In 1940, a Danish machinist helped jump-start America’s transformation from carmaker to weapons giant.

Sunday, May 26, 1940, was a momentous day on both sides of the Atlantic. On the beaches near the small French port of Dunkirk, a stunned Britain began evacuating troops cut off by Germany’s swift advance through France in a desperate attempt to save its army from total annihilation. It was the British Army’s worst defeat ever, and France now seemed soon to fall—along with Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. In Washington that night, Roosevelt delivered a fireside chat over nationwide radio to an anxious American public. His subject was national defense, and among his many listeners was the president of General Motors, William S. Knudsen, his ears tuned to the console radio in his modest Tudor Revival home in Detroit.

In his folksy conversation with America, Roosevelt observed that some Americans had closed their eyes to the dangers of the European conflict, believing they were safe on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, while others opposed American defense preparations for domestic political reasons. “The past two weeks have meant the shattering of many illusions,” he said.

Stung by recent criticism that the New Deal had scrimped on defense, he noted the doubling of army personnel since 1933 and the acquisition of new aircraft, tanks, and ships. He pointed out that four-engine bombers cost $350,000 each, pursuit planes $133,000, and medium tanks $46,000. More important, although only 5,640 military aircraft had been purchased since 1933, FDR announced a production target of 50,000 planes a year. While he may have been bluffing to discourage potential enemies and motivate Americans, his proposition illustrated the immensity of the defense production challenge ahead. As for tanks, he said, “in 1933 we had only 48 modern tanks and armored cars; today we have on hand and on order 1,700,” a paltry number compared with the Nazi arsenal.

“In line with my request, the Congress this week is voting the largest appropriation ever asked by the army or the navy in peacetime,” the president said. “We are calling on men now engaged in private industry to help us in carrying out this program.”

The next day, Knudsen—a Danish immigrant who had worked his way from the shop floor to the executive suite—was reviewing production reports in his office on the 14th floor of the General Motors building when his telephone rang. “This is Knudsen,” he answered. “Mr. Knudsen,” the operator said, “the president of the United States wants to talk to you.”

Over the next two weeks the two men—ideological opposites and unlikely allies in any cause—drew up a plan to completely and swiftly transform core American industries from manufacturers of civilian goods like cars and refrigerators to rapid-fire producers of tanks, trucks, engines, aircraft, and munitions. And it worked. In 1940, General Motors’ Buick Motor Car division, for example, turned out some 215,000 passenger cars at its huge complex in Flint, Michigan (plus another 95,000 Buicks at plants in California and New Jersey). By the war’s end five years later, the same division had produced 74,797 aircraft engines, 2,507 Hellcat tank destroyers, 2,952 antiaircraft gun mounts, 19,428 tank power trains, 424,000 75mm steel shell casings, and 9,719,000 20mm shell bodies.

Thousands of other manufacturers and businesses answered the call, rapidly retooling to counter the threat posed to the nation. But Knudsen and Roosevelt were the driving force; without them there would have been no miraculous mobilization of “the great arsenal of democracy,” as Roosevelt would later call Detroit. Without that arsenal, the Allies would undoubtedly have had a far more difficult, if not impossible, time defeating Germany, Italy, and Japan. Knudsen took the sometimes thankless role of armaments production wizard for a salary of one dollar a year and weathered intense political sniping to get the job done—minor sacrifices, he felt, for a country that had helped him realize the American Dream.

“All of us have a duty to perform in the world,” the plainspoken auto chief later explained.

The two men behind this transformation could not have been more different in background and politics. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a Harvard-educated Hudson River valley patrician whose New Deal programs had been at war with big business since his election to office in 1932. William S. Knudsen was a hulking, rough-hewn immigrant mechanic who had, by 1916, advanced from the shop floor of a bicycle importer in Denmark to become master of mass production at the Ford Motor Company. In 1922, Knudsen moved to the General Motors Corporation, where he built up manufacturing volumes and rose through the ranks to become company president in 1937 at age 58. Smart and quirky, he was known for spending as much time walking factory floors as in his office—and when he was in his office he usually kept his hat on because, he once explained, it helped him think better.

