From ‘Will It Run?’ to National Museum
By Samantha L. Quigley
Once dubbed “Will It Run?,” the legacy of the Willow Run Bomber Plant may have been lost to a brief paragraph in the annals of history if not for a group of aviation enthusiasts headed by Dennis Norton, president of the Michigan Aerospace Foundation.
In 1981, the group—sharing a love of all things airborne and Michigan’s role in those endeavors—called itself the “Yankee Air Force.” With the goal of keeping the history of Willow Run’s role in winning World War II alive, they began researching and preserving the history of America’s mechanical savior—the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber, better known as “The Lib.”
They needed space to show off the artifacts they had and those they would acquire and had their hearts set on an original U.S. Army Air Forces hangar. With the help of Michigan’s Wayne County, they succeeded and the newly conceived Yankee Air Museum had a home. Filling it became the task at hand.
During World War II, more than 18,000 B-24 Liberator bombers were built—8,685 at Willow Run. Today, there are only 11 surviving Libs and only four of those were manufactured at the plant, run by the Ford Motor Company during the war. The true desire is to obtain one of the four elusive Ford-built bombers.
While that quest is ongoing, the museum did acquire and restore to flying status three vintage World War II warbirds. The first, affectionately referred to as Yankee Doodle Dandy, was a Douglas C-47D Skytrain. Then came the Yankee Lady, a B-17G Flying Fortress. The four-engine heavy bomber, delivered to the Army on July 16, 1945, only saw service in the movies, appearing in “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “Closing the Ring.” Then a two-engine B-25D Mitchell, a medium bomber similar to the one General Jimmy Doolittle used in his famous raid on Tokyo, joined the family. Yankee Warrior is one of only two B-25s still flying today.
Each of these vintage aircraft treats those with the desire—and the means—to the incredible experience of taking off and landing at historic Willow Run.
But in 2004, the dream almost became a smoke-filled nightmare.
“About 10 years ago, the museum … burned down [on] October 9, 2004. Total devastation,” said Dave Callanan, the Yankee Air Museum’s director of outreach services, noting that Yankee Lady, Yankee Warrior and Yankee Doodle Dandy were all that was salvaged. “Two had to be pushed out and one was returning from … an airshow appearance.
“Those three aircraft became the work horses for the museum to keep it going, to keep interest high.”
Four years ago, they bought a new building, the former Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology School. The school had everything the museum needed to start over and offered even more—44,000 square feet of space, classrooms and a theater—than the original location.
But what lies ahead for the museum is the dream.
While Ford built the Willow Run Bomber Plant and later used the 5.1 million-square-foot plant for auto production after the war, it was General Motors that owned it when the economy soured in the early 2000s. Once having turned out GM’s controversial Corvair, the building was by then nothing but an enormous warehouse and just one more of automaker’s abandoned properties.
RACER Trust was established to liquidate all of GM’s assets, Callanan said. Under a court order, Willow Run either had to be demolished or sold. If, however, it was purchased, the buyer had to prove they could make use of it, bring it up to code, and not let it continue deteriorating.
It wasn’t easy, but with an estimate of $5.5 million to purchase and restore Hangar 1, Michigan Aerospace Foundation went to work to save 144,000 square feet of national history, which the Yankee Air Museum will soon call home.
On June 16, the building—missing a wall and in serious need of TLC—was rededicated exactly 74 years after its original dedication.
“This is a very important day to all of us in the museum who have been working on this for four years now,” Norton said. “We started this whole effort to buy a little piece of this bomber plant back in 2011.
“What you see doesn’t look very pretty,” he added. “But believe me, it looks a lot better than it did six months ago. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve got a lot of progress yet to go.”
Master of ceremonies and veteran radio broadcaster Bob Hynes plucked the heartstrings of many in the small, invitation-only audience that included both William Knudson’s granddaughter and Charles Sorenson’s grandson. Both men were instrumental in the creation and success of the plant.
“I invite you all to take a deep breath right now and take in the history,” Hynes said to those gathered. “That’s what’s here. That’s what’s behind me.”
As near and dear as saving the bomber plant is to those who have put in the blood, sweat and tears, it means even more to those who worked there during the war.
Vivian Litchard, 92, had just graduated from Belleville High School when she went to work on B-24s at Willow Run on March 2, 1942.
“It was really a good experience. I met a lot of real nice people and I saw President Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt one day when they came through,” she said after the rededication ceremony. “I’m glad—so glad—they’re saving at least a part of it.”
She said after living in New Jersey for a while and being surrounded by Revolutionary War history, it struck her that Michigan didn’t have anything other than Willow Run that rose to that level of military history.
“It’ll be something for kids learning in school about the war. They can come and see some of the things,” Litchard said. “I wish I would be here to see the museum when it’s finished, but I won’t be, I’m sure.”
Detroit and its automotive industry have been called the cradle of democracy, said Bob Lutz, a former flier with the Marine Corps Reserve’s 4th Marine Aircraft Wing and a career auto executive. “But I can’t think of any other [symbol] or any other place that captures the symbolism of what the arsenal of democracy was and what it meant to the American people, as well as this museum.”
The term “arsenal of democracy” is directly attributed to Willow Run for its ability to turn out a bomber an hour when America desperately needed to rule the skies over Europe.
The Yankee Air Museum will become the National Museum of Aviation and Technology at Historic Willow Run when it moves into the resurrected Hangar 1 in summer 2017. The new museum will emphasize the visionary men and women who moved technology and industry forward.
“[It] will tell the amazing history that occurred on these hallowed grounds during World War II,” said Julie Osborne, the museum’s curatorial director. “And also … engage, educate and inspire the future generations in the exciting fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
They’ll have some pretty cool planes on display, too.
—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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