Last week, we learned that Ford Motor Company, at the urging of Edsel Ford and against the wishes of Henry Ford, decided to get into the airplane-building industry prior to the U.S. entry into WWII. The building of the Willow Run plant was a major undertaking, and getting Henry Ford to donate the land for the plant could have, and maybe even should have, been the high point of the story, with the rest being routine and unremarkable. But expecting the routine and unremarkable when Henry Ford was involved would in itself be remarkable.
In early 1941, while Willow Run was still under construction, an addition to the main Ford plant, the Rouge, was being constructed to build the Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp airplane engine. In April 1941, workers responded to the firing of eight of their own, who had been trying to organize Ford workers (at that point, still non-union), by Bennett’s Service team, by throwing down their tools and walking off the job. The walkout was not altogether spontaneous, and within hours, UAW members started assembling outside of the Rouge, many armed with baseball bats and iron bars. Bennett, who had prepared for a UAW response, played out his strategy. Bennett had organized 2500 African-American strikebreakers with the promise of payment around the clock; in normal times, black workers were barred from the higher-paying, skilled trades and left with the hardest, dirtiest, lowest paying work. Bennett armed them with knives and spoke in inflammatory racial terms. At the same time, Bennett was contacting Washington, obliquely asking for Federal troops to end the strike by “communist terrorists.” Roosevelt was trying to get Lend-Lease passed and was ramping up actions against the Japanese; the last thing he wanted to deal with was labor/management issues. However, he was furious that workers were damaging the production schedule of what he considered to be a vital defense industry (the Double Wasp engines); in the meantime, Mary McLeod Bethune contacted Eleanor Roosevelt and warned her that strikebreakers had been intentionally recruited from amongst the black Ford workers, and precipitous Federal action would lead to the worst race riots in the country’s history, as well as setting back race relations significantly. Instead of sending troops, Roosevelt sent Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP and a lawyer from New York, Thomas Dewey. Republicans attacked Roosevelt for his “inaction,” while the UAW accused Ford of inciting violence, using race as a weapon, as part of their campaign against the defense industry, Roosevelt and in favor of the Nazis. Given Henry Ford’s personal history (including being the 1938 recipient of the Nazi Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest recognition for civilian foreigners), the claims were as believable as anything coming from Harry Bennett. Henry Ford and Bennett were prepared to last out the strike, even with the increasing violence that was happening; Ford’s plan was to win at any cost.
Edsel Ford, who had been in Florida when the strike started, was not in agreement. He flew home and urged his father to follow the law and sign a contract with the workers; the alternative was the possibility of the government taking over Ford as a vital industry. This time the warning made no headway with the senior Ford; he and Bennett were fully entrenched in their position, and Ford was quoted as saying, “Well, if that happens, they will be in the motorcar business, and we won’t.” (Baime, A.J, The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and An Epic Quest to Arm An America At War, First Mariner Books, 2015, p. 119.) The strike continued for ten days until Michigan’s governor helped bring about a preliminary agreement; not a settlement, but an agreement for Ford to come to the bargaining table. Bennett and Ford had no intention of bargaining in good faith, but the next day, Edsel Ford heard on the radio that Bennett had signed an agreement, giving the union everything they asked for. Henry Ford told Edsel that he had told Clara Ford (Henry’s wife) the previous evening that he was ready, willing, and able to allow the Rouge to be shut down altogether. Mrs. Ford responded that if Ford and Bennett had their way, riots and violence would be the result, and she had had enough of that. Henry Ford instructed the agreement be signed, despite considering it to be one of the greatest disappointments of his life. Disappointing Clara, however, would have been worse.
In the meantime, construction at Willow Run continued. By November 1941, Willow Run had logged its first production hours, despite the fact the factory was not complete (it didn’t even have a roof when the first workers were hired at the beginning of the month). But although the construction was meeting and even exceeding deadlines, other problems were becoming evident. Willow Run was being built in a field; the surrounding area was rural with a population of less than 500. Even though the initial employment estimates for Willow Run had been reduced from 100,000 to 60,000, there was no housing in the area. To make matters worse, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, rationing started going into effect: tires (announced 27 December to be implemented 5 January 1942), gasoline (15 May 1942 on the east coast; December 1942 for the rest of the country), and auto production was stopped 9 February 1942. Willow Run had been sited on the assumption that the vast majority of the workers would drive the 27 miles from Detroit, but with rationing and the inability to buy a new car, that was no longer a viable option for most workers. Even if all of those obstacles had easy solutions, there was the issue of the labor drain caused by young men joining the military. Edsel Ford’s assurance that Willow Run would build a bomber an hour was looking more and more out of reach.
Workers did eventually start arriving, especially as Ford started to recruit from the South, particularly from rural African Americans, who were offered a bus ticket to get to Willow Run. However, the move was not without controversy. Local workers remembered the Bennett-inspired role of black strikebreakers at the Rouge, and racism was heightened and exacerbated. Housing near Willow Run consisted of trailers and shantytowns, with very few sources of potable water and no sewer system. More than 30,000 workers had arrived in the vicinity of the plant, and at least 2000 of them were living in little more than chicken coops within sight of the plant. Public health officials warned that a typhoid epidemic was not out of the question. Women made up 1/3 of the Willow Run workforce (one of the women who inspired Rosie the Riveter, Rose Monroe, worked at Willow Run), including a fair number of ex-sex workers who were learning a new trade. But even with the ramping up of the workforce, production capacity was not close to being met. When Roosevelt visited Willow Run in September 1942, one B-24 Liberator had been built at Willow Run. One. The rush to production had created logistical problems in and out of the plant. Detroit was an explosion waiting to happen, and only a single bomber had rolled off the line.
Next week: The dreams and vision come true, too late for the dreamer and the visionary.