MILLMAN, WILLIAM “BIG BILL.” (1926-2007). Helmsman of the Exodus 47 illegal immigrant ship. Signed card. (“Bill Millman”). 1p. 12mo. (5” x 3”). N.p., N.d. An unlined index card reading “Bill Millman / Helmsman / Exodus ‘1947.’”
The Helmsman of the Historic Ship Exodus 1947
Signed by William Millman
In the wake of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of European Jews lived in displaced persons camps with uncertain futures. In violation of the terms of the British Mandate, underground Jewish organizations began smuggling immigrants into Palestine in a movement codenamed Aliyah Bet that led to a British blockade which halted mass illegal immigration. In 1946, Haganah operatives purchased a naval vessel being sold for scrap in Baltimore and named it Exodus 1947, and outfitting it to carry 4,000 passengers. The ship had a crew of 40 men, mostly American Jews with no naval experience. Millman, a native of Massachusetts was a former member of the United States Navy and served as the ship’s helmsman.
On July 11, 1947, Exodus 1947 departed the French port of Sète with 4,515 passengers aboard. Although it stated that it was bound for Istanbul, Millman steered the ship straight for Palestine in defiance of the British blockade. During its week-long journey, the ship was followed by a number of British military vessels who boarded it on July 18, 20 nautical miles from Palestine’s shore. During the resulting melee, one crewman died after being badly beaten and two passengers died of gunshot wounds. The passengers were shipped back to France where, after refusing to disembark, they were eventually transported to Germany. The forced deportation of Holocaust survivors to camps in Germany caused an international furor and focused the world’s attention on the plight of displaced Jews. The 4500 refugees were later transported to different countries and then Palestine. The last of the original passengers left for Israel (from British internment camps in Cyprus) following British recognition of the state of Israel in January 1949.
Of his motivation for joining the Exodus 1947 crew, Millman said, “How many times in one man’s lifetime can you help create a country? O.K. We helped create a country where there wasn’t one before. If you want to go back to Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, all those gangsters who wanted to form a new country. I put myself in that category,” (“Remembrance: ‘Exodus Helmsman,” www.wbur.org).
In fine condition and rare.