President Trump To Declare Wilmington First Official World War II Heritage City

Sep 2, 2020

The Battleship North Carolina is now a museum and war memorial in Wilmington on the Cape Fear River.
Credit U.S. Navy, 1946

Wilmington, North Carolina is about to become the first World War II Heritage City in the United States.  President Donald Trump is expected to make the formal announcement during a visit to the Port City on Wednesday.

About 300,000 veterans lived to see this year’s 75th anniversary of V-E Day, marking the end of World War II, according to Pew Research.

Most of the remaining vets are now in their 90s. Among them, 97-year-old Alex Moskowitz.  He still remembers his fear during the war so many decades ago.    

"In the invasion, everybody was scared. We were all kids and we were all scared."

Moskowitz served in a heavy maintenance tank company sent to the Pacific. They first travelled to Hawaii where they armor-plated tanks. Then Moskowitz and his company followed General Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines. After that, Okinawa.

Paul Phillips joined the Navy in 1945.  

"My first ship was the Battleship North Carolina. I was able to make the last cruise they made."

That last cruise, says 93-year-old Phillips, included a trip through the Panama Canal.  Just two years later, the Navy decommissioned the USS North Carolina. But Phillips went on to serve a total of 21 years in the Navy.

Both Phillips and Moskowitz will join their fellow veterans at the Battleship in Wilmington when President Donald Trump declares the Port City the first official World War Two Heritage City.

"This has been my dream, honestly, and if dreams come true -- I prayed a lot about this. This has been my dream come true. This has been my hope all along."

Wilbur Jones is a military historian, author, and Chairman of the nonprofit World War Two Wilmington Homefront Heritage Coalition.

Jones is also a retired Navy captain, but World War II was a bit before his time. 

"Well, I was born in the Great Depression here in Wilmington and grew up here during World War Two and the war was everything we knew. It just consumed our lives."

Jones was just seven years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered the war.  

"Wilmington had a major shipyard. We built 243 cargo ships, and the shipyard was in the same area now that the state port is on the Cape Fear River."

Jones says having all five of the Armed Forces, defense industries, and the headquarters of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad transformed the Port City into a bustling place.

"And on top of that the government gave us three German prisoner of war camps here. And the main camp was right across where Williston Middle School is today."

There is so much rich World War Two history embedded in Wilmington, says Jones, that he’s worked for the last 13 years – first with former U.S. Congressman Mike McIntyre, then his successor David Rouzer, along with senators and governors from both parties – to get legislation passed creating the concept of World War Two Heritage Cities – and to get Wilmington named as the first one.  

"It makes Wilmington a destination, a tourist destination city. In other words, the global World War II enthusiast community, and they're out there all over the world, would be interested in coming to Wilmington, not only to see the Battleship, but to see these other sites that we have put up with markers and memorials and schools and parks and such."

It’ll help the economy says Jones, but even more importantly for him, it preserves North Carolina history. 

President Donald Trump will do the honors at Battleship Park, now a museum and war memorial.  And Veterans Alex Moskowitz and Paul Phillips will be looking on. 

For 93-year-old Phillips:

"Well, it'd be an honor to get to be close to the President."

And 97-year-old Moskowitz? 

"I'm going to be with my comrades."

The population in Wilmington, North Carolina nearly tripled during World War Two. Author and Historian Wilbur Jones says the Port City’s infrastructure was not prepared for the onslaught. 

"The city just about ran out of food in 1943 because of rationing and, all of the war workers coming here to work in defense industries in particular the shipyard and a lot of officers and noncommissioned officers from the military were living here."

The Federal Government also set up German prisoner of war camps – one situated near the current Williston Middle School site.  

But Jones says this part of Wilmington’s history is not taught widely enough – one of the reasons this preservation legislation gives him hope that the lessons and stories from World War Two will not be lost.

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The Presidential visit and official designation of Wilmington as a World War Two Heritage City is planned for Wednesday, Sept. 2 near the USS Battleship North Carolina. The event is not open to the public.