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Willow Run – B24 Liberator

B-24 Liberator

One bomber an hour at Willow Run bomber plant was the production speed of Willow Run bomber plant. Before Willow Run was converted to the airport we know today, during World War II it was the fastest B-24 production plant in the United States.  Started by Henry Ford, the Willow Run plant was one of the fastest B-24 production plants in the United States at 14 planes a day during its peak production.  The production of the B-24 Liberators at Willow Run is a clear example of American productivity during World War II.

Liberator in Depth

The B-24 Liberator was the supposed to be successor of the B-17 Flying Fortress.  It was supposed to be able to fly higher, farther, and faster than the B-17.  In order to achieve these goals the designers at Consolidated tasked to design the B-24 needed to apply some new technology to the bomber design.  One of these technologies was the change of how the plane wing was designed, which helped improve the bomber’s performance at high altitudes by reducing the amount of drag by 15 percent.  To achieve this efficiency the wing was made longer and also was made out of more efficient hydrofoil material which helped reduce the wing area of the B-24 compared to the B-17’s.  With this change to the wing design the B-24 was able to fly further, meeting one of the goals the team of designers were tasked with.  Another change to the B-24 was that it was outfitted with turbo-supercharged Twin Wasp Engines over its previous non-supercharged version.  This increased its top speed from 273 mph to 310 mph.  This increase in speed pushed it to its expected speed that the US military wanted for this new bomber.  Even with these new modifications the B-24 never really lived up to its expectations being able to meet two of its intended goals, speed and flight distance.  It is because of this that the B-24 never became the complete replacement of the B-17 like it was supposed to be.

One of the main reasons for this is because of how un-durable the B-24 was compared to the B-17 during missions.  It is because of these reasons that the B-24 Liberator was nicknamed “The Flying Coffin” by those that flew it.  The plane was essentially a death trap in the European theater.  This was largely due to the fact that the designers of the plane were rushed.  They did not take into account what obstacles the plane would experience during its missions in World War II.  The most overlooked obstacle that the B-24 will experience was the accuracy of enemy flak.  Because of the newly designed wing of the B-24 the wing was not very resistant to damage, and flak was really good at damaging the B-24.  This coupled onto the fact that the B-24 could not fly as high as the B-17 made its service during the European theater even worse.  This lack of planning when designing the Liberator was the reason that it failed to meet its high expectations as the complete successor to the B-17 Super Fortress.  On top of all of these problems with the design of the bomber, it was also not that comfortable for the users to fly in.  One of the problems was with the heating on the plane.  The spot heaters for the B-24 were inadequate and drafts seemed to be everywhere (Dwyer, 1998).  But because of this oversight when designing the plane and mostly uncomfortable flight for the people onboard the bomber the B-24 was not that popular amongst Allie airmen.  There were major changes to the design of the Liberator throughout the war to better suit it for different operations and making it a much better bomber.  But it would not live up to the name of the B-17 Flying Fortress. But this wasn’t the fault of the designers.  It is important to remember that the B-17 was produced during peacetime so the design and overall build of the plane was able to be perfected.  The designers really didn’t have the time to completely flesh out their ideas with the time they were allotted to complete this design and the United States needed a mass-produced long range bomber.

Production of the Bombers at Willow Run

Willow Run Bomber Plant

Even with these draw backs that did not stop the United States from producing 18,188 Liberators by the end of World War II.  8,685 B-24’s were built in Willow Run bomber plant (Story of Willow Run, p.70).  It seems like a production miracle that the people working at Willow Run bomber plant were able to produce the B-24 Liberator at such tremendous speed.  This was largely because of Henry Ford.  During this time he was a pioneer of American production.  Utilizing Ford’s assembly process, Willow Run was able to become the most successful bomber plant in the United States.  Henry Ford made Willow Run what it was today initially for the sole purpose of building the B-24 Liberator.  Prior to Henry Ford, Willow Run was mostly farmland.  The people in Willow Run did not really care for city life.  As Mr. Stedman, a former Willow Run resident, says, “Many a time my father used to fall asleep up in the cabin listening to the wolves howling back in the woods right where the Bomber Plant stands now…” (Story of Willow Run p.22)  Once Henry Ford showed up he completely changed the landscape of the area.  Buying up the land and building the bomber plant there and creating a community around it to house his workers.  The plant later ended up employing more than 42,000 workers in June, 1943 (Story of Willow Run, 51).  With this amount of workers coupled with Henry Ford’s assembly process it is clear to see why Willow Run was the most successful bomber plant in the United States during World War II.  After the war the population of Willow Run dropped due to the fact that most of the residents at Willow Run were only there for the bomber plant. Almost everyone knew their residency at Willow Run was only temporary and most were eager to return to their previous housing (Story of Willow Run p.73).   However, Willow Run later was modified to house returning veterans that needed homes.

