What Ever Happened to Willem Ruys?

Willem RuysIn the late 1940’s Dutch Nationals living in Indonesia were sent home; to Holland.  My family were among the evicted; the only way out being by ship. Like most events from that era all stories seem to take on a life of their own, growing sub-stories that extend tentacles to unexpected places.

This one is no exception.

My family sailed home to Rotterdam on a ship called the Willem Ruys. A ship whose name means little now however in terms of world history she played an important role on more than one occasion.

This is her story.

The Willem Ruys began her maiden voyage on December 2nd 1947. Together with her main competitor and running mate, the MS Oranje, she became a popular fixture on the Dutch East Indies route.  When the East Indies gained independence from The Netherlands in 1949 and became known as Indonesia, passenger numbers decreased dramatically. 

On January 6, 1953, the Willem Ruys collided, while crossing the Red Sea, with the MS Oranje, which was heading in the opposite direction. At that time, it was common for passenger ships to pass each other at close range to entertain passengers. During the fast approach of the OranjeWillem Ruys made an unexpected swing left, resulting in the collision.

The Oranje was badly damaged and due to the possibility she would be impounded if she stopped on schedule at Colombo, Sri Lanka, the ship sailed directly to Jakarta. The Willem Ruys suffered far less damage. There was no loss of life and later it was determined that mis-communication on both ships had caused the collision.

In 1958, the Royal Rotterdamsche Lloyd and Netherlands Line signed a co-operative agreement to create a round-the-world passenger service. The joint fleet would sail under the banner of “The Royal Dutch Mail Ships”.  The Willem Ruys underwent an extensive refit to prepare her for this new service.

From September 20, 1958 until February 25, 1959, she underwent another major face-lift in Amsterdam, turning her from a passenger liner into a cruise ship. A hundred new cabins were installed and air-conditioning was extended throughout. The Javanese crew members were replaced by Europeans who required upgraded crew accommodation.

On March 7, 1959 Willem Ruys went off on her new world service to Australia and New Zealand. She departed Rotterdam, sailing via the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and returned via the Panama Canal. The Royal Dutch Mail Ships became a popular alternative to British liners.

At the end of 1964, due to a drop in passenger numbers, Willem Ruys was put up for sale.

She was sold to the Lauro Line of Italy and renamed the Achille Lauro. Extensively rebuilt and modernized after an August 1965 on-board explosion the Achille Lauro entered service in 1966 carrying passengers to Sydney, Australia.

The ship also played a role in evacuating families of British servicemen caught up in the Israeli Six Day War; arriving in Cairo on June 1, 1967.

The Achille Lauro was once again converted from a passenger transport ship to a cruise liner in early 1972, during which time she suffered a disastrous fire.

A 1975 collision with the cargo ship Youseff resulted in the sinking of the latter, and another on-board fire in 1981 took her out of service for a time. She was laid up in Tenerife when the Lauro Lines went bankrupt in 1982.

The Chandris Line took possession of her in 1985.

On October 7, 1985, four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front took control of the liner off Egypt as she was sailing from Alexandria to Port Said. The hijackers had been surprised by a crew member and acted prematurely.

Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

After being refused permission to dock at Tartus, the hijackers killed disabled Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and then threw his body overboard. The ship headed back towards Port Said, and after two days of negotiations, the hijackers agreed to abandon the liner in exchange for safe-conduct and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner.

United States President Ronald Reagan ordered the plane intercepted by F-14 Tomcats on October 10 and directed them to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella, a N.A.T.O. base in Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested by the Italians.

The other passengers on the plane (unfortunately including the hijackers’ leader Abu Abbas) were allowed to continue on to their destination despite protests by the U.S..

Egypt demanded an apology from the U.S. for forcing the airplane off course.

The fate of those convicted of the hijacking is varied:

  • Bassam al-Asker was granted parole in 1991. He died on February 21, 2004.
  • Ahmad Marrouf al-Assadi disappeared in 1991 while on parole.
  • Youssef Majed al-Molqi, convicted of killing Leon Klinghoffer was sentenced to 30 years but left the Rebibbia prison in Rome on February 16, 1996 on a 12-day furlough and fled to Spain. He was recaptured and extradited back to Italy. On April 29, 2009, Italian officials released him from prison after good behavior.
  • Abu Abbas left the jurisdiction of Italy and was convicted in absentia. In 1996, he made a public apology.  Abbas was finally captured in Iraq in 2003 by the U.S. military during its invasion. He died in U.S. custody March 8, 2004.
  • Ibrahim Fatayer Abdelatif was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment; he served 20.

The Willem Ruys / Archille Lauro continued in service. She was reflagged in 1987 when the Lauro Line was taken over by the Mediterranean Shipping Company to become the Star Lauro. On November 30, 1994, she caught fire off the coast of Somalia while enroute to South Africa.

