The Arsenal of Democracy
Here in Detroit, making things is what we do. And we proved it at Willow Run during World War II…
In the fall of 1940, William Knudsen, President of General Motors, and appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to oversee the nation’s conversion to war production, convened a meeting in Detroit to mobilize automakers and suppliers.
It was clear to all that only Detroit had the capability and expertise necessary to manufacture the vast quantities of precision equipment needed for war.
Detroit executives identified vehicles, arms and other materiel their companies could produce, but expanded aviation production remained an issue. Consolidated’s new B-24 Liberator heavy bomber was currently being built by hand in California at the rate of one per day, and aircraft manufacturers considered it impossible to mass-produce planes on an assembly line.
The Ford Motor Company disagreed, and Charles Sorenson, Ford’s production genius, sketched out an auto industry-style assembly line for the B24. Ford got the contract, and that sketch ultimately became the mighty Willow Run Bomber Plant, east of Ypsilanti.
Ground was broken in March 1941, and by the time Pearl Harbor was bombed in December, Willow Run was already producing B24 parts for assembly in California and Texas. By September, 1942, the first fully assembled bombers began rolling off the line at Willow Run. Soon, General Motors also was mass-producing aircraft for the Navy, at a New Jersey facility. In a little over a year, Detroit had accomplished the impossible, and readied the nation for war.
With nearly every manufacturer and supplier engaged in some type of war production, Michigan became known worldwide as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and its output ensured America’s victory in World War II.
At the height of production in late 1942 to 1943, Willow Run employed more than 42,000 workers in two shifts, and produced a finished bomber every hour. Designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn, with a “mile long assembly line” (actually two half-mile-long lines side by side) and over 3.5 million sq. ft., Willow Run was the largest factory under one roof built to date, and is still among the largest in the world.
Newsreels about the Plant played in theaters across the nation, and Willow Run worker Rose Will Monroe became the popular embodiment of the iconic character “Rosie the Riveter.”
And, in January 1942, former GM executive William Knudsen was commissioned a Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army, the only civilian ever to join the Army at such a high initial rank. President Roosevelt did this so that nobody could pull rank on Knudsen as he made decisions and gave orders. That’s how critical the Detroit auto industry and its production expertise was to the war effort!
We have saved from demolition a 144,000 sq. ft. portion of the Plant as a lasting monument to our American legacy of know-how and hard work. But there is still much work to be done to transform it into a museum.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to preserve and renovate an important piece of American history — and highlight Detroit’s finest hour — and we need your help!
Our vision for a Museum at Willow Run includes exhibit space honoring Detroit’s, and our country’s, finest hour. Now, we have to raise the funds needed to turn our big, historic box into a Museum, by renovating the interior space and populating it with exciting exhibits and programs.
Willow Run represents the ingenuity and versatility of our auto industry, and the all-American production miracle that brought swift resolution to the deadliest conflict in history. We urge you to support a worthy effort that has captured the attention and imagination of people in Michigan, all over the nation, and even overseas, by donating to help turn our preserved portion of Willow Run into a Museum where the stories of history and industrial know-how are told to inspire future generations.
Willow Run is a place of deep and enduring meaning
Just as Detroit’s storied auto industry reinvented itself to ready the nation for war… together, we can do it! Please do your part. Please give generously!
Thank you for your support!
The Michigan Aerospace Foundation
The Yankee Air Museum
Campaign Co-chairmen: Jack Lousma, NASA Astronaut (retired); Bob Lutz, GM Executive (retired)