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‘The ship that launched a nation’: Iconic piece of nautical Baltimore history to be auctioned off in Missouri

USS President Warfield, left, is seen serving as a base ship on the Seine River, circa winter 1944-1945.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES

By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | The Baltimore Sun | Published: December 13, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — A significant historical object related to the founding of Israel, the Holocaust, Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay, a bronze builder’s plate from the ill-fated SS Exodus, formerly the notable Old Bay Line steamer SS President Warfield, which was transporting 4,500 Jewish refugees from war-ravaged Europe to Palestine in 1947 when it was attacked by British naval vessels, will be auctioned off Saturday in Missouri.

The 17-inch-diameter heavy bronze plate that is cast with the ship’s name, “President Warfield,” and “1928,” the year of its building, and the name of the “Hyde Windlass Co. of Bath, Maine,” a nautical equipment purveyor, is from the collection of the late Edward P. McHugh III, of Massillon, Ohio, who collected nautical, railroad, bus and aviation memorabilia.

McHugh, a retired government worker, who died in 2018, acquired the piece from the estate of Hans Marx, the noted former Sunpapers photojournalist and old Sunday Sun Magazine photographer, who began his career at The Sun in 1937 and died in 1999.

The ship was built by Pusey and Jones Corp. in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1928 for the Baltimore Steam Packet Co., more familiarly known as the Old Bay Line, whose vessels offered genteel service and excellent shipboard dining while sailing the Chesapeake Bay. At 330 feet, the Warfield could transport 400 passengers and accommodate a crew of 58.

The President Warfield was named for Baltimore banker Solomon Davies Warfield, Seaboard Railroad Air Line Railroad president, owner of the Old Bay Line. Warfield was also the paternal uncle of Bessie Wallis Warfield, the future Duchess of Windsor, who christened the ship in 1927.

Another former president of the packet boat company was Richard Curzon Hoffman, who served from 1893 to 1899, and was the maternal grandfather of Walter Lord, who wrote “A Night to Remember,” which chronicled the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.

After entering service in 1928, the Warfield joined her sister vessels, the State of Virginia, State of Maryland, City of Norfolk and City of Richmond, transporting passengers and cargo between Baltimore and Norfolk, Virginia.

Marx, who loved steam-powered trains and ships, had spent his honeymoon aboard the Warfield after marrying the former Frieda Stephan, in 1940, and thereafter the Warfield quite possibly became his favorite bay steamer.

With the coming of World War II, the Warfield, along with other company vessels, were taken over by the War Shipping Administration, in 1942. On the morning the Warfield was to be turned over to the government, Marx called at Pier 10, Light Street, from which the vessel routinely sailed.

He explained to a visitor to his Lewes, Delaware, home in 1987, that he sought out a representative of the line and asked if it would be OK to take a souvenir. Thinking Marx was going to take an ashtray or a dinner plate, he gave his approval.

But Marx had other ideas. Like a one-man wrecking crew, he came loaded for bear with his tools and had his eye on only one thing: The Warfield’s builder’s plate.

When the official of the line found out what Marx was up to, he said, “What are you doing? This is government property, and our boats are being turned over to them at noon."

Unfazed by the man’s protestations, Marx pulled out his pocket watch and noted the time. “It’s 11 a.m. and you still own them,” and he turned back to the task at hand.

Until Marx’s death, the Warfield’s builder’s plate occupied a place of honor hanging on the fireplace wall of Marx’s Lewes home.

On Sept. 21, 1942, the Warfield, coated in gray paint that replaced the original white and fitted with guns, joined other vessels and sailed in convoy from St. John, Newfoundland, to England, where it was used as a training and barracks ship. In 1943, she was taken over by the Navy, and a month after D-Day in 1944, crossed the English Channel to Omaha Beach, and later saw service on the Seine River.

With World War II over, the Warfield crossed the Atlantic in 1945 where it was offered for sale by the Maritime Commission, and then placed in the James River Reserve Fleet.

The vessel was sold in 1946 to the Potomac Shipwrecking Co. of Popes Creek, Charles County, for scrap, but ended up in Baltimore instead, flying the Honduran flag.

Mose Speert, a Baltimore liquor distributor, and a group of business leaders and Zionist leaders met in New York to discuss the plight of displaced European Jews, and decided to purchase the Warfield.

In 1946, the ship was sold to the Chinese-American Trading Co. for $40,000, and several days later to Weston Trading Corp., a front for Haganah, an underground Jewish military organization, for $50,000.

While being outfitted and rebuilt in Baltimore, to accommodate 4,500 passengers, and reportedly headed for China, H. Graham Wood, a noted Chesapeake Bay steamboat historian, visited the ship at its Canton pier one day.

He concluded that the “owners had other plans when he noted the supply of life preservers and mess kits on board and the appearance of the crew (all Jewish, except the captain),” he wrote in his book “Steamboats Out of Baltimore,” with co-author Robert H. Burgess.

The Warfield departed Canton for Sete, France on Feb. 25, 1947, and after reaching the Mediterranean port, picked up 4,500 Holocaust survivors, and was “illegally renamed Exodus 1947,\u2033 wrote Wood and Burgess, as it steamed toward Palestine, shadowed by British warships.

By mid-July 1947, the Warfield, now known as “Haganah Ship: Exodus 1947,” was off the coast of Palestine and planned to run the British naval blockage. In the early dawn of July 18, 1947, the vessel was rammed on her port side by British destroyers and boarded by a landing crew.

The refugees and crew fought back as the British servicemen attempted to suppress the ensuing riot with tear gas, clubs and random gunshot, and when it ended, three were dead, with nearly 70 injured.

Now under British control, the Exodus was towed to Haifa and its passengers were sent back ironically to the displaced persons camps in Germany, two years after the war had ended, and from which they had happily departed hoping for a new life in Palestine.

The incident drew international headlines and condemnation. In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, and the state of Israel became a reality the next year.

“The Exodus would forever be known as the ship that launched a nation,” observed The Baltimore Sun in a 2007 article.

On Aug. 26, 1952, the Exodus caught fire in Haifa Harbor, burned to its waterline, and then sank into harbor waters. It was later sold for scrap.

Leon Uris, a Baltimorean who attended City College from 1938 to 1941, published in 1958 his book “Exodus,” which two years later was made into a major motion picture that was directed by Otto Preminger and starred Paul Newman.

Soulis Auctions, located in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, estimates that the builder’s plate, which includes vintage pictures of the ship and Hans and Frieda Marx, to be worth between $3,000 and $5,000.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed research to this article.

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