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What is the history of Liberty ships being built in Wilmington during World War II?

Ben Steelman

In all, 126 Liberty ships were built between 1941 and 1943 at the N.C. Shipbuilding Co. yards in Wilmington, located on the east bank of the Cape Fear River slightly south of downtown, on the site of the present N.C. State Port property.

After mid-1943, the shipyard switched production to the C-2 model freighter (intended for postwar commerce), amphibious/attack cargo ships (AKAs) and other vessel types. The Wilmington yards turned out a total of 243 vessels before closing in 1946. At its height, N.C. Shipbuilding employed more than 20,000 civilian workers, who flocked to Wilmington from across the Carolinas.

Wilmington had been a modest shipbuilding center since at least the 1700s. (The earliest known vessel, the 10-ton sloop New Adventure, was built here around 1727.)

During the Civil War, Benajmin Washington Beery and his brothers operated a shipyard on Eagles Island, constructing a number of vessels, including the Confederate ironclad CSS North Carolina. Meanwhile, James Cassidey and his family operated a shipyard and outfitting station across the Cape Fear (on the riverfront between Nun and Church streets), turning out the ironclad CSS Raleigh in 1863. The Cassidey and Beery interests merged after the war, operating a “marine railway” (essentially, a drydock facility).

During World War I, New York skyscraper magnate George A. Fuller launched the Carolina Shipbuilding Co. at Wilmington, turning out a total of 10 10,000-ton steel-hulled cargo vessels for the U.S. Emergency Fleet Corp.; all were delivered after the Armistice was signed, and none of the ships saw combat. At the same time, another yard was building concrete-hulled ships, while two smaller yards worked on wooden hulls. In all, the Wilmington shipyards of the First World War employed about 4,000 workers.

By 1940, as the U.S. Maritime Commission identified an emergency shortage of cargo vessels, Wilmington officials and executives began to lobby for a new shipyard. On June 24, 1940, a “Shipyard for Wilmington Committee” met and authorized J.E.L. Wade, Wilmington’s city public works commissioner, to head a delegation to Washington to meet with U.S. Sen. Josiah W. Bailey, D-N.C., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversaw the Maritime Commission. Meanwhile, Homer L. Ferguson, president of the Newport News Shipping and Dry Dock Co. in Virginia, was looking for an expansion site at an East Coast port.

In November 1940 — overruling an effort by Gov. J. Melville Broughton and some other North Carolina officials to have it located at Morehead City — the Maritime Commission decided to locate the new yard in Wilmington. Newport News Shipbuilding formed a subsidiary to operate this yard. Ferguson was named chairman of the board of the new N.C. Shipbuilding Co., with Roger Williams, the executive vice president of the Newport News company, as president.

The company purchased a 56.9-acre tract on the east bank of the Cape Fear, about 3 miles south of downtown and close to Wilmington’s Sunset Park suburb.

 Ground was broken on Feb. 3, 1941, with plans to construct at least six shipways. As contractors dredged some 400,000 cubic yards of material and sank some 950 feet of steel builkhead, on March 18, 1943, the Maritime Commission announced that the Wilmington company had contracted to deliver 25 Liberty ships by March 15, 1943. By spring 1941, an additional 12 Liberty ships were ordered, and three extra shipways, a pier, more shops and welding equipment were added.

Work went fast. On May 22, 1941, the keels were laid for the first two Liberty ships, and on Dec. 6, 1941 — just hours before the Pearl Harbor attack — the S.S. Zebulon B. Vance (named for North Carolina’s Civil War governor) was formally christened to great ceremony by Mrs. J. Melville Broughton, the state’s first lady.

 (Wilmington’s Liberty ships were frequent named for historical figures from North and South Carolina. Among those honoring figures from the Lower Cape Fear were the Cornelius Harnett, George Davis, Richard Caswell, Alexander Lillington, James Sprunt, Alfred Moore, John Merrick and John N. Maffitt.)

