Chrysler helps build the arsenal of democracy: M3, Sherman, and Pershing tanks

by Curtis Redgap, Orlando. Copyright © 2006, Curtis Redgap.

Setting the stage

Also see: Abrams M-1 Tanks

Try to picture in your mind a world where there was no personal computer with its related internet. There was almost no television. Many businesses and homes had a telephone, but even those were by no means widespread, and working-class or rural people rarely had one.

dodge weapons carrier

Facsimile machines were relatively new, and their cost restricted them to large organizations such as newspapers in major cities, or the United States military, which acquired fax machines in the war budgets in 1941. News largely traveled via telegram and teletype. Newspapers were slower; type was set in lead, pictures required multiple steps to set them in a plate that could be run on a printing press (real presses, not fast offset units). Most newspaper stories were at least a day old when the paper came out.

dodge weapons carrier

Radio was not that old, but it had sprung up quickly. Only a few places, like stores, kept the radio on all the time; they used a great deal of power and the tubes had limited lifespans. A lot of stations didn’t even broadcast after a certain hour at night. Most families set aside a time at night to listen to the radio as a group. When major events occurred of course, word of mouth sent the alarm around to “turn on the radio and listen for the news.” This by itself was like a huge event, let alone the stories related by the newscasters.  

As for war, the United States of America was caught flat footed, way behind in materials, men, training, logistics, and the plain art of fighting a war.

Chrysler’s World War II efforts

Kaufman Thuma (K.T.) Keller was a total patriot. Not one item that the United States Government called upon Chrysler Corporation to develop, manufacture, or even invent, got turned away. All projects were completed, well under cost, with unparalleled quality, beyond expectations. Not once did K. T. Keller hesitate. He knew that Chrysler was the engineering company. To him, with complete confidence in his staff, no task was insurmountable. At the end of the war, this faith was redefined as the envy of the entire industry.

No one called Mr. Keller by his given name. He was always “K.T.” or Katy. The advice to anyone meeting him for the first time was never to use anything but the Katy moniker, or Mr. Keller.

radarWalter Chrysler personally hired him, and then appointed him as the President of Chrysler Corporation. Katy ran the company for his mentor and friend, as its President, until 1950, when he became Chairman of the Board, again following the steps of Walter Chrysler.

From the time he took over Maxwell Motors, later swallowing it up into Chrysler Corporation, Walter Chrysler set up an engineering department that became the envy of the industry. By the time that war came calling upon the country, the Chrysler Corporation Engineering was housed in a six story office complex. It oversaw a huge testing laboratory that had all the latest devices, methods, materials (engaged in over 30 different projects in 1941), a dynamometer building, capable of testing aircraft and tank engines, and a road testing laboratory that had as many as 100 vehicles from all the five marques built by Chrysler, along with others, undergoing various test projects.

War didn’t catch the United States completely unprepared, but the first attack left it reeling. For many, it was incomprehensible.  It was clear we were abysmally not equipped for any sort of return engagement in the immediate future. Men, materials, and machines, such as the sort that attacked us, did not exist in the numbers America needed. What we did have was outclassed, outdated, out trained, or just plain out. We had to start from scratch.

The first contract let for the War Department, specifically the Ordinance Department, was for the Army. Europe had been at war for about 9 months, since Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. President Franklin Roosevelt pushed Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act on March 11, 1941, shortly after his re-election to an unprecedented third term. Roosevelt had been elected to his second term in 1936 largely on the premise that he did not want the country drawn into war. He had sought to pass anti-war legislation, albeit not with vigor.

chrysler tank assembly linePrior to the declaration of war by Great Britain in 1939, Roosevelt had been shipping materials to assist England in the struggle against Nazi Germany. When the war officially broke out, Roosevelt increased the country’s participation by expansion of the Monroe Doctrine to include all countries in which the United States had a vested interest in protecting, in particular England. Through the Lend-Lease act, Roosevelt acquired the powers to directly send all sorts of aid, including war materials, war machines, food, metals, and all manner of war-making assets.  

With the Nazi war machine rolling relentlessly across Europe, aimed at Paris, Lieutenant General William S. Knudsen called upon K. T. Keller on June 7, 1940, less than a week after Roosevelt had called Knudsen, then President of General Motors Corporation, to service. President Roosevelt had revived a defunct function within the War Department, with a snazzy new title; Knudsen was appointed Lieutenant General and titled “Director of National Defense” for the National Production Board. (He wouldn’t receive his actual commission as an officer until 1942.)

