William Bernstein was born on 27th January 1923 in Passaic, New Jersey. At the age of 13 his family moved to San Francisco. He graduated from Galileo High School in San Francisco and attended Ohio State University. Although entitled to a deferment from military service as a pre-medical student, he volunteered for the US Merchant Marines in World War II. He graduated from the Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy in 1944 as a second lieutenant. After the war, he received an appointment to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, but volunteered for “Aliyah Bet” and served as second officer in July 1947 on the “Exodus,” which carried more than 4,500 Jewish men and women, survivors of the Holocaust from World War II displaced person camps to Palestine.
The night before the British captured the "Exodus," Bernstein told his shipmates about a premonition he'd had that he would die in the battle that lay ahead. On 18th July 1947, when the ship was 22 miles from its destination, the ship received a broadcasted message from the British destroyer “Ajax” to cease heading for the coast of Palestine. The “Exodus” kept sailing on its course despite the warning, and the British attack was immediate. Heavy machine gun fire was directed at the ship and two destroyers rammed into the “Exodus” from both sides. The first landing party boarded the ship and was bombarded with tins of preserves and potatoes by the passengers, with no effect. The British marines and sailors, armed with side-arms and clubs, attacked the passengers and crew and overcame their resistance. They reached the bridge and viciously clubbed the “Exodus” captain, Second Officer Bernstein, and the helmsman. Bernstein died almost immediately from his wounds.
The “Exodus” was then taken to Haifa, and the refugees forcibly transferred to three British Merchant ships, “Runnymeade Park,” “Ocean Vigour” and the “Empire Rival;” the refugees were then returned to Hamburg via Marseilles.
Bill Bernstein was buried in Martyrs' Row in the Haifa Cemetery.
Captain Yitzhak Aharonovitz of the refugee ship “Yetziat Europa 1947” described Bill in these words: “Simple and direct of heart. He carried out his duties with enthusiasm and without a word of complaint for the more difficult tasks allotted over and above his duties. Never once did he interfere with the refugee passengers or with their gaiety or their activities."
His name is included in the “Palmach Book."
Translated from the Yizkor website with additions by researcher Joe Woolf