On January 11, 1940, Knudsen and other top GM executives presided over the production of their 25-millionth car, a 1940 Chevrolet sedan, at the Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan. He had no inkling then that two years hence, the Chevrolet Flint Assembly would be converting to war production. Little had happened since German and Soviet troops had overrun Poland in September; the press called the subsequent tensions “the Phony War.” In Washington, Roosevelt was finalizing plans to run for an unprecedented third term.

Then the Phony War ended with a bang on April 10, 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. A month later, on May 10, the Nazis invaded Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. On May 16, already alarmed by the failure of the Allied forces to halt the Nazi advance, Roosevelt sent Congress a defense budget request of $1.2 billion—a monstrous sum at the time—“to meet any lightning offensive against our American interest.” In his message to Congress, FDR warned that although the United States had long been protected from attack by the expanses of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it was now threatened by the advent of transoceanic flight. “From the fjords of Greenland,” he said, “it is four hours by air to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec, and only six hours to New England.” Ten days later the defense program ante was nearly tripled.

In some ways, “Big Bill” Knudsen—six-feet-three and 230 pounds—was uniquely qualified for the role FDR offered him on May 27, 1940. His bottom-to-top career had given him not only an intimate knowledge of mass production processes, from parts to subassemblies to assemblies, but also credibility among big and small manufacturing companies throughout the nation. In fact, as is usual in such high-level appointments, Knudsen’s nod originated with a presidential advisor, in this case Bernard Baruch. During World War I Baruch had headed the U.S. War Industries Board, while Knudsen had been in charge of Ford’s production of Eagle Boat sub-chasers. Few believed Henry Ford could fulfill his promise of building one ship a day, but under Knudsen’s management, that goal was achieved by October 1918. Workers at General Motors later coined a name for Knudsen: “the Speed-Up King.”

When Baruch put Knudsen’s name to Roosevelt, FDR responded, “Who is Bill Knudsen?”—and balked at the appointment when told he was the president of General Motors. “It wouldn’t do to have the head of the largest corporation step into that job,” said Roosevelt. “It would look as though I was prejudiced in favor of big business.” The president told Baruch to come back two weeks later with another name.

A fortnight later, Baruch had the same response: “Knudsen.”

The day after Roosevelt’s first conversation with Knudsen, the White House announced it had revived the Council of National Defense, which Congress had authorized for World War I, and named an advisory body of seven, called the National Defense Advisory Commission. Its purpose was to mobilize the nation’s industrial, economic, political, and civilian sectors to strengthen the country’s preparedness for war.

In addition to Knudsen—who, the New York Times reported, was “to be in full command of industrial manufacturing of tanks, airplanes, engines, uniforms and the multifarious items needed”—others appointed to the commission were Edward R. Stettinius Jr., chairman of U.S. Steel, “to supervise the steady flow of raw materials from mines to factories”; Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, “to coordinate employment policies in the so-called war industries”; Chester C. Davis, member of the Federal Reserve Board, “to prevent conflicts of national agricultural policy with the defense program”; Ralph Budd, chairman of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, “to take charge of all transportation problems”; Leon Henderson, a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, “to stabilize prices”; and Harriet W. Elliott, dean of women at the University of North Carolina, “to protect consumers.”

With such an august board, Knudsen’s first question to Roosevelt was hardly surprising. “Who is boss?” he asked. “I am,” Roosevelt quickly responded.

That Tuesday night, Knudsen called his wife and four adult children together in the living room for a family meeting and announced he was resigning from General Motors to work for the government in Washington. “We were stunned into silence,” recalled his youngest child, Martha McKenney. “Finally I spoke up and asked him, ‘Dad, why are you doing this?’ He responded, ‘This country has been good to me and I want to pay it back.’”

The next day, Big Bill flew to New York City to meet with his boss, GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan Jr., to whom he gave the same simple, patriotic explanation. Sloan was skeptical of the proposed government service because of GM’s numerous run-ins with the Roosevelt administration. The Feds had tried General Motors and its executives (including Sloan and Knudsen) for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, and had supported the unionization of the auto industry. But Knudsen was adamant, and it was agreed he would take a leave of absence, forego his $150,000 annual salary and matching bonus, and resign his position at General Motors after 90 days.