General Knudsen asked if Chrysler Corporation would like to build “some tanks” for the U. S. Army. Unhesitatingly, Mr. Keller, who ran the company like it was his own, replied that “we certainly would.” The Board of Directors had given authority to Mr. Keller some three months earlier to make such decisions. It was obvious even in March 1940 that the country needed to rearm, and the production might of the automotive industry would be instrumental in leading the way. The board had said that “management could take any job which it could do with satisfaction to the Government and with credit to the Corporation.”

Chrysler developed a tank engine, the A65, at its own expense; it was a 1,568 cubic inch water-cooled V-12 for Sherman tanks, with 549 horsepower (net) at 2,400 rpm. It was installed in an M4A4 tank, which had to be lengthened by nearly ten inches. Acceleration and hill climbing were excellent. The tank could cover the test course using two higher gears than the existing M4A4, allowing the gear ratio to be dropped. 400 miles of test operations did not reveal any serious problems. While the engine would have been a major improvement for the Sherman and M26 Pershing tanks, it was not adopted. (via A History of the American Medium Tank, by R.P. Hunnicutt, suggested by Raymond Aurand.)

The next day, Keller selected and met with the people he felt would get the job done. When the meeting was finished, he contacted General Knudsen with the inquiry of where his people might view a tank. Knudsen suggested they meet in Washington D. C. with the Ordinance Department.

On Tuesday, Keller and his group were conferring with the Chief of Ordinance, General Wesson, in Washington. There were no tanks to view there. Wesson sent them on to Rock Island, Illinois, which was in the process of building three pilot model M2A1 tanks; the Army indicated it needed as many as 1,500 as soon as they could get them done. General Wesson had said that it would take two years to fill that order.

Building the M2A1 tanks

On Wednesday, the group viewed a pre-production M2A1 tank, without its armor. They requested a copy of the blueprints. Unfortunately, only a few extra sheets were available, and these didn’t comprise the entire tank. The group took those back to Detroit, anyway. The entire set of blueprints, weighing 186 pounds, arrived by courier on Monday June 17, 1940. 

railroadThat night, a select group of men, went to work in secrecy in the bare top floor of the Conant Avenue Plant of the Dodge Division. They had to accurately cost out making the tank, buying land, building the plant and machine tools, and setting up test facilities.

These people made cars and trucks. A tank was a totally different sort of monster. To grasp the size of it, a full scale wooden mock up was ordered. The pieces were all to be shellacked after they were cut; shellac is easily scratched, so scratches would show difficulty in fitting the parts together and more engineering would have to take place to make everything fit correctly.

The work went on seven days a week. They arrived at 8:30 in the morning, and went through to 11:00 at night. Sundays were a little shorter. They went home at 5:30 p.m.

As the work on the model progressed, they realized that automobile mass production methods could be easily applied to building tanks. However, the enormity of the building to house the production line caused consternation within the group. No such place existed, nor could any of the current production facilities accommodate such a line to build tanks, without extensive modifications. 

One of the people involved in the project traveled by the corporation’s Lynch Road plant. He noted that in storage were leftover 155 mm recoil mechanisms for big guns used in World War I. Upon looking into the stock pile, it was found that for 22 years, workman regularly went through the pile, testing all the mechanisms, while insuring that a heavy coating of grease was on the metal to protect them all. He brought this up to Mr. Keller. Very shortly, all of them were shipped to England to bolster their coastal defense.

K.T. KellerIn the process, Mr. Keller formulated an idea. He went back to General Wesson, Chief of Ordinance with the proposal that a tank arsenal be built near Detroit, to design, build, test, and repair tanks. When in the time of war, the arsenal would be open. When war was complete, then it could be set up for production of civilian cars and trucks. General Wesson indicated that perhaps the U. S. Army would have the money to build it. It would be like its own world, totally self contained, even having the ability to create its own armor.

When Mr. Keller arrived back in Detroit, he was invited to visit the Conant Plant. The model for the M2A1 was done. It was a marvel; not one scratch in the shellac was to be found on any piece in all of the model. It fit together perfectly. It would now only need the proper machine tools to make the parts exactly the same way, along with a proper production line to fit them together.

