Local defense industry recalls ‘Arsenal of Democracy’

By: Eric Czarnik | C&G Newspapers | Published April 29, 2015

 Tank No. 1 exits the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant.

Tank No. 1 exits the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant.

Photo provided by the U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command


METRO DETROIT — As artillery and troops traveled overseas to fight in World War II, metro Detroiters who remained at home stayed productive by making the equipment needed to defeat the Axis powers.

Ron Lamparter, who owns the Defense Corridor Center for Collaboration and Synergy in Sterling Heights, said dozens of books and tens of thousands of pages have been written about Detroit’s role as the “Arsenal of Democracy” in World War II.

Lamparter said America fell into an isolationist mood around 1919 after World War I and basically shut down its entire military operation, including its research and development. Around 1929, many nations plunged into an economic depression.

When World War II began in 1939, the U.S. was initially in no position to provide direct assistance, Lamparter said. However, before the war, the U.S. agreed to make weapons and supplies available to other nations through the Lend-Lease Act, according to Lamparter.

But President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress sent the U.S. to war promptly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. As a result, the U.S. had to develop an entire infrastructure to produce ammunition, vehicles, airplanes and weapons of war.

With timing being critical, the nation turned its eyes to Detroit.

“Detroit was at that point the world’s greatest center for manufacturing because of our automobile industry. And I am talking the biggest center of the entire world — that’s not an exaggeration,” Lamparter said.

“What we did was convert the greatest manufacturing center in the world. We stopped building automobiles and started building materials to defend our country. And that was the origin of the Arsenal of Democracy.”

The switch to wartime production meant that all sorts of local manufacturers and industries were engaged in the effort. They stretched their skills to produce the food rations, bandages, clothes, bullets, bombs, vehicles and more that the troops overseas needed, according to Randy Talbot, command historian at the U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command in Warren.

“Detroit just happened to be the center of production for the military,” Talbot said. “Roughly about 50 percent of all war items were made here in the Michigan area. … We also ran the largest publishing house in the country with 2 to 5 billion pages of technical manuals.”

Some industries strayed from their normal missions to do their part, such as Singer factories making guns instead of sewing machines, he said.

But one of the biggest contributors was Detroit’s auto industry, which was mainly tasked with manufacturing fighting vehicles. Talbot said around $15 billion, or about $3 trillion in today’s money, was spent to produce more than 3 million vehicles for the war effort between 1942 and 1945.

Major automakers like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler joined factories and even “mom and pop” tool and die shops to manufacture war supplies.

“If you’re talking about some guy who’s got a lathe in his garage, he was probably … doing tool and die work for the military,” Talbot said. “Everyone was involved. It was the mobilization of the entire economy.”

In order to run the production, large numbers of people from the South migrated to work, he said. Because there wasn’t enough housing, many came in trailers and set up their own makeshift settlements.

The manufacturing effort also took organization. Talbot said the Tank-Automotive Center was set up in downtown Detroit in 1942 in order to unite the auto industry and other industries in building vehicles for the military.

But while facilities like the Russell Industrial Center built airplane wings in Detroit, major work was being done in the neighboring communities, as well. The Willow Run B-24 Plant in Ypsilanti cranked out bombers. And starting in 1941, a brand-new tank plant — later known as the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant — began producing tens of thousands of tanks in Warren.

Talbot said the Warren tank plant first broke ground in 1940 at the site where TACOM stands today. By April 24, 1941, the first tank rolled off the production line.

Between that first tank coming off the line and the end of wartime production in 1945, that one plant made an estimated 22,000 tanks, or about 25 percent of all tanks that were used by the military during the war, according to Talbot.

“When the war is over, everyone wanted to go back to the days of prosperity and civilian production,” Talbot said.

Automakers went back to producing cars, and even the Warren tank plant drastically cut down production. With the Great Depression and wartime rationing over, Americans wanted to spend on consumer goods again, he said.

“You’re talking 15, 16 years,” he said. “From 1929 to roughly 1945, if you weren’t rationed, you had no money.”

Today, TACOM performs weapons research and development for the U.S. Army — but due in part to people like Talbot, it hasn’t forgetten its roots.

“During those three, four, five years during World War II, this was the place to be,” Talbot said. “This was probably the heyday of Detroit, and that includes the entire metropolitan Detroit area, and they rightly deserve the name of the Arsenal of Democracy.”

Learn more about the U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command in Warren by visiting www.tacom.army.mil. Find out more about the Defense Corridor Center for Collaboration and Synergy in Sterling Heights by visiting www.defensec3s.com.