Charles Sorensen and Rosie the Riveter Would Appreciate Your Assistance

The project to Save the Willow Run Bomber Plant is 75% of the way to its fundraising goal, but still $2 million short.

In October 1942, Herman Goering mocked American claims about our weapons production capabilities:

Some astronomical figures are expected from the American war industry. Now I am the last to underrate this industry. Obviously the Americans do very well in some technical fields. We know that they produce a colossal amount of  fast cars. And the development of radio is one of their special achievements, and so is the razor blade…But you must not forget, there is one word in their language that is written with a capital B and this word is Bluff.

(Citing the above quote in his memoir, Luftwaffe general Adolph Galland observed acidly, “Propaganda may be horrible, but bombs certainly are.)

The “astronomical figures” turned out not to be a bluff at all, of course, and the figures were turned into reality in large part because of the production techniques pioneered and perfected at places like Willow Run.

The Willow Run plant, which covered 63 acres, was designed for the single purpose of producing B-24 bombers…and produce them it did, once it got going, at the rate of one per hour. The genesis of the plant lay in a 1940 visit to Consolidated Aircraft, where the planes were then being built, by Ford Motor Company production VP Charles Sorensen–Ford had originally been asked by the government to quote on building some components for the bomber. After watching Consolidated’s process for a while, Sorensen asserted that the whole thing  could be put together by assembly-line methods. (See the link, which is Sorensen’s own story about “a $200,000,000 proposition backed only by a penciled sketch.”)

Unused since 2010, the plant had been scheduled for demolition, but there is now a project to turn it into a museum that will be focused on  science education and social history as well as aviation history–the Yankee Air Museum is to be relocated there–and the history of the plant itself.  Astronaut Jack Lousma and auto-industry bad boy Bob Lutz are spearheading the effort; the additional funds need to be raised by May 1.

I hope the new museum will integrate its focus on science & technology and its focus on the war production story to also cover the past, present, and future of American manufacturing, and of manufacturing generally–manufacturing being something that is too little understood and too little appreciated  (beyond the platitude level) in America today.  For example, in this post, which is mainly about employee evaluation, the author says:

Today’s businesses drive most of their value through service, intellectual property, innovation, and creativity. Even if you’re a manufacturer, your ability to sell, serve, and support your product (and the design itself) is more important than the ability to manufacture. So each year a higher and higher percentage of your work is dependent on the roles which have “hyper performer” distributions.

This kind of drive-by assumption about manufacturing is frequently encountered in today’s business writings: the assumption that manufacturing is a field inherently lacking in creativity, and (strongly implied in the above quote) that “hyper performers” are not important in this area in the way that they are in sales, product design, and customer service. If the museum can help Americans to understand a little more about manufacturing and its importance, then that will be a valuable thing in addition to its contributions to aviation, WWII, and social history.

Some books that provide useful information and perspective on Willow Run:

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman. An interesting overview of the WWII armaments program.

I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford, by Richard Snow. A lot about the early history of the auto industry, with several pages on Willow Run.

My Forty Years with Ford, by Charles Sorensen. The whole book is very worthwhile. Sorensen gives considerable credit to Edsel Ford for the Willow Run project–Edsel committed $200,000,000 of Ford’s money to the project based only on a rough sketch, with no absolute assurance that government funding would be forthcoming–and indeed for the entire WWII armaments program at the company, Henry Ford himself having adopted what one might call a passive-aggressive attitude toward the whole thing.

It would be a shame to let the historical artifact that is Willow Run be lost–hopefully, the fundraising efforts over the next couple of months will be successful.


5 thoughts on “Charles Sorensen and Rosie the Riveter Would Appreciate Your Assistance”

  1. Many plants are gone. The story of building Liberty ships is just as amazing as B-24s. has a lot of stories about both the homefront and battles on video.

  2. Re Edsel Ford…Sorensen thought the stress caused by his father’s mistreatment was probably a factor in his early death (from stomach cancer, at 50.) Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, went further and stated flatly, “My grandfather killed my father.”

  3. I was a child during our mobilization. In 1942 the war was not going well for our side. I was 9 and old enough to understand what that meant. I asked my grandfather if there was a chance we could lose. His answer: ” No, our boys just don’t have all the guns, tanks, ships, and airplanes they need yet. We’re building those things faster everyday. When they get the weapons they need, things will start to go our way.” I have seldom met anyone who was as wise as my grandfather. (My mother’s father.) A man with a formal fifth grade education, he was self educated in the school of hard knocks.

    It is bittersweet to recall those days. We were united as a nation. Our little town held scrap metal drives every few months and continually collected newsprint and cardboard. We recycled tin cans, bacon grease, tin foil, and more. Meat, eggs, gasoline, and more were rationed. People sometimes complained mildly, but never stopped believing in what we could do as a nation. As horrible as WWII was, it was a good time for the people of the country – united in some cause greater than ourselves.

    Herman’s book is a must read for me. It will bring back all those childhood memories and more.

  4. I was lucky enough to have teachers who understood the unbelievable complexity of retooling our economy to that of war production. Rosie the riveter did a great job;however,it seems that today’s children learn little else. The war is condensed into – Pearl Harbor, Rosie the riveter, and our terrible bombings of Japan and Dresden.
    I guess it helps when some of your teachers were on ships headed for Japan.

Comments are closed.