Ordered in 1938, her keel was laid in 1939 at Vlissingen, Netherlands, for Rotterdamsche Lloyd. Interrupted by World War II and two bombing raids, the ship was not launched until July 1946 as the Willem Ruys. Completed in late 1947, she began her maiden voyage on December 2, 1947. She was 192 metres in length, 25 metres in beam, 8.9 metres high and weighed 21,110 tons fully loaded with 900 passengers and crew. In 1964 she was sold to the Lauro Line and renamed the Achille Lauro. Extensively rebuilt and modernized, she entered service in 1966.
On October 7, 1985, four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front took control of the liner off Egypt while 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 fifty Palestinians then in Israeli prisons. Refused permission to dock at Tartus, the hijackers killed one wheelchair-bound passenger – the American Leon Klinghoffer – and threw his body overboard. The ship headed back towards Port Said, and after two days of negotiations the hijackers agreed to abandon the liner for safe conduct and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner.
The plane was intercepted by United States Navy fighters on October 10 and directed to land at a NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested by the Italians after a disagreement between US and Italian authorities. The other passengers on the plane (possibly including the hijackers' leader Abu Abbas) were allowed to continue on to their destination, despite protests by the United States.
The fate of those convicted of the hijacking is varied:
The ship continued in service; she was reflagged in 1987 when the Lauro Line became StarLauro. On November 30, 1994, she caught fire off the coast of Somalia. Abandoned, the vessel sank on December 2.
An opera, with libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams, entitled The Death of Klinghoffer, opened to great controversy in 1991. In 2003, a movie version of the opera was produced by Madonna Baptiste and Yan Younghusband, directed by Penny Woolcock.