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What was the ‘Mothball Fleet’?

Ben Steelman
StarNews
Mothball fleet

This U.S. Navy aerial photograph from Oct. 3, 1949, shows the mothball fleet on the Brunswick River adjacent to the Cape Fear River. (Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library’s Digital Archives)

Officially, the National Defense Reserve Fleet (and sometimes called “the Ghost Fleet”), the anchored rows of World War II surplus transport vessels were a presence in Wilmington from 1946 to 1970. Parked along the Brunswick River, the fleet was described in the press as “the second largest ship graveyard in the world.” (The largest was on the James River near Hampton Roads, Va.)

After World War II, the U.S. Maritime Commission established a “Reserve Fleet Basin” on the Brunswick River to house Liberty ships and other vessels that were no longer needed after demobilization. The first of these vessels, the SS John B. Bryce, arrived at the site on Aug. 12, 1946. Others quickly followed. Between January and April 1946, a total of 426 ships were moored there, the most at any one time.

During the next few years, ships were moved in and out of the basin; in all, 628 vessels were tied up there at one time or another. The vast majority of these – 542 – were Liberty ships, the mass-produced workhorse freighters like those turned out by the N.C. Shipbuilding Co. in Wilmington. The basin also housed a total of 68 “Victory” ships and 41 vessels of other types, including tankers. Generally, five of these ships were kept on a high level of readiness, to sail “at a moment’s notice” in the event of a national emergency. The rest were “mothballed,” coated in red-oxide paint, oil and varnish as preservatives to prevent rust.

At its heydey, the U.S. Maritime Administration (which took over the fleet in 1950, after the Maritime Commission was abolished), employed 296 workers on the Brunswick River basin, with a $600,000 payroll. Many of these were armed guards to prevent theft of the ships’ copper and brass fittings; others were involved in routine maintenance. The ships were lashed and anchored together in groups of five, with each fifth ship moored to pilings driven deep into the river bottom. Despite these precautions, two of the mothballed freighters broke loose during Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and drifted down the channel, threatening to collide with the U.S. 74 bridge until a tugboat pushed them out of the way.

On Dec. 8, 1958, the SS Edgecomb, a Victory ship, became the last vessel to be tied up at the basin. Beginning in 1958, the government began to sell off older and less fit vessels for scrap, while others were moved to the James River. By 1964, only 152 vessels were left on the Brunswick River, but they remained a formidable sight. “Many motorists stop along the highway to look up the river at them,” said E.W. Thompson, an administrator with the reserve fleet.

By 1968, the total was down to 15 ships. Many were scrapped by Horton Industries in Wilmington; Gilliam Horton, of Horton Iron & Metal, told the Wilmington Morning Star in 1968 that his company could finish off two ships in 90 days.

The last remaining member of the Mothball Fleet, the SS Dwight W. Morrow (named for the father of author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico) was towed away for scrapping on Feb. 27, 1970.

Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library’s digital archives, here’s a link to a Mothball Fleet Aerial photograph.

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3 Responses to “ What was the ‘Mothball Fleet’?”

  1. On February 17, 2010 at 2:00 pm Paul A. Franz wrote:

    I served aboard the U.S.S. Louisville a heavy cruiser, during WW2 as a Gunners Mate. At the end of the war the ship was sent to the Philiadephia Naval Yard in Feburary 1946 and put in the moth ball fleet. I had a part in placing the 5″ guns in moth balls. The guns were covered with a protective coating and then covered with a plastic like tent covering. The ship was sold for scrap for $250,000 and was towed to Tampa, Fl. and dismantled in 1960. The Louisville was christened September 1, 1930.

  2. On July 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm Wayne wrote:

    Mr. Franz, thank you for serving your country during WW II. You mentioned five-inch guns – just curious, I thought heavy cruisers had eight-inch gun; maybe they had five-inch guns and eight-inch guns? Thank you.

  3. On October 14, 2011 at 6:18 pm HAROLD HORNE wrote:

    ENJOYED THE ARTICLE AS IT BROUGHT BACK MANY MEMEORIES . I , AS AN ORDINARY SEAMAN RODE SEVERAL OF THE SHIPS OUT OF THE LAY UP BASIN . IT WAS QUITE INTERESTING AND NOW A PART OF HISTORY. I ACQUIRED MY COAST GUARD PAPERS IN 1950 AND REALIZE NOW JUST WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN THE WORLD AND THE PART THE USA WOULD PLAY..
    THANKS FOR REVIVING SOME WONDERFUL AND SCARY MEMEORIES.



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