This U.S. Navy aerial photograph from Oct. 3, 1949, shows the mothball fleet on the
Q: What was the “Mothball Fleet”?
A: 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
, 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, Brunswick River ) Va.
After World War II, the U.S. Maritime Commission established a “
Reserve Fleet Basin”
on the Brunswick River
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. Liberty
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
ships, the mass-produced workhorse freighters like those turned out by the N.C.
Shipbuilding Co. in .
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. Wilmington
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
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. Brunswick River basin
Despite these precautions, 2 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 , 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. Brunswick
By 1968, the total was down to 15 ships. Many were scrapped by Horton Industries in
; Gilliam Horton, of Horton Iron &
Metal, told the Wilmington Morning Star in 1968 that his company could finish
off two ships in 90 days. Wilmington
The last remaining member of the Mothball Fleet, the SS Dwight W. Morrow (named for the father of author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a former
ambassador to )
was towed away for scrapping on Feb. 27, 1970. Mexico
Source: Star News Online. By Ben Steelman. 12 October 2011