The SS EXODUS… former SS PRESIDENT WARFIELD… night boat of the “honeymoon fleet”


The SS President Warfield was named after the Old Bay Line’s president.  Warfield’s niece was Bessie Wallis Warfield (June 19, 1896 – April 24, 1986), best known as Wallis Simpson and later still the Duchess of Windsor, was a mistress, and later wife, of the former Edward VIII of the United Kingdom and was indirectly responsible for his abdication of the throne, though it has been argued that his probable Nazi sympathies were a factor.

PRESIDENT WARFIELD (EXODUS) – “Old Baltimore At Twilight” by Paul McGehee. The beautiful inner harbor of Baltimore holds memories for many people … memories of the days when you could go down to the “Long Dock” to buy watermelons brought in by the Chesapeake Bay skipjacks and bugeyes … memories of the downtown smells of roasting coffee and spices coming from McCormick’s. In 1934, the Baltimore Trust building towered over the port, witness to the daily comings and goings of the passenger steamers that would dock along Light Street, close to the end of the steamboat era.

President Warfield (Exodus)  – Painting by Melvin O. Miller

The OLD BAY LINE Dock in Baltimore.

The Baltimore Steam Packet Company, also known as the Old Bay Line, was an American steamship line from 1840 to 1962, providing overnight steamboat service on the Chesapeake Bay, primarily between Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia.

Called a “packet” for the mail packets carried on government mail contracts, the term in the 19th century came to mean a steamer line operating on a regular, fixed daily schedule between two or more cities.

By the time the venerable packet line ceased operation in 1962 after 122 years of existence, it was the last surviving overnight steamship passenger service in the United States.


CITY OF NORFOLK – Chesapeake Bay night boat. She was built at Sparrows Point, MD in 1911 for passenger and freight service between Baltimore and Norfolk. She operated in this service, first for the Chesapeake S.S. Co. and then the Old Bay Line, until 1962 when the company ceased operations. This view shows her backing from her Baltimore wharf at 7:30 AM on Oct. 31, 1949 on her way to dry dock.

Dancing on the OLD BAY LINE.

Services on the OLD BAY LINE.

In addition to regularly calling on Baltimore and Norfolk, the Baltimore Steam Packet Company also provided freight, passenger and vehicle transport to Washington, D.C., Old Point Comfort, and Richmond, Virginia, at various times during its history.

The Old Bay Line, as it came to be known by the 1860s, was acclaimed for its genteel service and fine dining, serving Chesapeake Bay specialties. Walter Lord, famed author of A Night to Remember and whose grandfather had been the packet line’s president from 1893 to 1899, mused that its reputation for excellent service was attributable to “… some magical blending of the best in the North and the South, made possible by the Company’s unique role in ‘bridging’ the two sections … the North contributed its tradition of mechanical proficiency, making the ships so reliable; while the South contributed its gracious ease.”

Old Bay Line steamer arriving in the early 1960s.

One of the Old Bay Line’s steamers, the former President Warfield, later became famous as the SS Exodus ship of book and movie fame, when Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe sailed aboard her in 1947 in an unsuccessful attempt to emigrate to Palestine.

THE PRESIDENT WARFIELD as the Exodus in 1947.

(Left) The SS Exodus, formerly the Baltimore Steam Packet Company’s President Warfield, arriving with 4,515 Jewish refugees at Haifa on 20 July, 1947.

On July 12, 1942 SS President Warfield was acquired by the War Shipping Administration (WSA) and converted to a transport craft for the British Ministry of War Transport.

Manned by a British merchant crew led by Capt. J. R. Williams, it departed St. John’s, Newfoundland on September 21, 1942, along with other small passenger steamers bound for the United Kingdom. Attacked by a German submarine 800 nautical miles (1,500 km) west of Ireland on September 25, the ship evaded one torpedo, and, after the scattering of its convoy, reached Belfast, Northern Ireland. In Britain, it served as a barracks and training ship on the River Torridge at Instow.

Returned by Britain, it joined the U.S. Navy as President Warfield on May 21, 1944. In July it served as a station and accommodations ship at Omaha Beach at Normandy. Following duty in England and on the Seine River, it arrived at Norfolk, Virginia, July 25, 1945, and left active Navy service September 13. President Warfield was struck from the U.S. Naval Vessel Register on October 11 and returned to the War Shipping Administration on November 14.

(Left) President Warfield enroute to Europe from the USA in 1947, where she would be renamed Exodus 1947.

On November 9, 1946 the WSA sold President Warfield to the Potomac Shipwrecking Co. of Washington, D.C., who were acting as an agent of the Jewish political group Haganah. The ship eventually ended up with Hamossad Le’aliyah Bet—the underground Jewish organization in Palestine intent on helping underground Jewish immigrants enter Palestine. It was renamed Exodus 1947 after the biblical Jewish exodus from Egypt to Canaan.

The ship was deliberately chosen because of its derelict condition. It was risky to put passengers on it, but it was felt this would compel the British to let it pass blockade because of this danger or put the British in a bad light internationally. The President Warfield left Baltimore February 25, 1947 and headed for the Mediterranean. With Palmach (Haganah’s military wing) skipper Ike Aronowicz as captain, and supervised by Haganah commissioner Yossi Harel as the operation’s commander, it sailed under false orders and left at night with 4,515 passengers from the port of Sète, France, on July 11, 1947, and arrived at Palestine’s shores on July 18.

1,282 women, many being pregnant, 1,600 men and 1,672 children boarded the ship in Sète. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C.).

(Left) The President Warfield in Séte harbor awaiting the refugees.  (Archiv Ursula Litzmann, Düren).

The British Royal Navy cruiser Ajax and a convoy of destroyers trailed the ship from very early in its voyage, and finally boarded it some 20 nautical miles (40 km) from shore. The Exodus had been purposely refitted to make boarding impossible with barriers and barbed wire along the top decks and steam hoses hooked to the boilers fitted for defense. Attempts had been made by the British to keep the Exodus from leaving France and interception at sea was decided upon as the ship was unseaworthy and presented the continual danger of sinking. The boarding by the British was difficult and had to be managed from the bridges of the destroyers and was challenged by the passengers and Haganah members on board. Two passengers and one of the crew, 1st mate William Bernstein, a U.S. sailor from San Francisco, died as a result of bludgeoning and several dozen others were injured before the ship was taken over.Due to the high profile of the Exodus 1947 emigration ship, it was decided by the British government that the emigrants were to be deported back to France. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin suggested this, and the request was relayed to General Sir Alan Cunningham, High Commissioner for Palestine, who agreed with the plan after consulting the Navy. Before then, intercepted would-be immigrants were placed in internment camps on Cyprus, which was at the time a British colony.  This new policy was meant to be a signal to both the Jewish community and the European countries, which assisted immigration that whatever they sent to Palestine would be sent back to them.

Not only should it clearly establish the principle of REFOULEMENT as applies to a complete shipload of immigrants, but it will be most discouraging to the organizers of this traffic if the immigrants… end up by returning whence they came. The damaged former President Warfield remained moored to a breakwater at Haifa harbor as a derelict until it burned to the waterline August 26, 1952. Later towed to Shemen Beach, Haifa, it was raised in 1963 and scrapped by an Italian firm.

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