The secret group then finished their project. On July 17, 1940, exactly one month after receiving their orders, they delivered the cost estimates for the M2A1 tank.

The Army reviewed the estimates. Chrysler had figured on a production ability of 10 tanks per day. After review, the Army said it could pay for 5 a day. They also said that the armor plating tools and related machinery would not be included.

Refiguring the estimates, Chrysler put a cost per tank of $33,500. The corporation was protected by an escalator clause which would offset this price should labor and material costs go up. Chrysler then issued a letter of intent back to the government that said it would be able to furnish 1,000 tanks by August of 1942. The arsenal proposed by Chrysler, then accepted by the Army, was to be completed by September 15, 1941. The Army would pay for the land and the building.

Through a joint search, the spot for the arsenal was located, 17 miles from Detroit, in Warren Township Michigan, which was a rural farming area. The only buildings on the 113-acre site were a house and a barn that were not owner occupied, then being used as a rental property. War was still 19 months away.


After the Lend-Lease Act, Congress passed some large appropriations aimed at the defense of the United States. From intelligence gathered through observations of the Nazi “Blitzkrieg,” the Army decided to reorganize the infantry and cavalry along the lines of the armored forces of Germany.

On August 28, 1940, the M2A1 tank was declared obsolete, and not good enough to face the forces of any proper tank producing country. The announcement shook the folks in Highland Park. The arsenal planning came to a dead stop. We were about 18 months ahead of war.

As it stood, only three hand built models, and one wooden mock up of the most modern American tank existed at that point. The Ordinance Department said that this need not hold up Chrysler for one second. The contract would be altered later but the buildings should still be put up.

The ground for the arsenal was broken on September 9, 1940. Even as hope sprang up, huge doubts existed. No one had ever built a tank on a production line before. No one had any idea just how big the plant should be. Make it too small, and it would appear that Chrysler had scrimped on planning. Make it too big, and Chrysler would appear to playing loose with the public money.

Plans for the M3 tank were not yet made. Without them, no one really had an idea how big the arsenal should be. All this was taking place while industry was engaged in huge production orders for the British, already engaged in a fight for their lives, as well as building up Russia. The acquisition of machine tools was nearly impossible because they were already on order for somewhere else. Yet, without them, not one tank would ever be built in the arsenal that was springing up from the Warren Michigan Township ground.

The initial date for delivery of the M3 blueprints “before Thanksgiving” came and went, delays and bottlenecks then becoming the norm, rather than the exception. Despite this, about 60% of the machine tools were on order by mid-October, even though no one had a complete idea of what they might be used to build! The date had been pushed back to the end of January 1941.

Start of M3 tank production

In January 1941, the arsenal building steel was in place for the main plant. The roof and walls were hurriedly put on about a third of the plant so that a small group of foreman and superintendents could move in. The power house was not yet built, so Chrysler rented a steam locomotive, and drove it inside that area. It, along with kerosene salamander heaters, and canvas spaces made the area a little less than being exposed to the elements, but not by much. Work was done in full winter dress, including gloves. Under these conditions, using incomplete equipment, the pilot tank began to take shape. This could happen because the first set of blueprints were finally completed on January 30, 1941 and rushed to the men in the arsenal.

Near the end of March 1941, the huge machine began to take shape. Without overhead cranes, the Chrysler people had to use ingenuity to lift and fit the heavy pieces together. They managed. On that day in late March, Mr. Keller was beside himself with delight when he walked into the not yet completed arsenal building to see the pilot tank sitting ready to go.

chrysler transmission in tanksThe next day, he came back to find his tank spread out all over the shop floor! The men had to test the assembly, in particular the armoring plates. It was necessary to take it apart and fit it back together, trying to stay as close as possible to the operations that would entail the production line.

On April 11, 1941, the pilot stood at the end of the proposed production area. The arsenal looked like a no-mans-land with machines, unassembled machines, tools, building materials, workman’s stands and their tools, scattered all over the entire plant. Yet, two heavily chalked lines on the floor noted where the production line was to be, along with what tools or assembly stations were going to be along that line. On that day, the test driver started the pilot model up. Carefully, he moved it 20 feet towards the only door that it could fit through. He stopped, slowly put the big transmission in reverse, and, very carefully, he backed up 20 feet. Then he shut it down. A call was made to Highland Park.

