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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Last run for bomber plant?

Ford’s Willow Run aircraft plant is a monument to American manufacturing.

The factory, dedicated to building B-24 “Liberator” bombers, was the largest under one roof in the world — enclosing some 3.5 million square feet with an assembly line over a mile long.

At its peak, it produced 650 bombers a month — nearly one an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And a typical B-24 consisted of some 1.2 million separate parts!

It was the plant where “Rosie the Riveter” — the icon of American female empowerment — worked.

Today, the plant is a rusting relic, largely abandoned and due for the wrecking ball.

A small group of dedicated fans is trying to save at least part of the Detroit-area factory and is frantically attempting to raise $1.5 million in little more than a month. The “Save the Bomber Plant” has raised $6.5 million of the $8 million they need by Thursday, May 1, to buy the site.

They want to convert the factory where Rose Will Monroe and her fellow workers labored into a museum dedicated to aviation and the countless other men and women who left their hometowns and trekked to Detroit and other sites to aid the war effort.

Dennis Norton, the president of the Michigan Aerospace Foundation and one of the leaders of the effort to save the plant, wants to preserve 175,000 square feet of the Ypsilanti Township, Mich., site and convert it into a new, expanded home for the Yankee Air Museum, which would move from its current location less than 2 miles away. Included would be the iconic 150-foot-wide doors through which thousands of bombers left the plant to play their role in winning the war.

“They need an answer from us,” Norton said, referring to the trust set up to oversee properties owned by a pre-bankruptcy General Motors. “Demolition is underway, and they can’t stop demolishing the plant, then come back later.”

The B-24’s companion heavy bomber, the B-17, has gotten more publicity in the years since the war and arguably occupies a fonder place in the hearts of those who flew them. But the fact is that more Liberators were built than Fortresses, 18,482 to 12,731, and they were flown not only by the Army Air Corps but by the Navy (as the PB4Y-1), as well as the British RAF.

The early Liberators built at Willow Run had serious reliability problems, simply because Ford’s automobile experience didn’t translate well to building sophisticated aircraft, so they got a bad reputation that was hard to shake.

And the fact that the aircraft’s systems were largely hydraulics, rather than electrical as on the B-17, meant that there were large amounts of flammable hydraulic fluid present. That made B-24s more susceptible to battle damage and because of the high, thin wing, harder to crash land without life-threatening injuries to the crew.

Nonetheless, Liberators played an essential part in the strategic bombing campaigns of the war, and Willow Run was a key asset in our role as “the arsenal of Democracy.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the “Save the Bomber Plant” effort is successful in saving at least part of the plant.

If you’re interested in helping, their website is: savethebomberplant.org

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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