Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, would never forget the moment his boots hit the sand during Operation Overlord – the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. Shortly after the landing, Ike visited the beaches, strewn with broken vehicles and bullet holes. It looked like a junk of dead machines – but also, proof that the war was won by the soldiers of the American work force, on assembly lines thousands of kilometers away.
“There was nothing in the war that impressed me as much with the industrial power of America as the wreckage of the landing beaches,” he recalls in his memoirs.
War is about value, heroism and sacrifice. But the story of victory Operation Overlord and war at large are also part of industrialism. World War II was, in large part, a contest between the Allied and Axis Powers to imagine ingenious war machines and mass produce them with unmatched speed.
The D-Day invasion, for example, used some 50,000 vehicles of all types, well over 5,000 ships and more than double that number of planes. There were amphibious trucks, tanks, four-wheel drive troop carriers, flame thrower armored cars, jeeps, fighter planes, bombers … No entity did more to produce these machines than the he American automobile industry, which at the time of World War II, had a larger economy than almost any foreign country on earth.
Here’s a look at how Detroit became the biggest war city of all.
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William Knudsen: “Gentlemen, we have to get past Hitler”
William Knudsen was president of General Motors – the largest company in history – in 1940 when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to direct all military production in the United States. Knudsen therefore gave up one of the highest paying jobs in the country to take over a government job at a salary of $ 1. Shortly after, at the New York Auto Show, Knudsen delivered an opening speech that lit the flame of Detroit Industrial. “The first half of 1941 is crucial,” Knudsen said at a gathering of the most powerful executives in Motor City. “Gentlemen, we have to get past Hitler.”
Knudsen became a lieutenant general in the military, the first and only American civilian to receive this honor, and these men from the Detroit auto became heroes in the battle for assembly lines. As Arthur Herman wrote in his book Forge of Freedom: How American Businesses Won Victory in World War II, at the end of the war, Knudsen had gone from the president of GM to “the man who had built the American armed forces in the largest military machine in history”.
Ford Willow Run factory: B-24 bombers
In the spring of 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor but long after the start of the war in Europe, Edsel Ford (the only son of Henry Ford) and Charlie Sorensen, the company’s greatest production guru, began to mobilize the most ambitious industrial project in history to date. time: a plant that could become the largest and most destructive bomber in the American arsenal, the B-24 Liberator, at the rate of one per hour. Ford had never built a four-engine bomber, and aviation experts insisted that it couldn’t be done.
Construction of the Willow Run bomber factory began this spring and quickly became the largest one-roof factory in the world. Its objective was to apply mass production principles of automatic manufacturing to bombers of more than 300 km / h, 56,000 pounds (when fully loaded). The Washington Post called Willow Run “the largest single manufacturing plant the world has ever seen”, while The Wall Street Journal called it is “the miracle of war production”.
In 1945 Ford had managed to build liberators at the rate of one per hour. The company produced a total of 8,685 B-24s. Thanks to Ford, the B-24 is still the most mass-produced American military aircraft of all time.
The Jeep: “As faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule”
In 1940, the military asked automakers to design a lightweight four-wheel-drive vehicle (2,175 pounds or less) that could be mass produced and essentially replace what horses have fought for centuries. . The vehicle had to conquer all kinds of terrain and had to be able to carry a load of 625 pounds.
Three companies have built prototypes: Willys-Overland, Ford and Bantam. The first two continued to manufacture some 660,000 “flash strollers” – Willys built 376,397 and Ford 282,352. Because the two vehicles had to use interchangeable parts, they were very similar. Miraculously, the first jeep that Ford built – GP No.1 Pygmy – still exists; it is on display at the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama.
As this vehicle took the name of jeep (the origin of the nickname is very controversial), it also took on a life of its own, and today it was called the grandfather of all SUVs. World War II famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote about the jeep (just before his death in 1945, next to the one he was riding in): “Lord, I don’t think we could continue the war without the jeep. He does everything. It goes everywhere. He is as loyal as a dog, as strong as a mule and as agile as a goat. “
Chrysler built swarms of tanks
In 1940 William Knudsen called K.T. Keller, the general manager of Chrysler, and asked him if Chrysler could build tanks. “I don’t know,” came the answer. “I have never seen one of these things.” Shortly thereafter, Chrysler launched what would become the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, located in what is now Warren’s suburb. His goal: to build swarms of tanks according to the principles of mass production of self-production – something never accomplished before.
