north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
      Along the Tar Heel coast maritime industries mobilized with the coming of World War II. Mine sweepers were built at New Bern and submarine chasers at Elizabeth City; naval repair stations operated at Morehead City and Southport. By far the largest construction effort, the building of 243 Liberty Ships and other cargo vessels, took place at a shipyard on the Cape Fear River three miles south of downtown Wilmington. There, in 1943, at the peak of production, the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company employed 25,000 people on an annual payroll of fifty million dollars. They could complete a ship, from the laying of the keel to launch, in twenty-five days. Work at the shipyard represented four-fifths of all manufacturing jobs in New Hanover County. Together with the presence of Camp Davis twenty-five miles northwest, the shipyard was responsible for the doubling of the population of Wilmington between 1940 and 1944. The facility included its own hospital, cafeteria, bus terminal, and police and fire departments.

      The United States Maritime Commission in 1940 purchased fifty-seven acres for the shipyard and leased it to the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company, a subsidiary of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. From Virginia the company transferred 400 employees to Wilmington and construction began in February 1941. Other employees—skilled electricians, plumbers, and carpenters but primarily unskilled trainees—were recruited locally. Initially the yard built Liberty Ships, cargo vessels 440 feet in length. Called “ugly ducklings,” the Liberty Ships were the workhorses of the war. The first of these, the S.S. Zebulon B. Vance, was launched literally on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The 126 Liberty Ships built at Wilmington, of which twenty-seven were sunk by enemy action, were each named for a prominent historical figure, most of them from North Carolina.

      In 1943 the yard was retooled to build a more advanced model attack cargo vessel with improved propulsion. The last ship was launched at the yard in April 1946. After the war the Maritime Commission used the Wilmington facility as a reserve yard, with mothballed ships kept there until 1970. The State Ports Authority, created in 1945 by the state legislature, in 1949 leased part of the yard from the commission, eventually acquiring the entire facility.


References:
Alan D. Watson, Wilmington: Port of North Carolina (1992)
North Carolina Shipbuilding Company, Five Years of Shipbuilding (1946)
Frederic C. Lane, Ships for Victory (1951)
The State, September 9, 1944, and October 1, 1970
Sarah M. Lemmon, North Carolina’s Role in World War II (1969)
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