On April 12, 1941, one day ahead of the promised delivery date of Easter Sunday, the pilot was driven out of the arsenal into the bright sunshine. Present were K. T. Keller and his Highland Park group. Mr. Keller rode in the tank as it came out of the plant. After a test drive, Keller left. We were about 8 months to war.

Near the end of April, a ceremony was commenced for the handing over of the first pilot M3 tank to the Ordinance Department for the U S Army. Many government dignitaries were present, including the chiefs of Ordinance, the chief of the Army, the Mayor of Detroit, the Governor of Michigan, and about 2,000 others.

The first Chrysler built M3 tank appears

With a roar, the number 1 tank came barreling down in front of the crowds. It snapped off telephone poles, plunged through a pond, blasted through some woods, and then blew through the old two story abandoned farm house so quickly that it almost seemed to have no effect on the crowd. Turning on itself, number 1 raced back to the house, and turned it into match stick sized pieces. While everyone thought that this was the end of the show, suddenly, blasting out through the arsenal exit came tank number 2, blazing away with its guns all firing. The number 2 pilot had been built in a few hours by the full compliment of the 230 employees. Together the two tanks, complete to the last detail, put on quite a show. As they maneuvered around each other, the crowds kept up a continual applause.

That first tank was shipped to Aberdeen Proving Grounds on May 3, 1941.  We were 7 months from war.

The arsenal was nearly completed in June 1941. The production line, although still awaiting all its machine tools, stood ready to build tanks. The government wanted the arsenal in full production, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It gave Chrysler until January 1942 to be able to ramp up; and in July 1942, Chrysler was given a letter of contract to build 1,600 additional tanks besides the original order of 1,000 when the M2A1 had been cancelled. We were 5 months to war.

On July 8, 1941, the first production M3 rolled out of the arsenal. In that month, six more were shipped. New personnel were being hired at the rate of 200 a day. Training was accomplished by one on one. Later in July, Chrysler was given an order for an additional 1,200 more tanks.

On August 15, 1941, the arsenal was given over to the management of B. E. Hutchinson, Vice President of Plymouth Division. Under his guidance, the arsenal went into a six day a week, round the clock schedule. He didn’t agree with the seven day a week schedule, citing safety concerns. The work force expanded quickly to meet this. On July 24, there were about 2,200 employees. On August 9, it doubled to over 4,500. And by the end of the month, there were over 6,000 people on the production lines — three of them; eventually it would be five. We were about 3 months to war.

Chrysler builds the M4 tanks and designs and builds the unique 30-cylinder tank engine

As good as the M3 was, it was not competitive with the world’s best tanks, to say the least. Norm Layton wrote, “The M3 was used by the US, on a limited basis, in Northern Africa, but [most] M3s went to the UK and Russia, and no European theater American Unit used the M3 after Gazala.
One Army Unit and several Marine units did use the M3 in the Pacifc, but by 1944, most had been replaced.”

During this period, a new tank proposal was in the works. The M4 was on the drawing board. Ordinance tasked Chrysler with the premise that it could build 750 of the new model a month. Chrysler said it could, even though it had no inkling of what it even was. It would entail extension of the 1,850 foot long production line an additional 450 feet.

Then the biggest obstacle of all was placed squarely in Chrysler Corporation’s lap.

The tank arsenal had become the showplace for the military and the government. Nothing like it existed before, and now, it was the only such armament factory.

General Campbell of the Army Ordinance Department came to tell Mr. Keller that the engine that had been selected for the M3, a Wright nine cylinder aircraft engine, would soon not be available. It would be in huge demand for aircraft, far outstripping the ability of Wright to produce it. Campbell asked if Chrysler could produce a tank engine from tools and machines that already existed within its own plants.

The only possible solution was to use engines that already existed. To bring an engine to par would take about two years. Unhesitatingly, Mr. Keller and his engineering team volunteered the Chrysler 6 cylinder engine for tank duty. Engineering put five Chrysler engines onto a common crankshaft. Mr. Keller warned the Army that such an engine had been assembled with a minimum number of changes since its application into production was the utmost need. He added that it may not just be the ideal engine for such a duty.