Even before the factory was finished, the first Chrysler M3 tank came off the assembly line. The factory walls weren’t even in place, so engineers brought in a steam locomotive to keep the place warm for workers during the harsh Michigan winter of 1940-41. As the plant swelled to 1.25 million square feet, the company opted for M4 Sherman tanks, which were powered by a Frankenstein engine. The engineers took five six-cylinder engines that had been used in Chrysler Royal and Windsor cars before the war and welded them together into a 30-cylinder engine that could pump 425 horsepower at the tank steps.
Ultimately, the Detroit Arsenal built more tanks than the entire Third Reich during the war years, tanks that crossed enemy lines to Berlin.
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The amphibious “duck”
Perhaps the most extraordinary of all Detroit creations during the Second World War was a strange vehicle that could practically walk on water. The story goes back to 1942, when GM engineers met with a maritime architect and army officers to solve a critical problem. The military was planning massive and very dangerous amphibious invasions, and there would be no port facilities for landings. Soon, a sketch was on paper for a vehicle that could take off from a ship, separate the waves on the power of the propeller, then touch the ground and travel at speeds of 50 mph, with three axles and six wheels (traction integral).
While the technical name of the vehicle was DUKW (in GM code, D meant model year 1942; U meant amphibious; K for front-wheel drive; W for two-axle rear-wheel drive), the thing became known as the name of duck. According to Michael W.R. Davis, GM has built more than 21,000, at a price of $ 10,800 each. War Industry in Detroit: Arsenal of Democracy. At 31 feet long, the duck could carry a payload of over 5,000 pounds. Pairs of them were tied together to serve as landing craft for the tanks. The vehicle made its most notable mark during the invasion of Normandy. According to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, between D-Day June 6, 1944 and May 8, 1945, ducks transported 5.05 million tonnes of cargo to the European continent.
Chrysler’s secret A bomb contributions
Pedestrians walking past 1525 Woodward Avenue in Detroit in 1943 might have noticed something strange about this place – an inordinate amount of security surrounding the first floor of an abandoned department store. In fact, something very curious was going on inside. Chrysler engineers had set up offices for something called Project X-100, and FBI agents were patrolling the premises because the work was so secret, none of the engineers working on the project had any idea what it was.
Only senior Chrysler executives knew the company was helping build the atomic bomb.
“For laymen, the thing [the Manhattan Project] sounded almost incredibly fantastic, “according to Chrysler’s official 1947 story of his bomb work, titled Secret.” But if the United States government saw fit, [Chrysler CEO] Mr. Keller said that was all the Company needed to know. “
In this laboratory on Woodward Avenue, Chrysler engineers designed diffusers – cylindrical metal containers – that did not corrode during the process of separating fissile uranium 235 from uranium 238 at the secret atomic factory of the Oak Ridge Army in Tennessee. In 1944, thousands of workers at the Chrysler Lynch Road plant were building 3,500 of these diffusers. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, these diffusers were so well designed, they not only contributed to the construction of the Little Boy bomb used on Hiroshima, they remained in use until the 1980s.
The enormity of General Motors
At the time of Pearl Harbor, General Motors had overshadowed all other companies in the world by far. And by the end of the war, GM had become the world’s largest military contractor, responsible for more than $ 12 billion in war production. Tanks were coming out of GM’s Cadillac plant, where some of the most luxurious cars in the country were built a few years earlier. Oldsmobile had delivered approximately 40 million artillery cartridges. Pontiac built very complicated Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns.
GM production figures during World War II (courtesy of the GM Heritage Center) tell the story: 119,562,000 artillery shells; 39,181,000 cartridge cases; 206,000 aircraft engines; 13,000 Navy fighter and torpedo bomber aircraft; 97,000 aircraft propellers; 301,000 airplane gyrocompasses; 38,000 tanks and tank destroyers; 854,000 trucks; 190,000 guns; 1.9 million machine guns and machine guns; 3.1 million rifles; 3.8 million electric motors; 11 million fuses; 360 million ball and roller bearings; 198,000 diesel engines; and more.
With the fate of the world at stake, GM played the lead role in the effort to overtake Hitler and Hirohito. No other society, anywhere on earth, at any time in history, has ever done more to win a war.