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Exodus 1947


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  • Before there was an Israel, an inexperienced crew of young Americans climbed aboard a rusted American ferryboat and set out from Philadelphia to transport thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors past the British blockade of Palestine. Other ships had tried it. But this ship, which would come to be known as the Exodus 1947, was the one that helped shape the political landscape of the Middle East.

    At the helm was "Big Bill" Millman, a 19-year-old Navy boxing champ. Frank Lavine, part of the deck crew, was 22 and completely unprepared for the kind of battle he would face against the British Marines. And in the engine room, an electrician named Nat Nadler helped keep the boilers lit, never imagining that he was about to participate in the birth of a nation. This is their story.

    Photos and Extra Audio
    Click here to see photos and hear more from Exodus crewmen Bill Millman, Frank Lavine, and Nat Nadler.

    The Steamship President Warfield and the Journey Ahead

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    (Photo: The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA.)

    Baltimore, 1946 - The USS President Warfield, a former Chesapeake Bay pleasure steamer, is towed from a scrap yard for an illegal mission thousands of miles away. It's shortly after World War II and Jews all over Europe are languishing in Displaced Persons or "DP" camps. Most, if not all of them yearn to immigrate to Palestine, the land they believe to be promised to them in biblical prophecy. But Palestine is still under the control of the British, who are only letting 1,500 Jewish immigrants into the territory per month. More, they fear, would incite an explosive clash between the Jews and the Arabs. Nonetheless, a secret Jewish military is buying ships like the Warfield and hiring eager, young men - some with sailing experience, some without - to run holocaust survivors past the British blockade.

    Frank Lavine, Nat Nadler, and "Big Bill"Millman were three of those men. As Bill says, you would have had to have been "brave, stupid and have a cause" to sail the Warfield across the Atlantic. Still, they climbed aboard, with nearly 40 others, little knowing that their actions would soon help change the Middle Eastern power structure for the foreseeable future.

    The Trip to Palestine and First Confrontations with the British

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    (Photo: The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA.)

    Once in Europe, the crew prepares the ship to receive its human cargo. Most of the men have never encountered Jewish holocaust survivors before. And in July of 1947, the crew is charged with the task of loading more than 4,500 of them into the holds of the Warfield. Meanwhile, the British have followed their every move, from Marseilles, France to Portovenere, Italy, back to Sète, France. Be it bravery, or mere naiveté, the crew carries on undeterred.

    It's only when the Warfield sets out onto the Mediterranean that the British make their presence more obvious. Six men o' war tail the Warfield on its course to Palestine, occasionally yelling at the Americans to give up. But the confrontation just makes the crew more resolved to carry out their mission. On the fifth day at sea, a radio transmission from Palestine instructs the Warfield that it has a new name, the name by which it would later become famous: "Exodus 1947."

    Confrontation with the British: Victory in Loss

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    (Photo: The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA.)

    July 18, 1947 - The Exodus reaches Palestine under its own power, but not under its original command. The British have bloodied refugees and crewmen in a vicious struggle twenty-five miles out at sea from Palestine. Some thirty refugees are badly wounded. Two are dead. And one crewman clings to life as the ship pulls in to Haifa harbor, where three British prison ships are waiting.

    The refugees are herded off the Exodus to spend mere moments in the nation where they hoped to spend the rest of their lives. Soon, the prison ships Ocean Vigour, Runnymede Park and Empire Rival depart with the same human cargo on board. The refugees and crew of the Exodus believe they're headed for Displaced Persons camps Cyprus, a day's journey at best. But as one day turns into two, and three, and as Cyprus becomes more and more distant, it's clear that the British have special plans for their passengers. The Exodus was bigger than any blockade-runner before it, carried more passengers than any other. Plus it had just engaged the British marines in a four hour battle on the high seas. The British decide to make an example out of these latest would-be immigrants. Instead, they make the political mistake of a decade.



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