Abandoned, she sank on December 2 of the same year.

For more on the history of the Indies;
Arriving in the Indies , Living in the Indies , Surviving in the Indies, Departing the Indies

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38 thoughts on “What Ever Happened to Willem Ruys?

      1. After being scuttled, she was brought up again after the war. I sailed to Singapore on her in January 1956 to join my husband who was in the army there.

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      2. My sister and I on the WILLEM RUYS in 1955 on our journey from Indonesia to Holland. Other picture is at my mom’s nursing home in Holland.Saw this print/drawing in 2011.

        Sent from my iPhone

        >

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  1. Very cool- Love the story. It is interesting how important that family lore and history can be as we move through time. I think it’s cool that you’re building up that information.

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  2. The ship had a very interesting life span. It had so many up and downs. I figure that the damage that the ship encountered wasn’t too expensive over the years.

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  3. I remember the images of the Achille Lauro fire in LIFE magazine. My family sailed the Italian line cruise ships they were beautiful!. I often wondered what happens to cruise ships no longer sailing. I never realized that they rebuild them for different uses. Reading this story is like hearing someone’s life story. It was such a touching piece, it must have been a moving experience for your family watching the ships story unfold.

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  4. The William Ruys seemed more resilient than people in many ways. It was built strong that is for sure. After all those encounters it still prevailed and outlasted probably many a pundit would have thought or imagined.

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  5. Your family must spend a good deal of time telling stories. Such a rich background. I’m fascinated that a ship had a 47 year life span. We’re quick to discard our cars for newer models. She was a beautiful ship. I love the line at the beginning about sub-stories extending like tentacles to unexpected places. I could envision a vine.

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    1. It took me years Jeri but am so grateful I caught the heritage bug and wanted to learn what I could. I think somewhere down deep I realized that my opportunities for learning first hand were slipping away and that egged me on.

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  6. Oh my goodness, I had no idea a ship could have such a story. I guess it makes sense, given what goes into building a huge ship, that it might be reincarnated several times. I always love to read your bits and pieces of history. This one in particular makes me think of the interconnected-ness of our world.

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    1. You are right about the interconnected-ness. When I first began reading about the ship I was fascinated. Then as the story began to splinter into more stories and world events of my life time I left a little in awe. It amazed me how this ship connected us through the decades.

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  7. What a wonderful and informative story about Willem Ruys. It has seen so many phases and got different names and had a great part in history. I am happy that your family had kept all records of events.
    No one feel good for hijackers in this history and will never do, my heart goes for Leon Klinghoffer who was killed by them.

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  8. Tim, this was just so interesting to read. I envy you that your family kept such fabulous records – what a treasure. We came to Canada in 1953 on the Grote Beer and this has prompted me to look up what happened to that ship. Thanks so much.

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  9. The story of the Willem Ruys is fascinating. That boat was like a cat with nine lives. I can understand how you’ve become intrigued with all the side stories relating to your family’s history.

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  10. Stories like this are fascinating to me. I couldn’t help as I was reading this, think about the “Ghost Fleet” or “Mothball Fleet” in the James River, not far from where I live. When originally created just after WWII, it had about 800 ships. Gradually the ships were sold for scrap around the world and now there are just 6 left. There aren’t any ghosts to my knowledge, but potentially, the longer they sit there the more of a hazard they pose. Thanks for sharing this one Tim.

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  11. Interesting story about Willem Ruys. That ship definitely played a part in history. Who hasn’t heard of Achille Lauro without knowing that it used to be called Willem Ruys. Guess we have to be grateful most ships don’t have this kind of destinies.:-)

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  12. I sailed on THE WILLEM RUYS IN 1955 from INDONESIA TO THE NETHERLANDS also with mom,dad a brother and sister.
    I enjoyed the history of the ship,often wondered what happened with it. As an Ex-Travel Counselor for 30 years I recognize the various cruise lines who took the ship over.
    Had all the info of the ship that brought us to AMERICA in 1961 but now have the valuable story of THE WILLEM RUYS this information I can now add to my scrap books I made for my 2 children.
    So thankful I read this article posted by my cousin today.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Completely engaging story Tim. Oh my, if that ship could talk, right? To think that your family sailed on the very same boat of that terrifying historical event is a little mind boggling. And it was so interesting to read of the fate of the people responsible. I never knew nor thought to look that up. Also of note…that the Willem Ruys / Archille Lauro sunk on her 47th birthday. Great writing Tim…compelling story

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    1. When I starting investigating the history of my family I was blown away by all the side-stories that cropped up; this being one of them. I was fascinated by what became of the ship and the fact that she started her passage in the colonial era and ended in modern times; with both ends being of historic relevance.

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