Right from the start, Knudsen was a popular figure with the press, which welcomed him as a “new type,” as the New Yorker reported in a three-part profile of him in 1941: “a dignified old giant of a production man who made forthright remarks in plain but vivid factory lingo.” One such remark came upon his arrival at Washington’s airport. “Can you build those 50,000 planes?” a reporter asked. “I can’t, but America can,” he said.

Knudsen moved into an office in the Federal Reserve Building near Washington’s Federal Triangle and began assembling a staff, many of them strangers to him.

There were other “dollar-a-year” industry volunteers, but there were also troublesome New Dealers with no industrial experience, dispatched from the Democratic National Committee at the direction of President Roosevelt. Most of these politicians, however, dropped out when they discovered the jobs entailed seven-day workweeks and little to no pay.

At the time, the War Department feared that Britain would capitulate and the Nazis would soon be encamped on the U.S.–Canada border. There was a frenzy of activity, with Knudsen forced to explain it might take a year and a half to ramp up defense production because of tooling lead times. He also had to persuade the War Department to rescind or ignore a directive that no new defense production take place within 250 miles of the United States border, pointing out that most major American heavy manufacturing was located there: in New England, upstate New York, Pittsburgh, northern Ohio, and in such Michigan cities as Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, and Lansing. The directive quietly disappeared—though when new aircraft plants were eventually built, they were in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.

As he moved to the specifics of the massive conversion he and Roosevelt had envisioned, Knudsen was bedeviled by complex rules and regulations covering contracts, obstacles to the handshake deals he was used to in Detroit. At the time, the government contracting process began with the secretary of war and the secretary of the navy passing their requests to the president, who then applied to Congress for spending authorizations; once those were secured, procurement officers sought bids and selected contractors, with some key provisions tied to outdated peacetime laws. To overcome the most troubling stumbling blocks, Knudsen appealed directly to Roosevelt, sometimes succeeding even in overruling cabinet officers.

Other obstacles were more typical of manufacturing. In the decade preceding the war, craft unions clashed with industrial unions seeking to organize workers—and employers were caught in between. Knudsen estimated that strikes cost a 25 percent loss in defense production in 1941, but fellow defense commissioner Sidney Hillman settled many of the disputes quickly, as patriotism trumped management-labor class differences.

Knudsen also had to navigate the business world, but that was his natural element, and he often resolved issues by placing calls to executives he knew personally. When the British made a desperate plea for aircraft engines and tanks, Knudsen invited Edsel Ford, the president of Ford Motor Company, to Washington to discuss building Rolls-Royce Merlin engines under license. Edsel readily accepted the challenge, but automobile manufacturing was in a boom and the company’s founder, Henry Ford, reneged. “Father won’t do it,” Edsel told Knudsen. Knudsen made a special trip from Washington to Dearborn, Michigan, to call on the old man, but Ford, who still opposed American involvement in the war, flatly refused to allow his company to make anything for the British government.

So Knudsen called Alvan Macauley, head of Packard Motor Company. Macauley quickly agreed and by June 27 the luxury carmaker began construction on a new plant to build the licensed engines. Nineteen months later the plant was up and running, and by the end of the war Packard had produced 55,523 Merlin engines, many of which were installed in America’s famed P-51D Mustang fighters.

In the first four months of the advisory commission’s existence, Knudsen’s intimate knowledge of mass production often overcame serious bottlenecks in the manufacturing process. The new A-26 attack bomber “was designed in such a way,” Knudsen recalled, “it seemed to me as though the wings were just chock full of spar caps, long ones.” Only one firm in the country manufactured milling machines that produced spar caps of all lengths—and they were running behind. “I found this one small firm, employing not more than 200 people, responsible for the success or failure of the A-26 program,” Knudsen recalled. “I determined there was only one place to start, and took off for Buffalo to see what I could do to get those milling machines ahead of schedule.”

After inspecting the plant, Knudsen decided to reprioritize conflicting defense orders for milling machines. Boeing, for example, needed similar machines for the B-29 Superfortress. Knudsen found a couple of manufacturers elsewhere in the country; in a telephone call to Oliver West of Boeing, he persuaded the aircraft maker to use them instead of the Buffalo firm. He also called in the Buffalo company’s subcontractors for a pep talk to accelerate their production of machine parts.

