Up from the Ashes
Willow Run Airport, Mich.
There aren’t a lot of four-lane highways in rural Michigan. But the vast field a few miles east of Ypsilanti once needed a wide road. It was the site of Ford’s Willow Run plant, the heart of the Arsenal of Democracy. And now it’s becoming America’s first museum dedicated to the World War II production miracle that armed and saved the free world.
At its peak in 1944, Willow Run produced a B-24 Liberator bomber every 55 minutes, for a wartime production run of 8,685 planes. Everything about Willow Run was big, including its problems. The biggest thing about the plant was the idea it embodied: that bombers could be built on an assembly line. As he started work on the project, Ford’s production expert Charlie Sorenson realized that “to compare a Ford V-8 with a four-engine Liberator bomber was like matching a garage to a skyscraper.” The project would produce what Charles Lindbergh called “the Grand Canyon of the mechanized world.”
At 4.2 million square feet, Willow Run was the largest factory in the world. Designed by famed industrial architect Alfred Kahn, it produced its first bomber in September 1942, 18 months after ground was broken. The challenge of building that gigantic factory, with its 3,300-foot-long main line, was nothing compared with the challenge of building the B-24, which weighed over 36,000 pounds and was held together with 360,000 rivets. Those rivets meant that Willow Run needed lots of parts, and lots of labor to put them together. If the work wasn’t done right, the bomber would disintegrate in midair.
Willow Run met the challenges. The Consolidated Aircraft Company, which was making B-24s at a rate of one per day in San Diego, had no blueprints suitable for mass production. So Ford drew them from scratch. After four months, there were 5.9 million square feet of plans. The 1,600 machine tools in the plant had to be designed, made, and installed, and the production and delivery of the B-24 parts had to be planned. With labor scarce and travel difficult because of rationing, 42,000 workers—including 18,000 women—were recruited and trained. Many came from the rural South, over 6,000 from Kentucky alone.
By February 1943, even as Willow Run’s production was rising, the smart money still said it couldn’t be done. The factory’s labor and production difficulties were so notorious that it was investigated by the waste-hunting Truman Committee. Of course, Hitler had long since made his mind up about the United States: He described it as merely “beauty queens, millionaires, stupid records, and Hollywood.” The committee, too, was skeptical: As A.J. Baime records in his history of the plant, The Arsenal of Democracy, the committee concluded that the “production line was set up similar to an automobile assembly line. . . . This was probably a mistake.”
It wasn’t a mistake. The factory’s rise was indeed “agony,” as historian Arthur Herman puts it, but inexorably, the principle of mass production proved its worth. Willow Run built half of the Liberators that entered service, and Ford reduced the time needed to build a bomber from 200,000 man-hours to 18,000. The B-24 was not an attractive plane, and pilots preferred the B-17. But no U.S. military aircraft has ever been produced in greater numbers than the B-24. Flying from the United States and Britain, the Very Long Range variant of the B-24 played a crucial role in winning the Battle of the Atlantic against Nazi U-boats.
After the war, the B-24, and then Willow Run, fell on hard times. The B-24 remained in service with the Indian Air Force into the 1960s, but in the United States it was rapidly scrapped. Today, only two flyable B-24s survive in the entire world, and only four planes from Willow Run exist in any condition anywhere. The Willow Run plant went from Ford to Kaiser-Frazer to General Motors, which built transmissions in an expanded factory until GM went bankrupt in 2010. By then the plant was outdated, condemned to obsolescence by its very size. In 2013, after efforts to repurpose it failed, most of Willow Run was demolished, leaving only the vast, empty concrete pad on which the great plant had rested.
But part of the factory still stands, and the Yankee Air Museum wants to make it stand for something. The museum itself is on the comeback trail. In 2004, its former home, a wooden hangar from the Willow Run era, burned to the ground. But its
planes—including a B-17, a B-25, and a B-52—survived. In late October, after raising $5.5 million, the museum took ownership of the surviving portion of the factory, the 144,000-square-foot section at the end of the production line, including the great double doors through which the completed B-24s rolled on their way to their flight tests
There are other, larger airplane museums in the United States—the Smithsonian, Seattle’s Museum of Flight, the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson in Ohio, and the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona, to name four. What is unusual about the Yankee Air Museum is that most of its World War II-era planes still fly. Its B-17 is one of only nine that can still take to the air. But what it is planning for the preserved portion of the factory is better: not just a museum for its planes, but also exhibits honoring the men and women who made the planes and the production techniques they pioneered. When opened, it will be the only museum about the thing that America did better than anyone else in the war: build big machines fast.
The surviving section of Willow Run is less than 4 percent of the original plant. Even so, it’s huge, all the more so because it’s completely empty. When I visited the museum’s future home with its founder, Dennis Norton, it was obvious that there was a lot of work still to be done. The fabric of the building will be restored with the aid of a $1.5 million grant from the state of Michigan, but the museum needs another $8.5 million in cash or donations in kind—if you have a spare infrared heating system for a building the size of a Costco warehouse, Norton would like to hear from you—before it can open in late 2017.
History hangs in the air at Willow Run. Better than any building I have ever visited, it conveys the magic of big machines and the engineering triumphs that made them. Today, small is magic; as Apple has realized, the smaller the device, the greater the magic. But before the 1970s, when small became beautiful, big machines gripped the American imagination.
It’s remarkable that the United States doesn’t already have a museum dedicated to the wartime industrial genius of its private enterprise. That museum belongs at Willow Run. The distance between us and the generation that built the bombers is already wide. A museum cannot close it. But when you step into Willow Run, the distance shrinks for a moment, dwarfed by the size of the great line where liberation was forged and the Liberators took flight.
- Ted R. Bromund is senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard