Thursday, May 18, 2023

The President Warfield, Haganah Ship Exodus, and Citizens of Norfolk, Virginia

By CAPT Alexander Monroe, USN (Ret.)
HRNM Volunteer

The years following World War Two were fraught with turbulent change. The USS President Warfield (IX 169), which was taken over from The Baltimore Steam Packet Company (also known as the Old Bay Line) by the War Shipping Administration in July 1942, was bought by Haganah, a Zionist-related paramilitary organization, and renamed Haganah ship Exodus 1947. It played a key role in the attempted resettlement of 4,514 stateless Jewish refugees in Palestine, a territory that had been under British mandate and protection since 1922. The abortive voyage was a precursor to the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, a Jewish homeland, the goal of the World Zionist Organization since its founding in 1897. It was supported by prominent Jewish citizens of Norfolk, Virginia.

Old Bay Line Timetable

President Warfield was laid down at Pusey and Jones Shipyard in 1927 and delivered to the Old Bay Line in 1928. With opulent appointments and dining rooms with “white gloved waiters,” the ship provided overnight passenger/freight service between Baltimore, Old Point Comfort, and Norfolk. The ship’s berth, shared with the Pennsylvania Railroad in Norfolk, was close to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s current location. Old Bay Line provided service until July 12, 1942, when Captain Patrick L. Parker steamed to Baltimore to meet the requirements of War Shipping Administration requisition 227753. The ship was refitted, sailed in convoy to Europe, and was allocated to the United Kingdom for use at a Royal Navy/United States Navy amphibious training facility at Appledore-Instow, North Devon. On May 10, 1944, the ship returned to United States control and was commissioned into the U.S. Navy as USS President Warfield (IX 169). It became a control ship, moored to a sunken Mulberry caisson, HMS Centurion, off the Omaha landing beach in Normandy. It was later moved to Le Harve, where it served in part as a transport ship carrying troops up the Seine River to carry out offensive operations following the invasion.

USS President Warfield moored at Fort Monroe, Virginia. This photo was taken from the Chamberlin Hotel (Mariners' Museum)

By the summer of 1945, the tasks for which President Warfield was brought into the United States Navy were completed, and on July 9, the ship sailed for Norfolk. Shortly thereafter, Old Bay Line officials inspected what had become a “drab wreck” and determined that the old ship couldn’t be restored to the status of being an “aristocrat of the Chesapeake Bay”[i] without prohibitive expense. The war-weary ship was taken to the James River Reserve Fleet, near Fort Eustis, Virginia, along with other ships that had outlived their usefulness.

USS President Warfield in Norfolk, Virginia, July 1945 (NHHC)

Post-war turbulence accelerated, focused in part on the status of about 250,000 stateless Jews who had escaped death in Nazi concentration camps. According to one Norfolk citizen, Europe, “particularly for Jews was nothing but one big graveyard.”[ii] In time, a fragile solution was fashioned whereby the refugees would be settled in Palestine, a territory under the mandate and protection of the British since 1922. Resettlement was to be carried out by Haganah, an organization that began Aliyah Beth, a program to facilitate illegal immigration. It acted though the Weston Trading Company, a front organization, to purchase the Warfield. It was hazardous in part because Arabs residing nearby were opposed to it. In addition, the British government opposed the concept of resettlement. Initially the Truman administration opposed the enterprise, as well. There was no place for the refugees to go, for their homes had been destroyed or taken by others.[iii]

USS President Warfield (IX 169) at Le Havre, France, Winter 1944-45 (NHHC)

The Warfield was fitted out for its new role in Norfolk. This involved installing extra berths and assembling a crew. Some of the crewmembers and local citizens met from time to time at Saul’s Delicatessen, an establishment on Boush Street. The crew began its first attempt to cross the Atlantic on February 26-28, 1947, and barely 60 miles from Norfolk encountered a violent storm requiring the ship to return to port. Voyage repairs were done at the Main Street Pier and the Brambleton Yards of Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Influential Jewish citizens in Norfolk raised the funds to complete the ship’s repairs. Joseph L. Hecht, chairman of the Norfolk Emergency Zionist Council, was a key figure in conducting clandestine fundraising. Mr. David Friedman, a grocer active in the Norfolk District of the Zionist Organization of America,[iv] delivered a supply of non-perishable food, including Carnation milk and Campbell soup, which “filled the storage rooms from floor to ceiling.”[v] This replaced supplies lost in the storm. During this time, figures such as Abba Eban and Golda Meir, important in founding of the State of Israel, visited and the community held fundraising events. The high level of engagement was related to the fact that the effort would bring about establishment of a long-desired permanent Jewish homeland.[vi]