The multibank engine proved to be nearly ideal for the M3 and 7,500 were used. Ordinance reported that the “Eggbeater,” as it was nicknamed, proved the best engine of all. Lower maintenance, lower fuel consumption, ease of routine checks, and no loss of power over extended periods of running. It solved the engine shortage.

On December 1, 1941, the 500th tank was shipped. We were 7 days from war. After December 8, 1941, money flooded in for war appropriations. We were now at war.

The M4 Sherman tank begins while the M3 tank is produced — and Chrysler gives money back to the government

On February 18, 1942, tank number 1,100 was shipped to Russia. In March 1942, the plant assembled 366 M3 tanks at the Arsenal, dubbed now by President Roosevelt as the "Arsenal of Democracy." That same day, the M4 tank had been approved for production. The struggle for machine tools would begin all over again. All the while the production capacity of the arsenal was increasing at a rate never thought possible.

Sherman tank made by Chrysler

On April 22, 1942, one year after the presentation of the first pilot M3 to the Army, tank number 2,200 rolled off the production line. On July 10, 1942, the first anniversary of the first production line built M3, tank number 3,100 came out of assembly.

engine assembly plantIt what was a marvel of engineering might and prowess. Without missing a tank, the first new M4 completed its run down the production line with no incidents on July 22, 1942. On August 3, 1942, the last M3 tank, number 3,352, came off the production line. In December 1942, the plant broke all records, putting 896 tanks on flat cars for shipment to the Army. This was accomplished even in the face of “changing military requirements” that dictated a 40% reduction in tank production. The steel was needed to build ships.

Chrysler had built 484 tanks in November 1942. The push in December was to accomplish what had been thought as unachievable one year earlier. At the end of the 1942 calendar year, Chrysler had built 5,004 tanks, four more than its assigned goal. Because of this production, Chrysler rebated $7,876,000 back to the government. The higher production rate meant lower costs. (Chrysler managers were working for the princely sum of $5 a year, including Mr. Keller.)

Calendar year 1943 saw more of the same. In spite of the imposed decreased production schedule, the arsenal had its best year, producing 5,111 Sherman tanks, all with the Chrysler built multibank engine. Some minor engineering on the engines had increased the power up to near 670. It built 1,528 with the Continental-produced Wright aircraft engine, along with 16 Shermans that had diesels. It also rebuilt 1,306 tanks, putting them back into front line service. The total came to 7,708 shipped for the calendar year.

The Pershing tank appears with a torsion bar suspension

pershing tanksIn the beginning of 1944, a totally new design from Ordinance appeared, and it was by the far the biggest and heaviest tank yet. It also included upon the engineering recommendations of the Chrysler Arsenal designers, a totally new sort of suspension system comprised of twelve torsion bars which were completely protected by the armor plating. The wheel design was demountable without having to remove anything else, like a car, for field repair. It would also mount a 90 mm gun or a 105 mm howitzer.  

In May 1944, Ordinance requested that production schedules be set for the new Pershing at 200 a month, starting in June 1944. They also asked for increased production of the Sherman, anticipating the D-Day invasion. The new production line went into service near the end of May 1944.

On June 4, 1944, Ordinance called for a reduction in the types of tanks being built. All the services were demanding the new Pershing, to replace the Sherman. However, they were also all asking for the 105 mm howitzer mount rather than the 90 mm gun. In view of the huge demand, it was decided that Chrysler would build both types, along with the current Sherman. Two days later, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Ordinance tasked Chrysler to double the production schedule for the Pershing models, to 400 a month. It offered Chrysler whatever it needed to accomplish this goal.

The folks at the arsenal not only built 400 every month, they overbuilt, by some 150 tanks each and every month through November 1944. They began another year end push in December, and put 834 Pershing tanks to flat car shipments. In total, 6,656 tanks were built in 1944, of which 3,584 were the new Pershing models. Chrysler also sent another rebate check back to the government for $10,926,000 due to the decreased costs associated with higher production.

sherman and pershing tanksCalendar year 1945 saw a request for increases in production rates of 850 tanks a month. The goal was set at 8,832 contracted tanks for the entire year.

