The Arsenal of Democracy: How Detroit turned industrial might into military power during World War II

By Arthur Herman / Special to The Detroit News

On May 28, 1940, the phone rang in Bill Knudsen’s office in the General Motors Building. Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who had made parts for Henry Ford’s Model T in a bicycle factory in Buffalo before working his way up to become president of GM, heard a voice familiar from newsreels and radio broadcasts on the other end.

It was President Franklin Roosevelt. “Knudsen?” the voice said. “I want to see you in Washington.”

France was collapsing under the Nazi blitzkrieg. Great Britain was slated to be next. Imperial Japan’s sun was rising in the Pacific.

America had the eighteenth largest army in the world, not much bigger than Holland’s, and no defense industry — it had been dismantled after World War I, “the war to end all wars.”

What FDR needed from Bill Knudsen, one of the fathers of mass production, was to tell him how to convert America’s economy from making cars, refrigerators, radios and farm machinery into making tanks, artillery shells, and even airplanes.

Knudsen’s answer when he got to Washington was to convince FDR that Detroit’s auto industry — then the country’s biggest employer, employing one out of every twenty Americans — could lead a production effort that could create the weapons of modern war in quantities no one had ever imagined.

Knudsen’s term for it was an “arsenal of democracy” (FDR later borrowed the phrase for one of his most famous fireside chats). And from 1940 to 1945 the Motor City became the center of the greatest industrial production miracle in history. It transformed the city and sparked a race riot in 1943 that left 34 people dead and 670 injured. But it also enabled the United States to win the world’s biggest war, and still leaves its legacy to the city.

Knudsen started things rolling soon after he got to Washington with a phone call to his friend K.T. Keller, president of Chrysler, to see if he thought Chrysler could build tanks. The result would be the Chrysler Tank Arsenal in Warren, where some 25,000 Grant and Sherman tanks would be built, more tanks than Nazi Germany built during the entire war.

Another call went to Knudsen’s old employer, Henry Ford, to see if he could convert part of his River Rouge plant to make aircraft engines for Britain’s Spitfire fighters. Ford said no (in 1940 the old man was still in the throes of isolationism) but Alvan Macauley at Packard Motors said yes.

Macauley and his engineers welcomed the challenge. Soon the Packard Plant on Grand Boulevard became the site of a new facility for making the 12-cylinder, 1645-cubic inch Rolls Royce Merlin engine, and for employing the thousands of young women Packard hired to make them. In the end, Packard would build more than 55,000 Merlins, not just for the Spitfire but for America’s own P51 Mustang.

Then on Oct. 29 Knudsen set up a secret meeting of auto executives at the New Center Building, where he and a then-unknown Army Air Corps Major named Jimmy Doolittle showed them the aircraft parts they needed to have made in record numbers and in record time.

Four weeks after bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, the men at that meeting formed the Automotive Council for War Production, under a dynamic young executive director. His name was George Romney. He and the ACWP pulled together a production plan that wound up making 75 percent of all the aircraft engines, one-third of the machine guns, two-fifths of the tanks, and 100 percent of the trucks and motor vehicles America used during the war, not to mention hundreds of other implements of war from artillery shells and bomb fuses to steel helmets.

Production on this scale demanded far more workers than the auto industry had ever seen.

By D-Day, total employment in the Detroit area had more than doubled and the city’s demographics had changed forever. The 1944 Census showed that of the city’s quarter million newcomers, fully 40 percent were from the South, both black and white. That spawned a popular local joke: “How many states are in the Union? Answer: Forty six. Tennessee and Kentucky are now in Michigan.”

But the racial tensions that resulted were no joke. A riot swept across the city on a hot July weekend in 1943, leaving parts of the city in flames, with 25 blacks and 9 whites dead. America’s Arsenal of Democracy found itself shrouded in disgrace.

The city soon recovered, as did the war production effort. There was simply no holding back the torrent of creativity and energy Detroit untapped when it agreed to arm America. Those who came to the city to escape rural poverty and make a new life included thousands who took trains from their towns in Kentucky and Pennsylvania out to Ypsilanti where Henry Ford, now fully on board the war effort, and assistant Charlie Sorensen had constructed a massive plant to build B-24 bombers for the Army Air Force, and soon employed more than 42,000 people.

But besides the immigrants and the big companies like Ford and GM (which wound up making 10 percent of everything America produced to fight World War II) what made Detroit so vital to the war effort were the smaller companies and suppliers dotting the area, which turned out parts for trucks, artillery pieces, and airplanes, as well as freelance entrepreneurs like consulting automotive engineer Karl Probst.

It was Probst who got a call at his office in the Boulevard Building from a company called American Bantam asking if he could help with a design for a scout vehicle the Army wanted. Once Probst finished with his drawings, it became the Jeep.

There was Henry Krueger, the Detroit machine tool maker who set up the Cadillac Tool Company in 1904 even before there was a Cadillac car company.

There, Krueger had quietly built the precision tools that made possible the modern auto assembly line, even though he himself went broke twice in as many as decades, nothing left but the clothes on his back.

When war came, manufacturers across Michigan came to Krueger’s shop on East Grand Boulevard to ask for help. And when the Winchester Company needed a master tool-maker for the M-1 Garand, the car companies told them in one voice, “Call Hank Krueger.” Krueger would build no less than 40 brand new machines for Winchester, and devised a new way of drilling gun barrels that would carry over to larger calibers like the 20 mm anti-aircraft guns Pontiac was making and 75 mm gun for Chrysler’s Shermans.

Then there was Tom Saffady, the Detroit-born son of a Syrian immigrant who invented in his garage a device for measuring the smoothness of metal surfaces that cost one-tenth of the standard gauge. Saffady built a plant at 875 Eight Mile Road to manufacture it along with another device he had created for grinding metal surfaces. By war’s end, Sav-Way Industries had six hundred employees and was doing annual business of $4.5 million.

What Saffady and Krueger and the rest proved was that the secret to Detroit’s success in the war effort wasn’t its assembly lines and huge plants. It was the creativity, ingenuity, dedication and drive of those who lived and worked there.

Together they proved what Bill Knudsen’s had first told FDR, “we can do anything if we do it together.”

Ingenuity and vision transformed Detroit 70 years ago, and changed America. Perhaps they can do it again.

About the author

Arthur Herman is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II” (Random House), which The Economist magazine named one of the Best Books of 2012.

The last B-24 Liberator Bomber rolled off the line June 25, 1945. The plane was to be christened “The Henry Ford,” but Ford asked that his name be taken off and the plane be named after the workers who had built it. (Detroit News archives)

The last B-24 Liberator Bomber rolled off the line June 25, 1945. The plane was to be christened “The Henry Ford,” but Ford asked that his name be taken off and the plane be named after the workers who had built it. (Detroit News archives)