It's almost impossible to pinpoint the date on which the U.S. auto industry entered World War II, but May 28, 1940, is a good starting point. On that day, President Roosevelt revived the National Defense Advisory Commission, a relic of World War I.
Knudsen biographer Norman Beasley reports that GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan Jr. was not at all happy about losing his president.
"They'll make a monkey out of you down there in Washington," Sloan told Knudsen.
Knudsen replied: "That isn't important, Mr. Sloan. I came to this country with nothing. It has been good to me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I must go."
Knudsen became director general of the Office of Production Management, which replaced the National Defense Advisory Commission in December 1940. When the War Production Board took over, Knudsen was named director of war production and was commissioned a lieutenant general in the Army.
He presided over the greatest manufacturing miracle up to that time or since. New plants were built; existing plants were converted to produce the goods of war; workers were trained as the entire nation shifted gears.
Beasley relates that Knudsen also helped make Detroit the Arsenal of Democracy by squelching a memo from the General Staff of the armed forces that no defense plant could be built within 250 miles of a foreign nation. Detroit is across a river from Windsor, Ontario.
Knudsen told Gen. George Marshall, the chief of staff, "If we are going to make things, General, we can't get along without Detroit."
Said Marshall: "No, I don't suppose we can."