WANCHESE, N.C. (AP) — World War II had broken out, German submarines were prowling the Atlantic Coast, and the American war effort needed ships - lots of them, large and small.

Steel and aluminum used for warships, aircraft and ammunition were in short supply, said George Converse, a retired Marine officer and a naval historian. That left wood, something eastern North Carolina boat builders knew about.

Converse presented research at the UNC Coastal Studies Institute on local boatyards contracted - along with other small shipyards around the country - to build hundreds of wooden support vessels, such as minesweepers, subchasers and tugboats, to fend off those submarines and to clear mines.

They came to be known as the "Splinter Fleet," a nickname for wooden war boats originally coined during World War I.

"All the major shipyards were tasked to capacity," Converse said.

Wooden boats were faster and cheaper to build, and lumber was available, he said. Locals had a long history of boat building, from small fishing boats to ferries to ironclads. The war created a local surge in boat construction and employment, albeit temporary.

A boatyard on the Pasquotank River in Elizabeth City grew from 50 employees in 1937 to 600 within a decade during the war. The operation built 30 submarine chasers, along with tugboats and Coast Guard rescue craft.

The subchasers operated in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Caribbean, and were part of all major amphibious landings, including the June 1944 D-Day invasion of France at Normandy, Converse said.

Typically, three boats worked together on a submarine attack, dropping depth charges in the path of an oncoming sub.

"That was much more effective," he said.

Converse had no record of a subchaser sinking a submarine, but they were regarded as effective deterrents and escorts. The fleet helped clear the East Coast of German submarines, which patrolled freely early in the war, regularly sinking Allied ships. Some online sources cite a Japanese submarine sunk by a subchaser.

The shipyard on the Manteo waterfront built Navy landing craft and air-sea rescue vessels. A boat building museum sits about where the shipyard once did, Converse said. A large fire destroyed most of the operation's records, he said.

Boatyards in New Bern and Washington, N.C., built minesweepers and oil tankers.

Minesweepers ran lines with cutters behind the boat to slice cables holding bombs beneath the surface. Crew members used rifles to explode the mines after they floated to the surface. North Carolina minesweepers were instrumental in the 1944 Battle of the Scheldt Estuary that led to the taking of the strategic port of Antwerp, Belgium.

When the war ended the next year, local shipyards downsized and eventually closed, Converse said.

Many boats of the "Splinter Fleet" were transferred to foreign countries. Only a few still exist. Wooden boats were no longer in demand for pleasure and work craft.

"Fiberglass became king after the war," Converse said.

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com