The Willem Ruys began her maiden voyage on December 2, 1947. Together with her main competitor and running mate, the MS Oranje of the Netherland Line, she became a popular fixture on the Dutch East Indies route. However, when the East Indies gained independence from The Netherlands in 1949, passenger numbers decreased dramatically.
On January 6, 1953, Willem Ruys collided in the Red Sea with running mate MS Oranje, heading in the opposite direction. At that time, it was common that passenger ships pass each other at close range to entertain their passengers. During the (later heavily criticized) abrupt and fast approach of Oranje, Willem Ruys made an unexpected swing to the left, resulting in a collision. It was a near-miss disaster. Oranje badly damaged her bows. Due to the possibility she would be impounded for safety reasons, she was unable to call at Colombo as scheduled, and went directly to Jakarta. Willem Ruys suffered less damage. There was no loss of life involved. Later, it was determined that miscommunication on both ships had caused the collision.
In 1958, the Royal Rotterdamsche Lloyd and the Netherland 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”. Together with the Oranje and the Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, 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 facelift in Amsterdam, turning her from a passenger liner into a cruise ship. A hundred new cabins were installed and air-conditioning was extended throughout all accommodations. The Javanese crew members were replaced by Europeans, who required upgraded crew accommodation. Willem Ruys was able to accommodate 275 first class, and 770 tourist class passengers, although there were many interchangeable cabins which had additional berths fitted, which could increase the maximum passenger number to 1167.
On March 7, 1959 Willem Ruyswent off on her new world service to Australia and New Zealand. She departed from Rotterdam, sailing via Southampton, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, Fremantle, Melbourne, Sydney, New Zealand, returning via the Panama Canal. The Royal Dutch Mail Ships (Willem Ruys, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and Oranje) became a popular alternative to the British liners. At the end of 1964, due to a strong drop in passenger numbers, Willem Ruys was put up for sale.
In 1964, she was sold to the Lauro Line of Italy and renamed the Achille Lauro (after the company owner). 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 played a role in evacuating the families of British servicemen caught up in the Six Day War (Israel), arriving in Cairo on June 1, 1967.
The Achille Laurowas 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, shortly before the hijacking.
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 then 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 that the plane be 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 United States. 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 on good behaviour.
- 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 of Iraq. He died in U.S. custody March 8, 2004.
- Ibrahim Fatayer Abdelatif was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. He served 20 and three more on parole and on July 7, 2008, he was expelled from an illegal immigrant detention center in Rome. He plans to appeal, arguing that he has nowhere else to go since Lebanon will not allow his return as he was born in a refugee camp and is thus not a Lebanese citizen.
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, the vessel sank on December 2 of the same year.