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Ford Plane Production Sets Records, Aids War Effort
By Tom Range, Sr.

A parallel to the prodigious efforts in manufacturing the World War II Liberty ships was the Willow Run factory of Ford Motor Company, in its production of B-24 bombers.  The production marvels that were performed at the 17 shipyards on both coasts, which produced the Liberty ships, were matched in a war plant situated 30 miles west of Detroit near Ypsilanti, MI in a sleepy hamlet called Willow Run, named after the creek that ran through it.  Part of the land acquired by the Ford Company to house the plant had been in use as a summer camp for underprivileged boys.

In April 1941, ground was broken for construction of the airplane factory.  Its cost, to be paid by the federal government, was initially budgeted at $11 million, but eventually rose to $47 million.  By September 1941 the plant, to be used exclusively for the manufacture of B-24 Liberator bombers, had been completed.  It took over a year for the first plane to roll off the assembly line.  On September 10, 1942, the first B-24, christened "The Spirit of Ypsilanti," was delivered to the United States Army.

The dimensions of the Willow Run plant were gargantuan.  The main building was 3,200 by 1,180 feet, with more than 2.5 million square feet of floor space. It was the largest factory in the world under a single roof.  But for all its staggering dimensions, Willow Run was slow to produce the aircraft so sorely needed for combat in Europe and the Pacific.

While the glowing remarks about the plant's production might be attributed to propaganda meant to destroy enemy morale or just to corporate "hype," the stories emanating from Ford Motor about Willow Run were grossly exaggerated, with claims like production rates of "one plane every two hours," or "one per hour,"and even "two per hour."  Actually production was so disappointing that Willow Run became the subject of a Senate investigation headed by Senator Harry S Truman, and the butt of a widespread joke.  The plant was dubbed "Will It Run" by a local wit and the name stuck.

It was not until the end of 1943 that the giant plant began living up to its press notices of 1941 and 1942.  Production stood at 190 planes in June 1943 and increased to 365 units in December 1943.  The plant's highest monthly bomber output, 428, was attained in August 1944.  After September, when the plant was geared to make 650 bombers a month (or 9,000 planes per year) it did not produce to its fullest capacity since the War Department ordered cutbacks on B-24 production in favor of building the larger B-29 bomber at other factories. Willow Run achieving its full potential could not have been better timed.  The Army Air Corps had been losing aircraft at an alarming rate as the air war spread to central Europe.  For example, on August 1, 1943 a 178-plane flight of B-24 Liberators took off from Libya on the North African coast to bomb the Nazi held oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.  Only 33 aircraft returned from the bombing run.

A number of factors contributed to the poor production performance at Willow Run through mid-1943.  Most of them were caused by the lack of adequate living conditions for the 42,300 workers, 12,000 of them women, who ultimately were employed.  Most employees, men and women alike, preferred to live in Detroit, contending with a one hour commute, rather than at the meager accommodations hastily constructed by Ford near the plant.  Paved roads and a spur rail line had to be constructed to accommodate the "rush hour" crowd of workers entering and leaving the facility.  Eventually adequate housing near the plant was completed.  Willow Lodge was a dormitory for single workers located four miles from the plant built for 3,000 workers.  Rooms cost $5.00 per week.  Willow Court was a trailer project for 900 childless couples, with a unit going for $6.50 a week.  Wages ranged from 95 cents to $1.60 per hour at the plant.  The Willow Run plant operated two nine hour shifts per day.

Willow Run produced 8,685 B-24s before its close in 1945. During 43 months of operation it turned out an average of one plane every 103 minutes.  When the last plane rolled off the assembly line was christened the "Henry Ford," but the industrialist let it be known that he wanted the plane named after the workers who had built it.  The name of Henry Ford was deleted from the craft and the assembled plant workers each autographed its nose.

Although Ford shared contributions to the overall war effort with General Motors, Chrysler and other auto manufacturers, the public believed that he had done more to win the war than any other.  A national sampling of public opinion in July 1944 showed that 31 percent of the American people believed that Ford was contributing more to the war effort than any other automaker.  Another poll showed that Henry Ford ranked second only to Henry Kaiser, the Liberty ship builder, as the man having done more to win the war than any other American, not counting the presidents and military figures.  Neither the Ford Motor Company nor any other person or company won the home front war single handedly.  A massive team effort was required and perhaps the greatest heroes of all, at least in the aggregate, were the millions of workers who toiled in defense plants across the nation.

World War II, as we look back on it, seems somewhat larger than life.  It was a time of heroes, miracles and myths, both on the battlefield and on the home front.  Both America's productive capacity and its people were tested as never before or since.  Industrialists like Ford and Kaiser along with millions of ordinary people who produced the materials of war and filled home front needs met every important test.

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

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Consolidated B-24

The B-24 Liberator heavy bomber resulted from a request from the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) issued in 1939 for a new bomber designed to exceed the performance of the B-17 Flying Fortress. Consolidated Aircraft was awarded the contract and on December 29, 1939 the prototype of the B-24 made its first flight.

Slightly smaller than the B-17, the B-24 was capable of carrying a larger bomb load over a greater distance. While it never achieved the notoriety of the Flying Fortress, being produced in larger numbers the Liberator was a true workhorse in the strategic bombing campaign in Europe. More than 18,000 B-24s were built during WWII, exceeding the total for any other American aircraft.

With a wingspan of 110 feet and a length of 67 feet the B-24 was powered by four 1,200 hp turbocharged radial engines and could achieve 290 mph at 25,000 feet. It could carry a 12,800 lb. bomb load and had a range of 2,100 miles. The aircraft carried a crew of 10 and had an armament consisting of 10 machine guns. Among the distinguishing features of the B-24 is its tricycle landing gear, the first ever used in a heavy operational aircraft.

While designed as a heavy bomber it underwent more than 100 different modifications and conversions for assignments such as mine laying, cargo, personnel transport and photography. There was even a tanker version. In addition to the USAAF it also saw service with the U.S. Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The first aircraft designed for presidential flight was a C-87A Liberator Express, a reconfigured B-24 Bomber named "Guess Where Two." The plane was fitted out for Franklin D. Roosevelt and although the president himself never actually flew in the aircraft, it was used by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. When another C-87A crashed, the plane was removed from service and replaced by a C-54 Sky Master named "The Sacred Cow

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Uploaded: 11/27/2007