Flying in the Coffin

One specific account was from Phillip Ardery, former squadron commander and wing operations officer.  After his service he wrote down his stories and published them in a book called “Bomber Pilot: A Memoir of World War II” where he recounts his experiences flying in European theater.  In his stories it is quite evident one of his main worries about flying was flak.  He also makes many remarks on how un-durable the B-24 was.  Most of his stories during combat in the B-24 were interesting.  The stories told about his experience during combat were that of luck and smart thinking.  The stories were not all cheerful though.  Some of the stories were that of close encounters and witnessing the loss of his friends in other B-24’s that were not as lucky as himself.

B-24 Liberator with a blown off wing. (Aviation History)

One such story was from one of his fellow pilots Robert Lee Wright.  While Ardery and Wright were flying back from a bombing mission, Wright’s B-24 was hit with flak and engines 3 and 4 went out.  Following this he told his crew to dump all of their guns and ammunition from the plane.  However, another engine went out and now the B-24 was left with only engine.  Wright then decided to land the plane off the coast of Sicily.  Ardery then made a quip saying, “But Bob landed his Lib in that field, and didn’t do it any damage except to blow a nose wheel tire. … Anyone who has ever flown a B-24 will admit this is the story of a near miracle.” (Ardery p.89)  Following this landing however Wright was able to meet up with Canadian forces which were invading that area at the time and he and his crew fought with the Canadian forces for 2 weeks before returning to their base in Bengasi with a bunch of Italian gear as mementos of the venture. (Ardery p.88-90)
Aside from these stories of miracles there were often stories of fellow pilots being shot down while flying a B-24 Liberator that might have been a different story if they were flying a B-17 which were known for still being able to return after sustaining heavy combat damage.
Ardery’s memoir is a clear example of what it was like flying a B-24 Liberator during World War II.  It was a dangerous experience each time they went on a mission with the B-24.  But it is also clear to see how effective and how big of a role the B-24 played during missions in World War II.

Legacy of the Liberator

The B-24 Liberator, even with all of its flaws managed to make a name for itself during World War II.  It was a clear example of how powerful American production was during the war, especially in Willow Run.  Being able to put out a larger arsenal than its adversary at every corner.  On a more personal level, the experience of flying in a B-24 was something most pilots of the plane will remember the rest of their lives.  One of those being from Charlie Taylor, a former B-24 pilot which flew on the same mission as Phillip Ardery on the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.  He accounts his memories while flying in the newly restored B-24.  Ending his flight saying, “If I died right here today. I’d be a happy man.” (Sheehan 2008)  Aside from these things, those that were involved in the production of the B-24’s at Willow Run bomber plant have made history.  These men and women were a huge contribution to the reason that the Liberator was such a successful bomber throughout its time in service.  Without these people the United States would not have been able to build up such a large arsenal of bomber planes to assist the Allies in successfully combating the Axis powers.

Primary Sources

  1. Ardery, Philip. Bomber Pilot: A Memoir of World War II. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 1978. Print.
  2. Sheehan, Ruth. “A LIBERATOR, AGAIN: After 64 Years, Pilot Takes a B-24’s Helm One More Time.McClatchy – Tribune Business News Oct 30 2008. ProQuest. Web. 19 Nov. 2015 .

Secondary Sources

3. Wilson, Marion F. The Story of Willow Run. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1956. Print.
4. Sorenson, Charles E. (1956). “A Bomber An HourStrategos. Web.
5. Sherman, Stephen (2002). “Consolidated B-24 Web.
6. Dwyer, Larry (1998). “Consolidated B-24 LiberatorThe Aviaton History Online Museum. Web.
7. Staff Writer (2015). “Consolidated B-24 Liberator Heavy Bomber (1941)” Military Factory. Web.