The Liberty ships were 441 feet long, 56 feet wide and capable of cruising at a speed of 12 knots. Their design was intended to be quick to construct. Although they suffered certain defects from a mariner’s point of view — there were no windows on the steering bridge, which meant that the captain and watch officers had to lean from perches on the port or starboard sides to see what lay ahead of them — the ships proved to be workhorses, shipping supplies around the world to support U.S. and allied armed forces.

In January 1942, the Maritime Commission raised its order again, and N.C.. Shipbuilding accepted a contract to produce an additional 53 Liberty hulls for delivery by Jan. 29, 1944. To meet this order, the company bought an addtional 80 acres of land and added giant fabrication shops and full-scale mold loft. The effort paid off: The company delivered 51 vessels in 1942, and by March 1943 — its orginal deadline to complete just 25 ships — it had delivered a total of 73.

The Maritime Commission commended the Wilmington shipyard for the lowest average cost per ship of any of the 16 yards producing Liberty ships in 1943.  At its peak, the yard was delivering 11 finished vessels per month. The 126th and last Liberty ship was delivered on Aug. 27, 1943 — two days ahead of its contract date.

During mid-1943, production slowed somewhat as the shipyard refitted for the C2-S-AJ1, a more modern, larger and more comfortable design than the Spartan Libertys. These C-2s were 459 feet long and 63 feet wide, weighting 10,6609 tons deadweight, with engines capable of 6,000 horsepower, vs. 2,500 for the Liberty design. Between 1944 and 1945, the yazrd also turned out a number of AKA transports, headquarters (ABC) and ammunition (AE) ships for the U.S. Navy.

Late in the war, the yard revereted to civilian cargo vessels, filling orders for 17 vessels from the Lykes Brothers line, 19 for U.S. Lines and 9 for the Grace Line. The Grace ships were especially luxurious, with refrigerated cargo space, accommodations for up t0 52 passengers and even a swimming pool.

In all, 28 ships built at Wilmington were lost during the war; 23 were sunk by enemy action, 4 were sunk to form a brekawater during the Normandy invasion, and one ammunition ship exploded in the South Pacific.

Perhaps the most famous vessel from the shipyard was the S.S. White Falcon, a C-2 delivered on April 14, 1944. Lengthened and refitted as a cargo container ship, she was rechristened the SS Mayaguez in 1965. On May 12, 1975 — two weeks after the collapse of the South Vietnamese government —  Khmer Rouge forces, operating in captured U.S. Navy “swift boats,” captured the Mayaguez in international waters off Cambodia. On May 15, 1975, U.S. Marines retook the vessel off Koh Tang island in the Navy’s first ship-to-ship boarding since 1826. The freighter’s crew were rescued shortly afterward from a nearby fishing boat. In all 14 Marines, two Navy corpsmen and two Air Force crew members were killed or missing in the rescue. The Mayaguez was scrapped in 1979.

By war’s end, the Wilmington shipyard had nine shipways, three piers, 67 cranes and 1,000 feet of mooring bulkheads. More than 5 miles of paved road and 19 miles of standard-gauge railway crossed the 160-acre site. An estimated $20 million in improvements were made on the shipyward site between 1941 and 1946.

The payroll had reached its peak in March 1943, with 21,000 workers on the site. Of these, some 1,600 were women, many entering later in the war as some male workers enlisted. According to shipyard figures, about 6,800 employees left to join the armed forces, of whom 33 were killed in action.

 The 1943 payroll exceeded $52 million, making the shipyard Wilmington’s largest single employer, exceeding even the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. More people worked for the shipyard in 1943 than worked for all Wilmington employers in 1940. Working conditions compared favorably with other North Carolina industries; among other benefits, the shipyard maintained a clinic with X-ray facilities for its workers, staffed up seven doctors and 14 nurses at its height.

Roughly 30 percent of shipyard workers were African American, many in skilled positions. Although “Jim Crow” was observed in cafeterias and locker rooms, work stations were completely desegregated, following practice at the parent yards in Newport News, Va.

