In September 1942, President Roosevelt visited the Willow Run plant as part of a cross-country war industry tour. Despite being four months behind where it hoped to be, Ford showcased its bomber and other war materiel that was being produced at other Ford locations. It was a dog-and-pony show put on by the company, but as Roosevelt’s countrywide tour was intended to be a boost to morale, it was a pleasant visit despite Henry Ford’s dislike of Roosevelt (Charles Lindbergh, an American First-er who had resigned his commission with the Air Corps before the U.S. was officially at war, stayed home. He was now employed by Ford as a lead test pilot, to be involved in the shakedown flights of the bombers). If the visit was any indication, 1943 should have been a stellar year for Ford. It wasn’t.
Production wasn’t hitting benchmarks at Willow Run for a variety of reasons, but the key reasons were lack of experience and lack of personnel. The plant had been envisioned and planned almost overnight, but what worked on paper was not always the same as what worked in reality. The entire plan was built on the idea of “Fordism;” the assembly line approach to car building carried over to airplanes. But even then, just-in-time delivery was an essential element of efficient building, and shortages across the nation impacted the ability for Willow Run to ramp up to full-speed. Even with a war production board rating that should have ensured a steady supply of raw materials, recreating barely-functioning, Depression-era factories into repurposed, fully-functioning war industries was never going to be an overnight endeavor. The problems that Ford faced at Willow Run was faced at other industries, on a smaller scale, across the nation.
The shortage of workers was another unexpected problem faced at Ford and elsewhere. Despite the boon that jobs provided to Depression-struck workers, the jobs were not necessarily in either locations or industries convenient and known to the workers. Willow Run was estimated to need 60,000 workers to run at peak efficiency, but with no housing, getting workers was proving to be a major challenge. Even those workers who were hired had a high rate of absenteeism: some due to lacking the necessary skills to continue in the work; sometimes due to struggles just to get to work; and sometimes because workers joined the military. Training programs were a part of the employment process from the moment Willow Run opened, but Ford was also discovering that building airplanes was not the same as building cars. At one point, Ford even had to specifically recruit little people, because there were sections inside wings that required riveting which could not be accessed by people of average stature. Women were being hired at an unprecedented clip (about 1/3 of the Willow Run employees were women…and paid less than men for the same job, of course), but women, like everyone else, required training. For example, riveting theory was taught in a classroom for at least a week before the newly-hired were sent to work the line under close supervision. It could be weeks before a newly-minted riveter was considered proficient enough to work unsupervised. And who were the supervisors, foreman, and trainers? The skilled and experienced riveters who could do the job right away were naturally put in those roles which meant that scaling up to full production could not happen immediately.
Although these challenges were, to some degree, universal to industries across the country, Ford had two additional challenges that would become apparent in 1943: the racial animosity intentionally stirred by Harry Bennett during the Rouge strike would erupt, and the person most responsible for turning Willow Run from a dream into a reality was dying and not see the Michigan summer of ’43.
Edsel Ford died on May 26, 1943. He was 49. For years, he had ignored moments of doubling over in pain from his gut; when he could no longer ignore the pain, doctors discovered he had tumors in his stomach. They did their best to remove them and hoped for the best. Hope wasn’t enough; a few years later, when Edsel underwent surgery again, the doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized and there were tumors so deeply embedded, they could not be removed. Edsel was told he had months to live, but Edsel only told his wife of the terminal diagnosis. His sons, his father, his management team at Ford were all left in the dark. It was only in the last few weeks of his life that his oldest son and heir apparent to the Ford dynasty, Henry Ford II, was informed, but his son was active duty in the Navy and could only prepare for life without his father. Edsel’s death put Henry the elder back into the presidency of Ford, with Bennett continuing as is right hand man, at a time when competency and familiarity with the various military industries of the company were necessary. Henry Ford had neither. Harry Bennett, who spent his time mostly split between the Rouge and Willow Run, expected to become the next president of Ford, but he continued to be focused on searching for spies, Nazis, and Communists rather than improving the turn-around time for aircraft.
