'Will It Run?'
The Story Of Willow Run

by Robert Stewart
An enigma from the start, Henry Ford's gargantua has puzzled layman and expert alike.

Willow Run, the glamor girl of the automotive industry's warplane production program, has put her hair up in a snood and gone to work. She is extremely serious about doing her part to help win the war, and henceforth her accomplishments will be written up in the German newspaper obituary columns rather than in the Detroit society pages.

Willow was handicapped from birth. Her grandfather once declared that he could build 1,000 planes a day, so a lot of silly people think Willow ought to be able to. She can't and she won't. She will be upholding the Ford reputation if she knocks one out every hour when she hits her stride. That's a lot of bombers, even for a 20-hour day.

And because she was born a Ford, a daughter of the social leaders of the automotive industry, some folks got the idea that Willow was a kind of Superman who could perform miracles in any field of endeavor. True, she is a big girl, but bigness produces its own problems — which Willow has not entirely mastered.

A lot of friends and relatives attended the birth of Willow Run, and there was some disagreement among them as to exactly what career she should follow. Her Uncle Sam, from Washington, who had written out a whopping big check to her name, wanted Willow to be a modest girl and confine her production activities to subassemblies. Her Grandfather Henry, who has a mind of his own. (and a big checkbook), insisted on Willow going all the way as a career girl — producing completed bombers and, as a concession to Uncle Sam, subassemblies for assembly elsewhere as well.

Willow's parents insist that she is equipped to do only one thing, and do that extremely well — build Consolidated Liberator B-24 bombers.

Today Willow Run is building Liberators. She has been delivering them to her Uncle Sam since early last fall. A handful now and then, at the start; now on a carefully laid-out schedule, which calls for constant acceleration. March production was scheduled to run into three figures.

Peak effort, which may see that goal of one bomber an hour realized, is slated for early this fall — providing Uncle Sam, who is taking all the bombers, does not ask for too many changes in them. All fantasy aside, what about Willow Run? Or, as some skeptics insist, "Will It Run?"

The curse of the Ford bomber plant from the very beginning has been loose talk and public willingness to accept as gospel truth everything that appears in print. Like many another airplane factory which now is producing warplanes, Willow Run was once a lowly cornfield- and-woodlot. That was in March, 1941. Today, exactly two years later, it is producing (censored) bombers a day. That is not a bad record, considering the vastness of the enterprise — it is the largest integrated manufacturing establishment under one roof — and the complexity of the product.

But the curse of Willow Run stepped in last May — 14 months after woodsmen started clearing ground for the plant — and planted a story in a Detroit paper to the effect that Willow Run was then "in production" on B-24 bombers and that the rate of delivery of completed bombers was a "military secret." This story was carried throughout the world on the wires of the major press associations.

At about the same time Sir Oliver Lyttleton, British production chief, told the peoples of Occupied Europe in a beamed broadcast, that Ford then was producing a "bomber an hour" earmarked for the destruction of Hitler and his hordes.

This was beautiful and no doubt effective propaganda for the Continent and even the "tight little isle." But the cables brought this authoritative report back to the United States, the wire services distributed it to their clients — and the newspapers of Detroit printed Sir Oliver's remarks on the front page.

No wonder, then, that the opinion prevails that Willow Run is far behind schedule.

The original Detroit story of a year ago was factually correct, depending upon the interpretation of "production" and the connotation placed upon the word. But it was deliberately misleading. As a matter of fact, Willow Run was "in production” in November of 1941, even while construction workers still were erecting the huge assembly bays, because bits and pieces were being produced on a scattering of machines in the then-completed machine shop.

Another factor contributing to the general confusion about Willow Run was the announcement by the company on May 15, 1942, that it had turned over to flight test the first bomber assembled at the new plant. This was strictly an educational project, and the airplane was assembled mainly from parts and subassemblies shipped in from the Consolidated plant at San Diego.

