move to:

NESWA Organisation Library Veterans List of names LINKS

Contact us




Articles of interest


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)


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.


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, demystified facts.
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 "I die."
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. 
The 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. 
He was 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.


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 McArthur's forces. 
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.


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 Begg (1979)
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)



                 To frontpage

           back to Articles                   back to top of page     To library

Last update Wednesday, 09 March 2005
@2000 Copyright Neswa. All Rights reserved
contact webmaster for information