Detroit Defied Reality to Help Win World War II
By Samantha L. Quigley
They said it couldn’t be done. Critics chided Henry Ford for declaring his Willow Run Bomber Plant could turn out a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber every hour.
They’d called him crazy in 1896, too, but Ford ignored the naysayers, pushing past obstacles and failures until his gasoline-powered horseless carriage rolled down the streets of Detroit. His creation, which he christened a “Quadricycle,” featured an engine with the equivalent pulling power of four horses. It was the machine that would transform a world and help win a war.
A Military Crisis
With the “War to End All Wars” in America’s rearview mirror, the country was focused on the positive. Having lost any appetite it had for war, it was confident there would never be a future need for war machines. Or the military.
After World War I, Congress decreased the military’s overall numbers. It also passed laws denying tax breaks to companies that owned equipment that could make weapons of war.
“Bethlehem Steel, the largest arms producer in the world, destroyed all their arms-making capability in 90 days to avoid the taxes,” historian Randy Hotton said during a presentation in June. “DuPont Corporation, which had been contracted to build seven [gun] powder factories for WWI, had spent $25 million of its own money. The government, when the war was over, cancelled the contract and basically said, ‘Because there’s no more war, we don’t need your powder.’”
Meanwhile, the powers on the wrong side of WWI were rearming and, without admitting it out loud, the United States was worried it might get dragged into another war. Just in case that happened, in November 1929, then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower was called upon to create a plan to make sure the country could mobilize its military if it needed to.
There was just one problem. The Great Depression was in full swing and Congress wouldn’t fund the plan.
Four years later, Europe started heating up. Adolf Hitler rose to power and brought Nazi law to Germany. By 1938, Germany had annexed Austria and the Sudetenland—the part of Czechoslovakia along the German border.
Through all of this, the United States maintained its isolationist ideals. November 9, 1938, changed that thinking. On what is referred to as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—the Nazis terrorized German Jews, breaking windows of homes, businesses and synagogues.
Soon after, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress for 10,000 airplanes. Seven months later, while still claiming America wasn’t interested in getting involved in Europe’s war , Congress granted a compromise—5,500 planes over five years, according to Hotton, a member of the Yankee Air Museum’s board of directors.
By May 1940, Germany had invaded Poland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
“This is the blitzkrieg,” Hotton said. “This is the mechanized infantry with airpower. Air power is now decisive. If you do not control the air over the battlefield, you will not win the battle.”
With the 12th largest Army in the world—behind Brazil—America’s military was not the powerhouse it is today.
“We had 32 tanks in the U.S. inventory,” Hotton said. Nearly 6,000 tanks—German and Allied—were involved in the May 1940 Battle of France.
“We have the 18th largest air force in the world—326 ‘modern’ airplanes that are obsolete by world standard. We have 54 heavy bombers.”
It was becoming much clearer that the U.S. needed to get its ducks in a row.
While foreign demand for war equipment—especially airplanes—skyrocketed and helped prop up America’s fragile economy, Roosevelt remembered the problems encountered in WWI, when it had taken America too long to mobilize its forces.
He went back to Congress and asked for a whopping 50,000 planes a year.
“When Hermann Göring, head of the German Luftwaffe heard this, he laughed,” Hotton said. “He said, ‘No one can build 50,000 planes a year. That’s pure propaganda.’”
In 1944, the U.S. would build nearly 100,000 airplanes.
Roosevelt didn’t have faith in the government to get America to a place where it could mobilize effectively. So he turned to the automotive industry with its efficiencies and understanding of mechanization.
Bill Knduson, the president of General Motors, was a Danish immigrant who had worked his way up the auto industry ladder.
“He knew everybody and he knew how factories worked,” Hotton said.
But Knudson faced multiple problems, including the fact that nobody knew what they wanted. The Army was still ordering horse saddles for the cavalry out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
But the auto executive also knew the mechanisms to mobilize America—the tools to make weapons of war—had been destroyed. He knew, too, it would take 18 months to get them in place and another 18 months to produce at peak levels.
“He said, ‘Aircraft and aircraft engines are the biggest problem we’re going to face and only the auto companies have the capability of building these airplanes and engines,’” Hotton said.
While that was true, it wasn’t that simple. He faced a political hurdle—the Army and the airplane companies didn’t want the automakers involved in building airplanes. But the Battle of Britain—Germany’s sustained bombing raids on the island—opened eyes to the serious threat of the German air force.
“Bombers are now the offensive weapon,” Hotton said. “The U.S. identifies the four-engine bomber as what we need to fight the war. The distances in the Pacific to fight the Japanese are long. We need the long range of the bombers.
“We need airplanes that can carry tremendous loads tremendous distances.”
After the Battle of Britain, the United Kingdom asked for more bombers. Roosevelt turned to Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall and asked him to fulfill the request. Marshall’s answer was a serious wake-up call. He only had 32 bombers left in the U.S. and if he gave them up, he wouldn’t be able to train his crews.
Bomber production suddenly became a top priority.
