75 years ago this month, in September of 1942, the very first B-24 Liberator bomber rolled off the line at Ford’s Willow Run Bomber Plant… and the production juggernaut that was America’s “Arsenal of Democracy” was officially up and running!
In a sense, there were two “first B-24s” at Willow Run. The very first was designated ship #.01, the “educational model.” This aircraft functioned as an instructional tool for Ford to get the hang of assembling the long-range, strategically important B-24 bomber, designed and originally produced by Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego.
You could also consider the first ship after that, Ship #1, to be the first Willow Run B-24 bomber, since this airship was actually placed in service by the United States Army Air Force.
The “First” Willow Run B-24 Bomber: The Educational Model Ship #.01
The official designation for this airship is B-24E-FO (#.01), S/N 42-7770 (1/1)
B-24E is the specific model or variant of B-24 (it changed over time as modifications were made to the aircraft’s design.) FO refers to Ford’s Willow Run Plant, where the aircraft was assembled. #.01 is the unique production number of the ship and the decimal indicates that it is the “educational ship.” Serial number 42-7770 is an identifier that followed this particular ship throughout its service; every bomber had a unique serial number. And finally (1/1) indicates that there was only one airship in this production group, since it was the educational model.
B-24 Liberator #.01 was assembled starting in early 1942 as the educational (instructional) ship and was completed on May 15, 1942. It was to be turned over to the USAAF Flight Department as the first B-24 delivery from Ford’s Willow Run Bomber Plant (FO). This ship was assembled at Willow Run from components from Consolidated in San Diego, the “mother plant” of all Liberators; from the Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn; and from parts which were machined right at Willow Run, starting in October 1941… while the plant was still under construction!
This ship was officially accepted for service by the USAAF September 1, 1942. Although it was accepted and flight-tested, it is not known what became of this “cobbled” ship. Most likely, it remained at the plant to continue its service and an instructional reference point, as Ford implemented and fine-tuned its B-24 Liberator production process, and became a template for the thousands of Willow Run “Libs” to follow.
Notice the very early USAAF National Insignia (the star with the red circle in the center) on the rear starboard (right) side of the fuselage. When America entered World War II in December, 1941, the red “meatball” in the center of the star was removed from aircraft in the Pacific Theater to prevent confusion with Japanese aircraft. This change was propagated throughout the American forces by spring of 1942. The fact that the old insignia remained on the ship after completion in 1942 is a clue that the this ship probably did not leave Willow Run.
The “First” Willow Run B-24 Bomber: Ship #1
The official designation for this airship is B-24E-1-FO (#1), S/N 42-6976 (1/30)
This was the first ship of the first production run at Willow Run after the educational model was completed. By May 15, 1942, the aft fuselage, nose fuselage, pilot floor, rudder, center wing, elevators, plus miscellaneous small parts for the first post-educational production run of 30 aircraft were ready, and assembly began. On September 10, 1942 the first Liberator assembled through Ford’s automotive-style assembly process, Ship #1, was completed. This ship was accepted by the AAF on September 30, 1942. Ship #1 left Willow Run via USAAF Ferry Command on November 28, 1942. This aircraft would be used as a “training ship” in the USA and would not see overseas service.
After Ship #1, over the last three months of 1942, the Willow Run Bomber Plant would produce 24 more B-24 bombers. The rate of production throughout 1943 would continually increase… until April of 1944, when the mighty factory was producing an astonishing bomber-every-hour.
The Willow Run Bomber Plant was a true production miracle, one that contributed greatly to Allied Victory in World War II, and is a testament to the determination and fortitude of the Greatest Generation.
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Many thanks to Willow Run Plant Historian Steven F. Puhl for the research and information contained in this story!