Back When Michigan Was the Arsenal of Democracy


On This Day In Michigan History

On Oct. 1, 1942, the first B-24 bomber rolled off an assembly line near Ypsilanti. In December 1940, the federal government asked the Ford Motor Company to build B-24 Liberator bombers.
In April 1941, construction began on the Willow Run Bomber Plant near Ypsilanti. In 1944, bombers came off Willow Run’s mile-long assembly line at the rate of one per hour. By 1945, Willow Run had produced more than 8,500 bombers.

Source: Michigan History magazine



Behind this little tidbit is great story of American industrial can-do and audacious risk-taking. The original request was for Ford to build parts or subassemblies for B-24 bombers. In early 1940 Ford Motor production chief Charles Sorenson visited the Consolidated Aircraft plant in San Diego and – to borrow a later phrase – “Ford had a better idea.” Actually, it was Mr. Sorenson who did. Which was, of course, to build airplanes like automobiles, on a mass production assembly line.


And not just any airplane. The four-engine B-24 was a highly complex, state-of-art piece of technology. In combat it wasn’t as robust as the other heavy bomber in the U.S. fleet, the B-17 Flying Fortress, which could take much more damage from flak and fighters and still limp back home. But the B-24 had much longer range, a quality that was especially important in the Pacific and in the anti-submarine campaign in the Atlantic. The latter was where the B-24 perhaps made its most strategic contribution to the war effort.



Winston Churchill said that the only thing that every truly frightened him during the war was the U-boat. The statistics on sinkings at the peak of the German submarine fleet’s effectiveness in 1941 and early 1942 show why – they came close to cutting Britain right off from food, fuel, weapons and other vital materials from the Empire and the U.S. without which it could not carry on.


Aircraft had become among the most effective means of reducing U-boat effectiveness, but there remained the infamous “mid-Atlantic gap” beyond the range of currently-available land-based aircraft based on either side of the ocean, and this was the U-boat’s favorite killing ground. With it’s extraordinarily long range the B-24 closed that gap, providing protection to the vital merchant ships along the entire trans-Atlantic crossing.


Many of those B-24s eventually came from the Willow Run plant, which was the product of Mr. Sorenson’s better idea. The scale and complexity of the enterprise made building the plant and getting it to actually work a monumental challenge and a huge risk. No other country in the world could have even considered such a project. In April of 1941 when ground was broken the site was a greenfield. On Oct. 1, 1942 – just 18 months later – the first bomber was accepted by the Army Air Corps.




A Detroit News item from 1998 explored this history and some of the “human resources” issues associated with the project.  





2 Responses to “Back When Michigan Was the Arsenal of Democracy”

  1. Jason Gillman Says:

    Were any of the Lansing plants used for fighters? Seems 20+ years ago my brother and friend snuck around abandoned factory and found plans for fighter planes.

  2. jmchugh4u Says:

    I don’t think so, Jason, but I don’t know for sure. I believe that they might have made tanks here. I’m sure they made lots of engines and no doubt a lot more.

    About 10 years ago when I worked in the legislature I got to take the Capitol dome tour with a small group, led by the late director of Capital Jerry Lawler (a nice, classy guy who is missed). Jerry told us that during the war tours were banned because from those little windows at the tippy-top of the dome you can look down into the GM plant right across the river and the Fisher Body plant down the street (both demolished in the past year) and count the number of tanks on the lot. I don’t know if the story was apocryphal or not but that’s what it was.

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