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., aka 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 When the 18th Amendment was repealed, the ship boasted a bar.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.
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