How a Ch­e­sa­peake steamship helped cre­ate Is­rael

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton Send ques­tions about the Wash­ing­ton area to an­swer­man@wash­ Twit­ter: @john kelly.

Of all the pas­sen­ger ves­sels that once plied the wa­ters of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, per­haps none had as in­ter­est­ing a life as the S.S. Pres­i­dent Warfield, flag­ship of the Bal­ti­more Steam Packet Co., a.k.a. the Old Bay Line. It saw more of the world than most ships of its kind.

The ship’s name­sake was

Solomon Davies Warfield, pres­i­dent of the Old Bay Line. Warfield came from a wealthy Bal­ti­more fam­ily with a deep af­fec­tion for the South. (Or an an­tipa­thy for the North. Warfield’s fa­ther was one of the Mary­land leg­is­la­tors im­pris­oned by the Union af­ter the start of the Civil War.)

The 400-pas­sen­ger boat was orig­i­nally go­ing to be called the Florida, but a month af­ter its keel was laid at the Pusey & Jones ship­yard in Wilm­ing­ton, Del., Warfield died. One of Warfield’s nieces did the hon­ors when it was chris­tened in 1928, but not his most no­to­ri­ous niece, Bessie Wal­lis Warfield, whom the world would later know as the Duchess of Wind­sor.

The Pres­i­dent Warfield was the nicest boat in the Old Bay Line’s fleet, painted a gleam­ing white, with a saloon pan­eled in ivory, a dou­ble stair­case and some state­rooms fit­ted with ac­tual bath­tubs. Din­ner came from Mary­land’s bounty: ter­rapin, can­vas back duck, quail, oys­ters, roe. When the 18th Amend­ment was re­pealed by the 21st Amend­ment, the ship boasted a bar. (Be­fore then, the space was a bar­ber­shop.)

Even though the au­to­mo­bile was fast eclips­ing it, the Warfield had 10 good years serv­ing its orig­i­nal pur­pose: mak­ing the 12-hour sail be­tween Bal­ti­more and Nor­folk, Va. Then came the war.

In the sum­mer of 1942, the Pres­i­dent Warfield was req­ui­si­tioned by the War Ship­ping Ad­min­is­tra­tion for use by the Bri­tish. It was thought that shal­low-draft ves­sels might prove use­ful when the time came to in­vade Europe. The Warfield was re­fit­ted, its svelte hull al­tered to with­stand At­lantic seas, the walls of many of its state­rooms re­moved to cre­ate bar­racks space, its ex­te­rior painted gray, guns placed on its deck. In Septem­ber, it left New­found­land as part of a con­voy bound for Bri­tain. The Warfield sur­vived the cross­ing. Three other ships did not, hav­ing been tor­pe­doed by Ger­man U-boats, with a loss of 131 lives.

In England, the Warfield was tied up in the mud of a Devon har­bor for use as a bar­racks. “It was like KP duty with less pres­tige,” David C. Holly wrote in his 1995 bi­og­ra­phy of the ship.

A month af­ter D-Day, the Warfield steamed to Omaha Beach, where it formed part of the ar­ti­fi­cial har­bor so men and ma­teriel could be un­loaded to drive the Nazis east. Af­ter the war, it re­turned across the At­lantic. The Old Bay Line didn’t want it back, so it lan­guished in the James River un­til it was sold to the Po­tomac Ship­wreck­ing Co. for $8,056. A few days later, a mys­te­ri­ous out­fit paid $40,000 for the ram­shackle ves­sel.

And this is where things got re­ally in­ter­est­ing. The story was floated that the Warfield was headed to China for work in the rivers there, but a New York Times reporter as­cer­tained that it car­ried no charts for Chi­nese wa­ters. The crew, he noted, was 80 per­cent Jewish.

This was per­ti­nent be­cause the Warfield had ac­tu­ally been pur­chased by the Ha­ganah, a Zion­ist para­mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion in­tent on bring­ing to Pales­tine Euro­pean Jews dis­placed dur­ing the war. The Brook­lyn-born jour­nal­ist

Ruth Gruber vis­ited many of the Jewish refugee camps as a mem­ber of a U.S. fact-find­ing team. Among the hand­made ban­ners she saw in the camps was one that read: “We Jewish chil­dren will no more stay on this bloody ground where our par­ents were killed. We will go home to Pales­tine.”

The prob­lem was that the Bri­tish con­trolled Pales­tine and were us­ing a naval block­ade to en­force strict im­mi­gra­tion quo­tas. The Warfield had been trans­formed from Bay steamer to block­ade run­ner.

It picked up 4,554 Jewish refugees in Sète, France. Its cap­tain, 22-year-old Ike

Aronowitz, planned to beach the ship near Tel Aviv. At sea the Pres­i­dent Warfield’s new name was un­veiled: Ex­o­dus 1947.

On July 18, 1947 — 20 miles from Haifa — the Bri­tish navy at­tempted to board the ves­sel. The pas­sen­gers and crew tried to re­pel them but had to sur­ren­der af­ter the Ex­o­dus 1947 was rammed by two de­stroy­ers. A crew mem­ber and two refugees died in the vi­o­lent skir­mish. The sym­bol­ism — Holo­caust sur­vivors beaten, killed and de­nied sanc­tu­ary — helped spur sup­port for a Jewish state.

Af­ter the Ex­o­dus 1947 limped into port, the pas­sen­gers were trans­ferred to other ships and sent back to Europe. It wasn’t un­til Is­rael was es­tab­lished in 1948 that all of the refugees were able to move there.

The Ex­o­dus 1947 re­mained in Is­rael. Its story in­spired a 1958 Leon Uris novel. There were plans to turn the boat into a mu­seum, but an ac­ci­den­tal fire burned it to the wa­ter­line. The hull was even­tu­ally sunk off the port of Haifa and buried un­der a mod­ern quay. It re­mains there to this day, far from the Ch­e­sa­peake of its youth.

(Books by Holly and Gruber — both ti­tled “Ex­o­dus 1947” — tell the Warfield’s story in de­tail.)


The Bal­ti­more Steam Packet Co.’s S.S. Pres­i­dent Warfield was req­ui­si­tioned by the War Ship­ping Ad­min­is­tra­tion for use by the Bri­tish in 1942. It was later bought by a Zion­ist para­mil­i­tary group.

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