In October 1940, Knudson, who had resigned his position with GM to become the government’s chairman of the Office of Production Management earlier that year—rounded up the heads of Studebaker, Nash Motors, GM and Hudson Motor Car Company in New York, and boiled down the dire situation. America needed bombers—more than it could hope for and sooner than it dared to ask for them.
The auto industry leaders were in Detroit two weeks later, matching items they were already making for cars with similar items needed to make airplanes. The automakers could make all the pieces required to build the much-needed bombers.
And factories to assemble the planes were under construction. Tulsa, Oklahoma, would build B-24s, Kansas City, Kansas, B-25s and Omaha, Nebraska, got the B-26. But in December 1940 the focus shifted to the B-24s.
“The B-24 is the most problematic airplane that the Army has on its list,” Hotton said. “It’s faster, carries more, goes further than the B-17 and they want the B-24.”
Consolidated Aircraft had a contract to build the planes, but it had only completed seven and delivered just three. The Army decided the way to build the B-24 was through a collective effort and World War I pilot Jimmy Doolittle would facilitate that effort.
Though too old to volunteer for WWII, Congress called him back to active duty for his expertise. Doolittle, who gained notoriety for his Tokyo raids in WWII, held the first Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering issued in the United States.
The military assigned him to Detroit to enable a “shotgun marriage between the auto companies and the aircraft companies,” Hotton said.
To make that happen, Dolittle turned to Henry Ford and his precision assembly line to build parts. Ford agreed, until Charlie Sorenson—his right hand at Ford Motor Company—visited Consolidated’s San Diego operation in January 1941.
He was floored by the haphazard way the planes were being assembled.
“They were building aluminum airplanes outdoors on steel fixtures,” Hotton said. “They’ve got a surveyor’s transit on pallets in the back of a pickup truck with a guy looking at the center line of the prop shaft to line it up. [It took] four hours to hang an engine.”
Reuben Fleet was the head of Consolidated and the company was proud of its product. So, Fleet, offended when Sorenson expressed his dismay, asked him asking how he would do it better.
“Sorenson loved a challenge and he said, ‘You know what? I don’t know, but I’ll have an answer for you in the morning,’” Hotton said. With 35 years of manufacturing experience, he broke the B-24 down into assemblies, subassemblies and parts for subassemblies—all diagramed in pencil on hotel stationary.
The next morning, he showed Fleet and was told it couldn’t be done. Fleet asked if Ford would build parts for Consolidated and was met with Sorenson’s definitive answer: Ford wasn’t interested in building subassemblies. It would build complete airplanes or nothing.
“This was like the second coming of Christ,” Hotton said. “They’d been looking for somebody who could answer their bomber production problem and Ford stepped up and gave them the answer they wanted to hear.”
Based on pencil sketches, the Army, desperate for B-24s, awarded Ford a multi-million dollar contract to build the bomber plant and the airplanes.
Will It Run?
The contracts were signed in February and the logistical debates started almost immediately.
By April 1941, the construction had already begun on four flat acres of Michigan farmland outside the village of Ypsilanti. In May, the project was scaled up based on government assurances Ford would be building complete B-24s.
Initially, it had been thought that the Willow Run plant would handle the final assembly of the B-24s from the parts manufactured at Ford’s Rouge Complex in Dearborn, 28 miles away. Marshall kyboshed that idea, pointing out the potential for damage to the parts in transit.
The decision that Willow Run would build complete bombers—parts to plane—called for a bigger plant. Had it just been tacked on to the end of the existing building, it would have landed in the middle of the planned airport.
“So the guy in charge of the factory design said, ‘We’ve got to make a 90-degree turn. And since we’re making a 90-degree turn, we might as well keep the factory inside Washtenaw County [Ypsilanti],’” Hotton said, noting that keeping the factory in one county would also provide a postwar tax benefit.
By November, all the airplane factories had been built—with Willow Run’s final square footage topping 4.7 million—and all the weapons we would fight WWII with were in production, according to Hotton.
“FDR has given the U.S. an 18-month head start on WWII,” he said. “Time magazine said this in February of ’42, ‘The miracle of American productivity was something Hitler didn’t understand.’
“He fully understood it. He was deathly afraid of it. But, based on German experience, he thought it would take the U.S. four years to mobilize, and he would have won by that time.”
If Hitler had walked through Willow Run in 1942, his assessment might have appeared accurate.
Ford was building the B-24s at Willow Run, but Consolidated was still in charge and it had no blueprints for Ford to work from—just sketches, drawings and templates. The materials were nothing Ford could use in his efficient assembly line, so he had 200 engineers work in shifts around the clock, seven days a week. They produced five miles of drawings a day based on Consolidated’s materials. Ten thousand of the 30,000 drawings the engineers made were obsolete by the time they got them back to Detroit from San Diego.
“All the tooling they designed now doesn’t work because [Consolidated] changed the airplane every day,” Hotton said. “This gives Ford a six-month delay in their production schedule because they thought they’d have all this equipment.”