Norfolk citizens reacted to the old ship in differing ways. Martin Sherman had observed some of the ”tough looking” Warfield crewmen with his friend Abbot Lutz at Saul’s. He saw the poor condition of the ship and observed that he “wouldn’t cross the Elizabeth River in that old tub, let alone the Atlantic Ocean.”[vii] Abbot Lutz, however, did make the trip to Europe.[viii]

Hans Pinn Studio Press photograph of the Exodus 1947 docked in Haifa Harbor, Palestine, 1947. (Bulmash Family Holocaust Collection)

In time, President Warfield left Norfolk, refueled in Philadelphia, and got underway to cross the Atlantic, bound for Sete, about 80 miles west of Marseilles. There, 4,514 refugees came aboard, and the crew set sail for Palestine, shadowed by Royal Navy destroyers. In the predawn darkness of July 18, 1947, heavily armed British sailors and marines boarded the ship (now known as Haganah Ship Exodus 1947) to stop the illegal immigration. Four crewmen and refugees were bludgeoned to death, and the ship was steamed to Haifa. Not permitted to step on Palestinian soil, the refugees were transferred to three British transports for an arduous 48-day journey that in a bitterly ironic end put them ashore in Hamburg, Germany, forcibly removing those who resisted.[ix] Joseph L. Hecht, Chairman of the Norfolk Zionist Emergency Council, endorsed the denunciation of the seizure of the national organization.[x] Haganah Ship Exodus 1947—previously known as USS President Warfield—was moored to buoys in Haifa and burned to the waterline in 1952.

Haganah Ship Exodus 1947 on fire at its moorings, Haifa, Israel, August 1952 (Mariners' Museum)

It is now just over 76 years since the President Warfield, which had been purchased for the purpose of illegal immigration, made its first attempt to cross the Atlantic in a new role. Its later abortive cruise, in which Jewish citizens of Norfolk played a key role, led to the steamer’s interdiction and seizure, and drew international attention to the plight of Jewish refugees. Moreover, it underscored the reversal of the policy of the Labor Party in all the years from 1918-1945. It was a resounding failure and breach of earlier pledges of support for establishment of a Jewish homeland.[xi] Ultimately, however, public response to this event assisted in the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. There is one talisman of the effort. In 1943 after the Warfield was delivered to the War Shipping Administration, its bell was delivered to the Mariners’ Museum by Old Bay Line and it rests in an honored place in the museum in Newport News, Virginia, not far from where the ship emerged to assume an important role in history.

Ship's Bell, SS President Warfield, Baltimore Steam Packet Company, also known as the Old Bay Line (Mariners' Museum)

Author’s note: The author acknowledges the assistance of Erin Miller ,Archivist, and David K. Titus, Volunteer Librarian, Bonk-Rivin Holocaust Collection, Ohef Sholom Temple. Without their help this would not have been done.

[i] Exodus 1947, David C. Holley, Little Brown and Company, 1969, p.56
[ii] “Lutz, Veteran of the Exodus is Home Again,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, November 1947.
[iii] See remarks of Norman Hecht about his father Joseph Hecht at the opening of the Exodus exhibit at the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia, September 1997.
[iv] These gentlemen were members of Ohef Sholom Temple on Raleigh Avenue in Norfolk
[v] “Exhibit recounts Exodus 1947 history,” Southeastern Jewish News, April 25, 1997.
[vi] “Tidewater’s Jewish Community responds to the State of Israel in 1948,” Jewish News, Southeastern Virginia, April 9, 2018.
[vii] Unpublished note from a conversation with Martin Sherman, September 30, 1996.
[viii] During the July 18th, 1947, attack by the Royal Navy destroyers, Lutz broadcast news of the brutal attack between armed Royal Navy personnel and the passengers and crew. See again “Lutz,” Virginian Pilot, November 1947
[ix] See again Holley, Exodus 1947, p.265.
[x] “ Zionists Here Join in Protest of Ship Seizure,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, July 24, 1947.
[xi] “Exodus and Return,” Editorial pages E1-3, New York Times, September 14, 1947.

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