William S. Knudsen

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William Knudsen
William S Knudsen.jpg
Born(1879-03-25)March 25, 1879
Copenhagen, Denmark
DiedApril 27, 1948(1948-04-27) (aged 69)
Detroit, Michigan, United States
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1942–1945
RankUS-O9 insignia.svg Lieutenant General
Commands heldDirector of War Production
Air Technical Service Command
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsArmy Distinguished Service Medal (2),
American Campaign Medal
World War Two Victory Medal
ChildrenSemon Knudsen

William Signius Knudsen (March 25, 1879 – April 27, 1948) was a leading Danish-American automotive industry executive and an American general during World War II. His experience and success as a key senior manager in the operations sides of Ford Motor Company and then General Motors led the Franklin Roosevelt administration to commission him directly as a lieutenant general in the US Army to help lead the United States' war materiel production efforts for World War II.


Knudsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. His name was originally Signius Wilhelm Poul Knudsen. He immigrated to the United States and arrived in New York in February 1900.


Knudsen was working for the John R. Keim Company of Buffalo, New York, a bicycle and auto parts maker,[1] when the Ford Motor Company bought it in 1911 for its steel-stamping experience and tooling.[2] Knudsen worked for Ford from 1911[3] to 1921,[4] a decade that saw the formative development of the modern assembly line and true mass production.[5] Working first for the Ford Motor Company and later for General Motors from 1921,[6] Knudsen became an expert on mass production and a skilled manager. Knudsen was president of the Chevrolet Division of General Motors from 1924[7] to 1937 and was president of General Motors from 1937[7] to 1940.

In 1940, US President Franklin Roosevelt, at the recommendation of Bernard Baruch, asked Knudsen to come to Washington to help with war production. Knudsen was appointed as Chairman of the Office of Production Management and member of the National Defense Advisory Commission for which he received a salary of $1 per year.[8]

In January 1942, Knudsen received a commission as a lieutenant general in the US Army, the only civilian ever to join the army at such a high initial rank,[9] and appointed as Director of Production, Office of the Under Secretary of War. In that capacity, he worked as a consultant and a troubleshooter for the War Department.

In both positions, Knudsen used his extensive experience in manufacturing and industry respect to facilitate the largest production job in history. In response to the demand for war materiel, production of machine tools tripled. The total aircraft produced for the US military in 1939 was less than 3,000 planes. By the end of the war, America produced over 300,000 planes of which the Boeing B-29 Superfortress benefitted greatly from Knudsen's direction.[10] Production of both cargo and Navy ships also increased astronomically. Knudsen's influence not only smoothed government procurement procedures but also led companies that had never produced military hardware to enter the market. America outproduced its enemies. As Knudsen said, "We won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen, nor dreamed possible."[11][12][13]

He was appointed Director of the Air Technical Service Command when it was founded in July 1944 at Patterson Field, Ohio. He served in the Army until his resignation on June 1, 1945.[14]

Personal life[edit]

Knudsen was featured on the cover of Time magazine's October 7, 1940 issue.[15] He was a member of Epiphany Lutheran Church (Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) in Detroit and contributed greatly to the synod's projects around the Detroit area, including buildings for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Outer Drive Faith Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Institute for the Deaf.[16][17] Knudsen's son Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen was also a prominent automobile industry executive.

Honors and awards[edit]

Knudsen was awarded the Vermilye Medal by the Franklin Institute in 1941.

He was also appointed a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog by the Kingdom of Denmark in 1930 and was promoted Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog in 1946.[18]

Knudsen was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1968.[19]

His daughter started a scholarship in the name of her parents.[20]

Knudsen was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1944 and again in 1945 for his service in the US Army during World War II. He also received the American Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal for his wartime service.

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster American Campaign Medal World War II Victory Medal

Dates of rank[edit]

US-O9 insignia.svg Lieutenant General, Regular Army: January 28, 1942[14]


  1. ^ "William S. Knudsen | American industrialist". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  2. ^ Hounshell 1984, pp. 224–225.
  3. ^ Hounshell 1984, p. 225.
  4. ^ Hounshell 1984, p. 264.
  5. ^ Hounshell 1984, pp. 217–261.
  6. ^ 'Big Bill' Knudsen turned Chevrolet into a powerhouse Automotive News, October 31, 2011
  7. ^ a b Hounshell 1984, p. 265.
  8. ^ Baime, Albert (2014). The Arsenal of Democracy. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-0-547-71928-3.
  9. ^ "Knudsen the Only Civilian To Enter Army at His Rank", The New York Times, p. 9, January 17, 1942.
  10. ^ Herman 2012, pp. 284-346.
  11. ^ Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, pp. 3-13, 149, 335-337, Random House, New York, NY, 2012. NY Times review
  12. ^ Parker, Dana. Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II, pp. 5, 7-10, 13, 59, 131-2., Cypress, CA, 2013.
  13. ^ Borth, Christy. Masters of Mass Production, pp. 35-37, 62-93, Bobbs-Merrill Co., Indianapolis, IN, 1945.
  14. ^ a b "Knudsen, William S., 1879-1948
    Person Authority Record"
    . National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved October 17, 2020.
  15. ^ "TIME Magazine Cover: William S. Knudsen". TIME.com. October 7, 1940.
  16. ^ The Detroit News, June 19, 1937
  17. ^ The Detroit News, April 27, 1948
  18. ^ North American Medal Recipient Index (by William P. Jones. The Order of Dannebrog and other Royal Scandinavian medals. 2009) "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-25. Retrieved 2009-08-28.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  19. ^ William S. Knudsen Archived 2015-09-14 at the Wayback Machine Automotive Hall of Fame
  20. ^ 3. The William S. Knudsen and Clara Elisabeth Knudsen Rebild Fund

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Business positions
Preceded by President of General Motors
Succeeded by