Fortunately for Ford and the country, before his death, Edsel Ford had appealed to a friend in DC to work to get Henry II released from his military service. He stated that he needed his son to help him run the company, knowing full well that he would not be around. After Edsel’s death, the request was honored, but Edsel had no obvious role at the company. He found himself settling into his father’s old office, with no title and no role, and setting out to learn the ins and outs of the business. With the guidance of his father’s allies within the company, he quickly realized that he had two immediate tasks: make himself visible, known, and accessible to the workers who had come to loathe Henry Ford and fear Harry Bennett. His other task was to figure out how to get Bennett out of the company altogether.
While Ford II was introducing and educating himself, Detroit was on fire. Although not directly the result of the racial tensions fanned by Harry Bennett, the riots of 1943 were massive, deadly, and was ultimately only suppressed with the arrival of 6000 Federal troops. The competition for housing and for semi-skilled jobs created on-the-job tensions, but it was the KKK and roaming bands of white men attacking African-Americans in their own neighborhoods that lit the flame. Detroit’s all-white police force did nothing to stop the violence and often hid in their station houses to stay safe. Between June 20-22, 34 people were killed; 25 of them were African-American. No problems were solved; white city and state leaders blamed the violence on “black hoodlums” and even the leadership of the NAACP. The NAACP and black city leaders pointed to issues of racial discrimination, police brutality, and the influx of Southerners, both black and white, who were unaccustomed to the Northern vs the Southern manner of racial inequality (e.g. it was not unheard of for African-Americans to practice “bumping,” bumping into whites on sidewalks or elevators, a subtle form of resistance that could have led to lynching in the South). But by June 23, black and white workers were returning to factories that had been closed during the uprising, working side by side in an industry that was considered critical to the survival of the nation.
Despite this litany of problems and failures and controversies, the summer of 1943 was actually the turning point for the Willow Run plant. First, in the spring of 1943, ground was finally broken on Bomber City, the government housing for workers. Willow Lodge, its official name, consisted of dormitory like buildings, built cheaply and quickly. Over time, a trailer park was also built, with trailers built and space for privately-owned trailers. In total, housing for 15,000 was eventually made available, but within the first month of housing being open, absenteeism dropped noticeably.
The hiring kinks were getting ironed out too. An eight-week training program was still required of new employees, but a critical mass of trained employees had been reached. In addition, the fine-tuning of production methods was making headway, and the military, which had been submitting change orders regularly, was increasingly satisfied with the bombers. Change orders, which often resulted in the need for totally redesigned equipment on the line, were one of the biggest hurdles Ford had faced, and fewer change orders meant faster assembly. By November 1943, Willow Run had churned out 1000 B-24 bombers in the 14 months after Bomber Ship 01 rolled off the line. By July 1944, the goal of a bomber an hour was reached; for the balance of the war, that goal was exceeded.
I’ve spent three weeks telling some of the story of Willow Run, and I’m sure some are wondering why. This was not just a matter of Michigan pride run amok. But I do think the Willow Run story tells us a lot about who we were and who we are. The WW2 generation, which is the generation of my parents, gets venerated as the Greatest Generation, as if that translates into something pure and un-problematic. Instead, it was a generation like so many others when confronted with a major challenge. They met the challenge, sometimes initially and well, and at other times after failing miserably and trying multiple times. The challenges were not solely from “outside” forces; corporate needs/desires/profitability vs a government-desired policy were also at issue. Social justice challenges and the inherent racism of American society were not without a role.
Recognizing that Willow Run wasn’t immediately running efficiently and effectively is an object lesson for the future we face. Willow Run instead is a story of a vision and people willing to work to make that reality happen. That’s what we can learn from Willow Run, whether we apply the lessons to unseating Republicans, climate change, or healthcare. Magic solutions don’t exist. Mistakes will happen. Miscalculations will require adjustments. But vision and a willingness to work for reality will make a difference in the long run.