Wilmington’s North Carolina
Shipbuilding Company helped
the United States win a war
EAD TO THE WEST END of
Shipyard Boulevard, get as close as
possible to the shadow of the big
blue cranes, and it just might be pos-sible
to hear the echoes of the past.
This once was the location of the
North Carolina Shipbuilding Company (NCSC). From
1941 to 1946, tens of thousands of men and women
swarmed through the gates to build the famous Liberty
ships and other vessels to help the United States triumph
in World War II.
The shipyard closed in October 1946. But with a
smidgen of imagination, it’s possible to picture the once-thriving
company that established Wilmington as a com-mercial
and economic hub.
“Believe it or not, a number of structures are still in use,”
says Wilbur Jones, World War II historian and author.
There’s the building that housed the mold loft, once a
repository of men, equipment and steel and where hulls
for the Liberty ships and later the C-2 class vessels were
prefabricated. A handful of other buildings are intact, as
are the railroad tracks that brought in the raw materials
that became massive boats.
“You don’t have to close both eyes,” Jones says. “You
can picture it.”
The problem with picturing it is finding it. The rem-nants
of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company are
behind guarded gates. The property is now the Port of
Wilmington. Because of security concerns, the public can’t
enter at will.
“Nobody can get in the shipyard,” Jones says. “It’s been
that way for years.”
Jones occasionally takes groups into the facility and
points out the old buildings, but there are no plaques or
memorials. There isn’t a museum or even an exhibit in
town dedicated to the NCSC. And that’s a shame.
The Wilmington area is replete with history: Fort
Fisher. Antebellum mansions. The railroad museum. The
Battleship North Carolina. But nothing had a greater
impact than the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company.
“There were two significant events that happened in
Wilmington in the course of its history,” Jones says. “One
was the fall of Fort Fisher, the last Confederate port, and
the capture of Wilmington in 1865 by the Union army.
The other was the opening of the shipyard and the boom
of World War II.”
The first Liberty ship completed at the North Carolina
Shipbuilding Company shipyard, the S.S. Zebulon B. Vance,
launched on Dec. 6, 1941, with approximately 13,000
people in attendance.
PHOTO COURTESY OF EAST CAROLINA DIGITAL COLLECTIONS