Made by the Ford Motor Company during WWII, "The Story of Willow Run" explains the company's role in producing the Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. Narrated by Harry Wismer, the film explains how Ford manufactured and built B-24 Liberators under license from Consolidated Aircraft Company. Production rates were so great at the plant that a new B-24 rolled off the production line every 55 minutes.
The plant began production in summer 1941; the dedication plaque is dated June 16. The plant initially built components; Douglas Aircraft and the plane's designer Consolidated Aircraft assembled the finished aircraft. Remote assembly proved problematic, and by October 1941 Ford received permission to produce complete Liberators. Willow Run's Liberator assembly line ran through May 1945, building almost half of all the Liberators produced.
In early 1941 the Federal government established the Liberator Production Pool Program to meet the projected demand for the B-24, and the Ford company, joined the program shortly thereafter. Ford Motor would not only build the bombers, it would supply the airfield as well; the farm at Willow Run was an ideal location for the airfield's runways.
Architect Albert Kahn designed the main structure of the Willow Run bomber plant, which had 3,500,000 square feet (330,000 m2) of factory space, and an aircraft assembly line over a mile long. It was thought to be the largest factory under one roof anywhere in the world. The Willow Run plant featured a large turntable two-thirds of the way along the assembly line, allowing the B-24 production line to make a 90° turn before continuing to final assembly.
Despite intensive design efforts led by Ford production executive Charles E. Sorensen, the opening of the plant still saw some mismanagement and bungling, and quality was uneven for some time. Although the Ford Trimotor had been a success in the 1920s, the company had since shied away from aviation, and initially, Ford was assigned to provide B-24 components with final assembly performed by Consolidated at its Fort Worth plant, or by fellow licensee Douglas Aircraft at its Tulsa, Oklahoma plant. However, in October 1941 Ford received permission from Consolidated and the Army to assemble complete Liberators on its own at its new Willow Run facility. Even then it would take nearly a year before finished Liberators left the factory.
A 1943 committee authorized by Congress to examine problems at the plant issued a highly critical report; the Ford Motor Company had created a production line that too closely resembled an automobile assembly line "despite the warning of many experienced aircraftmen."
Although the jumping of an automotive company into aircraft production posed these quality problems, it also brought remarkable production rates. The plant held the distinction of being the world's largest enclosed "room." The first Ford-built Liberator rolled off the Willow Run line in September 1942; the first series of Willow Run Liberators was the B-24E.
Henry Ford was cantankerous and rigid in his ways. He was violently anti-union and there were serious labor difficulties, including a massive strike. In addition, Henry Ford refused on principle to hire women. However, he finally relented and did employ "Rosie the Riveters" on his assembly lines, probably more because so many of his potential male workers had been drafted into the military than due to any sudden development of a social conscience on his part.
At the request of the government, Ford began to decentralize operations and many parts were assembled at other Ford plants as well as by the company's sub-contractors, with the Willow Run plant concentrating on final aircraft assembly. The bugs were eventually worked out of the manufacturing processes, and by 1944, Ford was rolling a Liberator off the Willow Run production line every 63 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
At its peak, Willow Run produced 650 B-24s per month. By 1945, Ford produced 70% of the B-24s in two 9-hour shifts. Ford produced half of the 18,000 total B-24s at Willow Run, and the B-24 holds the distinction of being the most produced heavy bomber in history.
A total of 6,972 Liberators were built at Ford, and 1,893 knock-down parts were provided for other manufacturers.