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.
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. The rest were “mothballed,” coated in red-oxide paint, oil and varnish as preservatives to prevent rust.
At its heyday, 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.
On Dec. 8, 1958, the SS Edgecomb, a Victory ship, became the last vessel to be tied up at the basin. 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.
The last remaining member of the Mothball Fleet, the SS Dwight W. Morrow (named for the father of author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico) was towed away for scrapping on Feb. 27, 1970.