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Preparing for War: Chrysler military production, 1940-1942

Willys-Overland Jeep CJ-2ALong before the United States entered World War II, automobile manufacturers began devoting ever greater amounts of production time to defense work, for export to Britain as well as for the United States. The Chrysler Corporation was one of the car makers most active in defense work.

As early as 7 June 1940, in an article "Chrysler Ready to Make Tanks," the New York Times quoted a "ranking" engineer at Chrysler saying that the corporation could, in a few weeks, produce light tanks as quickly as they made cars:

In event of an armament order, he explained, a new plant could be erected within a short time, probably less than a month. Meanwhile, tools and dies would be prepared for immediate installation. Machinery would be obtained by 'robbing' the automobile factories.

Later that month, on 25 June, K. T. Keller, president of Chrysler, addressing two hundred and fifty Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto dealers in Salt Lake City, discussed Chrysler's commitment to defense work:

...some idea of the production capacity of this country to meet the needs of a defense program may be indicated by the fact that Chrysler Corporation alone could take care of the entire indicated forward demands of the Army for trucks for national defense purposes.

Chrysler Corporation is cooperating whole heartedly with the United States Government in the steps it is taking in the interest of national defense. In recent weeks we have accelerated our contacts with the government on important phases of this program.

Besides the thousands of Dodge trucks and reconnaissance cars which we have already made and are now making for the Army, our corporation has been selected to handle several important educational orders in munitions products.

These orders include almost $500,000 worth of work on such items as fuse bomb noses, forging and machining shells, and the making of cartridge cases. A special ordnance manufacturing division of the corporation has been formed to handle this type of work.

We are also working very diligently on preparations for other major equipment for the Army which I do not feel at liberty to discuss at this time.

One of the preparations Chrysler was diligently working on came to light when the New York Times reported that the Army was negotiating with both Chrysler and General Motors to operate two plants to be built in the midwest ("away from possible air attack by an enemy") by the government at a cost of $14 million. The plants, the paper said, would manufacture heavy guns for planes.

Chrysler was in the news again in August of 1940 when it was announced that the British government was making arrangements to purchase four thousand tanks at a cost of approximately $200 million from American tank manufacturers. At the same time it was noted that the Defense Commission was negotiating with Chrysler to build a $16 million plant for the manufacture of tanks. Chrysler would get a 4% commission for building the factory and another 4% for building tanks. The news report stated it would take Chrysler a year to build and tool the factory but that after that time the factory would be able to build five tanks a day.

1941 dodge pickupMore information was released about a week later when it was announced by the War Department and National Defense Advisory Commiission that Chrysler had signed a contract for $54,500,000 to build a plant and a number of tanks for the government. Of the above amount, $20 million was for the factory and the equipment and $34,500,000 was for tanks. Under the agreement, Chrysler would build and outfit the factory after which time the corporation would transfer title to the government which would lease the plant to Chrysler for a dollar a year. Chrysler would run and maintain the plant for as long as the government needed tanks.

The New York Times said that the contract was unusual not only because it was so large (the second largest tank contract at the time was that awarded a month earlier to the American Car and Foundry Company for 627 light tanks at a total cost of $11 million) but because the government, by owning the factory, was back in the tank business.

Rather, they might be back in the tank business. There were problems in obtaining the machinery to manufacture the tanks. All the machinery was ordered in August of 1940 and by mid-February of the following year only a third of it had been delivered. Another third was expected to arrive on schedule but Chrysler and government officials were not sure when the remaining equipment would arrive, and tank production could not begin without all the machinery.

Chrysler master mechanic E.J. Hunt said, "The machines were not ordered just to have them handy around the house. Everyone fits into the plan." This was not encouraging news for a program which was supposed to show how efficiently civilian industry could be converted to defense production. Chrysler was not responsible for the delay and the solution was up to the Priorities Board of the OPM and the Army and Navy Munitions Boards. They were successful in resolving the problems and production plans continued on schedule.

In a story that was often retold in the press, K. T. Keller described how the tank contract came about. He was invited to the Grosse Isle home of William S. Knudsen of the National Defense Advisory Commission who asked Keller: "Will you fellows build tanks?" Keller recalled.

I said we would. And the next Tuesday, by appointment, I saw him in Washington and after about fifteen minutes of conversation agreed that we would build. Then came a session with the technical men of the War Department, next a visit to the Rock Island arsenal and a ride in a tank which astonished by its riding qualities in rough country.

We came home with 196 pounds of blueprints. It took 197 men four weeks to analyze the whole building and production layout and cost about $100,000.

We made each piece of the tank out of wood in our pattern shop and painted the pieces. We then put the whole tank together without scratching a bit of paint, a tribute to the splendid design work of the Army men who laid out this extraordinary vehicle, which has everything in it from a locomotive to a Swiss watch.

