This Month in History – A Ship is Launched

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 the “…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. 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 Vance became eligible to vote and hold office again, his 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. Alice Willson 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 two 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.

Cape Fear Museum’s collection includes numerous photographs relating to the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company’s shipbuilding efforts.

Previous Columns

November: Election Day and a Parade
Developing the story
A soldier/artist sketches a famous dancer
Urban Renewal Takes Off
Launching Concrete River Vessel No. 5
Wilmington Meets Los Angeles
Bellamy Sails to France
World TB Day
February: David Walker is Honored with a Marker
January 2017:
Two Brothers Honored on One Memorial Stone
Holiday Gifts
A nurse comes home from war
Wartime football takes the bases by storm
Circus Day
Motorboat Racing
Celebrating Independence Day at the Beach
Wilmington Turns 200, June 21, 1939
Laura Grace Cox graduates from Tileston
Saint Marks Turns 100, April 1969
March: Troops Return Home, March 29, 1919
February: Black History Month turns 40
January: Fort Johnston and Fort Caswell are seized, January 8, 1861

SS Zebulon B. Vance
SS Zebulon B. Vance on the Cape Fear River, December 6, 1941.
Gift of Rick Womack
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382