On 12 April 1944 the weather observatory at Belvedere Castle in Central Park reported a mean temperature of 47.5, with no rain. On this agreeable early spring day, 71 ships of Convoy HX 287 left New York Harbor headed for British ports of call. Of these "great boats ... putting out to sea," (1) one was named the Thomas Wolfe, a ship that would play a vital role in the D-Day invasion of Europe.
In a March 1938 letter to the editor of the Nation, Thomas Wolfe expressed his belief that "democracy is valuable enough to be saved, and is worth fighting for.... Facism is a creature that thrives but is not appeased by compromise." (2) Nearly six years after his death, Asheville's son went to war.
The SS Thomas Wolfe was one of 2,710 Liberty ships built as quickly as possible in the United States as part of the country's Herculean push to provide more cargo ships during World War II. Most were classified as EC2-S-C1 (EC for Emergency Cargo; 2 designating a waterline length of 400-450 feet; S designating a steam engine; and C1, the specific design). Built of 250,000 prefabricated parts, each vessel was welded together in an average of 71 days. Because of their utilitarian, homely appearance, the ships were dubbed "Ugly Ducklings," a nickname that some historians attribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt and others to the media of the day. Roosevelt, in a February 1942 radio broadcast, did call them "dreadful-looking objects."
There are also conflicting--or, perhaps, compatible--versions of how each Liberty ship was named. Some sources state that the Maritime Commission chose the names from several categories of prominent, deceased Americans and foreigners. Others state that a ship could be named through raising two million dollars for its construction. The certain guideline was that the honoree had to be deceased.
The 7,198-ton Thomas Wolfe (Maritime Commission hull number 1073) was built at a cost of one million dollars at the Southeastern Shipbuilding yards in Savannah, Georgia. The keel was laid on 6 November 1943, and the ship was launched on 15 December 1943. On 28 December delivery was made to the South Atlantic Steamship Lines as operating agents for the United States War Shipping Administration. The Wolfe family alerted the Asheville media about the ship named for Tom, and newspaper reports appeared in the Times on 17 February and the Citizen on 18 February 1944. (The newspaper issued on the 17th also featured an account of Julia Wolfe's 84th birthday party at 48 Spruce Street, noting that 125 people dropped by to pay their respects.) (3)
Many Liberty ships were converted to troopships, which were fitted with extra lifeboats, equipment storage rooms, desalination plants, and, of course, areas in which the troops could sleep. Never berthed below the waterline, the men had extra ventilation and heat. Reportedly, food on these troopships, and the Liberty ships in general, was Wolfean--breakfasts of bacon and eggs and pancakes; lunches and dinners filled with meats and vegetables augmented with generous amounts of potatoes and bread; and desserts that included pies and puddings.
After unloading its cargo at the Barry Docks in Wales on 27 April 1944, the SS Thomas Wolfe became a troopship. One of the merchant seamen aboard was Angus Campbell. "Red" Campbell had joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 after being rejected for voluntary service in the military due to medical issues. He would later become vice president of the Seafarers International Union. In a 1994 interview for the Seafarer's LOG, Campbell related his experiences:
It was better than any John Wayne movie. I was on
the Thomas Wolfe, a Liberty ship, and we left New York
in April. We discharged cargo in Wales. Then we went to
Scotland to take on some preparatory gear for the invasion,
along with three British aircraft spotters. Eventually
we loaded in Southampton, England, about a week
before the invasion. …