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How Detroit Factories Retooled During WWII to Defeat Hitler

March 19, 2020 in History

By A.J. Baime

America’s largest industry shifted from making cars to bombers, tanks and more—at unparalleled speed.

Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, would never forget the moment his boots hit the sand during Operation Overlord—the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. Shortly after the landings, Ike toured the beaches, which were littered with broken, bullet-pierced vehicles. It looked like a junk yard of dead machinery—yet also, proof that the war was being won by the soldiers of the American workforce, on assembly lines thousands of miles away.

“There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches,” he recalled in his memoirs.

War is about valor, heroism and sacrifice. But the story of victory during Operation Overlord, and the broader war, is also one of industrialism. World War II was, in large part, a contest between the Allies and Axis powers to dream up ingenious war machines and mass produce them with unparalleled speed.

The D-Day invasion, for example, utilized some 50,000 vehicles of all types, well over 5,000 ships and more than twice that number of airplanes. There were amphibious trucks, tanks, four-wheel-drive troop transporters, flame-throwing armored cars, jeeps, fighter planes, bombers… No entity did more to produce that machinery than the American automobile industry, which at the time of World War II, had a larger economy than almost every foreign nation on earth.

Here’s a look back at how Detroit became the biggest war boomtown of them all.

GALLERY: The Pictures that Defined World War II

William Knudsen: ‘Gentlemen, we must outbuild Hitler’

William Knudsen, president of General Motors, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House for the first meeting about the new National Defense Advisory Commission. Knudsen traded his high-paying auto-executive job for a $1 government salary to help lead Detroit’s war-production effort.

William Knudsen was president of General Motors—the largest corporation in history—in 1940 when President Franklin Roosevelt charged him with heading up all military production in the U.S. So Knudsen gave up one of the most well compensated jobs in the nation to take on a government position at a salary of $1. Soon after, at the New York Auto Show, Knudsen gave a keynote speech that lit the flame of industrial Detroit. “The first half of 1941 is crucial,” Knudsen told a …read more


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