Arsenal of Democracy

By Denis LeDuc

Imperial Japan had invaded China in 1937 and threatened to overrun all of Asia and the Pacific. The genocidal regime of Adolph Hitler and the German Nazis had invaded Poland in 1939. Having perfected a new type of tank warfare called “blitzkrieg,” the brutal German Army had conquered all of Continental Europe and only Great Britain held out against them. By 1940, the dark clouds of World War II had engulfed all of Europe and Asia, and America was completely unprepared for war.

On December 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on national radio and delivered one of his famous “Fireside Chats” to the nation. As men and women across the country leaned close over their radios, he said that “Some of us like to believe that, even if Britain falls, we are still safe, because of the broad expanse of the Atlantic and Pacific.” He refuted this policy by going on to say that, with modern aviation technology, “planes could fly from the British Isles to New England and back again without refueling.” He declared that America, with its great manufacturing capacity, “…must become the great arsenal of democracy.” Henceforth no city would be more associated with that term than Detroit, the great hub of the American auto industry. We had the factories, skilled die makers, tool makers, and engineers for mass production of weapons, trucks, planes, and tanks.

In 1940, the nations’s tank program was non-existent. On August 15, 1940 the government contracted with Chrysler Corporation to build the country’s first government-owned, contractor-operated industrial plant in Warren, known as the Detroit Tank Arsenal. Spanning five city blocks and two wide near what is now I-696 and Mound Roads, Warren became the birthplace of American tank warfare. The plant had not even been finished when the first Sherman tank rolled off the assembly line. The Detroit Tank Arsenal was an impressive feat of engineering and construction. Thousands of Sherman tanks, produced in Warren, were sent to the American Army and to our allies.

On December 7, 1941, “A date which will live in infamy,” Japan launched a surprise aerial attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and America declared war on Japan. By December 11, America was at war with Germany and Italy, and one half of the world’s population was now in conflict. Production at the Detroit Tank Arsenal rose to a total of five assembly lines and, at peak, 900 Sherman tanks a month, as you can see in this 1942 photo of the production floor. In all, the United States out produced Germany in tanks 8 to 1. Had America not so successfully mass produced Sherman tanks, it may have lost the war.

It was at this time that thousands of women joined the industrial workforce. Not only did they give their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers to the war effort, but they also gave their talent, time, and energy both in uniform and on the home front. The hard skilled labor of women was symbolized by “Rosie the Riveter,” a woman factory laborer like the one above seen working in quality control checking tank shells.

After the war and the success of the Arsenal of Democracy, American industry, culture, and the role of women in society, was forever changed. Warren, and the County of Macomb would never be the same again.

Photos courtesy of the U. S. Army TACOM historical archives 1942 & 1943.

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