HE NORTH CAROLINA
Shipbuilding Company was
justifiably proud of the quan-tity
and quality of its ships.
But the tale of the shipyard
goes well beyond the vessels.
“More than anything else, it is the story of
men and women — about 400 from Newport
News, Virginia, and the thousands and thousands
from throughout North Carolina and the South
— who came here to do a job and did it well,”
Roger Williams, president of the NCSC, wrote
in the foreword to “Five Years of North Carolina
Newport News Shipbuilding favored Wilmington
because of “a good supply of intelligent, will-ing
North Carolina men and women,” Williams
Intelligent and willing they may be, but most
weren’t skilled. Workers from the parent company
were sent to train new employees. Trade schools
were established to teach drillers, reamers, weld-ers,
plumbers and steam engineers.
“Workers came from miles around, depleting
farm labor as far out as Pender, Brunswick, Bladen,
Duplin and Columbus Counties,” Jones wrote in
his book, “A Sentimental Journey.” “It helped solve
any unemployment problems carried over from the
Depression and paid well.”
Some commuted by bus and car. Others moved
to Wilmington, pushing the population past
100,000. By October 1942, the NCSC was the
state’s largest industry.
The area surrounding the shipyard, near Wilmington’s
Sunset Park suburb, needed more housing. A
trailer camp of 530 units was set up near the yard.
New communities arose — Maffit Village, Lake
Forest, Hillcrest. Some 1,400 new homes were
erected, many of them in Sunset Park.
The workers grew the economy. The shipyard
employed 21,000 at its peak in 1943. Gross pay-roll
that year was about $52.4 million. Most of
that was spent locally.
Workers also went off to fight. Company
records show approximately 6,800 employees
entered the armed forces and merchant marine.
At least 33 sacrificed their lives for the country.
As men went off to war, women gained
employment in nontraditional fields. More than
1,200 went into the production departments.
“About 20 percent of the employees were
women,” Jones says. “We didn’t necessarily have
Rosie the Riveter types; that was more associated
with aircraft. But we did have women welders.”
In the days of segregation and Jim Crow laws,
blacks and whites worked together. Some 30
percent of the shipyard workers were African
American, many employed in skilled positions.
Employees contributed more than labor to
the war effort. They gave $239,009 in Community
Chest campaigns, and $112,218 to Red
Cross appeals. War bond purchases amounted
to $20.4 million.
But most of all, they built ships. Quickly.
The Wilmington yard became noted for its
speed. Average construction time from keel-laying
to launch was honed down to 32 days by
February 1943, third-best nationally.
Christmas was the only day off until mid-
1944, when the yard closed Sundays during the
July-August heat. Workers built ships 24 hours a
day, with three shifts laboring around the clock.
A blackout was in effect because of U-boats
patrolling off the North Carolina coast, but it
didn’t apply at the inland riverfront shipyard.
“The yard ran at night,” Scott says. “There was
lots of light. It was more important to build boats
at night than it was to have blackouts.”
Production didn’t slow after transitioning from
Liberty to Victory ships. The February 1945 issue
of the North Carolina Shipbuilder boasted the
NCSC “led all other shipyards of the nation in
production of ‘C’ merchant vessels last year by
delivering 60 C-2s during the 12-month period.”
Admiral Emory Land, chairman of the U.S.
Maritime Commission, took note.
“Their record speaks for itself,” he said. “They
The end of the war heralded the end of the
shipyard. The state legislature approved the State
Port Authority in 1945, effectively transforming
the World War II shipyard into a port facility.
But the legacy remains, aptly summed up by
the editor of the North Carolina Shipbuilder in
the newspaper’s final issue on June 1, 1946:
“They were farmers, factory workers, sales-men,
clerks, truck drivers, housewives, clergymen,
lawyers, actors, doctors, authors, artists, teachers,
pupils, athletes, musicians, big business men, lit-tle
business men, retired men, veterans, bankers,
and others. They were different, but had the same
desire and they worked together with one aim —
‘To build good ships quickly!’ … The ships you
have built will soon be as scattered as you, but
their strength as units will last for ages because of
the strength you put into them.”
at its peak in 1943.
Most of that
off to fight.