Willow Run and the Arsenal of Democracy

The first B24 Liberator bomber rolled off the assembly line on Oct. 1, 1942. Behind the plane, parts of the unfinished factory are visible.

By the late 1930’s,  American complacency was being shaken by Nazi aggression in Europe.  The 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact brought many of the American workers, who had been sympathetic to Russia and against entering the war, over to the side of those who  favored involvement.

American auto workers, a great many of whom hailed originally from countries now under attack by the Nazis and the Red Army, were eager interventionists. The partitioning of Poland, the invasion of Finland, the murder of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest by Russians, all combined to provide a groundswell of support for war.

In Washington, the interventionists were running things, but the isolationists still had a voice. They felt that if the war ended quickly, mobilization would have been a rationale for raising taxes and greater government control. Henry Ford refused a government contract in June of 1940 to build Rolls Royce aircraft engines for England. Auto manufacturers worried that their ability to fill the growing demand for new cars might be adversely affected by converting their plants to war production.

Bombers roll down Willow Run No. 3 assembly line in February of 1943.

      But in 1940, the Blitz — the relentless German bombing of England — changed public sentiment and allowed Franklin Delano Roosevelt to call for the tripling of the military budget, massive aid to Great Britain, and U.S. production of 50,000 military aircraft per year, more than existed in the world. The Army authorized 21 manufacturers to tool up for mammoth aircraft production, which came swiftly on the heels of the Navy’s launching of the greatest shipbuilding program ever seen .

Roosevelt named the National Defense Advisory Commission, with William Knudsen of General Motors as head of production planning. Knudsen exemplified the many industrialists, known as “Dollar a Year Men,” serving in Washington as advisers for no pay. But perhaps there was an ulterior motive. Between June and December that year, 20 firms received 60 percent of the $11 billion dollars in defense contracts that were awarded. The Pentagon wanted to pay top dollar to the largest corporations to guarantee speed and reliability.

Initial plans for aircraft production in California, then the capital of airplane production, were scrapped. The San Diego B-24 plant was producing, under optimum conditions, one bomber a day. Henry Ford’s production chief, Charles Sorenson visited the plant and stayed up all night sketching plans for an auto style assembly line. It was an idea that ultimately worked, with the Willow Run, Mich. plant producing a bomber per hour by August 1944. But first there were problems to overcome.

In February of 1941, Ford acquired additional land to a plot he already owned near Ypsilanti in a sleepy hamlet called Willow Run, named after the creek that ran through it. Part of the land had been in use as a summer camp for underprivileged boys.

In April of 1941, ground was broken for construction of an airplane factory. Renowned architect Albert Kahn drew up the plans. The cost, which had been set at $11 million, rose to $47 million. By September, the Ford Willow Run B-24 Liberty Bomber plant had been completed, with 3.5 million square feet of factory space, the largest in the world. Charles Lindbergh called it the Grand Canyon of the mechanized world.

Women, like machinist Janet Kinsman of Detroit, became an important part of the Willow Run workforce.

Frederick A. Delano, FDR’s uncle, was put in charge of organizing homes for the expected 100,000 workers. A plan for a “Bomber City” was designed by architect Oskar Stonorov. He attacked single family homes as “fortresses of individualism” and proposed project-style housing. When Ford refused to sell the land for this, the plan was abandoned, and dormitories were built.

Transporting workers was another problem. New York Central Railroad Vice-President Jesse McKee said it looked like a job for buses, and Greyhound’s Manfred Burleigh said it was “very obviously a job for the railroads.” Ultimately, a highway was built in 1943 to ease the commute from Detroit, and the Michigan Central ran trains to the site.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, threw the U.S. into the war, spurring a huge increase in aircraft production, as well as tanks and military vehicles. The government banned civilian auto production. By June of 1942, 66 percent of Detroit’s machine tools were being used for military goods.

By November of 1942, there were 3,701 enrollments in Ford’s Airplane Apprentice School. Ford was hyping the Willow Run plant with promises of huge production. But there were countless unforeseen difficulties in such a massive undertaking. Worker shortages, lack of expertise, supply shortages, low morale caused by long commutes and inadequate housing, all combined to make Willow Run the subject of a 1943 Senate investigation into the low production and a universal joke with naysayers. It was dubbed “Will It Run” by a local wit and the name stuck.

