Arthur Miller’s War, Part 2– “A shipyard has risen like a bony giant”


n "emergency caravan" of mobile homes crosses Memorial Bridge in Washington, DC, bound for defense workers in Wilmington, N.C. (April 1941). Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC

An “emergency caravan” of mobile homes crosses Memorial Bridge in Washington, DC, bound for defense workers in Wilmington, N.C. (April 1941). Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC

This is the second post in a 7-part series on the great American playwright Arthur Miller’s sojourn in Wilmington, N.C., during the Second World War.

“The scene is a row of trailers,” Arthur Miller intoned in the first words of the field recordings.

When I first turned on the old reel-to-reel recorder at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, I found the young playwright standing in a vast trailer camp that had been built in a maddening rush only a few months earlier.

Across the way, he wrote, “a shipyard has risen like a bony giant at the edge of the river.”

The shipyard and trailer camp stood on the east bank of the Cape Fear River, 3 miles south of downtown Wilmington, N.C. When the recording begins, Miller is interviewing a Mr. and Mrs. Cornell, an electrical department foreman and his wife who had recently moved to the old seaport to work at the North Carolina Shipyard Company’s new yard.

At its peak, more than 20,000 workers built merchant and naval vessels at the shipyard during the Second World War.  Especially early in the war, they focused on the construction of merchant carriers known as “Liberty Ships” that were designed for carrying military cargos to Britain.

The trailer camp, by the way, was one of the first mobile home parks in the United States.

At the trailer camp, Miller found his most memorable interviews among a group of women doing laundry at the camp’s utility building.

“This room is in the center of the trailer camp and the women come here every day to wash their clothes and do their ironing,” Miller set the stage.

While they washed and ironed, he talked with 6 or 7 of the women about their lives in boomtown Wilmington. He discovered that they were all new to the city, and many had moved from distant parts of North Carolina and beyond.

One woman told him that she, her husband and their two children moved to the trailer camp from Pennsylvania. Her husband had gotten a welding job at the shipyard.

Another young woman came from Valdese, North Carolina, in the Appalachian foothills. She had moved with her husband and their 10-month-old baby.

A third came from Fayetteville, N.C., which was an old colonial town 90 miles up the Cape Fear River. A fourth, the wife of a ship fitter, migrated from Greensboro, in the state’s piedmont.

A fifth woman followed her husband to Wilmington from Petersburg, Virginia. He worked in the shipyard’s electrical department.

The laundresses complained about overcrowding in the trailer camp, but they all seemed happy to be in Wilmington. They told Miller about their families back home, often on farms in remote mountain hollows or in tobacco and mill towns that had seen better times.

They also shared stories about how they passed the time while their husbands worked. Many, of course,  looked after children, did the washing and prepared their husbands’ dinners.

But they had fun, too. Some went to the movie theater downtown. Others played cards with neighbors. Some hung around the Herring family’s general store across the street from the trailer camp.

In the background, I could hear the sounds of the women washing their clothes and ripples of laughter and giggling.

* * *

To be continued– tomorrow, part 3– “The Voice of the Shipyard”

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