DETROIT — As Detroit struggles to save itself, it might be worth remembering that there was a time when Detroit saved America, perhaps even the world.
Many people know that the Motor City pumped out weapons during World War II. Some remember that Ford Motor Co.’s legendary Willow Run plant produced thousands of B-24 bombers that helped win the war.
Yet when Nazi Germany started the war, Willow Run was a few hundred acres of orchards. The United States’ armed forces were weaker than Romania’s.
The planes were built in a building thrown up hastily by a company at war with itself. Ford was led by a cast of characters larger and more bizarre than life: A senile founder, a street-fighting thug, and a brilliant yet tragically doomed son.
Ford raced to create the largest factory in the world and vowed to meet a challenge experts thought was impossible.
“This was a time when amazing things could happen,” A.J. Baime, author of a recent book, The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Ford Motor Company, and Their Epic Quest to Arm an America at War, told me last week. “Absolutely amazing things. Miracles could happen, and did.”
Mr. Baime, a 42-year-old Chicagoan, stumbled onto this saga while researching an auto racing book, Go Like Hell, which is to be made into a movie.
“I wanted to tell this story and also restore the reputation of Edsel Ford,” he said of the son of the motor company’s founder, Henry Ford.
Henry Ford was indisputably anti-Semitic. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler openly admired and praised him. Mr. Ford had huge manufacturing operations in Germany.
Mr. Baime also wanted to answer a long-simmering question: Was the Ford Motor Co. guilty of treason?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt belatedly had started ramping up the economy for war production. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Willow Run, soon to be a mile-long assembly line, was a shell. Workers were being hired, but there were few places for them to live. Gasoline rationing would soon make commuting difficult. And for years, Ford hadn’t built any airplanes, let alone heavy bombers that were more complicated than a car.
FDR said the nation immediately had to produce 60,000 planes and 45,000 tanks a year to survive. The nation was shocked. Experts sneered when Ford vowed to produce one heavy bomber every hour at Willow Run.
Yet Ford did it. When the war ended, Willow Run was an industrial miracle. It had produced one complex plane every 58 minutes.
To the public, the hero was Henry Ford, who appeared on national magazine covers as the wizard of Willow Run.
But in reality, the founder was a senile crank who wasn’t sure the war was even worth fighting. Insiders knew the real hero was Edsel, a gentle, tragic, cultured man, who was fighting sickness. His sadistic father preferred Harry Bennett, a corrupt, street-fighting thug who originally had been hired to break up unions.
Yet Edsel got the job done, but at a terrible cost. He died an agonizing death of stomach cancer in May, 1943. But by that time, he had put Willow Run on the road to success.
In the meantime, the government was investigating whether Ford Motor Co. leaders were in cahoots with Nazi Germany. Mr. Baime’s conclusion is that they were essentially innocent.
A bigger drama followed.
With Edsel dead and the war approaching its climax, Henry Ford announced he would go back to running the company. Ford executives appealed to President Roosevelt, who agreed to release Edsel’s 26-year-old son, Henry Ford II, from military service.
The executives gave Edsel’s son a mission: Wrestle control of the company from the old man. Amazingly, he did. In a real-life scene worthy of cheap melodrama, Henry Ford II’s top aide and Mr. Bennett faced each other at gunpoint the day Henry II took control of Ford. Mr. Bennett lowered his pistol.
I asked the author whether there was a moral here for our time.
“I don’t know if that could happen today,” Mr. Baine said.
He may have a point. Yet Detroit of the 1940s stunned the nation with improbable success. Maybe the Detroit of today can find a way to do it again.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org