While reading the morning news I noticed an article that talked about the role that industrial mobilization has played in combating the coronavirus pandemic. Industries from the pharmaceutical companies, logistic and delivery organizations, manufacturers of syringes/swabs/alcohol pads/etc., refrigeration companies… and the list is quite long. The article compared the response of US industry to that of the mobilization that was such a key role in the Allied victory of World War II. The article implied that US auto companies produced cars one day and tanks the next. Were it that easy.
I became interested in such things after reading Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” that covered World War II from North Africa, to Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and the remainder of the War in western Europe. If my memory serves me correctly, it was during the battle at Anzio, Italy that America’s production and logistics capability was shown in high relief. During the counter attack, the German forces reach a point where they were within range of artillery, naval gunfire, and bombers from England. It is estimated that the German forces encountered a combined bombardment of 20,000 tons per minute of warheads raining down upon them.
Not long after I came across Arthur Hermann’s book, “Freedom’s Forge.” From the publisher’s website: “Freedom’s Forge reveals how two extraordinary American businessmen—General Motors automobile magnate William “Big Bill” Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser—helped corral, cajole, and inspire business leaders across the country to mobilize the “arsenal of democracy” that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II. Drafting top talent from companies like Chrysler, Republic Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and Frigidaire, Knudsen and Kaiser turned auto plants into aircraft factories and civilian assembly lines into fountains of munitions. In four short years they transformed America’s army from a hollow shell into a truly global force, laying the foundations for the country’s rise as an economic as well as military superpower. Freedom’s Forge vividly re-creates American industry’s finest hour, when the nation’s business elites put aside their pursuit of profits and set about saving the world.”
“In four short years” – might lead someone to assume that given the war ended in 1945, that the mobilization of industry began in 1941. But Bill Knudsen’s efforts began in 1938 even as he was President of General Motors. In 1940 he was appointed to a special office by President Roosevelt, and hit the ground running. Well before the United State’s entry into the war in December 1941, Ford and Chrysler factories were already producing the B-17 bomber, Hawker Hurricane fighters, tanks, and other was materials for the British. And were learning. The first B-17 production cycle required 60,000 man hours to produce a single plane. By December 1941, the effort was reduced to 12,000 man hours. You might have wondered if the Henry J Kaiser is associated with Kaiser Permanente Insurance – it is and that too is an interesting story.
But the story is also more than a tale of the industrial and engineering prowess of our country. It is also the story of leadership and vision to do what was needed. The looming threat of Nazi Germany was on the horizon by 1938. President Roosevelt took initial action to appoint Knudsen to be the one to “herd the cats.” It is a story of far more than changing a production line at an auto factory.
“Freedom’s Forge” is not a spy-thrilling page turner and it is not an academic exploration of details and statistics. It is tale well told that moves along that places a premium on leadership, vision, and the depth of the skills and abilities of our citizenry.