All was not perfect, either for Chrysler or for other car manufacturers doing defense work. These automakers agreed that it was a misconception that the auto companies could quickly convert to the production of airplanes, trucks, or guns, and that there was a lot of profit in defense work. In particular, Chrysler vice president in charge of operations, Herman L. Weckler, said:

We have been asked to manufacture articles ranging from small time fuses up to tanks weighing 25 tons.

Our tools and machinery are not adapted for this kind of work. We do not have a tool in the four divisions of our corporation which is suitable, for example, to fabricate airplanes or aircraft engines.

Nobody that we know in the industry wants to profiteer even if we could, but in protection of our very existence, we must be assured of proper amortization of new investments.

Suppose for example, we should put $10,000,000 in a plant to build guns, say 1,000. Once production started, the 1,000 might easily be completed in eight or ten months.

Then if there were no more orders for guns, what would we do with plant and equipment? Certainly no one could imagine that they could be written off through profits.

K.T. KellerThis did not dampen the enthusiasm with which Chrysler approached defense contracts, but in spite of their enthusiasm, Chrysler's attitude toward the work remained practical. At a preview of the 1941 Chrysler Corporation cars, K. T. Keller stressed the contributions the auto makers were capable of making to the defense program but said that it was important that the design and sale of passenger cars and trucks continue without interruption from increasing defense demands.

"I believe the introduction of new passenger cars at this time takes on a new significance," Keller said. "In the last twenty years a great change has taken place in transportation in this country which is directly related to national defense. I mean the essential role which the automobile, passenger car and truck plays in our national economy."

As the involvement of the United States in the war became imminent, the automobile industry in 1941 played a more important part than ever in the rearmament of the country. In January of 1941, it was reported that Chrysler would make parts for the B-26 medium bomber produced by the Glenn L. Martin Company. A statement Keller made at this time again reflects the confidence he placed in the automobile industry's ability to increase defense output as well as his belief that this ability was not limitless:

After we have learned what the airplane people have found out after many years of practical experience, the automobile industry may and probably will be able to improve and speed up manufacturing processes.

But any idea that the automobile industry can revolutionize aircraft production procedure is the bunk. [This turned out not to be quite true as seen in the B-29 section.]

Later in the month Chrysler leased a factory from the Graham-Paige Motor Company to produce the B-26 parts. D.A. Samson, formerly operating manager of Dodge's main plant, was appointed manager of the new plant which would produce five fuselages a day.

Chrysler was involved with more than just production. On 16 February 1941 the New York Times reported that Chrysler was developing a twelve cylinder, V-type, liquid-cooled engine which engineers hoped would move a plane at five hundred miles on hour. The paper said, "Chrysler Engineers nave worked in utmost secrecy almost a year in taking the project engine through the planning and blueprint stages." The paper also said Chrysler was experimenting with 115 octane gasoline which Chrysler found gave approximately twenty-five per cent more horsepower than the 100 octane gasoline normally used.

The Lend-Lease Act, signed in early March 1941, brought about another increase in defense production. This increase had no immediate effect on automobile production. At the annual shoreholders meeting in April, Keller said Chrysler was operating at capacity and that retail sales were approximately 33,000 units a week for the previous three weeks. He said, "We will produce more than 1,000,000 of the 1941 models. Output of the 1940 mode I was around 900,000 units. We probably will have some curtailment of production before we get through the Summer. We already are having some difficulty with materials, but this has not interfered with our capacity operations so far."

A few days later GM announced that it was making no plans for a 1943 model year car. The two other major auto makers, Ford and Chrysler (Ed. Note: Chrysler sales were greater than Ford's at this time), were expected to make the same decision. Keller said, "We have been so busy with defense work that we have not had a chance to think about 1943 models. We have not got our 1942 models out yet."

At the end of the month Chrysler was given an order for machinery to produce 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns for the Navy. Firing one hundred and twenty rounds a minute, the gun was one of the best weapons for fighting dive bombers. Parts of the gun were to be manufactured at Chrysler plants in New Castle, Indiana and Dayton, Ohio with the remaining work and final assembly to be done at the Detroit Chrysler Plant. The production schedule called for three hundred guns a month.

On 24 April the first M-3 tank which Chrysler built rolled off the assembly line. The news prompted this New York Times editorial titled "The Tanks Begin to Roll":

Out of a plant five city blocks long and two blocks wide, big enough to produce a thousand passenger cars a day and standing where there stood only the heavy gumbo of a cornfield last September, tanks are rolling in Detroit. Four months ago the pilot model of the M-3 twenty-five-ton medium tank which the Chrysler Corporation will build for the government was only a bundle of blueprints. It now rolls off the assmbly line fully armed and ready for combat.

Remarkable as is the machine itself, with its manoeuvreability over almost any conceivable type of ground and its great and versatile fire power, the swift exactness of its production and of the tank arsenal to produce its counterparts in mass construction is more remarkable still. ...Now the time of production is at hand, and the M-3 tanks from the new arsena l are symbols of a coordinated effort of mass production which will be more tremendous than anything of the kind that the world has ever seen.

