America took years to mobilize its war production capabilities for World War I. President Franklin Roosevelt was determined not to have that happen for the Second World War. In 1940, he turned to America’s industries and their understanding of mechanization and mass production for help.
Ford Motor Company was one of the companies that answered Roosevelt’s call. By 1941 the company’s Willow Run factory near Ypsilanti, Michigan was ready to build the military’s newest bomber, the B-24.
Willow Run would become the world’s largest assembly plant (boasting a mile long assembly line) and surpass all expectations for production and speed. Leveraging techniques Ford had pioneered to build Model T automobiles in 1913, the first B-24 bomber rolled off the Willow Run assembly line in 1942. By 1944, the plant had the capacity to produce one “Liberator” bomber every hour.
Besides innovating on the assembly line, the company employed an innovative, specialized work force.
Forty-two thousand people worked at Willow Run. Famously, among the workers were an army of women who had stepped in to fill jobs left vacant by the men fighting overseas. Whether working in Ford’s bomber factory or any of the country’s other wartime factories, the women became known as “Rosie the Riveters.” Ford had plenty of work for Rosies at Willow Run. Each B-24 alone had over three hundred thousand rivets.
On the assembly line, the wings of the B-24 proved problematic. The 110 foot span contained numerous tight spaces—spaces difficult for even the smallest female worker to reach. Further, Ford found, the few women who could fit inside lacked the arm strength necessary to hold and assemble the heavy metal parts. Ford engineers devised a solution. They hired an “army of ‘midgets’” as some referred to the dozen little people that joined the assembly line. The little people proved invaluable—climbing inside fuel tanks or wing cavities to hold plates for the riveters and making inspections of wing and other aircraft parts, from the inside.
Rosie the Riveters are an enduring icon in American history. They paved the way for millions of women to work outside the home. The little people, however, are mostly forgotten. But they too contributed. They were proud to have “real jobs,” many coming from work at circuses or in the entertainment industry. They were proud to be seen not as disabled people but as just another man or woman serving their country and helping to win the war.
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- Austin Weber, Assembly Magazine, “A Historical Perspective,” August 1, 2001 https://www.assemblymag.com/articles/83393-a-historical-perspective
- Samantha L. Quigley, ed., Detroit Defied Reality to Help Win World War II, On Patrol Magazine, December 20, 2015. https://www.uso.org/stories/112-detroit-defied-reality-to-help-win-world-war-ii
- Dave Elsila, “Little People With Big Jobs,: Solidarity Magazine, October 1997
- “Henry Ford’s Willon Run Bomber Plant—the People Who Built the Liberators, Heritage Herald, Issue 44, May 2010, http://www.heritageleague.org/files/44.pdf
- Image courtesy of the National Archives