The media was watching all of this closely and the Detroit Free Press ran a story boasting that Willow Run would be able to build a bomber a minute by summer. “And of course, it was written in the paper, it must be true,” Hotton said jokingly.
Not only was a bomber a minute a pie-in-the-sky dream, but Willow Run was supposed to deliver its first model in May 1942. It didn’t fly until September.
The media started referring to Willow Run as “Will It Run?”
The delays, as the Truman Committee discovered, were not Ford’s fault. Headed by then-Senator Harry Truman, the group was charged with rooting out graft and corruption in the defense industry.
“He’s sent to look at Willow Run,” Hotton said. “The government is looking at nationalizing Ford Motor Company to take over Willow Run.”
What Truman found was that the delays were a result of Consolidated being allowed to call Willow Run and make changes whenever they wanted. And they did. Every day.
The Committee gave Willow Run a clean bill of health, noting all the “meddling from Consolidated was keeping things from moving forward.” It called for a single plant manager with the authority to make decisions affecting the day-to-day operations of the plant, Hotton said.
From that point, the plant manager made the calls and production picked up.
Meanwhile, able-bodied men were drafted or volunteered for military service and Ford started hiring women. By May 1942, 15 percent of the Willow Run workforce was women and they were earning the same wages as men did for the same jobs.
By June 1943, employment peaked at 42,000. By summer 1944, the factory was humming along. Production had peaked at a bomber an hour, just like Henry Ford promised, and employment was down to 17,000 thanks to the efficiencies the auto industry had applied to making the B-24.
The center wing assembly was key to meeting that bomber-an-hour quota, Hotton said.
“All the prefabricated structures had all been pre-manufactured. They didn’t have to be fit,” he said. “They would snap into place.”
Workers put the parts in the wing. Riveters knocked the wing parts together. Then the center wing assembly was sent to a multiple-function machine that completed 42 precision machining operations to .0002-inch in 17 minutes.
“Six-and-a-half man-hours were invested in those center wings,” Hotton said. “Consolidated had about 1,500 hours involved in their center wing.”
From there, all of the remaining pieces—all premade and waiting—were fit to the piece as it moved down the assembly line. Plumbing, wiring, landing gear, cockpit shields, instrumentation—all were added quickly and efficiently. The wings, however, could have been problematic.
“Henry Ford hired eight [dwarfs],” Hotton said. “And if you read the stories … they were very proud of what they were doing. For the first time in their lives, they weren’t … sideshows. They had a real job.
“They’d [climb] inside the wing and they’d hold the backing plates that hold the outer wing onto the center wing.”
Despite how smoothly the plant ran, putting out a bomber an hour still wasn’t an easy feat. Willow Run ran two nine-hour shifts. The remaining four hours were used to restock parts and change tooling. That was the schedule six days a week.
By the end of the war, Ford had pushed 8,865 B-24 heavy bombers out the door for the Army. The plant went from building just one plane a month in October 1942 to nearly 500 a month by June 1944, with the capability of creating 650 B-24s a month by fall. The Army, however, slowed production to 200 bombers a month.
“The Army literally said, ‘Slow down. We have no place to park them. The losses in combat haven’t been what we expected,’” Hotton said.
Had the war continued going for the Allies as it had in summer 1942, the Army might not have said that. The U.S. suffered losses on all fronts, and there were shortages of everything. Britain was starving to death, Hotton added. But the Axis missed golden opportunities.
“The [Battle of the] Coral Sea was a Japanese victory and they retreated,” Hotton said. “Midway was just a miracle of finding the carriers at the last minute. The U-boats are sinking our ships faster than we can build them.”
These events, combined with newfound air superiority, helped the Allies turn the tide of WWII in their favor.
Was Willow Run a Success?
“Well, yes and no,” Hotton said. “The war went better than expected. By the time Willow Run had peaked, the war had already been won.
“But if ’43 had been like ’42, they would have desperately needed this production from Willow Run.”
By the time the last B-24 rolled off the Willow Run assembly line on June 28, 1945, the plant had produced more than 92 million pounds of airplanes. In 1944 alone, Willow Run produced nearly as many aircraft as the entire nation of Japan, according to The Ann Arbor Observer.
“Given the limited capacity of the aircraft industry, and the enormous pressure for airplanes, it was fair to conclude the Army Air Force was justified in underwriting this Ford experiment,” Hotton said.
A GM holding when the company declared bankruptcy, Willow Run was destined for demolition until a small Michigan organization known as the Yankee Air Museum stepped up. Backed by the Michigan Aerospace Foundation, the museum has worked for four years to save a portion of the bomber plant. Once a sprawling 5.1 million-square-foot military defense colossus, just 144,000 square feet were spared the a wrecking ball.
Once restored, it will house the Yankee Air Museum, which will be renamed the National Museum of Aviation and Technology at Historic Willow Run.
“At a dark time in American history, the U.S. turned to Detroit to save the world—literally. While we might not think of Willow Run as a large battleground … 100 years from now, people will come here to hear this story, and that’s what we have to preserve at Willow Run,” Hotton said.
—Samantha L. Quigley is editor in chief of On Patrol magazine. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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