But if the start of actual bomber production at Willow Run failed to meet the forecasts of top Ford executives and the expectations of veterans of the aircraft manufacturing industry (leaving public misconceptions out of it entirely), then consider these factors:

  1. Because Willow Run, of all the aircraft plants in the country, most nearly approximates the automotive industry's conception of quantity production, it is more elaborately tooled than any of its contemporaries. Its steel dies (as opposed to Kirksite); its heavy steels and concrete jigs; its high degree of departmentalization, of breakdown into the smallest possible subassembly unit; its multiplicity of jigs and fixtures (30 identical center section wing fixtures, similar duplication throughout), all represent a tremendous investment in make-ready time.
  2. Because Willow Run, despite its size and the magnitude of its undertaking, still is regarded as a subcontractor to Consolidated, it is necessary to obtain Consolidated's approval of hundreds of minor design changes which are made necessary by Ford's innovations in production technique. These cannot always be immediately approved, and even the changes take time.
  3. Unlike its contemporary, the Boeing Flying Fortress — which itself has undergone six major model changes and thousands of design and engineering changes — the Liberator also has been found adaptable to transport and cargo use, with the result that Ford has had to put through innumerable design changes for this model of the B-24 for which he is supplying Consolidated's Fort Worth and Douglas' Tulsa plant with subassemblies.
  4. Willow Run has had the very devil of a time attracting and holding enough workers to man its machines and staff its assembly lines. More trouble, without doubt, than any other manufacturer. Manpower continues to be the No 1 deterrent to all-out production there, according to Charles E Sorensen, Ford vice president in charge of production.

Points 1 and 4 are the major ones, and probably warrant another word or two of explanation.

Ford could have started delivering Liberator bombers less than a year after receiving the order, if he had turned the drawings over to his job shop and had them custom-built by hand. Or he could have started deliveries in 14 to 16 months with a limited amount of tooling.

But the understanding was that the Army wanted a great quantity of heavy bombers in 1943, and Willow Run is part of the answer. It is entirely possible that this one plant will deliver more than 3,000 heavy bombers to the Army Air Forces this year. Ford gambled on a lengthy, elaborate tooling program for a possibly short, high-speed production run.

Willow Run can take minor design changes in stride, But any major renovation of the airplane may throw a monkey wrench into the Ford machinery.

As to point No 4, many individuals and agencies are to blame. Willow Run currently has about 35,000 employes. It will have more than 60,000 at peak production. Hiring and training that number of workers is a stupendous task in itself.

Willow Run is located more than 20 miles from Detroit, in open country. There is a terrific demand for housing in the immediate area, but dormitories for only a few thousand persons have been erected. Many who obtained jobs there so blithely last summer, when the weather was mild and gas rationing was something that existed only along the Atlantic coast, have found it more convenient to quit and take jobs nearer home. Thousands of youths who sought the glamor of work in a bomber plant have been inducted into the armed services.

Sorensen reported last December that in the preceding month 3,000 men and women were hired — while 2,700 quit or went into the Army. While materials is the prime headache among other components of the aircraft industry, at Willow Run it is manpower.

Womanpower will help solve the problem. There are more than 10,000 women workers at Willow Run now, and the percentage is rising rapidly. Better transportation facilities are needed, too, if new workers are to be attracted there. The training school operated at the plant had 3,800 employes enrolled at last report. The foregoing conclusions are those of this reporter, based on the information available to newspapermen in Detroit who have attempted to cover the development of this huge bomber plant. Subsequently, both the Office of War Information and the Truman Committee have investigated Willow Run. Such findings as have been made public coincide with these conclusions and fill in some details which had been lacking.

The OWI report revealed that while the first completed bomber was three months behind schedule, the plant on February 14 had caught up with the schedule laid down late in 1942 by the Army Air Forces, and promised to achieve peak production by the end of the year.

Since then, however, the Army has again changed its plans with the result that Willow Run now is scheduled to complete a preponderance of its total output. The emphasis has shifted from knocked-down-assembled-elsewhere to finished bombers at Willow Run. This, of course, means an upward revision in original manpower estimates.

The Truman Committee, which came to Detroit with blood in its eye, felt better after touring the plant and talking with Ford officials, and left with the pronouncement that Willow Run "compares favorably with any other airplane plant in the country as far as actual production work is concerned — and we have seen them all."

This simply meant that the senators found production better than Washington rumor had painted it. They found that the pictures released by Ford showing full assembly lines were not so-called "phonies."