“I’m not a polished man,” he later explained, “but I know how to make things.”

For tanks, Knudsen turned to his former GM colleague and longtime neighbor K. T. Keller, president of Chrysler. Keller readily agreed to build and equip a new factory in Warren, Michigan, to mass-produce M3 medium tanks. Chrysler signed the contract in August 1940, broke ground September 12, and on April 27, 1941, a miraculous seven and a half months later, the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant produced its first M3.

Knudsen was aided in his job by good old-fashioned American ingenuity. The M3 tank in question had been designed at the army’s Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, and was being bench-built at Rock Island and some locomotive factories. It was powered by a 400 hp Wright R-975 Whirlwind nine-cylinder air-cooled radial aircraft engine, made under contract by Continental Motors— and soon there were competing demands for these engines. A variation of the engine was used in the North American BT-9 and Vultee BT-13 to train student pilots.

So Detroit’s engineers went to work on a new engine that would be strong enough—400 to 500 hp, larger than anything on their shelves—to power a 30-ton vehicle. At the time, Detroit’s most powerful 1940-model passenger car engine was Packard’s 160 hp, 356-cubic-inch flathead inline Super-8 engine. Chrysler’s solution was to bolt five 230-cubic-inch six-cylinder Chrysler passenger car engines around a common crankshaft; Ford modified a monster 1,100-cubic-inch overhead-valve V-8 first used in the World War I Liberty aircraft; and GM came up with twin six-cylinder diesels. The new engines went into the M4 Sherman that replaced the M3 in early 1942. Indeed, with Knudsen’s nudge, American tank production ballooned from 331 in 1940 to a record annual total of 29,497 in 1943.

While Knudsen continued to work relentlessly throughout the war to push materiel production, it was in a role different from the advisory role Roosevelt had originally envisioned. In fact the advisory commission, while achieving many of its goals, was often butting its head up against a military establishment that was wary of taking orders from civilians, and New Dealers who feared any transfer of authority to business interests would undo the social progress they had made. Time magazine asserted in February 1941 that Knudsen and other manufacturers were constantly fending off the meddling of New Deal politicians in a “civil war [that] raged with indescribable bitterness.”

It didn’t help that the advisory commission’s mandate was never clear. Its members could theoretically only “advise and consult” with army and navy procurement offices, which meant they had little power to force solutions other than by relying on Knudsen’s power of persuasion and the good will of manufacturers and the armed forces. Just six months after Knudsen had arrived in Washington, Roosevelt supplanted the advisory commission with the Office of Production Management, essentially run by Knudsen and Sidney Hillman, and authorized it to ensure arms production. But that office too was structurally deficient: always the democrat, Roosevelt refused to name a chief, and while Knudsen made great strides over that next year, there was always concern that a more centralized leadership was needed.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Knudsen was summoned to the White House where Roosevelt told him that he was going to commission him as a lieutenant general in charge of army production. “When you go out in the field,” explained Roosevelt, “there may be generals who will try to pull rank on you.” It was not really a promotion; according to Knudsen’s memoir, the commission was partly to make him feel better about being replaced in early 1942 by former Sears Roebuck executive Donald M. Nelson, who became the head of the Office of Production Management.

By 1944 the war production effort for tanks, trucks, and weapons was well in hand, and on September 1, Knudsen was named director of the Air Technical Command (today the Air Force Materiel Command) to push aircraft output, especially the new B-29 Superfortress. That production—thanks largely to Knudsen’s earlier work—was already on a roll, with American plants turning out military aircraft at an incredible rate: 19,200 in 1941, 47,873 in 1942, 85,946 in 1943, 96,369 in 1944, and 78,523 in 1945. Ford’s Willow Run plant for B-24s started from scratch in March 1941, reaching a peak production of 455 planes in 450 hours in April 1944: an astonishing one per hour.

Just over a year later—on May 29, 1945—Knudsen retired from government service at age 66, his job clearly done. When he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Detroit only three years later, the Detroit Free Press proudly extolled the greatest achievement of its hometown hero: “He more than any other man was the leader of Victory,” the newspaper said of the Danish immigrant who had become a master of mass production, a three-star general, and the holder of two Distinguished Service Medals, “for he made it possible.”


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here