While Chrysler's biggest defense jobs were the M-3 tank, Martin B-26 bomber, and anti-aircraft gun, the corporation was also involved in the production of field kitchens, refrigerators, bomb fuses, shells, landing gear for airplanes, cartridge fuses, bearings, marine tractors and tugs and assorted military vehicles such as command cars, ambulances, trucks, and weapons carriers.

The first Bofors 40-millimeter gun was completed ahead of schedule. On 27 June, two weeks before they were due, Chrysler shipped two pilot models of the anti-aircraft gun to Akron, Ohio where they would be mounted by the Firestone Rubber Company and sent to Aberdeen, Maryland for Army firing tests. Chrysler expected to begin full production, three hundred guns a month, in late fall or early winter of 1941.

The Army was obviously pleased with Chrysler's tank production, for on 21 July the War Department placed orders with Chrysler for nearly $75 million worth of tanks and parts. Since the cost of each tank was about $35,000, sources believed the order was for two thousand or more tanks.

In the fall, the War Department asked Chrysler to double the production of tanks and allocated nearly $20 million for new equipment. Even before its expansion, the plant was thought to be the largest factory in the world which only tanks.

A 27 August 1941 New York Times article by Reginald M. Cleveland, "Chrysler Swings Into Arms making," made it clear how important defense work was to Chrysler, and to the country. Cleveland began:

The curtain was lifted here today by the Chrysler Corporation on what it will mean to the United States, as the arsenal of democracy, to have the automobile industry pass from the 'make-ready' stage to production of tanks, bombers, anti-aircraft guns and military trucks."

Cleveland said that at a preview of Chrysler's activities, K. T. Keller revealed not only the 1942 car models but the importance of mass production, and its level of success so far, to defense work, and went on for most of the rest or tha article discussing Chrysler's defense work. The only other reference to the new car models was found in the closing paragraph: "The new models of Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto and Chrysler are of even more 'eye appeal' than the 1941 models."

Defense production was once again the subject of a Times editorial and Chrysler once again figured strongly in it:

This week the Chrysler Corporation lifted a corner of the curtain on its share - a $400,000,000 share -- of the industrial giant's function. It revealed M-3 tanks, weighing more than thirty tons, growing before astonished eyes on three assembly lines after the same fashion that a little passenger sedan moves from the bare frame to chassis rolling under its own power. It showed military vehicles and trucks coming off more familiar assembly lines by the thousands to perform, thanks to the application of multi-wheel drive, feats of cross-country performance which would have spelled disaster to any vehicle in the last World War. It showed assembly of the Bofors anti-aircraft gun in which the application of mass precision methods allows intricate parts to go together in seconds rather than the hours of older practices. And it revealed the same sort of quantity production thinking which before long win be shucking out nose and center sections for the Martin B-26 bombers with their 11,500 parts on a true quantity basis.

In November of 1941 Chrysler was one of three companies given a certificate of achievement by George Washington University in recognition of its defense work. It was an award Chrysler clearly deserved.

1940 was a good year for the automobile industry and for Chrysler, partly due to defense work. There was no shortages of either materials or space so the company was able to fill its defense orders without hampering automobile production. Even with an eight week labor strike at the beginning of the production year in late 1939, Chrysler by the end of 1940 boasted a production increase of over 42% over the previous year.

The following year was also profitable, but not primarily due to car sales. Threatened shortages of passenger cars did not create a demand for new cars and sales were down. While the industry managed a 1.65 per cent increase in production over 1940, Chrysler suffered a loss of 6.6 per cent, with Plymouth leading the drop with a loss of 15.7 per cent.

In February of 1941 Keller said:

This corporation is a party to the resolution adopted by the automobile industry last Autumn to subordinate its forward tooling program to the needs of national defense. So for, it has not been neccessary to curtail shipments to dealers or otherwise seriously to interfere with our regular automobile business.

This situation would soon change. In May, Keller announced that Chrysler "is now engaged on defense projects aggregating approximately $196 million..." and by August the sales of defense materials was $28,432,381, compared to none for the same time the previous year.

Chrysler's involvement in defense work, $196 million at the quarter ending 31 March, had more than doubled by the end of the following quarter, when the amount exceeded $400 million. Keller said that the fulfillment of these government contracts "is becoming our major manufacturing activity. Research and development work for defense items is taking the entire time of most of our engineering organization and our manufacturing executive staff is largely on defense work." More than just a patriotic gesture, it was profitable for the corporation.

It is clear that however surprising was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was not totally unprepared for war. Chrysler was foremost among the car manufacturers involved in the defense program which aimed at the gradual rearmament of the country, and when the United States entered World War II, easily made the transition to full wartime production.

Also see our articles on 1940 Plymouths and cars of the war years

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