Shipyard employees and their families helped push Wilmington’s wartime popuation past the 100,000 mark. Many of Wilmington’s public housing projects including Lake Forest and Hillcrest, were originally built as housing for civilian shipyard workers. In addition, some 1,400 individual houses were erected in Wilmington during the war — many of them in Sunset Park — largely to fill shipyard demand.

Not all workers lived in Wilmington, though; the Maritime Commission leased trailer buses to transport employees from Carolina Beach, Southport, Atkinson Acme, Wallace and Warsaw, as well as Little River, S.C.These buses, operated by F.L. Formyduval, supplemented commuter service by Trailways and Wilmington municipal transit, which also carried a number of shipyard workers.

The shipyard’s last vessel, the S.S. Santa Isabel, was launched on April 16, 1946. Local officials and Star-News publisher Rinaldo B. Page lobbied the Truman White House and congressional committees to have the Wilmington facility declared a reserve yard of the Maritime Commission, but nothing came of the plan, and the site was idle for some time.

 On Nov. 16, 1949, the Maritime Commission signed a lease turning over the northeast. or plate storage, section of the yard to the N.C. State Ports Authority. The authority also purchased an addtional 29 acres for future expansion. North Carolina’s General Assembly had earlier allocated $5 million for developing a Wilmington port facility.In 1961, the SPA leased an additional 115 acres, most of the remaining shipyard site, fr0m the federal government. The state purchased the land outright in 1971, for $445,000 plus the cost of the buildings, when the leases finally expired.

Among other landmarks, the facility inspired the name of Wilmington’s Shipyard Boulevard and Burnett Boulevard, named for H.C. Burnett, the shipyard’s popular assistant personnel director.

In 1946, the N.C. Shipbuilding Co. published and distributed “Five Years of North Carolina Shipbuilding,” an illustrated history with an index of all ships built. Ralph Scott’s “The Wilmington Shipyard” was published by The History Press in 2007.

User-contributed question by:
Sue Walsh

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5 Responses to “ What is the history of Liberty ships being built in Wilmington during World War II?”

  1. On March 13, 2010 at 9:04 am Judy Bentley wrote:

    Living in Wilmington from 1971 – 1994 I loved reserching historial places and reading about Wilmington. I really enjoy reading this section of the paper. Thanks for the
    all the interesting articles about the people and places.

    Judy Bentley

  2. On March 13, 2010 at 11:24 am RoadDog wrote:

    Great information here. Thanks.

    What was the name of the ammunition ship that blew up in the South Pacific and where did it blow up.

    Could it have been at Pearl Harbor’s West Loch?

  3. On March 13, 2010 at 11:34 am Cathy Cockrell Lane wrote:

    My dad, David Cockrell worked at the shipyard from 1943 to 1944. Having just left the military and getting married, he loved the job. The money was good and he was able to live oceanfront, something certainly not so affordable today.

  4. On September 16, 2010 at 2:35 pm Ev Smith wrote:

    In answer to RoadDog’s question about the ammunition ship that blew up in the Pacific: USS Mount Hood (AE-11) was destroyed in an accidental explosion at Manus Island in the Admiralties on November 10, 1944, with the loss of 372 officers and men. Only a handful of crew members on shore survived the disaster. The exact cause of the explosion was never identified. Mount Hood was one of eight Type AE (Ammunition Ship) vessels built in Wilmington as variants of the basic C2 freighter design.

  5. On July 21, 2011 at 9:57 pm Scott Clark wrote:

    During WWII, my Father travelled frequently from his employer in Rochester NY to oversee the installation of water-tight doors on US military ships in Wilmington NC, apparently for a Grace Shipping Company. The doors were designed and manufactured by the Rochester NY company. Do you think the doors were for the Liberty Ships or for the more modern ships that were later made, or both, or for other ships ?

    Thanks for any insight that you can provide.

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