The Willow Run manufacturing complex, located between Ypsilanti and Belleville, Michigan, was constructed in the early years of World War II by Ford Motor Company for the mass production of war munitions, especially the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.
- 1 Wartime
- 2 Airport
- 3 Postwar
- 4 History
- 5 Willow Run as a community and in sociology
- 6 Redevelopment efforts and the Yankee Air Museum
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The plant began production in summer 1941; the dedication plaque is dated June 16. The plant initially built components; Douglas Aircraft and the plane's designer Consolidated Aircraft assembled the finished aircraft. Remote assembly proved problematic, and by October 1941 Ford received permission to produce complete Liberators. Willow Run's Liberator assembly line ran through May 1945, building almost half of all the Liberators produced.
Willow Run Airport was built as part of the bomber plant. The airfield passed into civilian hands after the war, and it is now controlled by Wayne County. Part of the airport complex operated at various times as a research facility affiliated with the University of Michigan, and as a secondary United States Air Force Installation. Willow Run Airport remains active as a cargo and general aviation airfield; since 1992 it has been home to the Yankee Air Museum.
Ford built the factory and sold it to the government, then leased it back for the duration of the war. When Ford declined to purchase the facility after the war, Kaiser-Frazer Corporation gained ownership, and in 1953 Ford's rival General Motors took ownership and operated the factory as Willow Run Transmission until 2010. Willow Run Assembly operated from 1959 to 1992 on a parcel to the south of the airport. The Fisher Body division also operated at Willow Run Assembly until its operations were assumed by the GM Assembly Division in the 1970s. In 2009 General Motors announced that it would shut down all operations at the GM Powertrain plant and engineering center in the coming year.
Since the 2010 closure of Willow Run Transmission, the factory complex has been managed by the RACER Trust, which controls the properties of the former General Motors. In 2011 A.E. Equities Group Holdings offered to buy the former Powertrain plant from the RACER Trust. In April 2013 a redevelopment manager for the RACER Trust confirmed that, whether or not the Yankee Air Museum relocates to the original bomber plant at a future date, unused portions of the powertrain plant would likely be razed as a step toward redeveloping the property.
The Willow Run complex has given its name to a community on the east side of Ypsilanti, defined roughly by the boundaries of the Willow Run Community School District.
Willow Run takes its name from a small tributary of the Huron River that meandered through pastureland and woods along the Wayne-Washentaw county line until the late 1930s. By the mid-1920s a local family operating as Quirk Farms had bought the land in Van Buren Township that became the airport. Quirk Farms was purchased by automobile pioneer Henry Ford in 1931. Ford, a keen exponent of the virtues of country living, used it as farmland for a “social engineering” experiment that brought inner-city boys to the Willow Run farms to learn about farming, nature, and the rural way of life. The residents of the Willow Run farm planted, tended, and harvested field crops and collected maple syrup, selling their products at the farm market on the property. In the process, the boys were to learn self-discipline and the values of hard work, and benefit from the fresh air of the country.
From farm to flight line
Like virtually all of the United States' industrial concerns, Ford Motor Company, by this time under the direction of Henry Ford's only son Edsel, directed its manufacturing output during WWII to Allied war production.
In early 1941 the Federal government established the Liberator Production Pool Program to meet the projected demand for the B-24, and the Ford company, joined the program shortly thereafter. Ford Motor would not only build the bombers, it would supply the airfield as well; the farm at Willow Run was an ideal location for the airfield's runways, being under the personal ownership of Henry Ford (thus solving any land acquisition problem) and sited between the main roads and rail lines connecting Detroit with Ann Arbor and points to the west. Easements were acquired from landowners across the county line in Ypsilanti Township where the Liberator plant (and eventually the airport terminal) would be built.
Although officially retired, Henry Ford still had a say in the company's affairs and refused government financing for Willow Run, preferring to have his company build the factory and sell it to the government, which would lease it back to the company for the duration of the war. Ford Motor was to have first option on the plant after war production ended, an option it ultimately chose not to exercise, although a rumor in Drew Pearson's syndicated column had Ford planning a postwar use as a tractor factory, but that never came to pass. Ford would eventually sell its land to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation's Defense Plant Corporation in July 1944, shortly after the Ford farms were transferred to the company's ownership.
