Construction of Ford’s Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant
The iconic Rosie the Riveter may seem to be simply a fiction from the past but she has a name – and an important history. Rose Will Monroe moved from her home in Pulaski County, Kentucky as part of the great migration to Ypsilanti, Michigan to participate in the greatest national cause of the 20th century, the defense of freedom and liberty in World War II. She was part of that migration, part of the 40,000 employees at the Ford-run Willow Run B-24 bomber plant and part of the great Arsenal of Democracy that Detroit and the Southeastern Michigan region became, cranking out airplanes, tanks, trucks, and weapons.
She and thousands of other men and women rolled up their sleeves with the “can do” attitude necessary to bring victory to America and her allies. And the story of Willow Run, where she worked, is as fascinating as it was productive.
Americans started to build the country’s war fighting capability after the war started in Europe in late 1939, but before Pearl Harbor. After the German blitzkrieg in France in May of 1940, President Roosevelt, at urging of his advisor Bernard Baruch, brought in GM manufacturing guru William S. Knudsen to oversee the vast job of coordinating the automotive industry to wartime production. Knudsen would chair the Office of Product Management starting in 1940. Later, in 1942, Knudsen became Director of Production as an Undersecretary of War. Along with the civilian-based War Production Board, he oversaw putting the American economy on a war footing, mobilizing the nation’s wartime production capacity.
Willow Run employees working on part of the assembly line
Along the sleepy Huron River tributary, Willow Run, Henry Ford had bought a farm from the Quirk family in the early ‘30s. As the country was gearing up for defense as war raged throughout Europe and Asia, it was determined that Ford would build components for, and ultimately assemble, the Consolidated B-24, a four-engine bomber with an advanced wing design that provided great lifting capability and long range for the time. Henry’s idyllic farm on the Wayne County western border was to be turned into the Willow Run airport and easements were made with Ypsilanti township to provide land for the vast bomber plant. The Albert Kahn-designed structure stretched for a mile long, encompassing 3,500,000 square feet under one roof, making the facility the largest factory in the world. Construction began in June of 1941, while the first airplane left the assembly line in September of 1942.
Henry Ford was in his 80s at this time, and could be a cantankerous character. While it was originally thought that the plant would provide components and subassemblies to Consolidated and Douglas factories, the older, hand crafted ways of assembling aircraft were not suitable. Ford was used to volume production. And, at the time, wartime pressures weren’t sympathetic to delays. A substantial effort was made to revise the production scheme to be compatible to a more automotive model. Ford’s right hand man, Charles Sorensen, visited San Diego where the B-24 was being built. He returned saying Ford could build a B-24 an hour on an automotive-style assembly line. Aircraft industry old-timers grumbled he was crazy, but in the end, the Willow Run bomber plant proved capable, meeting Sorenson’s prediction of one complete bomber an hour, and a total of 8,685 aircraft and complete kits.
A ‘Rosie’ Riveting
The workforce necessary to produce at such a pace had to be recruited, assembled, and trained at a rapid pace. Ford drew on people from all over the country, especially the South, to work at Willow Run. While Ford had reservations about using women on the line, there was little alternative available at time. Thus, Rose Will Monroe and her co-workers came to southeast Michigan. Rose was singled out to become the symbol for this newly diverse workforce, and became the emblem for wartime production. And so, “Rosie the Riveter” was born. Having women employees helped stabilize the workforce as well. Between the draft, enlistments, and a general shortage of skilled workers, many of the male workers either could leave for other opportunities or be made to leave for the war effort. Turnover was an enormous issue. During one month, Ford hired 2,900 workers but 3,100 workers had left. In the end, women, who collectively became known as “Rosies” not only at Willow Run, but throughout the country, were strongly recruited and appreciated, to the point that “Rosies” made up 36.5 percent of the assembly workers in the aircraft industry.
Having women on the line was not the only innovative use of work force diversity. While Ford was historically reluctant to accept unionization, he was a firm believer in hiring black workers and Willow Run reflected that policy. As the primary role at Willow Run was the assembly of the fuselage, monocoque wing, and other structural components via the thousands of rivets necessary, some crawl spaces where rivets had to be placed were extraordinarily small. Ford personnel people ended up scouring the country, including circuses, to find little people to do the riveting and assembly work in tight spaces.
Part of the Assembly Line at Ford’s Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant
At its peak, Ford employed over 40,000 people at the vast plant, at the time situated in a largely rural area. To help bring people in and out of Willow Run, the Detroit Industrial Expressway was built, linking Detroit’s western suburbs and southwest Detroit neighborhoods. Later, that limited access highway was incorporated into the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s, and today that route is known as part of I-94. While somewhat remote, the installation of the highway and proximity to rail transport made the Willow Run bomber plant ideal for the kind of assembly and manufacturing that came to be known as “just-in-time.”
At this time, not only was the bomber plant buzzing, but factories throughout the region were producing the wiring, weapons, fuel tanks, instruments, landing gear, and tires that came to the plant via the road and railways. Engines came from Buick Motor Car in Chicago, propellers from Frigidaire in Lansing, and wing tips from Budd Corporation. This throb of production was replicated, too, in Detroit’s Arsenal of Democracy at the Tank Plant just north of Detroit in Warren, Michigan, in GM plants that produced the 6x6 “Jimmy” truck and the famous half track. And at the other Ford and Bantam plants that leaned in to produce the iconic Jeep. These necessary weapons of war not only supported U.S. troops, but were sent to all our Allies, the forces fighting under the flags of Britain, the Soviet Union, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Norway, and the other occupied nations fighting for freedom. It is true that the entire nation picked itself up and contributed to the war effort, but Detroit’s contribution was singular and decisive. It’s been said that Detroit won the war for the U.S. and the allies. Certainly, without the region’s contribution, the issue would have been in doubt.
The Rosies were all a major part of that effort. In modern war, in total war, it is industrial might that must arm and armor the brave men and women who must go in harm’s way. Today, the American Rosie the Riveter Association has a dwindling membership. These ladies, made up of women who worked in wartime a scant 60 or 70 years ago, were recently interviewed during their visit to Willow Run, 3 of the 30 attendees actually worked at the bomber plant, and they reminisced about their times there. The Detroit Free Press article may be found here.
A line of women riveting at Willow Run. These women were affectionately known as ‘Rosie the Riveters.'
While these ladies who fought on the home front are in their nineties by now, you can see and hear their pride coming through in their accomplishments. While we might not think of what happened here in the same vein as a Civil War site, like Gettysburg, the combination of efforts of Rosies; the rest of the workforce; the military; Ford and its teams of engineers, planners, and administrators; and the supplying firms all worked together in common cause against a common foe. I am reminded of the sentence in Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
Note: The Yankee Air Museum and its Michigan Aerospace Foundation arm are leading an effort to save the Willow Run Bomber Plant www.savethebomberplant.org.
Save the Bomber Plant! A campaign is now underway to preserve about 180,000 square feet of the Willow Run Bomber Plant, and transform this space into the new home of the Yankee Air Museum. Not only will a place in the plant give the Museum space to grow and realize its full potential, it also creates a place at which to tell the incredible Willow Run, Rosie the Riveter, and Arsenal of Democracy stories. A total of $8 million is needed to take part of the plant and convert it into a separate, fully-functional building to become the new Museum. As of this writing, $4.8 million has already been raised leaving $3.2 million more to be raised to make this important project a reality. To give or learn more, go to www.savethebomberplant.org.