To overcome the manpower shortage, some parts and subassemblies were shipped to other plants. Many employees were housed at Willow Run in huge government-built temporary dormitory-style housing for 14,000 workers. Others lived in tents, garages and trailers. Lots that had sold before the boom for $1.25-$6.25 were going for over $100. Some con men sold worthless flood plain lots to trailer owners who were flooded out at the first spring rains. There were angry calls for more permanent housing.

On Oct. 1, 1942, the first plane was completed and christened “The Spirit of Ypsilanti.” Its $300,000 cost was paid for with a fund-raising drive by the townspeople of Ypsilanti, who bought war bonds and stamps. Contributors were issued buttons bearing the bomber’s Winged V insignia, designed by Jean Ohlinger, a 17-year-old junior at Ypsilanti High School.

A hangar at Willow Run was turned into a barracks for Army personnel brought in to fly out the newly built bombers. Off-duty soldiers can be seen sprawled on some of the 1,300 cots.

By December a total of 107 bombers had been offered to the Army Air Corps, but only 56 were acceptable. Part of the problem was that, as in the auto industry, the plant was using hard steel dies instead of the softer dies more conducive to the multiple changes demanded by the aircraft industry. In the first year alone there were 575 changes required.

Gradually though, the problems were ironed out. Workers were brought in from the South. Women were hired. Housing went up. At its peak, in June 1943, the plant had 42,331 workers. More than 3,000 were hired on a single day in July 1943. By August of 1943, production was up to 231 planes a month. By the end of that year, Willow Run was producing 365 B-24’s a month and at the end of 1944, 650 were rolling off the line every month. By 1945, Ford was making 70 percent of all B-24’s, in two shifts a day of nine hours each.

The B-24 contained 100,000 parts, as opposed to the 15,000 needed in a 1940 automobile, and the manpower needs were tremendous. Men were enlisting in the armed forces to fight overseas, and workers were in short supply.

The war office speeded up the hiring of women, by ordering Ford to hire 12,000 at Willow Run. By October of 1943, there were 140,000 women in the defense industry. Willow Run hired 117 in one week. They received the same wage rates as the men, from 95 cents to $1.60 an hour.

The women came from varied backgrounds: They were teachers, waitresses, housewives. Alice Hinkson was an advertising copywriter. Nancy Schaefer was a University of Michigan graduate who gave up a stage career. Mary Von Mach was a licensed pilot; she had been the first Detroit woman to own her own plane. They worked on the line doing riveting, light assembly or as inspectors or trainers. Paula Lind was the first woman to give instructions for the Link Trainer, a device for training pilots in “blind” or instrument flying. Edsel Ford praised the women workers for their “intelligence, will and determination with which they have gone into work which is entirely foreign to them.”

Leslie Galer and Wayne Galer wash up in a Willow Run dormitory. The two came to work in the Willow Run plant from Grand Rapids.

Harry Bennett, Ford’s controversial right hand man, orchestrated bringing thousands of workers up from the southern states. The southern workers battled homesickness, housing shortages, and lack of recreational facilities, and absenteeism was high. The relatively high wages tempted them to work for a short while and return home, and many did this routinely, taking an unapproved hiatus from the monotony of the line, then returning when their money ran out, or never coming back. Turnover was a huge problem, as many joined the service and many went to other jobs.

Eventually housing was completed: Willow Lodge was a dormitory for single workers four miles from the plant, built to hold 3,000 workers. Rooms were $5.00 per week. An initial experiment to house the sexes together, with men and women on alternating floors, was quickly ended after “gamblers and fast girls quickly moved in,” according to a Detroit News report. Scandalized, the housing officials returned to more traditional separate housing. Willow Court was a trailer project for 900 childless couples, with an apartment going for $6.50 a week. A shopping center was built in 1943.

Willow Run produced 8,685 B-24’s before it closed in 1945. When the final plane, christened the Henry Ford, rolled off the line, he let it be known that he wanted the plane named after the workers who had built it. The name of Henry Ford was erased from the plane and the workers autographed the nose.

Willow Run was but one plant of one company. General Motors and Chrysler also did their part. Former automobile plants built everything from tanks to bombs to guns. In just the first 18 months after Pearl Harbor, 350,000 people came to the city of Detroit to work in defense plants. Automakers and their suppliers produced $30 billion worth of military equipment from 1942 to 1945.

Detroit truly was the Arsenal of Democracy. As Walter Reuther had predicted, “Like England’s battles were won on the playing fields of Eton, America’s were won on the assembly lines of Detroit.”

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News