By Gary R. Familian / Special to The Detroit News
While it’s fair to say that the federal government and the private sector haven’t always worked effectively together, there have been exceptions. One such collaboration was the famous Willow Run production facility located near Ypsilanti, at which Ford, working with Washington, produced nearly 9,000 B-24’s during the second world war.
Another less ballyhooed partnership, also necessitated by the conflict of World War II, was between the feds and, this time, the Chrysler Corporation for the manufacture of tanks. Prior to the time fighting broke out between the Allies and the Axis powers, there had never been a concerted effort in the U.S. to coordinate the systematic manufacture of tanks which many felt was an essential tipping point in the blueprint for winning the war.
Because of its vast experience in the production of cars and trucks, it was natural for the government to look to Detroit for help with its tank-building program. The result was a massive construction facility north of the city in Warren, called the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant.
The mammoth structure, designed by master architect Albert Kahn, was erected on 113 acres of farmland measuring five city blocks deep and two blocks wide. At the time the factory was the largest tank building facility in the world, eclipsing even the largest German plants operating during WWII.
The factory was built in Kahn’s signature “Modern Style” that was both aesthetic in form and practical in use. In addition to having bold glass curtain walls that provided a “crystal palace design,” the building was fabricated for surviving an enemy assault.
For instance, the materials used to build the huge structure were designed to survive bombardment by the most sophisticated weapons of the day. It included three-foot-thick concrete walls in some areas and a reinforced roof with slats to direct bombs away from vulnerable windows and exhaust fans. The facility’s fire station even included a Thunderbolt siren on top the structure at the ready in case the plant came under attack.
Kahn’s building was also conceived with a view to the future. His design called for a “dual-production facility,” so that it could produce armaments in times of conflict but could be converted into a peacetime production facility at war’s end.
The venture was the nation’s first government-owned, contractor-operated operation which would go on to build 22,234 tanks for the war effort, enough to equip more than one hundred Army divisions. And unlike the Willow Run facility which ended production at the close of WWII, the Detroit Arsenal continued to roll out state-of-the-art tanks during subsequent military action in the Korean War, Vietnam, Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Storm waged in Kuwait in 1991.
The coordination of a concerted tank facility is generally given to William Knudsen, the industrial production specialist of the National Defense Advisory Commission. On leave from his responsibilities as president of the General Motors Corporation, Knudsen was on the job less than a week when he called his boyhood friend and colleague K. T. Keller, president of the Chrysler, inquiring about Chrysler’s ability to change production to a warfare capability. According to legend, Knudsen asked Keller if Chrysler could make tanks. Keller responded, “Yes,” then asked, “Where can I see one?”
Prior to World War II, there was a great deal of skepticism in senior military ranks about the need to mass produce tanks. This way of thinking was reconsidered when hostilities erupted in Europe in 1939, signaling the start of the Second World War. In the early years of the conflict Germany was utilizing tanks with alarming success in its Blitzkriegoffensives and it soon became clear the U.S. needed a mobile armored force if it was to meet the German challenge.
In response to the idea of the tank being an integral part of the war effort, military planners decided to ramp up production of this overland vehicle as quickly as possible. In fact, the Arsenal received its first contract to build 1,000 M3 tanks in late August of 1940. The tanks were first delivered to the Army in April 24, 1941, while the plant was still under construction.
“For Chrysler to be able to furnish the Army with a 35-ton tank from scratch after only seven and a half months was nothing short of miraculous,” said Mike Davis, historian and author of the book “Detroit’s Wartime Industry: Arsenal of Democracy.” “And while the product they produced — the M3 — wasn’t the best tank in the world, it set the stage for the production of the more practical M4.”
At its peak the plant was running 24 hours a day, seven days a
week with close to 5,400 workers turning out nearly 1,000 tanks a month.
The euphoria of the plant’s production successes was highlighted by a visit on September 18, 1942 by then-president Franklin Roosevelt who made the Arsenal his first stop on a tour of the nation’s war-production facilities. After returning to Washington, the president called the Detroit Arsenal “an amazing demonstration of what can be done by the right organization, spirit and planning.”
Even though Chrysler sold the huge facility to General Dynamics in 1982, the plant continued to produce M60 tanks until 1996, when the company sold the property to the city of Warren. Today, the site is home to a number of private businesses including U.S. Manufacturing Corp., Johnson Controls and Noble Metal Processing.
For more information about other iconic figures, visit MotorCities National Heritage Area at www.motorcities.org.
Gary R. Familian is managing director of the MotorCities National Heritage Area.