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Company, workers redeem Ford war legacy
Giant Willow Run plant helped to build the 'arsenal of democracy'
Yet, in World War II, Ford Motor Co. proved itself to be an invaluable part of the "arsenal of democracy," which ultimately overwhelmed Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan with a deluge of warplanes, tanks, other armored vehicles, trucks and, yes, Jeeps.
Ford's Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti, Mich., built from the ground up for assembly of B-24 Liberator bombers, was hailed as a modern wonder of the world - "modern" being 1941.
In retrospect, it can be said that wartime production by the company and its workers for the U.S. armed forces and their allies redeemed the Ford family name in international affairs - a name sorely in need of redemption.
Some vestiges of the period exist today.
Ford Motor Co. acknowledged in 2001 that its German subsidiary, Ford Werke, had used slave laborers while under the control of the Third Reich during World War II.
The Nazi regime had compelled a number of manufacturers to accept such workers, but the acknowledgement was an especially painful one for Ford Motor. After the revelation, Ford Motor contributed $4 million to human rights studies and humanitarian relief programs.
In the years between the world wars, Henry Ford had aligned himself with pacifist groups, some of them with questionable allegiances. Ford's personal bias against Jews is well-documented in his own writings. (See story on Page 66.) He had the unfortunate distinction of being the only American mentioned by name in Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.
Even as war engulfed Europe, Henry Ford hedged about which side was right.
Engine deal scotched
Biographers and historians, including Peter Collier and David Horowitz in The Fords: An American Epic and Robert Lacey in Ford: The Men and the Machine, recount one especially sad episode in 1940:
The Battle of Britain was raging in the skies over London. The British government sought U.S. help in producing 6,000 Rolls-Royce engines for its Spitfire fighters.
William "Big Bill" Knudsen, a former Ford executive who had risen to the presidency of General Motors, had just been named by President Franklin Roosevelt to oversee production of war materiel.
Knudsen arranged with Edsel Ford, Henry's son and in name the company president, for production of the aircraft engines. But after British officials announced the deal, Henry Ford vetoed it.
Oddly, the company's Dagenham, England, plant already was producing vehicles for the British armed forces, and its Cologne, Germany, factory was supplying the Nazis.
The UAW and other critics accused Ford of being a Nazi sympathizer.
Soon, though, the family patriarch would clarify where his company stood.
Prodded by Edsel Ford, the elder Ford agreed to build Pratt & Whitney engines for the U.S. government and hired Charles Lindbergh as an aviation consultant.
The company began producing general purpose (or G.P., thought by some later to be corrupted to "Jeep") vehicles for the U.S. military in March 1941. The production of all civilian cars and trucks would end in February 1942 by order of the federal government.
The senior Ford accepted plans for the Willow Run plant not so much because he was eager to build airplanes but because he was intrigued by the colossal undertaking, Collier and Horowitz wrote.
Charles Sorensen, company production chief, was the brains behind the idea of applying mass-production techniques to something far larger and more complex than a car or truck.
In the spring of 1941, he and Edsel Ford promised the Army Air Corps that they would be able to build 540 bombers a month - rather than the 520 a year expected from Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, developer of the four-engine Liberator and now part of General Dynamics Corp.
Construction of the giant plant captured the popular imagination and made Henry Ford a national hero. The plant had more than 70 acres under its roof and was built in only 12 months on farm fields along Willow Run Creek.
But the production startup was plagued by one problem after another. Worker turnover was one obstacle. Many workers left for the armed services or higher-paying positions. The plant was ridiculed by critics as "Will-it Run?" By September 1942, it had produced just two planes, Lacey wrote.
The last Lincoln built until after World War II
The plant produced nearly half of all B-24s in 1944 and about 70 percent of total output in 1945. Ultimately, Willow Run produced 8,685 bombers.
The plane was a workhorse of the war, produced in greater quantities and flown in more theaters by more countries than any other four-engine bomber. The 58,000-pound plane flew at a top speed of 275 mph and used 200 gallons of fuel an hour.
Willow Run, a mile-long, L-shaped factory, employed 50,000 people at its peak. Many of them were women who were filling in for husbands, fathers, sons and other men who were in the armed forces.
Rosie the Riveter
One worker, Rose Will Monroe, was chosen for a promotional film for war bonds, becoming a real-life Rosie the Riveter, according to The Ford Century, a centennial history commissioned by the automaker and written by Russ Banham.
Among the men who enlisted in the armed forces were Edsel's sons, Benson Ford and Henry Ford II, even though both could have obtained deferments to help with war production, Collier and Horowitz wrote.
Henry II, at age 25, subsequently did receive an early discharge from the Navy so he could come home and help at the company after the untimely death of his father at age 49 in 1943. (See story on Page 120.)
After the war, the Willow Run plant was acquired by Henry J. Kaiser for his Kaiser-Frazer Corp., says Jack Miller, curator of the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. Today, it houses General Motors' Powertrain group.
Willow Run's production of nearly 8,700 bombers was just one piece - a very important piece - of Ford's overall war effort.
The company also made 57,851 aircraft engines; 277,900 Jeeps; 93,217 trucks; 2,718 tanks; 26,954 tank engines; and 12,500 armored cars. Records show that it also made gliders, amphibious vehicles, gun mounts, superchargers and generators.
The gliders would play pivotal roles in campaigns in Italy, New Guinea, Holland and North Africa, Banham wrote.
Ford Motor Co. was third among companies in the value of U.S. war production, behind only General Motors and Curtiss-Wright Corp.
Ford's British workers built trucks, transports and V-12 engines for bombers.
The Nazis exercised varying degrees of control over Ford plants in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Hungary and Romania, in addition to Germany, Banham wrote.
Henry Ford II called war production by U.S. automakers a "miracle" that "confounded our enemies and drew praise from our allies."