Standing before the Battleship North Carolina on the Cape Fear River, President Donald Trump recognized Wilmington’s role on the homefront in World War II.
He also took the occasion to criticize the toppling of Confederate monuments and mayors and governors he said were unable to control protesters.
Marking the 75 anniversary of the signing of the Japanese surrender, Trump declared Wilmington the nation’s first World War II Heritage City.
“With this designation, we proudly declare that we don’t tear down the past, we celebrate our heroes. We cherish our heritage, we preserve our history and we build a future,” the president said.
Later in his speech, Trump said, “I signed a very important edict recently. Three months ago they were ripping down statues. I said, ‘you can rip them down but you’re going to serve ten years in jail if you do. And as soon as I did that, incredibly, you haven’t heard about statues coming down, have you?”
“We’re not ashamed in America, we’re not ashamed of anything,” Trump said.
The president’s 15-minute speech, with thunder rolling in the background, went back and forth from thanking people in attendance to talking about the history of Wilmington and the battleship. He also drew parallels with recent protests around the county.
The president said Wilmington and North Carolina made extraordinary contributions to the war effort.
“Nearly two million American servicemen trained for combat in North Carolina, more than any other state,” Trump said. “Over 11,000 North Carolina patriots fought to their very last breath.”
The North Carolina Shipbuilding Company was the biggest employer in the state with about 23,000 workers who built almost 250 merchant ships for the war effort.
During World War II, Wilmington was called “The Defense Capital of the State." The North Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution in 2017 asking the federal government to recognize Wilmington for its contributions to the war.
The city became a “wartime boomtown,” with the population more than doubling during the war, according to the resolution.
“Wilmington's strategic position made it vulnerable to enemy attack by German U-boats, which marauded shipping off our beaches,” the resolution states. German U-boats even fired on a chemical plant near Wilmington during the war.
The president called the Battleship North Carolina “an enduring symbol of American greatness.”
“Our task today is to pass on the blessings of liberty that you fought for and you bled for. All for security. You wanted to praise and raise our flag, and you did that,“ he said.
Speaking just a day after visiting Kenosha, Wisconsin, where people have been protesting the latest police shooting of a Black man, Trump said, “American warriors did not defeat facism and oppression overseas only to watch our freedoms be trampled by violent mobs here at home.”
“We stop those violent mobs very easily. All they have to do is say, ‘please come in Mr. President’ and we will have it done in one hour,” he said, repeating a “law and order” line from his campaign.
“For the sake of all Americans, we must uphold the rule of law and defend the American dream for every child in our land. We must teach our children that America is a land of heroes,” Trump said.
The president did not mention the coronavirus pandemic. The crowd assembled in the parking lot at the Battleship North Carolina did not practice social distancing and very few people at the speech appeared to be wearing masks, according to live video from the speech.
Democratic leaders in North Carolina criticized Trump for ignoring the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve never seen our state face such trying times,” state senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said Wednesday. “It didn’t have to be this way. The president should have taken this virus more seriously,” he said.
“Wilmington played an important part in ridding the world of facism,” New Hanover County state Sen. Harper Peterson said in a Zoom call with reporters before the president’s visit.
Peterson, a Democrat who served as mayor of Wilmington before being elected to the General Assembly, criticized Trump for using his trip for political gain and not to celebrate the city’s history.