a strange, 32 page German booklet written in
1954 by one Otto Mielke, (now deceased), entitled Das Totenschiff in
der Südsee (Death Ship in the South Sea). Mielke seems to know a lot
about the Orang Medan's possible route and cargo but fails to give
further detailed sources; this is a strange omission because his details,
right down to the tonnage, engine power and Captain's name, of the Silver
Star, are thoroughly referenced. Professor Siersdorfer also mentions
another marine detective, Alvar Mastin (also searching the Dutch
departed), a German who lived in Hull, in England, in the 1950s, who
repeatedly attempted to get details from Grace Lines in New York of the
Silver Star crew list and log book - yet was met with a stony silence.
Thus the possible fact remains that the Silver Star crew did really
board the Ourang Medan in (as Mielke has it June, 1947), this was the
route via which the story entered nautical legend. And if , as I hope to
ascertain, there are still members of that crew alive, then we may at long
last have a direct verbal recollection of the facts (if they exist) in
this grim yarn. But there is still confusion; the Germans cite the Silver
Star as being the vessel boarding the Orang Medan, yet Lloyd's
Registers show that, at the time, the Silver Star had changed
owners and had another name... Santa Cecilia.
What follows is pure speculation, but there is a tantalising, possible
explanation as to her crew's demise and her disappearance from the
records. Mielke mentions a mixed, lethal cargo on the Dutchman 'Zyankali'
(potassium cyanide) and nitroglycerine. How this mixture could have gone
unrecorded is a mystery, as the controls on such lethal cargoes, even 50
years ago, would have ensured reams of paperwork.
The Geneva Protocol of 1925 ratified by 33 nations outlawed all chemical
weapons. The Nazis as history has shown made horrific use of the
extermination gas 'ZyklonB' but, according to Albert Speer in his book Inside
the Third Reich (1995), they also had stockpiled a secret gas called 'Tabun'
and, as late as 1944, were manufacturing 1,000 tons of this deadly
substance each month. According to Speer: "It could penetrate the
filters of all known gas masks and contact with even small lingering
quantities had fatal effects..."
Apart from the Nazis, only one other nation Japan used gas; that was
in China during World War II. In 1935, the brilliant Japanese
bacteriologist Shiro Ishi set up Japanese, Army Unit 731 in a remote
village in occupied Manchuria. Unit 731's brief was to find a chemical,
gas or biological weapon to win the war. Hideous, inhumane experiments
were carried out on helpless Australian, American, Russian, Chinese and
British prisoners some of the worst war crimes ever committed.
Was there a Nuremberg type trial for these doctors of death? Far from it.
The biochemists' hideous research was too 'good' to waste; they pulled off
a mysterious secret deal with their erstwhile enemies General Douglas
The criminals went free and prospered leaving the
possibility that the Japanese may have stored nerve gas in Singapore.
To try and explain the obstinate absence of the illfated Orang Medan from
official records, we must look at the political turmoil which existed
throughout Indonesia in the immediate postwar years. Before the war, Java
and Sumatra were part of the Dutch empire. In 1945 the Dutch returned,
expecting to carry on their rule as before, but found the newly
established republics of Southeast Asia had gained wide local support. A
bitter, dirty war for control broke out, and in 1947-48 the Dutch carried
out major 'police actions' in area.
After World WarII, there was a brisk trade in nerve gas and biological
agents with repressive governments everywhere.
EVEN GAS MASKS WERE USELESS
It was okay to make and sell the stuff.. as
long as you didn't use it. But somebody did, that's for sure. Death has
always had its currency. So how was this deadly cargo moved around the
South China Sea and through the Straits of Malacca during this troubled
period? Not by air; the prospect of a cargo plane crashing with several
tons of deadly gas on board was too horrendous to consider. No, you hired
an insignificant old tramp steamer, preferably with a low paid foreign
crew, stowed the cargo in disguised oil drums and, like all serious
smugglers, hoped for the best, and a blind eye from authority.
I first heard the Orang Medan story in 1961 within 15 years
of its origin. If we accept, due to the nature of her crew's deaths, that
she was carrying deadly gas or chemicals and if indeed she was a Dutch
vessel had this news broken it would have been a major embarrassment for
any government involved, especially in the light of the Geneva Convention.
Hence the dead ends faced by any researcher. The story exists because,
like the gases, It escaped.
But here's another mystery; if a gas leak killed the crew, was the final
explosion another accident or an officially ordered scuttling?
The crew of the Silver Star would have told the tale from that day
on in every mess room on every ship they sailed in. Eventually, in a mess
room on the British tramp steamer Port Halifax, it reached me. Aficionados
of The XFiles have had a field day with this tragedy blaming UFOs,
sea monsters, etc but the possible reality is no less ominous.
The field of the unexplained is littered with red herrings, hoaxes and
outright fakery. But if the story of this ship of death is an invention,
who was responsible? Why was it common currency in the mess rooms of the
old tramp steamers I sailed in the 1960’s and, why were other ships real
ships involved in the yarn? Any marine researcher will tell you that even
the mighty tomes of Lloyd's Shipping Registers can throw up more questions
than answers, especially when ships have their names changed frequently
I recently had a letter from the Dutch Royal Navy which asked me for
information on the Orang Medan case. Why?
In the UK, the Ministry of Defence have irresponsibly destroyed all
records of poison gas dumps that are over 25 Years old. Over 100,000 tons
of deadly 'Tabun' and 'Sarin' were deliberately loaded onto ships at the
end of World War II and sunk in the North Sea and Atlantic. In 1998, a
Swedish fishing vessel landed an unusual catch a net full of mustard gas
canisters; the crew spent a long time in hospital with serious burns.
It's a nice, creepy fortean thought that the hapless sailors of the Orang
Medan were visited by a UFO which was so scary it literally
"frightened them to death'. That may have been a fine prognosis in
the nutty, scifi Fifties. Yet humanity is capable of far more sinister
behaviour than any intergalactic visitor to Roswell.
Special thanks to Prof. Theodor F Siersdorfer, Essen, Germany.
Into Thin Air Paul
Invisible Horizons Vincent Gaddis (1965)
Mysteries on the High Seas P MacDougal (1984)
Unit 731 P Williams & D Wallace (1989)
A History of Warfare John Keegan (1993)