Architect Albert Kahn designed the main structure of the Willow Run bomber plant, which had 3,500,000 square feet (330,000 m2) of factory space, and an aircraft assembly line over a mile long. It was thought to be the largest factory under one roof anywhere in the world. The Willow Run plant featured a large turntable two-thirds of the way along the assembly line, allowing the B-24 production line to make a 90° turn before continuing to final assembly. According to legend, this arrangement allowed the company to pay taxes on the entire plant (and its equipment) to Washtenaw County, and avoid the higher taxes of Wayne County where the airfield is located; overhead views suggest that avoiding encroachment on the airfield's taxiways was also a motivation.
Despite intensive design efforts led by Ford production executive Charles E. Sorensen, the opening of the plant still saw some mismanagement and bungling, and quality was uneven for some time. Although the Ford Trimotor had been a success in the 1920s, the company had since shied away from aviation, and initially, Ford was assigned to provide B-24 components with final assembly performed by Consolidated at its Fort Worth plant, or by fellow licensee Douglas Aircraft at its Tulsa, Oklahoma plant. However, in October 1941 Ford received permission from Consolidated and the Army to assemble complete Liberators on its own at its new Willow Run facility. Even then it would take nearly a year before finished Liberators left the factory.
According to Max Wallace, Air Corps Chief General "Hap" Arnold told Charles Lindbergh, then a consultant at the plant, that "combat squadrons greatly preferred the B-17 bomber to the B-24 because 'when we send the 17’s out on a mission, most of them return. But when we send the 24’s out, most of them don’t'”
A 1943 committee authorized by Congress to examine problems at the plant issued a highly critical report; the Ford Motor Company had created a production line that too closely resembled an automobile assembly line "despite the warning of many experienced aircraftmen."
Although the jumping of an automotive company into aircraft production posed these quality problems, it also brought remarkable production rates. The plant held the distinction of being the world's largest enclosed "room." The first Ford-built Liberator rolled off the Willow Run line in September 1942; the first series of Willow Run Liberators was the B-24E.
The Willow Run Plant had many initial startup problems, due primarily to the fact that Ford employees were used to automobile mass production and found it difficult to adapt these techniques to aircraft production. The plant at Willow Run was also beset with labor difficulties, high absentee rates, and rapid employee turnover. The factory was nearly an hour's drive from Detroit, and the imposition of wartime gasoline and tire rationing had made the daily commute difficult. In only one month, Ford had hired 2900 workers but had lost 3100.
Also, Henry Ford was cantankerous and rigid in his ways. He was violently anti-union and there were serious labor difficulties, including a massive strike. In addition, Henry Ford refused on principle to hire women. However, he finally relented and did employ "Rosie the Riveters" on his assembly lines, probably more because so many of his potential male workers had been drafted into the military than due to any sudden development of a social conscience on his part.
By autumn 1943, the top leadership role at Willow Run had passed from Charles Sorensen to Mead L. Bricker.
At the request of the government, Ford began to decentralize operations and many parts were assembled at other Ford plants as well as by the company's sub-contractors, with the Willow Run plant concentrating on final aircraft assembly. The bugs were eventually worked out of the manufacturing processes, and by 1944, Ford was rolling a Liberator off the Willow Run production line every 63 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
At its peak, Willow Run produced 650 B-24s per month. By 1945, Ford produced 70% of the B-24s in two 9-hour shifts. Ford produced half of the 18,000 total B-24s at Willow Run, and the B-24 holds the distinction of being the most produced heavy bomber in history.
Army Air Forces support and post-production activities
After their manufacture, the next step in the process was the delivery of the aircraft to the operational squadrons. This was done at Willow Run by 1st Concentration Command (1st CC). The 1st CC was responsible for completing the organization and equipment of tactical and combat bombardment squadrons prior to their deployment to the overseas combat theaters. It also provided a final inspection of the aircraft and make any appropriate final changes; i.e., install long-range fuel tanks, remove unnecessary equipment, and give it a final flight safety test.
While the planes were being serviced and made ready for overseas movement, personnel for these planes were also being processed. Pilots, co-pilots, navigators and crew chiefs were assigned as a crew for each aircraft, sleeping on 1,300 cots as they waited for the B-24s to roll off the assembly line. Paperwork was handled, necessary specific B-24 life support equipment was issued and some technical training for supporting the aircraft accomplished.
