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World War II Arsenal

Arsenal of Democracy, 1940's

"Keep 'em Firing" was the slogan of Lansing's Oldsmobile plants during World War II. Although the exact location of the photograph above is unknown, it is most likely from an Oldsmobile factory.

As the United States entered World War II, the US military needed weapons. Already well known for expertise in manufacturing, Michigan--and specifically Detroit--seemed the logical place to begin mass production of defense products. However, automotive industry executives were reluctant to produce for the military. During World War I, they had redone their entire production line to manufacture ordnance. Those government contracts were then canceled when the war ended sooner than expected. Additionally, Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, was not seen as pro business. To convince automakers to help the country, he created the federally-funded Defense Plant Corporation (DPC). The DPC aided factories in the changeover process. Roosevelet hired William S. Knudsen, President of General Motors, to oversee it.

Between 1940 and 1941, automakers - with the help of the DPC - slowly began manufacturing ordnance. However, public opinion was pressuring the auto industry to do even more. In February 1942, automakers ceased auto production entirely and shifted over to war materiel.

To staff such an undertaking, the auto companies turned to women and racial minorities. These groups were then given the opportunity to work for good wages in jobs denied them only months earlier. They worked in nearly every part of weapons production and helped make the Allies victory possible. They were encouraged by icons such as "Rosie the Riveter," who was modeled after Ann Arbor factory worker Geraldine Hoff Doyle (See Michigan History Magazine, September/October 1994, pp. 54-55.).

The Big Three automakers all contributed and gained acclaim for their efforts. Chrysler became known for tanks, while Ford focused on airplanes and the newly designed four-wheel drive "Jeeps." Ford's Willow Run plant produced 300,317 military aircraft during the war. (A notable Willow Run product was the B-24 bomber, also known as "the Liberator.") General Motors manufactured light, medium, and heavy tanks, tank destroyers, armored cars, amphibious vehicles, aircraft engines, and propellers. Artillery shells, such as the one in the above photograph were produced by Oldsmobile, a division of General Motors. Over the course of the war, the automobile industry manufactured $29 billion worth of war goods. It provided 12.5 billion rounds of small arms ammunition , 245 million shells, and nearly six million guns. It is no wonder Detroit became known as the "arsenal of democracy."

Larry Lankton's article, "Autos to Armaments: Detroit Becomes the Arsenal of Democracy" in the Nov/Dec 1991 issue of Michigan History Magazine was a prime source for this article. Click Michigan History Magazine to learn more about this publication and to order back issues.

The Michigan Historical Museum has an exhibit about Michigan's contribution to the war effort. Click Arsenal of Democracy to learn more. Click Michigan Historical Museum for more general information on the Museum itself.

-Nicole Garrett, Project Archivist

Click Archives of Michigan to visit the Archives of Michigan home page.

Click Archives Image of the Month to view archived image pages.

Archives of Michigan
Michigan Library and Historical Center
702 W. Kalamazoo Street
Lansing, MI 48913
Phone: (517) 373-1408

This is the Archives Image of the Month page for October, 2006.

Updated 11/03/2006.

Michigan Historical Center
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