Little known of the SS Wilson Victory

March 24, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Among the items tucked away in the Wilson College archives is a file folder filled with 8x10 black-and-white photographs, old newspaper clippings and letters about a long-forgotten bit of college lore: the SS Wilson Victory.

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The Wilson Victory was a 10,800-ton, 455-foot cargo ship built in 39 days at the Bethlehem-Fairchild Shipyard in Baltimore and named after Chambersburg's Wilson College.

At the time, Wilson was a small women's liberal arts college. Wilson today, while still mainly a women's college, has gone co-ed.

During the launching ceremony on July 6, 1945, Wilson College Alumnae Association president Helen Segner Thomas, class of 1916, smashed a bottle of champagne across the ship's bow. The former dean of students, Lt. Cmdr. Margaret C. Disert, who had left the college for Navy service, pushed a button that sent the ship down the ways.


The Wilson Victory was the 23rd of 150 college-named ships launched by the Baltimore shipyard and one of 534 vessels built there during the war.

Hood College in Frederick, Md., also had a victory ship named in its honor.

"Members of the alumnae noticed that they were naming ships after colleges and universities and they wanted Wilson named for one too," College Archivist Wanda J. Finney said. On March 12, 1945, Mary E. Culp, director of publicity at Wilson, wrote to Eleanor Kunitz at the U.S. Maritime Commission asking that Wilson be considered for a ship, Finney said.

Paul Swain Havens, Wilson president at the time, was notified that Wilson had been selected, Finney said. Custom required that the college had to supply the books for the new ship's library. Havens asked students and faculty to donate a dollar to the ship's library fund. A plaque with a photo of the college and a brief history of the school went with the 185 books the college sent to the ship.

Among the titles were "Moby Dick," Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely," "Great Sea Stories," Zane Grey's "Knights of the Range," Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Go Home Again."

The ship never saw duty carrying cargo. Instead it was converted into a troop ship, Finney said. According to archive documents, a large galley was built into the ship along with adequate plumbing, heating, fresh water and sanitary systems and sleeping quarters. More than 700 tons of sand was put into the bottom of the ship along with a 250-ton cement block to improve stability and minimize roll.

In June 1945 it made its maiden voyage to Europe and returned to New York with the 442d Infantry Regiment, the Japanese-American unit that had distinguished itself fighting in Italy. One of its soldiers earned a medal of Honor, 47 earned Distinguished Service Crosses and the regiment earned seven Presidential Unit Citations. It suffered more than 9,000 casualties.

Finney said the college has no physical mementos of the ship. It was renamed the Sadao S. Munemori in 1947, after a member of the 442d division, she believes.

The ship was scrapped in 1970. The college has no information on what it did from 1945 to 1970, she said. "We'd like to find someone who served on the ship to interview for an oral history," Finney said.

Anyone with information on any SS Wilson Victory veteran can call the college at 1-717-262-2010 or send an e-mail to

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