Once production began, it became difficult to introduce changes dictated by field experience in the various overseas theaters onto the production line in a timely fashion. Consequently, newly constructed Liberators needed modifications for the specific geographic areas they were to be flown in combat. For this reason, a series of Air Technical Service Command modification centers were established for the incorporation of these required theater changes into new Liberators following their manufacture and assignments. There were seven known modification centers: the Birmingham Air Depot in Alabama; Consolidated's Fort Worth plant, the Oklahoma City Air Materiel Center at Tinker Field, the Tucson Modification Center at Tucson International Airport; the Northwest Airlines Depot in Minneapolis; the, Martin-Omaha manufacturing plant, and the Hawaiian Air Depot at Hickam Field. The Birmingham Air Depot's primary mission was modifying Liberators from Willow Run.
Liberator variants produced at Willow Run
The B-24E was the first variant of the B-24 that underwent primary manufacture by Ford at Willow Run. Not only did Ford build 490 complete planes, but it also supplied components of B-24Es as kits that could be trucked for final assembly at the factories of Consolidated in Fort Worth and Douglas in Tulsa, 144 and 167 kits.
B-24Es built and fully assembled at Ford were designated B-24E-FO; those assembled at Tulsa and Fort Worth out of parts supplied by Ford were designated B-24E-DT and B-24E-CF respectively. Because of production delays encountered at Willow Run as a result of the inevitable difficulties and snags involved in the adaptation of automobile manufacturing techniques to aircraft, the B-24Es produced at Willow Run were, generally, obsolete by the time that it began to roll off the production lines, and most were relegated to training roles in the United States and hence few ever saw combat.
The B-24H was the first variant produced by Ford at Willow Run in large numbers that went into combat. The B-24H differed from earlier B-24s by having a second turret placed in the nose of the aircraft to increase defensive firepower. Because of the many structural changes required to accommodate the nose turret, the first B-24Hs were delivered slightly behind schedule, with the first machines rolling off the production lines at Ford in late June 1943. Production for the B-24H at Willow Run was 1,780.
Upon the introduction of the B-24J, all three of the Liberator manufacturing plants converted to the production of this version. The B-24J incorporated a hydraulically driven tail turret and other defensive armament modifications in the nose of the aircraft. The bomber plant produced its first B-24J in April 1944; 1587 were built at Willow Run.
During June 1944, the Army determined that the San Diego and Willow Run plants would be capable of meeting all future requirements for Liberator production. The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was taking over the long-range bombing role in the Pacific Theater and no new B-24 units were programmed for deployment in the other combat theaters of Europe, the Mediterranean or in the CBI.
The B-24L was the first product of the new, downsized Liberator production pool. It was an attempt to reverse the trend toward ever-increasing weight of the Liberator as more and more armament, equipment, and armor had been added, with no corresponding increase in engine power. With the weight reduction and more powerful engines, it also had a much longer range than earlier models. 1250 B-24L aircraft were built at Willow Run.
The B-24M was the last large-scale production variant of the Liberator. Apart from a new tail turret, the B-24M differed little from the B-24L. The first B-24Ms were delivered in October 1944, and by the end of its production in 1945, Willow Run had built 1677; 124 Ford-built B-24Ms were cancelled before delivery.
Ford had switched over to the single-tailed B-24N in May 1945, but the end of the war in Europe in the same month brought a rapid end to Liberator production; the contract with Ford was officially terminated on 31 May 1945 and orders for 5168 unbuilt B-24N-FO bombers were cancelled as well. The delivery of seven YB-24Ns by Ford in June 1945 marked the end of Liberator production at Willow Run.
Although Ford had an option to purchase the plant once it was no longer needed for war production, the company declined to exercise it, and ended its association with Willow Run. Eventually, the plant fell into the hands of the company's archrival, General Motors.
Kaiser takes control
After war production ended, the plant was sold to the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, a partnership of construction and shipbuilding magnate Henry J. Kaiser and Graham-Paige executive Joseph W. Frazer. The plant produced both Kaiser and Frazer (automobile) models, including the compact Henry J, which with minor differences was also sold through Sears-Roebuck as the "Allstate."
Willow Run produced 739,000 cars as part of Kaiser-Frazer and Kaiser Motors, from 1947 through 1953, when after years of losses, the company (now called Kaiser Motors after Frazer's exit from the partnership) purchased Willys-Overland and began moving its production at Willow Run to the Willys plant in Toledo, Ohio; Kaiser Motors would give up on the passenger car business in 1955. (Kaiser Motors became Kaiser Jeep in 1962, and would be purchased in 1970 by American Motors, which in turn became part of Chrysler Corporation in 1987, as the Jeep-Eagle division.)
