Willow Run, the massive 5 million-square-foot factory built by Henry Ford at the start of World War II, was designed to make B-24 Liberator bombers. Staffed with many female “Rosie the Riveters,” the Willow Run plant outside of Detroit earned the designation “Arsenal of Democracy” for its war efforts, turning out a new airplane every 55 minutes during peak production! At one time, it was the largest production facility under one roof in the world, though all but a small part is now scheduled for demolition.
The entire Willow Run plant was eventually sold to General Motors and used as a powertrain manufacturing facility. It is now set to be demolished and could be redeveloped into a first-of-its-kind connected vehicle research center, coined RACER (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response). The trust that controls the historic former Ford Motor Company and General Motors Willow Run plant between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan, is set to demolish the 5 million-square-foot factory with the exception of a 175,000-square-foot portion that will likely be sold to the next-door Yankee Air Museum, according to the Detroit Free Press. The factory, built by Ford to make B-24 bombers during World War II and sold to GM in the 1950s, has been empty since GM closed it in December 2010. The plant employed a remarkable 42,000 people at the height of the war and some 14,000 during its heyday as an automotive factory in the 1970s. The plant made more than 82 million transmissions to complement the thousands of vehicles manufactured at GM’s neighboring assembly plant (which was shuttered in the early 1990s), but had only 300 workers by the time it closed. Much of the facility is now out of date. Parts of the floor are made of wooden blocks.
Yankee Air Museum
The Yankee Air Museum, currently located at several Willow Run Airport buildings adjacent to the plant, has signed a tentative deal to acquire a portion of the factory. The museum is launching a fundraising campaign to purchase the property from the RACER Trust, which controls the properties GM discarded during its Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. RACER Trust, formed in March 2011 by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to sell properties not part of GM post-bankruptcy, has a contract with Devon Industrial to raze the majority of the 4.2 million-square-foot manufacturing building over the next year, beginning this fall. RACER said the part of the building that the Yankee Air Museum is trying to purchase is not part of the demolition plans. According to a trust spokesperson, museum fundraisers are working on plans to buy that part of the site. Plans are in place to redevelop the former facility into a shared research and development center and test track for connected vehicles.
Yankee Air Museum President Dennis Norton said the museum has already raised most of the money for the 19.3-acre acquisition. He said the museum had been talking with the RACER Trust for two years about acquiring the portion of the property where the bombers were manufactured. Norton said the Smithsonian Institution has indicated that it would help the museum secure the only Willow Run–made B-24 bomber left in the United States, if it can pull off the deal. He said the bomber, which is owned by the U.S. Air Force, is currently located on a military base in Shreveport, Louisiana. The 32-year-old museum burned down in 2004 and reopened in 2010. A representative from the museum said the bigger space would house all of its collections and exhibits, including planes that are currently not on display. The Arsenal of Democracy Visitors to the Willow Run plant are reminded of its heritage as a key player to the “Arsenal of Democracy” during the war. At the plant’s southeast corner, B-24 bombers would roll off the assembly line, exit through massive bay doors, taxi to the airport’s runway and take off. Those bay doors are still there. “The darn things still work,” Norton said. “They’re heavy doors, but they were so well built and evenly balanced…a fascinating piece of engineering.”
The Willow Run story is a pivotal chapter in American history. The effort on the part of the Yankee Air Museum is intended to preserve more than “just” a significant portion of the historic World War II Willow Run Bomber Plant. This is the plant where more than 40,000 workers from across America came together to build more than 8,700 B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft. Willow Run played an enormous role in changing our society. In addition to manufacturing history, the Willow Run plant was the harbinger of great social change.
As war production ramped up at the plant, Americans from the South migrated north in droves, attracted by the high-paying jobs at the plant. As more and more men were drafted into combat, women were called on to perform jobs formerly reserved for men. These pioneering women in manufacturing were known collectively as “Rosie the Riveter,” and were celebrated for their patriotism. And in the race to win World War II, minority groups that were previously excluded from these coveted jobs were now welcomed. The barriers broken down by wartime manufacturing plants like Willow Run laid the groundwork for the civil rights and women’s movements of the following decades, and the sweeping social changes that we benefit from today. “Rosie the Riveter,” “Acetylene Annie,” and friends took over highly paid jobs formerly reserved for men, and performed admirably. The American job market, previously completely dominated by men, has never looked back.
Willow Run also changed how we produce things, taking American manufacturing beyond the assembly line to embrace new ways of organizing production and managing inventory–that we now call “just in time” manufacturing. Some details from those years can be seen in an excerpt from a wartime documentary commissioned by the Ford Motor Company and posted at YouTube.com by searching for “The Willow Run Story.” The Willow Run Story is about an amazing place and people who helped win a world war, set the stage for equality and social change, and dramatically accelerated the development of southeastern Michigan, making it an area known the world over as “The Arsenal of Democracy.” In 1941, both the U.S. government and established aircraft manufacturers believed it impossible to build aircraft on an assembly line, and initially hoped the Ford Motor Company would help the war effort by handcrafting one airplane per day. Ford’s chief manufacturing engineer, Charles Sorensen, believed assembly line production of airplanes was possible, and sketched a plan overnight in his California hotel room. That plan became Willow Run, which included a major airport, a 5 million-square-foot manufacturing plant designed by famed architect Albert Kahn and a village for the workers–rising from scratch on former farm fields in less than a year.
Ford even developed schools for the tens of thousands of workers to learn the many specialized tasks associated with assembling the more than 1,250,000 individual parts required to produce each bomber. Aircraft production began in 1941, and at its peak during the war years, Willow Run produced B-24 Liberator bombers at the astounding rate of one airplane every 55 minutes! The finished bombers literally flew off the end of the assembly line, taxiing directly from the assembly line for their first test runs thousands of feet in the air. War production at Willow Run also changed the local landscape. The Detroit Industrial Expressway, known to most as I-94, was opened in 1942 to connect the new complex at Willow Run to Detroit. Willow Village was built adjacent to the plant, with hastily erected housing and infrastructure for 15,000 of the plant’s workers, a population greater than that of Ypsilanti at the time. Willow Run takes its name from a small tributary of the Huron River that meandered through pastureland and woods.
Developed as farmland, the land was bought by automobile pioneer Henry Ford in 1931. Ford, a keen exponent of the virtues of country living, used it as a “social engineering” experiment that brought inner-city boys to the Willow Run farms to learn about farming, nature and the rural way of life. The boys living at the farm planted, tended, harvested field crops and collected maple syrup, selling their products at the farm market on the property. In the process, Ford hoped that the boys would learn self-discipline and the value of hard work, and benefit from the fresh air of the country. World War II changed all of that, turning the farm into what was believed to be the world’s largest manufacturing facility under one roof. And now, Willow Run is about to change again.