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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Liberty Ships

by Jim Fowlkes, 2006

Liberty ships, a number of which were built in Wilmington, carried two-thirds of U.S. cargo during World War II, thus playing a significant role in the Allied cause as merchant vessels. According to standards developed by the U.S. Maritime Commission in 1940, Liberty ships were 440 feet long, 66 feet wide, and, with 2,500 horsepower, capable of cruising at 11 knots. Some were armed. These ships were the first vessels to be mass-produced using welding instead of riveting; welding was faster, cheaper, and lighter, and it took less time to train welders than riveters. Consequently, the ships became known for their rapid production. Nationally, over 2,700 Liberty ships were built and about 200 were sunk by the enemy.

Between 1941 and 1946 the North Carolina Shipbuilding Corporation in Wilmington produced 243 vessels, of which 125 were Liberty ships. In 1943, 20,000 workers were involved in this effort. Many of these Liberty ships were named for famous North Carolinians and for cities and counties that conducted war bond drives. On 6 Dec. 1941 the USS Zebulon B. Vance was the first Liberty ship launched in Wilmington, just hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Vance made several successful runs to London before being damaged by a mine on a return trip; it was repaired and rejoined the Liberty fleet. Later the Vance was converted to a hospital ship and renamed the USS John J. Meany. Finally, it was reconverted back to the Vance to transport "war-bride" dependents of American military personnel to the United States.

After the war, a number of Liberty ships became merchant vessels and others were stored for future use. Most were subsequently scrapped. In the early 2000s two restored and functioning Liberty ships remained: the USS Jeremiah O'Brien on the West Coast and the USS John W. Brown, moored in Baltimore, which visited Wilmington in 1996. As part of the North Carolina artificial reef program, the Liberty ship USS Theodore Parker was sunk in 50 feet of water just off Fort Macon near Morehead City and became a popular site for scuba divers and fishermen.

References:

Roderick M. Farb, Shipwrecks: Diving the Graveyard of the Atlantic (1985).

Sarah McCulloh Lemmon, North Carolina's Role in World War II (1964).

Alan D. Watson, Wilmington: Port of North Carolina (1992).

Additional Resources:

North Carolina Shipbuilding Collection, East Carolina University: http://digital.lib.ecu.edu/special/ead/findingaids/0062/

Authors: 
Origin - location: 

Comments

Comment: 

Dear Joseph,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and for taking the time to share your project and question.  

That sounds like a terrific project.  And I have a few suggestions for some places that might be helpful for finding additional information. 

  • You may want to try to locate the historic records of the company, if they are available. A collection of records and materials relating to the company is held at East Carolina University Libraries.  Here is a the link to the collection guide: https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/special/ead/findingaids/0062. 
  • The company was a subsidiary of the Newport News Shipping and Drydock Company.  The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, VA appears to have historic collections related to the company.  You may want to contact them.  Here is their website: http://www.marinersmuseum.org/blog/library-and-archives/.
  • Please see the NCpedia entry on the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company – http://www.ncpedia.org/wwii/nc-shipbuilding-company.  There is a link to an essay for the state’s highway historical marker for the company and it includes references that may be useful. 

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)

  • Here are search results from WorldCat (online catalog that searches libraries all over the world) for the company: https://www.worldcat.org/search?q=north+Carolina+shipbuilding+company&qt... You may find some useful works and leads here.
  • A 2000 article from the North Carolina Historical Review on ship construction in North Carolina in WWII may provide some additional resources and leads: 

Still, William N. "Wooden Ship Construction in North Carolina in World War II." The North Carolina Historical Review 77, no. 1 (2000): 34-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23522372.

  • You may already be familiar with the periodical North Carolina Shipbuilder which was published by the company during that time period.  The State Library of NC has the paper on microfilm.  And here is a link to the item on WorldCat -- http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/41289696.  You can see if a library near you has the item, or you may see if you can obtain it through interlibrary loan.  If you are in North Carolina, you can also visit us at the State Library to view the film in person.
  • Finally, another publication was published specifically for the company’s black employees, the Colored Shipbuilder.  Here is the link to the paper’s record in WorldCat -- http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/34059602.  In North Carolina, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has the publication and it is also in the collection of the Mariners’ Museum Library at Newport News.

North Carolina Shipbuilding Company. 1944. Colored shipbuilder. Wilmington, N.C.: Published for the colored employees of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Co. [by] T.C. Jervay.

I hope this information helps. Goold luck with your project!

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library

 

Comment: 

I am writing a book and the NC Shipbuilding Company was my Father,s first 'real' job, he was 21years old at the time told me many interesting stories about his experiences time there.
I believe he was hired in 1941 and worked until 1945-6 .
I would like any detail of the five years span in which Black and Indian citizens were employed there and what skills were required, pay rates etc.....My father died in 1972...

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