Although Willow Run is synonymous with the Liberator bomber, B-24s were not the only planes manufactured at Willow Run. As the U.S. Air Force struggled to expand its airlift capacity during the Korean War, Kaiser-Frazer built C-119 Flying Boxcar cargo planes at Willow Run under license from Fairchild Aircraft, producing an estimated 88 C-119s between 1951 and 1953. Kaiser also built two C-123 Provider airframes at Willow Run, which were scrapped before delivery, as a procurement scandal involving the company put an end to any chance for future Air Force contracts.
General Motors operations
Later in 1953, after a fire on August 12 destroyed General Motors' Detroit Transmission factory in Livonia, Michigan, the Willow Run complex was first leased to GM, and eventually sold to it, with the salvaged Hydramatic transmission tooling and machinery relocated to Willow Run, and put back into production just nine weeks after the fire.
Over the years, GM expanded the bomber plant by roughly half, into a nearly 5,000,000 square feet (460,000 m2) GM Powertrain factory and engineering center; a parcel of land to the south of Powertrain was set aside for assembly operations that began in 1959, including a Fisher Body plant that built bodies for the Chevrolet models assembled there, including the Corvair and Nova. In 1968, General Motors began reorganizing its body and assembly operations into the GM Assembly Division (GMAD). GMAD required 16 years to completely absorb Fisher Body's operations, and Fisher would manufacture bodies at Willow Run Assembly until the 1970s; vehicles would roll off the line there until 1992.
By the time General Motors entered bankruptcy in 2009, manufacturing and assembly operations at Willow Run had dwindled to almost nothing; the GM Powertrain plant closed in December 2010 and the complex passed into the control of the RACER Trust, which is charged with cleaning up, positioning for redevelopment and ultimately, selling properties of the former General Motors.
MARC and Willow Run Laboratories
On the other side of the airport from the assembly plant were a group of World War II hangars, which were sold to the University of Michigan in 1946. The university operated the Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (MARC), later known as Willow Run Laboratories (WRL), from 1946 to 1972 at Willow Run. MARC and WRL produced many innovations, including the first ruby laser and operation of the ruby maser, as well as early research into antiballistic missile defense and advanced remote sensing. In 1972, the University spun off WRL into the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan, which eventually left Willow Run for offices in Ann Arbor.
Willow Run as a community and in sociology
Even with people driving 100 miles or renting every spare room between Ann Arbor and Grosse Pointe, the sheer size of Willow Run led inevitably to a housing shortage. Because of the crying need for shelter, the Federal Public Housing Administration went to work. Eventually, a compromise was reached; the Federal Public Housing Administration would build temporary housing, dormitories for single people and dwellings for family groups. This housing could be built on the land north of Michigan Avenue and south of Geddes Road, with the eastern boundary along Ridge Road and the western following Prospect Road to Clark, then along Clark to Harris Road. This covered 90 parcels of land totaling 2,641 acres (1,069 ha).
In February 1943, the first dormitory was opened; Willow Lodge consisted of fifteen buildings containing 1,900 rooms, some single- and others double-occupancy, with room for 3,000 people. Meanwhile, trucks, carpenters, plumbers and electricians worked until there were temporary "flat-top" buildings that would provide homes for 2,500 families. Some of these were ready for tenants in June 1943 and the project was finished later that year. This part of Willow Run was known as "the Village." The flat-tops contained four, six, or eight apartments with one, two, or three bedrooms.
The "West Court" buildings had peaked rooftops and its units were built for couples, or three adults. Of the 1,000 apartments in West Court, some had no bedrooms and were called "zero bedroom" apartments, and the rest had one bedroom. The first of these apartments was ready for occupancy in August 1943. Another large dormitory project, containing 1,960 rooms and known as West Lodge, was also ready for tenants at that time.
By the end of 1943 there were six different temporary projects in the vicinity of Willow Run: two dormitory projects, two trailer projects (one renting trailers, and another for privately owned trailers; each with community laundry, shower, and toilet facilities), and two projects with apartments for couples or families, West Court and the Village. Between them, there was shelter for more than 15,000 people, or roughly, the number of people living in Ypsilanti at the time. 
Sociologist and professor Lowell Juilliard Carr of the University of Michigan studied the sociological conditions at Willow Run arising from the wartime surge in the worker population in his landmark book of 1952.
Redevelopment efforts and the Yankee Air Museum
The airfield, owned by the Wayne County Airport Authority since 2004, continues to operate as the Willow Run Airport and is primarily used for cargo and general aviation flights. The Yankee Air Museum resides on the airport grounds, occupying as of April 2013 a 47,000 square feet (4,400 m2) hangar and other properties.
