Length: 320 ft (97.5 m)
Breadth: 56.5 ft (17.2 m)
Depth: 18.5 ft (5.6 m)
Propulsion: 2,800hp steam engine, single screw
Speed: 15 knots
Built in 1928 in Wilmington, Delaware by Pusey & Jones for the Baltimore Steam Packet Company (operators of the "Old Bay Line") and named for that company's late President, S. Davies Warfield, in its first "life", the ship was a pleasure cruiser on the Chesapeake Bay between Norfolk, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland, except for two seasons on the Long Island Sound, from 1928 until 1942.
In 1942, the ship was appropriated by the United States Wartime Shipping Administration for convoy duty as the USS President Warfield (IX-169). In 1943, President Warfield was in a convoy attacked by German U-Boats, and in the Normandy invasion saw action as a barracks headquarters, coming under German air attack.
Decommissioned in 1946, the ship was purchased by the Weston Trading Company, a front for the Haganah, a Zionist self-defense force which later evolved into the Israeli Defense Forces. It is said that Jewish American merchant Sam "the Banana Man" Zemurray was instrumental in obtaining this ship for the Haganah, and this would help explain the Honduran registry as Zemurray's United Fruit Company pretty much owned the "banana republic" of Honduras. The shallow draft of the Bay steamer seemed ideal for the Haganah tactic of beaching boats containing immigrants off the shores of Palestine, and then bringing the immigrants in by lifeboat or wading. This was necessary because the British government had declared the Zionist's mass immigration policy "illegal".
Jews had started immigrating to Palestine in the late 19th century. After World War I, Palestine was a protectorate of the British Empire. Like the Romans before them, the British needed to secure Palestine as the strategic flank of its vital interest in Egypt. While Palestine was, from an imperial perspective, completely uninteresting in itself, it bordered more important assets for the maritime British Empire: the Suez Canal.
In 1922, the League of Nations issued the Mandate for Palestine which governed British policy in the protectorate for 20 years. The Mandate incorporated the principals of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which gave the British the incompatible commands to "safeguard the civil and religious rights of all inhabitants of Palestine irrespective of race and religion, and, whilst facilitating Jewish immigration and settlement, to ensure that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced."
In 1939, the British had promulgated a policy document called "the White Paper of 1939" (also known as the "McDonald White Paper" or Parliamentary Document 6019). It imposed a quota for Jewish immigration and limited Jewish acquisition of land. The White Paper deplored both Arab terrorism and the unlimited Jewish immigration which inspired it, noting:
it cannot be denied that fear of indefinite Jewish immigration is widespread amongst the Arab population and that this fear has made possible disturbances which have given a serious setback to economic progress, depleted the Palestine exchequer, rendered life and property insecure, and produced a bitterness between the Arab and Jewish populations which is deplorable between citizens of the same country. If in these circumstances immigration is continued up to the economic absorptive capacity of the country, regardless of all other considerations, a fatal enmity between the two peoples will be perpetuated, and the situation in Palestine may become a permanent source of friction amongst all peoples in the Near and Middle East.
The White Paper accordingly set the goal of bringing the Jewish population up to approximately one third of the total population of the country, by allowing only an additional 75,000 immigrants, starting with 10,000 per year over the next five (5) years. Keeping the Jews a minority was specifically intended to appease Arab concerns by thwarting Jewish sovereignty in any democratic or representative government. The Zionists, of course, sought precisely the opposite.
Both sides hated the White Paper, and despite its decidedly pro-Arab slant, Arab violence against Zionist settlements continued. The British successfully enforced their immigration policy during World War II. After the War, Haganah and Mossad mounted an aggressive policy of transporting displaced war refugees to Palestine.
Re-christened the Exodus 1947, the steamship sailed for France from Baltimore on February 25, 1947.
In July 1947, the ship left Sète, France, for Palestine with 4,554 Jewish men, women, and children, all displaced persons (DPs) or survivors of the Holocaust, trailed by the cruiser HMS Ajax, and several destroyers.
The British destroyers collided with the Exodus 1947, damaging the hull, railings and lifeboats, in an effort to persuade her crew to turn around and return the France. On May 4, 1947, off Egypt, she was forcibly boarded by the British Navy, and in the ensuing melee three passengers were killed and 217 wounded. The passengers were loaded on British prison ships and taken to France. They refused to disembark. They were then taken back to Lübeck, Germany (near Hamburg) to the same refugee camp most of them had come from, and forced to disembark with tear gas and truncheons.
The ship was towed to the port Haifa, where in 1952 it burned and sank.
Though the mission was not successful in delivering any immigrants to Eretz Israel, it did attract international media attention, and persuaded the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine to recommend partitioning Palestine and establishing a Jewish state. The former passengers were permitted to immigrate to Palestine in small groups, and most were present in Israel on May 15, 1948, when the nation declared its independence.
The travails of the Exodus 1947 inspired a novel, Exodus, commissioned by MGM Studios from author Leon Uris and published in 1959. Uris had written The Angry Hills (1955), an account of the Jewish brigade from Palestine that fought with the British army in Greece. Uris had also served as a war correspondent in Palestine during the Arab-Israeli War in 1956. In 1960, a movie by the same name was directed by Otto Preminger and starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster.
- Text of the White Paper of 1939: