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S.S. Zebulon B. Vance on Cape Fear River, December 6, 1941

CFM 1996.019.0003
Gift of Rick Wommack

Description: This black and white photograph by Jim Womack measures 8 inches by 10 inches.

History: On December 6, 1941 less than a year after the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company shipyard was built on the banks of the Cape Fear River, the S. S. Zebulon B. Vance was launched. The Sunday Star-News reported the next day that “…an estimated 13,000 people were thrilled by the spectacle of the Zebulon B. Vance sliding gracefully into the Cape Fear River.”

Wilmington’s first liberty ship was named after prominent North Carolina politician Zebulon Baird Vance (1830-1894). Although he was not originally in favor of secession, Vance rose to power during the Civil War. Since he had served as governor of Confederate North Carolina, Vance was briefly imprisoned in 1865. Although he received a Presidential pardon in March 1867, he could not vote or hold office until the early 1870s. After he became eligible to vote and hold office again, Vance’s political fortunes improved. He again served as the state’s governor and then he served in the U.S. Senate from 1879 to his death in 1894.

The ship that bore Vance’s name was launched by the wife of the sitting Governor, J. Melville Broughton on what turned out to be the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Mrs. Broughton, wearing a chartreuse and black outfit and a purple orchid corsage, christened the ship with a bottle of Gold Seal champagne. After the ship launched, there was a luncheon held at the country club for 450 people. The attendees were musically entertained by a pianist, a violinist, and Williston Industrial School’s Glee Club.

Although the Wilmington shipyard was a small part of the nation’s bigger war effort, it had an enormous influence on the town and the state of North Carolina. Before the war, there were a few thousand manufacturing workers in Wilmington. During the war, Wilmington’s shipyard became the largest employer in the state with more than 20,000 workers. The yard employed blacks and whites, men and some women. It ran three shifts, 24 hours a day. By May 25, 1943, less than 2 years after the S.S. Zebulon Vance was launched, Wilmington’s shipyard finished its 100th freighter. And by war’s end, the yard had produced 243 ships to support the Allied war effort.

814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382