Swift Wings, Swift Action: Willow Run Bomber Plant Fights for its Future

Posted on: July 1st, 2013 by Paulina Tam

An interior look of the portion of the Willow Run Bomber Plant that is waiting to be rescued, renovated, and resurrected so it could continue to tell stories of the Second World War. Credit: Dennis Norton
An interior look of the portion of the Willow Run Bomber Plant that is waiting to be rescued, renovated, and resurrected so it could continue to tell stories of the Second World War.

Many places -- and many hands -- contributed to the war effort during the Second World War, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. One exceptional story: the Willow Run Bomber Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which not only housed mass production for military aircraft, but also employed women to rivet those planes together.

Willow Run Bomber Plant, a factory built by the Ford Motor Company, covers five million square feet and is said to be the “largest plant under one roof in the whole world,” says Ray Hunter, Chairman of the Board at the Yankee Air Museum in Belleville, Michigan.

42,000 workers worked in Willow Run to create the “Consolidated B-24 Liberator,” a heavy bomber used extensively throughout WWII that's said to be the most-generated American aircraft used for war.

“The Willow Run Bomber Plant was the primary, most visible piece of the ‘Arsenal of Democracy,’ churning out about 8,700 B-24s (Liberators) in two and half years,” says Dennis E. Norton, president of the Michigan Aerospace Foundation, an organization that functions as the planning and funding portion of the Yankee Air Museum.

But production of the B-24s has long since come to a halt, and so too might Willow Run Bomber Plant’s future.

The RACER Trust, a part of General Motors that functions as the firm’s disposal head for deserted properties, has decided to dismantle the plant. The good news: It's given the Michigan Aerospace Foundation, Yankee Air Museum, and SaveTheBomberPlant.org campaign co-chairmen Astronaut Jack Lousma and GM Executive Bob Lutz an opportunity to raise $8 million to save a portion of the plant by August 1, 2013.

The B-25D Mitchell “Yankee Warrior,” one of many flyable aircrafts of the Yankee Air Museum and in need of a permanent residence. Credit: Dennis Norton
The B-25D Mitchell “Yankee Warrior,” one of many flyable aircrafts of the Yankee Air Museum and in need of a permanent residence.

Saving Willow Run will open many doors to the Yankee Air Museum and as well as the public.

“The big part of our theme is to get everybody under one roof, and the Bomber Plant is an excellent opportunity to have a large building to serve not only our exhibits but also provide a location for our flyable aircrafts,” says Hunter. “We got probably the best B-17 Flying Fortress in the entire world and I don’t say that lightly. We also got a B-25 with combat history and we got a C-47 Transport. These three aircrafts have won awards wherever they have flown. We think our education programs are top notch -- we can highlight not only the Arsenal Democracy but also the role of women and minorities in building a force that won WWII.”

Willow Run was one of the first workplaces during WWII where women earned the same money as men, says Hunter. In fact, Rosie the Riveter -- one of the most famous icons on the WWII homefront effort -- was modeled off of Rose Will Monroe, who got her start in Willow Run Bomber Plant. And with her came many other Rosies determined to help in the war effort.

“There is a national association of Rosie the Riveters who worked in plants all around the country,” says Norton. “They had their national convention [last weekend] in Dearborn, Michigan, just about 30 miles from here, and some of the original workers came out to Willow Run and toured the Yankee Air Museum. These are ladies who worked there 70 years ago and there were actually six of them who worked in the Bomber Plant and the oldest I think was 95 or 97. We took them over to the Plant and they walked into the Plant and told us all these stories that happened in there. To see these ladies come out here and how excited they were to come back and see where they worked 70 years ago -- that was an amazing story.

An exterior look of Willow Run Bomber Plant’s looming hanger doors. Credit: Dennis Norton

Currently, one of the exhibits in the Yankee Air Museum is the “Rosie the Riveter Exhibit.” The exhibition is funded by the family of Vina Greer, who first came to Ypsilanti by bus with no knowledge of where to live. She later worked at Willow Run for many years and eventually raised her family there, says Hunter.

Norton and Hunter understand it is going to be a major job to restore Willow Run to accomodate the public and their aircrafts.

“Everybody around here knows somebody who worked in the Bomber Plant, and these individuals who worked in the Plant, we’re losing them nearly every day -- just as we’re losing the WWII veterans every day,” says Hunter. “We intend to educate the kids of today on what their grandfathers and grandmothers did in WWII -- members of the greatest generation.”

For more views of the Willow Run Bomber Plant, check out this slideshow:

Bonus materials: To learn more about the history and role of women in the Willow Run Bomber Plant, watch Ford Motor Company's productions Women on the Warpath and The Story of Willow Run.

To learn more or lend a hand to the Willow Run Bomber Plant’s preservation, visit www.savethebomberplant.org.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Paulina Tam

Paulina Tam

Paulina Tam is an intern at Preservation magazine as well as the Features Co-Editor of The Observer at Fordham University. A WWII and aviation fanatic, she maintains a growing collection of WWII model airplanes that accompanies her hometown writing station.

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