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World's Largest Industrial Plant Drew Tens of Thousands to Willow Run

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World's largest industrial plant drew tens of thousands to Willow Run

□ EDITOR’S NOTE - This is another in a weekly series of stories on events that helped shape state history. The series will continue each Monday throughout Michigan’s sesquicentennial year. Readers may suggest ideas for future stories by writing to the Sesquicentennial Journal, The Ann Arbor News, P.O. 1147, Ann Arbor, 48106. □



Forty-five years ago this Thursday, a Sorenson-Ford dream came true.

The Sorenson involved was Charles, a veteran industrialist. The Ford was Henry, founder of the Ford Motor Company.

The two joined forces, talents and resources to build what was then the largest industrial plant in the world, the bomber plant at Willow Run. 

The dream of Charles Sorenson and Henry Ford was realized on Sept. 10, 1942 when the first B-24 Liberator bomber, “Number 1,” rolled off the production line at the sprawling complex.

Eighteen months before, there had been only soybean fields on the Willow Run site, and before that youth work camps, conceived by Henry Ford for Depression era unemployed teen-agers. But in a heroic World War II effort, backed by the federal government and the War Production Board, construction workers had thrown up a huge, L-shaped factory complex in conjunction with a gleaming concrete runway. That mammoth factory building would eventually produce more than 8,000 four-motored, 10-gunned aerial bombers which would be towed out to the runway to take off for Air Corps bases around the country.

It was January 1941, 11 months before the Pearl Harbor bombing, that Sorenson conceived the idea of a production-line bomber plant.

“I roughed out a pencil sketch of the floor plan of the plant,” Sorenson would later recall in his book, “My Forty Years With Ford.”

“It would be a mile long and a quarter-mile wide, the biggest single industrial building ever. It took us two years to build but it came through on schedule with a bomber an hour rolling out, 18 planes a day."

When that first completed Liberator was towed out to the runway 4 1/2 decades ago this week, neither Charles Sorenson nor Henry Ford nor those first orkers in the biggest factory in the world could know what they had wrought.

On that September day few could predict that the Willow Run plant would eventually employ more than 40,000 workers; that recruiting posters would be circulated around the country telling of thousands of nine-hour-a-day jobs open at the new airplane plant with single rooms in Ypsilanti available for $5 a week; that “Willow Village,” a vast housing tract for workers, would arise from farm fields near Ypsilanti; that visitors to the sprawling plant would include Charles Lindbergh, President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then-U.S. Senator Harry S. Truman, and scores of entertainers including Irving Berlin, Gracie Fields and Walter Pidgeon.

By the time the last B-24 took to the air from the Willow Run airstrip in June, 1945 the world — and Washtenaw County — had changed forever.


Willow Run's pride, the B-24 Liberation bomber