YPSILANTI, Michigan (Reuters) - During its finest hour in World War II, the retooled Willow Run car factory here could make an operational B-24 heavy bomber in just 59 minutes.
Sixty-four years later the plant has reached its nadir, as General Motors Corp (GM.N) has announced that it is one of 11 plants slated to close as part of the struggling automaker’s efforts to restructure its business.
GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Monday and should emerge by the end of August as a slimmed-down entity majority-controlled by the U.S. government.
Auto workers at Willow Run have slammed the move to shutter the plant — which is about 30 miles west of Detroit and makes engine transmissions — saying the facility is one of GM’s best and can operate more cheaply than other U.S. plants.
“Anytime GM has asked us to do anything, we’ve always stepped up to the plate,” said Don Skidmore, president of United Auto Workers union Local 735, which represents some 1,200 workers at the plant. “We have made significant concessions to help make this the most flexible and most modern plant the company has.”
“The message is simple: GM has closed the wrong plant.”
Parts of Willow Run are already shut down. The rest will close by the end of 2010.
Others argue that by closing plants the United States could use during a time of war, the country is undermining its ability to produce weapons in future conflicts.
Automakers retooled plants in World War II to make planes, tanks and munitions as part of the U.S. war effort, earning Detroit the nickname the “Arsenal of Democracy.” That term was first coined by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a December 29, 1940 radio address calling for material support for American allies like Britain fighting Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.
“If we end up in another war, who is going to manufacturer the weapons we need?” asked Pat Sweeney, president of UAW Local 5690 in Orion, Michigan, about 30 miles northwest of Detroit. “People don’t realize the repercussions of these closures.”
Willow Run’s heyday came when it was owned by another of Detroit’s storied Big Three automakers, Ford Motor Co (F.N).
The third is Chrysler which, like GM, has ended up in bankruptcy, thanks to an over-reliance on pickup trucks and sports-utility vehicles, the advent of the U.S. recession and a lack of auto loans for consumers amid the credit crunch.
After the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, U.S. automakers like Ford quickly switched over production to weapons from automobiles.
“The automakers rolled up their sleeves, got their hands dirty and converted their production overnight,” said Ernie Panizzoli, who repaired plane frames during the Korean War.
Panizzoli is overseeing restoration work on sections of B-24 bombers by a group of volunteers for an exhibit for the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run airport, which Ford built in 1942 alongside the plant.
“What the automakers did was phenomenal,” Panizzoli said.
From 1942 to 1945, 8,685 bombers were made here. Each B-24 — nicknamed the “Liberator” — rolled out the door ready to fly. Famous B-24 pilots included actor Jimmy Stewart — the first Hollywood star to don military uniform in the war — and George McGovern, later the 1972 Democrat presidential candidate who was defeated by Republican President Richard Nixon.
Panizzoli said Willow Run’s wartime achievements were in large measure due to the founder of Ford Motor Co.
“Henry Ford was a funny old bird and a lot of people didn’t like him,” he said. “But he got the job done.”
“When push comes to shove, our production won the war,” Panizzoli added. “We made more planes than the enemy could handle.”
After the war the plant was taken over briefly by automaker Kaiser-Frazer Corp, before coming into GM’s possession. Ironically, GM’s current problems stem partly from making more cars than U.S. consumers can handle.
GM spent $557 million earlier this decade retooling Willow Run, an investment that workers and retirees said would be wasted if GM went ahead and closed the plant.
“It’s just not right,” said retiree Eugene Gaines, 83, who worked at Willow Run for 33 years. “They could make anything here better than anywhere else.”
Local President Skidmore said GM was closing the plant so that ultimately it could make the transmissions in Mexico.
“GM is receiving taxpayer money, so I don’t think shifting production to Mexico will go over real well,” he said.
U.S. Congressman John Dingell, whose district includes Ypsilanti, has taken up the plant’s cause, writing to GM CEO Fritz Henderson this week and asking him to “commit to this facility and its workers.”
Nick Paton, 20, joined the plant in March after two years looking for work. Soon he’ll be unemployed again.
“It’s impossible to find a job out there right now,” he said. “If it were up to me, after what this plant did in the war, I’d think this was something worth keeping around.”
Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Richard Chang