America’s major automakers ceased production of new cars during World War II, but that didn’t stop the assembly lines from humming. Check out five ways the Big Three helped rescue the country’s economy and create the “arsenal of democracy” that turned the tide of victory for the Allied Forces halfway around the world.
The Allied Forces “Jeep”
After World War I, the U.S. Army began developing ideas for an agile, lightweight reconnaissance vehicle that could replace horses and motorcycles on the battlefield. Bantam was contracted to build a prototype and introduced the first army “jeep” with the Model 60.
The Army shared Bantam’s blueprints and designs with Ford and Willys, ordering all three manufacturers to produce 1,500 models. After evaluating the vehicles, the Willys MB was chosen. A production contract was awarded to Willys, and Ford became a secondary manufacturer that supplied GPW models based on the Willys design.
The Allied Forces quickly adapted the Jeep for everything from transporting soldiers and wounded personnel to supplying weapons and provisions to frontline and reconnaissance troops. Soldiers liked the speed, versatility, ruggedness and easy-to-repair mechanics of the Jeep. Its battlefield performance led to its popularity in post-WWII civilian culture.
The M-4 Sherman Tank
At the onset of World War II, the United States trailed major European powers in tank development. German tanks combined with an aggressive air assault easily overwhelmed France in May of 1940, and by the end of the year the U.S. had authorized development of a new medium tank and created armor divisions.
A Lima, Ohio, factory was converted to the first assembly plant for the M-4 General Sherman series of tanks. Intended as a replacement for the M-3 Grant & Lee tank, the M-4 was designed to be equal to, if not better than, its German counterparts. The M-4’s armor thickness ranged from 75mm to 12mm (depending on the series); it used a 75mm gun; and required only five crewmembers to operate.
Many giants of American manufacturing contributed to the more than 50,000 Sherman tanks built. Some notable contributions were the power plants from Caterpillar, Chrysler and Ford, while Buick contributed the M-4’s synchromesh transmission. GM’s Fisher Body Plant replaced auto production with tank production until, eventually, tank building and production was centralized in Grand Blanc, Michigan.
The Sherman tank was not without flaws—namely on account of its engine’s propensity for exploding. German soldiers famously nicknamed it the “Tommy cooker.” But despite its flaws, the Sherman was powerful and agile. Thanks to America’s manufacturing muscle, there was also a never-ending supply to overwhelm German forces on the battlefield.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
The B-24 was a long-range aircraft that eased the work of maritime patrols and antisubmarine and reconnaissance missions, in addition to playing traditional roles of troop transporter, tanker and cargo plane.
The B-24J was the highest-produced variant with 6,678 planes manufactured. The Allied Forces found the B-24J so desirable that they modified other models to replicate its autopilot and bombsights.
During the war, Buick ran many ads touting its role in the production of the B-24. But Ford’s Willow Run assembly plant became the main production hub for the bomber. Retooling was completed shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The makeover included an onsite runway, so that the newly constructed aircraft could be tested at the plant. When production began the plant was producing one new plane per day. Charles Sorenson, Ford VP of Production, believed that the process could be streamlined to construct a new plane every hour. He redesigned the assembly plans and in 1944 production increased so that a new B-24 Liberator was completed every 55 minutes.
Automakers saw their product lines changing in ways they never imagined to support the war effort. In addition to churning out airplanes, tanks and trucks, General Motors was a leading artillery manufacturer.
Buick built ammunition at a rate of 75,000 casings per month. Chevrolet supplied shells and gun parts. Oldsmobile plants produced 48 million rounds of artillery ammunition and 140,000 aircraft machine guns. Pontiac was tasked with making an anti-aircraft gun for the U.S. Navy to combat enemy airstrikes along with air-launched torpedoes for neutralizing subs.
Women in The Workforce
Prior to World War II, middle-class convention held that a woman’s place was in the home. All that changed as millions of American servicemen were deployed overseas, leaving the Big Three with large and lucrative government contracts and fewer workers to fill the orders.
The U.S. government soon began actively recruiting women to join the munitions industry with the “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda campaign. One of the “Rosies” most associated with this iconic image was a real woman named Rose Will Monroe who worked as a riveter at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, building B-29 and B-24 bombers for the U.S. Army Air Force.
Auto factories hired women to work on assembly lines, to drive heavy machinery and even to work under the hood as mechanics. Historians agree that it took World War II to pull the country out of the Great Depression. This was accomplished primarily due to the manufacturing muscle of the Big Three and their female-dominated workforce. Together, they not only helped produce the munitions and machinery to help the Allied Forces win abroad but also helped win the battle against poverty here at home.