WILMINGTON RESERVE FLEET
Wilmington, North Carolina

This [modified] U.S. Navy aerial photograph from Oct. 3, 1949,
shows the mothball fleet on the Brunswick River adjacent to the Cape Fear River.
 Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library’s Digital Archives


See a current map of the area.

The Mothball Fleet, the nickname for the U.S. Maritime Commission's reserve fleet, was located on the Brunswick River across from the city of Wilmington. Following World War II, Congress made the Maritime Commission responsible for determining the number and type of vessels to be placed in reserve in case of future expansion. The lay-up basin for the reserve fleet was operational when the first ship arrived in August 1946. The ships placed in "mothballs" had their hulls scaled, coated with oil, scaled again, and finally coated with red oxide paint, which stopped the rusting of metal surfaces. The internal system of "mothballing" consisted of draining all of the various systems and pumping in oil under pressure. All turbines, engines, and gears were also coated with an oily film.

A total of 648 ships were, at varying times, moored in the reserve fleet. The majority of vessels stored in the facility were of the Liberty class, some of them built in Wilmington. Over the years many were scrapped, sold to private concerns, sunk for artificial reefs, or recommissioned. The last ship to be removed from the mothball fleet was the Liberty Ship "USS Dwight W. Morrow", which was scrapped in February 1970. Beverly Tetterton, NCpedia

What was the ‘Mothball Fleet’? by Ben Steelman Starnews
Officially, the National Defense Reserve Fleet (and sometimes called “the Ghost Fleet”), the anchored rows of World War II surplus transport vessels were a presence in Wilmington from 1946 to 1970. Parked along the Brunswick River, the fleet was described in the press as “the second largest ship graveyard in the world.” (The largest was on the James River near Hampton Roads, Va.)

After World War II, the U.S. Maritime Commission established a “Reserve Fleet Basin” on the Brunswick River to house Liberty ships and other vessels that were no longer needed after demobilization. The first of these vessels, the "SS John B. Bryce", arrived at the site on Aug. 12, 1946. Others quickly followed. Between January and April 1946, a total of 426 ships were moored there, the most at any one time.

During the next few years, ships were moved in and out of the basin; in all, 628 vessels were tied up there at one time or another. The vast majority of these – 542 – were Liberty ships, the mass-produced workhorse freighters like those turned out by the N.C. Shipbuilding Co. in Wilmington. The basin also housed a total of 68 “Victory Ships" and 41 vessels of other types, including tankers. Generally, five of these ships were kept on a high level of readiness, to sail “at a moment’s notice” in the event of a national emergency.

At its heydey, the U.S. Maritime Administration (which took over the fleet in 1950, after the Maritime Commission was abolished), employed 296 workers on the Brunswick River basin, with a $600,000 payroll. Many of these were armed guards to prevent theft of the ships’ copper and brass fittings; others were involved in routine maintenance. The ships were lashed and anchored together in groups of five, with each fifth ship moored to pilings driven deep into the river bottom. Despite these precautions, two of the mothballed freighters broke loose during Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and drifted down the channel, threatening to collide with the U.S. 74 bridge until a tugboat pushed them out of the way. This web page author remember the hurricane as it passed over head in Little Creek, VA.

Beginning in 1958, the government began to sell off older and less fit vessels for scrap, while others were moved to the James River. By 1964, only 152 vessels were left on the Brunswick River, but they remained a formidable sight. “Many motorists stop along the highway to look up the river at them,” said E.W. Thompson, an administrator with the reserve fleet. By 1968, the total was down to 15 ships. Many were scrapped by Horton Industries in Wilmington; Gilliam Horton, of Horton Iron & Metal, told the Wilmington Morning Star in 1968 that his company could finish off two ships in 90 days.

Why do they have a battleship parked across from downtown? by Ben Steelman Starnews
The battleship USS North Carolina BB-55a was towed to its present location on Oct. 2, 1961. On April 29, 1962, the decommissioned warship was dedicated as a memorial to the 10,000-plus North Carolinians who served in World War II. See: Wikipedia.


You can still see flotation channels used to drive mooring stakes, in current image below.

The Current year - 2013


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