News Stories

Wilmington District had big role in berthing WWII Liberty Ships

Published Feb. 20, 2008

   When Jim McKee stopped by the Wilmington District headquarters recently he was searching for pieces of a large historical puzzle that he’s been putting together about a fleet of World War Two cargo ships moored in the Port City.  A historian at the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport, McKee is putting his fascination with Liberty Ships in the form of a book and display.

 “Very little is known about what happened to all Liberty Ships after the war,” McKee said.  “There were thousands of Liberty Ships, Victory Ships, tankers that went all over the world. They were sold to other countries, but the bulk of them had to be stored somewhere.  There are a lot of people who remember the ships that were tied up in Wilmington, but they didn’t know what they were.”

     Liberty Ships averaged 442 feet long, and could carry 10,000 tons of cargo at eleven knots--about 12 MPH.  By the end of the war, the ships had carried about 75 percent of all the cargo that went to support the American war effort.  Almost three thousand Liberty Ships were built during the war, and as the main cargo carrier they were run by mostly wartime merchant seamen.

   The Wilmington District was directly involved with the moored Liberty Ships in Wilmington.  What McKee was searching for here were dredging maps and historical photos that helped give him more exact information of setting up the mooring area on the Brunswick River.  And with the help of Navigation’s Scott Aiken and John Edge he found what he was looking for. 

   “The Corps had to dredge out the area, and the Maritime Commission, with the aid of the Corps, took the Brunswick River and expanded a 3.5 mile stretch from 600 feet to 1200 feet wide and dredged a 750-foot channel to 13-feet deep.  They then made 250-foot shelves on either side 11 feet deep.  You can still see the cuts through the bank on both sides of the Brunswick River where these ships were moored.  And you can see the canals where the Corps had to go in after Hurricane Hazel (in 1954) to cut the canals so they could sink the mooring stakes.  It’s a radical difference between  pre-1954 and post-1954.  And the Corps was involved with all of it.”

     Part of McKee’s research lead him to Washington, D.C. where he approached the Maritime Administration.  He found tidbits of information about how the ships were used during post-WWII peacetime and during another major conflict. 

   “I scoured pretty much everything they had.  I’ve been able to get a pretty solid list of ships that were put in the Reserve Fleet here.  At its peak there 437 ships anchored and that was from late 1949 to early 1951.  A lot of those ships pulled out of Wilmington partly because of the Korean War and partly because of the excess grain that the United States had.  They filled up all of the storage silos in the country, and so they were taking the Liberty Ships up the Jamestown River and the Hudson River and converted to grain storage.  They were pulled from all over the country, but some were from Wilmington.”

   A meticulous researcher, McKee hopes to tell the story of Wilmington’s Liberty Ships to those who might be interested.  

   “This is phenomenal.  Unfortunately, this is a specialized subject.  I know that merchant marines will be interested…ex “merchies”, or maybe Corps of Engineers people who worked on it, maybe some people from the Reserve Fleet.  It’s more local and there won’t be much interest outside of North Carolina.  But it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, because eventually this will be completely forgotten.”