World War II began Sept. 1, 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, though the U.S. didn’t enter the hostilities until Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“A date which will live in infamy” are the now-famous words orated in a speech by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he asked a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war.
Thus began an unprecedented buildup of American industry to support the war, which lasted a few short years but produced machinery that would lead the Allied forces to ultimate victory.
The industrial effort to equip the war machine was an all-encompassing campaign that involved Americans from every walk of life and created drives for materials and resources to women filling traditionally male-dominated roles. The name “Rosie the Riveter” was given to ladies who worked in factories producing ships, planes and vehicles.
Later in the war, they became WASPs — Women Airforce Service Pilots. They trained, commanded and flew everything from training aircraft like the AT-6 Texan and the BT-13 Valiant to high performance fighters like the P-51 Mustang, the F4U Corsair and the P-38 Lightning, to heavy bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator and the B-29 Superfortress on ferry flights to deliver these impressive aircraft to front-line units.
Industrial leaders shifted production from consumer goods to war materiel, some willingly, others more begrudgingly, but all profited and gained expertise in design and technological advances.
Licenses were shared among multiple manufacturers to meet demand, which is why there are wartime Jeeps made by Bantam, Willys and Ford, yet they’re all nearly identical.
Many automakers, already well-versed in assembly-line machinery production, retooled and retrained their workers to accommodate.
Ford Motor Co. suspended civilian automobile production on Feb. 10, 1942, and focused on the war.
Henry Ford was anti-war and held isolationist views as the world became involved in the conflict and spent his time, then retired, trying to keep America out of it.
Edsel Ford, Henry’s son (with whom he fought bitterly), was then president of Ford and authorized the building of Willow Run, a 5 million-square-foot factory in Michigan that was created where farm fields once bloomed.
The site included housing for workers, and the goal was to create the first aircraft assembly line and one that would turn out an airplane per day.
Edsel Ford, battling illness, died in 1943, and under his watch, Willow Run hadn’t reached its full potential.
Henry Ford, after 24 years in retirement, returned to run Ford Motor following Edsel’s death, and Henry Ford II was released from his duties as an ensign in the Navy to assist his grandfather.
Henry Ford, as cantankerous as ever, resisted any help preferring disarray and unpredictability as his method of operation.
After a turnover in management, Willow Run produced B-24 Liberator bombers at an astonishing rate of not one per day but one per hour.
In addition to producing Jeeps and tank engines, Ford’s involvement in aircraft manufacturing was instrumental.
Other auto manufacturers were no less important to supplying the troops. Studebaker of South Bend, Ind., became a key player in military vehicle production, making trucks for the Netherlands, France and Belgium before the U.S. involvement in the war.
After America entered the fray, Studebaker built 2½-ton trucks and engines, and was the sole supplier of the M-29 Weasel cargo carrier, a tracked vehicle made to operate in mud and snow.
When aircraft engines were in demand, Studebaker stepped up making Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engines for B-17 Flying Fortresses, under license by the Wright Aircraft Co., and became the sole supplier of all the power plants for these four-engine bombers from January 1944 through the end of B-17 production in the summer of 1945.
General Motors, at the time of World War II, was a huge conglomerate consisting of numerous divisions and subdivisions, and was almost as large as all the other American automakers combined.
Thus, they were able to retool and produce everything from artillery and cartridge shells to tanks and guns. Their Allison Division, still in business today producing truck transmissions, was exclusively geared to making V-1710 aircraft engines as used in the P-40 Warhawk, made famous by the AVG — American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers — who helped defend China against Japan before the U.S. entered the war.
They also powered the P-39 Airacobra, a somewhat radical Bell Aircraft fighter, and the more recognizable P-38 Lightning twin engine, twin tail fighter.
Incidentally, while the letter “B” in the designation of a bomber stands for just that, the “P” in the fighter designation actually stands for “Pursuit.” It wasn’t until after the war that the Air Force was created and the letter “F” became the standard identifier for a fighter plane.
The Packard Motor Co. got into aircraft engine production after Ford was asked to make the Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engine under license for British Royal Air Force Spitfire and Hurricane fighters but refused when Henry Ford said he would only produce military goods for U.S. defense purposes.
Packard, long considered the Roll-Royce of U.S. automakers, painstakingly reproduced the complicated engines, incorporating changes and improvements along the way.
These massive engines became the heart of the P-51 Mustang, considered the epitome of propeller-driven fighter aircraft, and were also used to power PT boats like the PT-109, skippered by future president of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
“There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches (of Normandy, France),” Dwight D. Eisenhower said shortly after D-Day.
“To any other nation, the disaster would have been almost decisive. But so great was America’s productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our buildup.”
Nearly all goods and product manufacturers got behind the push to defeat the Axis powers but automakers were in a unique position to help and profit, from the war. Those I mentioned are just a few highlights. The technology and engineering gains went on to improve cars for the civilian market for years to come.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.