With a population of just over 120,000, other cities might lay claim to bigger roles in World War II than Wilmington, North Carolina – but the ‘Port City’ played an outsized part in defeating Nazi Germany and the Japanese empire.
As FDR’s administration prepared for war in 1940, the city was chosen as the site for a new shipyard to be built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company.
The city was on deep water, close to main railroads, with plenty of free space and a ready workforce. The aim was modest – 25 Liberty ships by 1943.
The Liberty ships were not fighting vessels, but cargo ships used by the Navy and merchant marine and mass produced from a British design to rapidly augment the tiny existing fleet.
Transformation: Hours before Pearl Harbor, this was the scene at the newly-built Wilmington shipyard, where the first Liberty ship completed there, the S.S Zebulon B. Vance, was about to be launched. A total of 242 ships followed
Wartime scene: This picture from February 1942 urged workers to use their hammers to make ‘Taps for The Japs’ on the steel of ships. The shipyard estimated that month that 18 million tons of shipping were being built in Wilmington at the time
As construction started, the orders went up, and hours before Pearl Harbor, the first ship was launched. A total of 242 followed – an astonishing achievement for a city which had never launched a Naval vessel before.
Its 126 Liberty ships and 177 larger vessels saw action in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Four ships were scuttled off the Normandy beaches to help form a breakwater, and one was lost in the Pacific.
Liberty ships were not equipped to fight as full-scale warships but did carry anti-aircraft guns and other weapons.
But one of Wilmington’s ships, the Virgnia Dare, named for the first white child born on American soil, was credited with taking down seven Luftwaffe planes when it was part of a convoy from Scotland to the Russian Arctic port of Archangelsk in 1943.
Wilmington was transformed: the federal government expanded the airfield into a full-scale airport, built new roads, a vast bulkhead across the river, upgraded water and sewage systems for the workforce and even funded new schools.
By 1943 24,000 people were working at the shipyard, many of them women, and some of them African-American; the Jim Crow South had previously not allowed its black citizens into shipbuilding jobs.
The shipyard was not the only sign of war. Tens of thousands of troops passed through, and each weekend 35,000 servicemen came from nearby bases including Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune for R&R.
North Carolina’s bases were home over the war to two million troops in training, more than any other state.
Credited with kills: The Virginia Dare, one of the Wilmington yard’s Liberty ships, was part of a convoy from Scotland to the Russian Arctic, when it shot down seven Luftwaffe planes
There were even Germans: three prisoner of war camps were built close to the city starting in 1943 with captured members of the Nazi forces in North Africa.
And there is a persistent claim – never proven or entirely debunked – that the nearby Ethyl-Dow chemical plant at Kure Beach was shelled by a German u-boat in July 1943.
That was the only night the shipyard went entirely dark, with locals claiming they heard artillery fire at the plant. The Navy investigated but never found any evidence Germans were nearby, or any shells – but the rumor has persisted.