The possibility of Wilmington being declared an “American World War II Heritage City” moved far closer to reality this week.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed the S. 47, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. The omnibus Senate bill included language of a standalone bill that 7th District U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) had introduced in January.

The act directs the U.S. secretary of the Interior to designate at least one city per year as an American World War II Heritage City, according to several specific criteria. These include the city's contributions to U.S. victory in World War II, local efforts to preserve the city's World War II heritage, restoration of wartime facilities and recognition of veterans.

The act does not automatically guarantee the Wilmington will get the designation, Rep. Rouzer said Wednesday, but "the criteria fit Wilmington almost perfectly."

"Designation of Wilmington as a World War II Heritage City is practically inevitable," Rouzer said. "There is a high probability it will be selected on the first round, or soon thereafter."

The World War II Wilmington Home Front Heritage Coalition, chaired by retired Navy captain Wilbur D. Jones Jr., had campaigned for the designation for more than a decade. Bills to authorize the designation had passed the House several times but had always stalled in the Senate until this year. Rouzer thanked Tillis and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) for their strong support for the measure.

"It's marvelous," said Jones, a military historian whose books include "A Sentimental Journey," about wartime Wilmington. "We're so close now, after all these years. We're on the goal line. All we need to do get the Secretary of Interior to sign a sheet of paper."

Gaining "Heritage City" designation would be a boost to destination tourism in Wilmington, Jones said. More important, he hopes the act will promote preservation of World War II heritage throughout the United States.

During World War II, Wilmington was the home of the N.C. Shipbuilding Co., which completed 243 vessels, mostly Liberty ships and other cargo ships, for the war effort. It housed three prisoner-of-war camps, and Bluethenthal Army Air Field (now Wilmington Interntional Airport) was a base for antisubmarine patrols and training. Camp Davis, a massive anti-aircraft training facility, was located nearby in Holly Ridge.

Since 1962, Wilmington has been home to the Battleship North Carolina, which saw service in the Pacific theater and which is now preserved as a state memorial to veterans and floating museum. The city also preserved and renovated the former USO building at Second and Orange streets, which now includes a World War II gallery.

Reporter Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-616-1788 or Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com.

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