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Willow Run Wartime Problems

Willow Run Conceptual Image

The Willow Run plant, located in between Ypsilanti and Belleville  Michigan, was a bomber plant built by the Ford Motor Company to assemble B-24 Liberator bombers. During World War Two, the plant was portrayed as an American success story and as wartime propaganda on the homefront. Boosting the production of a bomber a day, the plant employed over 40,000 employees[1] and became a modest population center and airport. For all of this, the plant suffered major operational problems during the war and didn’t meet the expected output.

Societal Factors

At peak production, the plant had a bomber come off the assembly line every 55 minutes, and the continued boost of one bomber produced a day was one bomber finished a day. The bombers had a large lead time, but the nature of the assembly line allowed for a bomber to go through a few steps a day until it was completed. The plant created 8,685 bomber between January 1942 and June 1945, making the average a little less than 7 per day. While still impressive, the rate at which the plant produced bombers was severely affected by the lack of labor even though the plant had over 40,00 workers. At 40,000, the plant didn’t even reach half of the intended workforce[1]. It was originally designed to house 100,000 workers. A positive side effect for the local workers was the capacity for overtime. This allowed many of them to gather savings, become homeowners, or allow their children to attend school instead of working.

The plant’s location contributed to the issues including nearby opportunities for work and a largely rural environment. While Willow Run is a distance from Detroit, the move was manageable and the number of factories in and around Detroit along with workers’ unions made the area more appealing than the relatively undeveloped area around Willow Run. Most of the area was farmland and few amenities existed.

This location seemed ideal when planning, far enough from Detroit that unions would have little power but close enough to draw in workers, especially of those who unions discriminated against or didn’t have a contact to assist them getting employed. In reality, the location made it a prime for temporary workers and those first moving to the Michigan region who needed work. This created a very high turnover rate for workers as they found better opportunities in nearby Detroit, and few workers had ties to the local area being that most migrated there. The need for labor also had an adverse effect on this because the available overtime. The extra pay  allowed for the laborers’ savings to build faster and allowed them to move sooner than they would’ve otherwise been able to. This would creating additional openings for the factory management to fill.

The lack of an urban community around the plant made forming a connection to the community difficult for workers. They largely considered their employment a temporary occupation at the end of the second world war[1]. Many of these workers would be going back to their prewar occupations, while many others were retiring from the work force. Many were taking their savings and going into business for themselves or joining a family member who was doing so. As the post war era began, many Americans found themselves living more comfortable than they had been during the pre war era, and they were tired of factory culture and management. The higher wages offered by factories to fill wartime demand had allowed some workers to gather enough savings to start their own businesses. These workers would start small businesses and hire friends and family, who were likely factory workers as well, as their first employees, furthering the strain on the workforce.

The workers also had little reason to settle in the communities around Willow Run. Because the wartime need was so high for more military equipment, including bombers, the federal government funded the development of the area, allowing for the creation of an urban center in a largely rural area. This created many housing opportunities over the course of the program, ranging from trailer homes to apartment complexes and more traditional housing. While the capacity for a thriving urban center was there, the lack of businesses made it a dull area. Most of the expected populace was workers looking to establish a career. Instead, the temporary workers who were attracted made business owners unwilling to invest. Like the workers, entrepreneurs had nearby locations like Detroit had more opportunities for the small businesses. The low population density made bad business sense to build stores and create services. This in turn made the populace look to greener pastures elsewhere.

The farmers held most of the positions of power in the local townships and communities; so, the leadership tended to dislike the change made by Willow Run’s establishment. To deal with the waste from the plant and the population, their land would either need to be sold off so a disposal network could be built using the space or their crops and laborers would be exposed to the waste[3]. This made the farmers dislike the plant and its employees because the farmers viewed Willow Run and its employees as  attempting to change the established community. While this had minimal effect the the plant itself, more workers would have likely been encouraged to stay if they had the support of local businesses.

Governance Issues

When Willow Run was created, the neighboring communities each had development in order to support the plant. The process of building a road through each of the different areas provided several problems; most of these problems were addressed temporarily, such as construction supervision and responsibility. The committees or individuals that came into temporary power often had little or no concern about the local methods of running things and effectively made previous officials jobless[2]. This also caused each community to attempt to get additional development from the state to aid them with local transportation issues that rose the prices further.

Due to the size of the project, nearby communities were inspected for issues of building ordinances to health and sanitation. Each of the committees was looking to improve itself but didn’t want to give into federal oversight. The federal and, in some cases, state government, on the other hand, wanted to standardize the area so the factory and related operations would run smoother. The federal authorities were willing to pay millions of dollars to support the factory[2] and were very competent at establishing a transportation network before the plant opened. The problem with the government construction and development programs was the people who did move, moved to regions adjacent to the plant, where much of this work hadn’t taken place. The local regions required vast improvement to support the health and sanitation standards required in by the plant and communities. In one example, the federal government paid four-fifth to the local’s one-fifth for a new hospital costing $500,000[2]. The Federal Housing Administration would not give out loans until this was completed, slowing down the rate at which workers could move into the area.

While building programs did start, city planning was built on the idea of workers traveling up to an hour to work. This lead to the previously discussed roads but also had an important impact on the delaying of housing projects. When the populace started shifting closer to the plant, there was an overestimate in the amount and location of housing needs. This trend made planners believe that future workers would want or need to live closer to the plant and large scale housing and community development was thought necessary. This lead to many apartment complexes and trailer parks to be established in the area. After the war, these were largely abandoned due to factory lay-off, creating “modern ghost towns”[1].

While the plant was a privately owned factory, the only customer was the US Government. The plant did provide B-24 Bombers, but the Air Force had to modify these for their own use. After a study the Air Force did, it was suggested that the government take over the plant due to the inefficiency and inability to produce its quota of bombers[6]. The plant caused enough trouble for Ford that he walked away from it after the war.

Willow Run was an impressive accomplishment, but it was never the miracle that was sold during the war. The ghost towns from the failed communities, a long list of expenses the government paid to make the living conditions bearable, and the failure of the plant shows how the project was glorified. What the plant did accomplish was fund improvements to local communities, allow for families and individuals to build savings, and help focus the United States’ industrial might during the war.

Primary Sources

  1. Unknown (1945). “Work and wage experience of Willow Run workers”, Monthly Labor Review 61.6:1074-1090.
  2. Perkins, John A. and Bromage, Arthur W. (1942). “Willow Run Produces Bombers and Intergovernmental Problems”, The American Political Science Review 36.4: 689-697
  3. Shephard, W. F. and Klassen, C. W. (1943). “Wartime Sanitary Problems of a State Health Department [with Discussion]”, Sewage Works Journal 15.2: 190-196.

Secondary Sources

  1. Shockley, Megan T. (2003). “Working for Democracy: Working-Class African-American Women, Citizenship, and Civil Rights in Detroit, 1940-1954. Central Michigan University.
  2. Foster, Richard H. (1980). “Wartime Trailer Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area”, Geographical Review 70.3: 276-290.
  3. Unknown (1993). “Willow Run No longer holds promise of miracles”, Chicago Tribune Jan 4, 1993 B3.
  4. Raucher, Margaret (1996). “Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs: Automobile Workers and the UAW”, Michigan Historical Review 22.2: 157-166.