Yankee Air Museum celebrates World War II icon
Women were half of the 42,000-person work force in World War II when the Willow Run Bomber Plant produced a B-24 bomber at the astonishing rate of one each hour. Those workers later were nicknamed Rosie the Riveter — a female work force that launched swee
Women were half of the work force in World War II when the Willow Run Bomber Plant produced a B-24 bomber.
Ford Motor Co., which built the Willow Run and Bomber Plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan, produced 8,685 bombers on a mile-long assembly line between 1942 and 1945. Many were used in the critically important but little-known China Burma India Theater of World War II.
Ford’s was the first aircraft manufacturing process to use the company’s automotive mass-production process. Previously, it took one month to build an aircraft.
The 2014 book “The Arsenal of Democracy” by A.J. Baime details the incredible contribution of the automotive industry to the Allied victory in World War II.
When the Bomber Plant was active, it was originally 240 million square feet — the largest building in the world. Although much of it has been torn down, part of it is now the Yankee Air Museum — which is undergoing renovation and fundraising so it can become the National Museum of Aviation and Technology. It is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
In addition to its 20 planes, aviation exhibits and special events, it offers flights on the C-47 Skytrain, an air transport plane carrying 12 passengers. The “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was the first plane purchased by the air museum, which also has two other C-47s, including “Hairless Joe,” which has a big question mark on its tail.
The question mark is there because the men operating the plane were not permitted to talk about the reason a long pole with a hook was on the side of its fuselage. The pole on the C-47 was used to launch gliders in the China Burma India Theater. The C-47 would swoop in close to the ground at 135 mph, then the hook would be deployed to snag a ground-based Waco glider to tow it to an operational altitude, where it would be set free.
In 1944, the group designated as the 1st Air Commando Group, flew missions over the Himalayas, commonly called the “Hump.”
Burma, now called Myanmar, was controlled by the Japanese, who cut off the use of the vital Burma road for getting supplies into China. Flying over the Hump became the supply route for 13 C-47s and 100 CG-4A Waco gliders.
Climb aboard “Hairless Joe” in the Yankee Air Museum to see how 12 passengers are seated between its windows with their backs to the side of the plane. Seat belts are big and bulky but do the job, but it’s hard to imagine the lack of comfort compared to a modern aircraft.
The aircraft is in front of two 45-foot tall doors, which operate like garage doors. They’re the original doors through which the newly built B-24 bombers were driven to the runway. Today those same doors open to the C-47 so it can take passengers on to the runway for take-off.
Those who are especially agile cab climb into a bomber to see how they were operated during the war. It’s not an easy exercise to reach the plane’s seats in the nose.
Rides aboard the B-17 and B-25 bombers, the C-47, a Waco biplane and Huey helicopter used in Vietnam are available, weather permitting, between April and October. They can be booked on the Yankee Air Museum’s website, yankeeairmuseum.org.
The Willow Run Bomber Plant also claims the origin of Rosie the Riveter, which became a World War II touchstone after thousands of women joined the workforce to replace the men serving in the military. The effort launched sweeping social change.
A cadre of volunteers known as Tribute Rosies tell their stories at the museum.
Many of the women who held men’s jobs liked the work and the paycheck and chose to continue working after the war was over.
In the summer, the Purple Rose Theater in nearby Chelsea introduced an original musical, “Willow Run,” based on the challenges, sacrifices and triumphs of four women from diverse backgrounds who met at the bomber plant to do their part for the war effort. The production played to soldout
A Yankee Air Museum volunteer tells the story of Rosie the Riveter, the World War II icon who originated with the thousands of women building bombers at Willow Run in World War II.
Students from the Michigan Institute of Aviation Technology work to restore a Boeing B52D that flew 600 combat missions in Vietnam.
This C-47 Skytrain awaits the boarding of passengers for a flight from the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run in Ypsilanti, Michigan.