But — and it is a mighty big but — they found the manpower situation at Willow Run in a deplorable state. They found Ford ready and willing to hire 400 new workers a day for the next six months, but actually getting only a fraction of this number. They found housing and transportation facilities hopelessly inadequate. They found a 56 per cent labor turnover in eight months, and a high rate of absenteeism.

For example: during the first 16 days of February, 750 employes quit their jobs at the bomber plant, 403 of them to enter military service. Sixty-six of the remainder said they found the distance too great; 65 quit to take other jobs; 29 refused to take the jobs to which they were assigned; two were unable to find transportation; 11 were unable to find living quarters; 72 were in poor health; 36 were needed at home; and 13 went back to their farms.

Back of the high rate of military inductions among Willow Run workers was a Ford tendency to hire young men of draft age, despite the warnings of such men as Col George E Strong, internal security officer of the Army Air Forces Central Procurement District, who more than a year ago urged greater emphasis on women.

Back of the other problems — transportation and housing — is a natural Ford tendency to avoid high taxes. It would be unfair to place all the blame there — dilatory tactics and red tape on the part of Federal, state and local authorities have been greatly responsible — but Ford must shoulder some of the responsibility.

Willow Run is out in the country, more than 20 miles from Detroit, four miles from Ypsilanti, which had a population of 12,000 in 1940. Ford already owned most of the acreage on which the plant and airport now are situated. And the plant was very carefully established just across the line from Wayne County, of which Detroit is the county seat. While it is true that Willow Run is a Defense Plant Corporation project, and therefore not overly concerned with tax rates at the moment, Henry Ford has stated that he intends to acquire the plant after the war and continue aircraft production there.

It is significant, too, that Ford blocked all attempts of the Federal government to establish a permanent "bomber city" housing development at Willow Run. The reason, according to his critics, being to avoid creation of an incorporated community with power to tax.

Whatever the intent, the result is that bomber plant workers, for the most part, must travel great distances. Most of them live in the Detroit area, where there are plenty of jobs paying just as much, infinitely nearer home. The severe weather of the past winter has had a marked effect on "quits", retarded hiring and on absenteeism. But there again, the matter of distance is the exaggerating medium.

Morale in the plant isn't the best by any means. Executives of Local 50, UAW-CIO, which has a union shop contract with Ford covering the bomber plant, have compiled a lengthy list of grievances which, they charge, the company will not negotiate with them. And the union still is trying to get Ford to establish a joint labor-management war production drive committee of the type which has worked wonders with production in other Detroit plants, notably Packard.

There are other grievances listed by the union, but the combination of green supervisory personnel, green union leadership and high labor turnover can account for a lot of this. The union likewise finds it difficult to discipline a membership with which it has had only the most casual relations.

What the Truman Committee, or any other agency, can do about these manpower problems no one professes to know. At the present rate of progress, the war will be over by the time they are solved.

Meanwhile, Ford engineers have pretty well licked their tooling and preliminary productions problems. This is all the more remarkable when it is pointed out that there isn't an experienced aircraft production man in the place. Some 250 key personnel were indoctrinated at Consolidated's San Diego plant and then brought back to create Willow Run.

There is almost a complete absence of titles in the Ford organization. But the two men now primarily responsible for turning out bombers are Logan Miller and M L Bricker, both veteran Ford automotive production men.

They designed the plant and its tooling without any preconceived ideas or inhibitions regarding airplane manufacture. If the tooling is complex, it is so the manual operations will be simple and foolproof. If it is comparatively inflexible, it is because high production rate is the keynote.

Ford people rationalize it this way:
There are two ways to lose a war: — have too many inferior airplanes or too few superior airplanes. In Willow Run they see a happy medium and a stabilizing influence on the grand strategy of aircraft procurement.

For while some aircraft plants may be producing a comparatively limited number of the latest types of warplanes, they expect Willow Run to be pouring forth vast quantities of the next-to-the-latest type — thus formulating the backbone of the bombardment offensive and the heavy cargo services.

This article was originally published in the May, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 5, pp 21-23, 150, 154.
The original article includes 6 photos.
Photographs from Ford Motor Company