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A small part of a historic WWII aircraft factory saved for use as a museum

May 2020

Willow Run Bomber Plant

The campaign to save a small part of the historic Willow Run Bomber Plant near Detroit, Michigan, has succeeded and now the restoration project is underway.

While the majority of the 3.5 million square foot World War II bomber plant has been demolished, the 144, 000 square foot roll-out hangar was saved and will become the new home for the Yankee Air Museum, currently located on the opposite side of the Willow Run Airport.

The Willow Run Bomber Plant began producing aircraft for the war in 1941, and at its peak, produced one B-24 Liberator bomber every hour.  It was considered one of the finest and most ambitious production facilities, being the first plant to build bombers on an assembly line

As a part of Detroit’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” Henry Ford, his engineers and the approximately 42, 000 line workers, many of whom were women.  Referred to as “Rosies”, as in “Rosie the Riveter,” they were at the front of the social change sweeping across liberal democracies, offering expanded opportunities for women, along with equal pay for equal work

The plant and an adjacent airfield were all built in less than a year on farmland owned by Henry Ford.  The Ford Motor company used their own money to build the factory, then sold it to the government, which then leased it back to the company for the duration of the war

The Detroit Industrial Expressway, now more commonly known as I-94, opened in 1942, providing workers with easy access between the plant and Detroit.  Some workers chose to find accommodations closer to the plant, but by late 1942, it became necessary to build additional housing.  The resulting Willow Village was built on 2600 acres of land north of Michigan Avenue and south of Geddes Road

The plant would go on to produce more than 8,600 B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft, almost half of all the Liberators produced for the war effort, between October 1941 and May 1945

After the war ended, the Ford Motor Company was given the first right of refusal to re-purchase the Willow Run plant.  Ford declined, so the plant was sold to the Kaiser-Fraser Corporation, where both Kaiser and Frazer automobiles were manufactured

Kaiser-Frazer also produced around 88 C-119 Flying Boxcar cargo planes at Willow Run for the U.S. Air Force, between 1951 and 1953, for use during the Korean War

The plant was sold to General Motors in 1953 when Kaiser-Frazer, now known simply as Kaiser Motors, re-located their operations to Toledo, Ohio

GM would eventually expand the size of the former bomber plant to 5 million square feet

In addition to making automatic transmissions, GM also produced the M16A1 rifle and the M39A1 20mm auto-cannon for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War

Production continued at Willow Run until December 2010, when General Motors sold the plant as a part of their bankruptcy re-organization, although GM leased a portion of the plant as a parts distribution facility.

The property was turned over to RACER Trust (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response), for clean-up and re-development of the property

To do that, the new museum will use the excitement that can be generated by the flyable historic aircraft and their stories as a means of igniting interest (especially among children and youth) in the underlying science and technology of flight. These new extensions of the museum’s storyline will also include educational and career exploration components aimed at giving young visitors a sense of the opportunities in the STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Math) fields and educational paths to those opportunities.

The Yankee Air Museum was established at Willow Creek in 1981, to preserve and educate future generations about Michigan and Detroit’s World War II military aviation heritage.

A fire in October 2004 destroyed the museum’s original building, one of the former U.S. Army Air Force hangars, along with most of its artifacts.  A B-52 Stratofortress and other aircraft on static display outside the hangar due to their size, were spared from the fire.

The following year, the museum moved to the other side of the airport and began rebuilding their collection.

With the acquisition of the former bomber plant, the museum is preparing to move again, back to a more appropriate building.


Willow Run Airport

The airfield is still active as the Willow Run Airport.  Passenger airline service for Detroit began moving to Willow Run from the Detroit City Airport in 1946.

The airport was sold to the University of Michigan in 1947 for use as a research facility, while maintaining passenger service.  The Michigan Aeronautical Research Center, later re-named the Willow Run Research Center, took over the buildings not needed for aviation usage.  The research centre conducted national defence research, including early work on anti-ballistic missile defence systems and remote sensing, using physicists and engineers from the University of Michigan.

The facility would later become the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan after separating from the university in 1972.

Until 1958, Willow Run was the destination for almost all of Detroit’s scheduled airline service, but it proved insufficient for the Jet Age, so passenger service re-located to the Wayne County Airport, now known as the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

Willow run now serves as an airport for cargo, corporate and general aviation clients.


Willow Run Air Force Station

The U.S. Air Force also made a brief return in 1951, establishing the Willow Run Air Force Station.  Becoming operational on 7 April 1952, the Willow Creek AFS served as the Headquarters of the 30th Air Division, under Air Defense Command, along with a Manual Air-Defense Control Center for tracking and control of aircraft in the defence of North America.

Willow Run AFS closed in April 1959, and the land used by the station was sold to the University of Michigan. 

The former Air Force operations building and two smaller buildings remain and are used by the university, but all the other buildings have been demolished.

Additionally, the U.S. Air Force stationed the 472nd Reserve Fighter-Bomber Squadron at the Willow Run Airport, where they flew T-33 jet trainers and F-80 and F-84 jet fighter-bombers, from early 1956 until the squadron stood-down in the fall of 1957. The Willow Run detachment of the 2242nd Air Reserve Flying Center, which provided administrative and logistical operation of the 472nd, also stood down at the same time.

Sources: https://www.savethebomberplant.org, https://www.savethebomberplant.org/the-new-yankee-air-museum, https://yankeeairmuseum.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willow_Run, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willow_Run_Air_Force_Station, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yankee_Air_Museum

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/a-small-part-of-a-historic-wwii-aircraft-factory-saved-for-use-as-a-museum/

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