In April 2013, the Detroit Free Press confirmed that the facility's current owner, RACER Trust, was negotiating with the Yankee Air Museum to preserve a small portion of the original bomber plant as a new home for the museum. Yankee was originally granted until August 2013 (deadline was later extended) to raise the funds needed to purchase and separate a portion of the approximately 5,000,000 sq. ft. building, which later became the GM Powertrain facility. The museum would consolidate operations scattered on various parcels at Willow Run, and the Trust expects to clear the remainder of the plant for redevelopment. The 175,000 sq. ft. portion of the original bomber plant that Yankee seeks to preserve is less than 5% of the massive facility, comprises the end of the former B-24 assembly line at the far eastern edge of the property, and contains the two iconic bay doors from which the finished Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers exited the plant during WWII.
The campaign to save a portion of Willow Run for the Yankee Air Museum is called SaveTheBomberPlant.org, and is centered on a fundraising website by the same name. The campaign has attracted national, and even international, attention from media outlets that include many major news dailies in the U.S. as well as National Public Radio, The History Channel magazine, National Geographic TV, The Guardian (UK), and the (UK) Daily Mail.
Building owner RACER Trust extended the original fundraising deadline (Aug. 1, 2013) a total of three times since the Yankee Air Museum launched its SaveTheBomberPlant.org campaign. The first two extensions were to Oct. 1, 2013, and then to Nov.1, 2013. On October 26, 2013 RACER Trust and the Yankee Air Museum again reached a third, and final, deadline extension agreement that gave Yankee until May 1, 2014 to raise the $8 million estimated as necessary to secure, enclose and preserve a portion of the original Willow Run plant for the Yankee Air Museum. The majority of the $8 million goal reflects separation costs to make the preserved portion of the plant viable as a standalone structure. RACER Trust has been supportive of the campaign, even reconfiguring engineering and demolition plans to save cost for the museum.
At the time of the May 1, 2014 deadline, the Yankee Air Museum had raised over $7 million of its original $8 million fundraising goal, which was enough to enable the building's owners to move forward with signing a Purchase Agreement with Yankee, with the actual purchase expected to be finalized in late summer or fall of 2014.
Meantime, the remaining portion of the Willow Run property, which includes over 95% of the historic original bomber plant building, has been optioned to Walbridge, Inc. for redevelopment as a connected car research and test facility. RACER will demolish this portion of the building prior to turning the property over to Walbridge.
Demolition of the majority of the Willow Run facility has been underway since December 2013, with much of the plant already gone, with the exception of the portion that the Yankee Air Museum hopes to purchase.
Chapel of Martha and Mary
Henry and Clara Ford dedicated a series of churches, the chapels of Martha and Mary as a perpetual tribute to their mothers, Mary Ford and Martha Bryant. The Fords built seven of these: The first at Greenfield Village, Michigan, was completed in 1929. The others, completed in the 1930s, were located in Dearborn, Michigan (site of the Fords' Fair Lane estate); Sudbury, Massachusetts; two in Richmond Hill, Georgia (the Fords' winter home); Macon, Michigan; and Willow Run.
The Willow Run chapel was the one originally built for Camp Willow Run, and became the place of worship for the Belleville Presbyterian Church in 1979 after a series of handoffs. After the war, Ford sold the chapel to Kaiser-Frazer, who in turn sold it to General Motors as part of the purchase of the Willow Run bomber plant. GM used the building to store files until an undetermined time, where it was sold to the Cherry Hill Baptist Church. When Cherry Hill outgrew the little chapel and decided to build a new church, it sold the chapel to the Belleville Presbyterian Church for one dollar in July 1978.
The Willow Run chapel of Martha and Mary now stands a few miles from where it was originally constructed and on property that used to be owned by Henry Ford's Quirk Farms. Of the seven chapels, this is the only one currently in use as a regular place of worship. It still has the original pews and other furnishings; the only other set in active use belongs to the Greenfield Village chapel.
- Chevrolet Corvair
- Willow Run Airport
- Willow Run Assembly
- Willow Run Transmission
- World War II aircraft production
- Yankee Air Museum
- Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Collection
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- Save The Bomber Plant – Information and fundraising site for Yankee Air Museum's effort to save a portion of the Willow Run Bomber Plant
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- Save The Bomber Plant Information and fundraising site for Yankee Air Museum's effort to save a portion of the Willow Run Bomber Plant
- A Bomber An Hour
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