Germany surrendered in May and then Japan quit in August. Even so, 4,251 new tanks were built at the arsenal; but in on August 15, Ordinance sent a telegram to Chrysler canceling all tank production. Then it changed its mind, opting to continue with production of 473 Pershing tanks through 1946.

Then it was all over. The United States was flush with victory. The USA had engaged in two separate, yet complete world wars in two different parts of the world. And it had won both.

The Chrysler Corporation had used its great skill and engineering genius to make the victory complete. Without it, the war could not have been won. There were many other Chrysler-built devices that could not have been built without the expertise of the engineering staff, and included among these was the atomic bomb.

In all, Chrysler built 38 different tank pilot models. It researched 1,150 different studies adopted from Ordinance inquires. It built 25,336 tanks at the “arsenal of democracy.” While it didn’t lose any money, it showed the lowest amount of money taken in per capita than any other manufacturer, which translated into a real world figure of — zero.

By October 1945, the arsenal had been turned back over to the Ordinance department, even though it was being run by Chrysler work personnel. Later that month, some production had begun on the new 1946 model cars. Only a few were built. War was over.

(Chrysler would build more tanks for the government, spanning numerous decades.)

M-60 tanks

Sources: a personal story

Many years ago, my Dad gave me a set of four books in a vinyl covered cardboard case. I was absorbed with those books and read and read them over and over. The years passed and the books were lost. I had not thought about those books in many years, then this name popped up as I was doing background research on Chrysler Corporation and its role during the second World War. Mainly, I have always been intrigued with how the engineers at Chrysler managed to put five regular six-cylinder engines on a common drive shaft to power the tanks that they were building. There it was again, that author’s name mentioned on the site I was looking at.

I searched for the guy’s name. At the end of World War II, Chrysler Corporation published some books based upon their role in the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Chrysler stood out among the many companies that switched over to war production. This set of four books were given to my father by someone at Chrysler Corporation. There had been a small card in one of the books that had been signed by K. T. Keller, the head of Chrysler.

chrysler army tanksWesley W. Stout had been an editor with the Saturday Evening Post, which was reaching millions of people at the time. During the war, he went out on his own as a freelance writer.  I found the books he’d written for Chrysler on-line; there were the series of books that I recalled with much clarity — and three more! The last was written in 1949.

I purchased them all. It was like a piece of my personal history was being restored. They have fine black and white pictures of many of the products produced by Chrysler as well as having some outstanding color plates in them. Some of the first color plates in a book that I, as a youngster, had even seen.

You can not believe how excited I was or how I felt when I began to touch and open those old books. Like meeting an old friend that you have not seen in many years. Right at the moment then that you meet that old friend, it was like the years melted away and you just take up like you had never been away. Within two days, I had read them all. Even after all those years, I was still able to recall some of the things that I had read those many years ago. It was an amazing re-acquaintance with those "old friends" and thoroughly delightful.

The Abrams M1 tank

Major General Robert J. Sunell said in an interview:

XM1 tank... we went through the testing of the Chrysler version of the tank and the General Motors version of the tank. There was very strong competition between the two. ... The source selection board met, and the Army selected the Chrysler version. There was a lot of controversy over this because there are those who believe General Motors was the winner. I believe the turbine engine was the issue. However, we in the project were not permitted to be part of the source selection decision. The source selection committee was an outside group.

As I look back, I think the decision they made was correct. Early on, I wasn’t sure about the turbine engine because it was new. I wasn’t completely sure about how well it would do. As I look at it now, that engine has turned out to be excellent. It eats a lot of fuel, but it’s a very reliable engine, and it gives you the power you need, and it saves you space. Again, I would be remiss if I did not give General Baer the credit for bringing the M1 program from inception to full-scale engineering and development [FSED].

An interesting thing in that time period was the competition between an M1 tank, called the Abrams, or if we would have a Leopard [Leo], the German tank — in other words, a joint program, and we would have the same tank as the Germans.

... Of course, that had considerable impact on the industry, specifically Chrysler. As you know, pieces and parts of the M1 come from forty-one states and Canada. ... There’s nothing wrong with the [German] Leo [tank which was an alternative to the M1], but it didn’t have the protection of the M1. It didn’t have a lot of the other features, and eventually, the test showed that the M1 was a better tank. The test was done by Aberdeen Proving Ground not by the project.