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The U.S.S. North Carolina is not an easy sight to miss in downtown Wilmington. The big, gray-blue World War II hero battleship sits soundly there in the Cape Fear River, welcoming and educating visitors on facts like, oh, for one, that it played a part in every major naval offensive in the Pacific during the conflict.
But the battleship has only called Wilmington home since 1961; it’s what happened here during the 1939-1945 war that deserves national recognition, says U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-7), whose office announced Monday that the U.S. House had passed a bill to that end.
The bill, which McIntyre introduced, would “designate at least one city in the United States each year as an ‘American World War II City,’ with the first being Wilmington because of the city’s remarkable contributions to the U.S. war efforts during World War II,” said a press release from the congressman’s office.
“As a nation, we should never forget the tireless efforts of those who supported our brave men and women in uniform, and Wilmington leads the way with its exemplary community contributions and effort,” McIntyre said with a request that the U.S. Senate approve the bill right way.
If it becomes law, the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs would have the power to designate an “American World War II City.” The criteria: contributions to the war effort, preservation of related history, and the presence of military facilities locally.
Wilmington was called “The Defense Capital of the State” during WWII; the city or its surrounding area hosted training for all five military branches (Air Force at the Wilmington Airport; Army at Camp Davis and Fort Fisher; Navy at Fort Caswell; Coast Guard at Wrightsville Beach; Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune).
“The North Carolina Shipbuilding Company of Wilmington, the state’s largest employer at that time, constructed 243 cargo vessels with which to provide goods and equipment to our soldiers,” McIntyre’s office said.
It added that Wilmington was the site of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad headquarters, three housing camps for German prisoners of war, a P-47 fighter plane training area, goods and equipment production, a British patrol base and supply ship-out points.
Thousands of Wilmingtonians personally joined the fight as Navy frogmen, P-51 fighter aces, Tuskegee Airmen, submarine skippers, bomber pilots, Marine riflemen, Army artillerymen, physicians and nurses, and volunteers.
“Wilmington tragically lost 248 men as a result of their courageous efforts to defend America and two New Hanover High School graduates received the Congressional Medal of Honor and numerous others received high decorations for valor, including Navy Crosses, Distinguished Service Crosses, and Distinguished Flying Crosses,” according to the congressman’s release.
Also not unnotable: this area sustained what is believed to be the only German attack on the U.S.
“Wilmington’s strategic position made it vulnerable to enemy attack by German U-boats, which marauded shipping off our beaches,” McIntyre’s office said. “In July 1943 a U-boat fired at the Ethel-Dow chemical plant in Wilmington [at Kure Beach], perhaps the only German attack on America. Wilmington endured this attack, as well as constant civilian defense restrictions and air raid drills, including black-outs and dim-outs. The city’s population more than doubled with the influx of military personnel, forcing locals to cope with strain on housing and schools, transportation, medical and social services, law enforcement, and food supply.”
The effort to recognize the Wilmington area is one McIntyre, of Lumberton, has brought out times before with the help of Capt. Wilbur Jones of the nonprofit World War II Wilmington Home Front Heritage Coalition.
In 2012, Jones accompanied McIntyre on Capitol Hill for remarks.
“Sixty-seven years after the end of World War II, Wilmington is the only city of which I am aware that can claim the title of ‘America’s World War II City,’” Jones said, noting Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County’s commissioners passed proclamations for the title several years ago.
But the now-House-approved bill goes beyond that, he said.
“Most importantly,” said Jones, “it establishes a process within the federal government to allow all cities with significant WWII history to vie for this designation–a major step in the continuing preservation of our national heritage, and long overdue before sites disappear, memories fade, artifacts are lost, and participants die.”