Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Military Production as War Approaches

The Ford Motor Company's Richmond assembly plant, although a fairly large building in its own right, was but a small cog in the United States' immense homefront system of production that supplied the nation's soldiers, sailors, and airmen with the fighting equipment needed to win World War II. That system was mobilized and managed by the ordnance programs of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. The Richmond plant worked under contract to the army's Ordnance Department. A few features of that history are summarized here to provide narrative context for the work accomplished at the Richmond plant.

As the United States entered the 1940s, much of the rest of the world had gone to war. Hitler had attacked and conquered Poland in 1939, and by the end of 1940 Nazi Germany controlled most of the rest of western and central Europe, including France, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands. Only Great Britain remained as an obstacle to Hitler's dream of dominating Europe. Japan had conquered much of Korea, China and southeast Asia. The United States was still trying to emerge from the Great Depression, but it appeared to many in the federal government and the U.S. military that war against the Axis powers was unavoidable. Among the populace, however, feelings of isolationism were strong. Many Americans opposed going to war and opposed the military taking steps to prepare for war. In the face of this sentiment, American military planners knew that they had to make preparations for war, should it come to the U.S. They knew, among other things, that they needed to begin mobilizing the nation's manufacturing capacity to produce ordnance, the equipment armies and navies need to wage war.

Several factors made the task more complicated in the U.S. than it had ever been before. Warfare had become much more mechanized. In addition to rifles and artillery, armies now needed tanks and other fighting vehicles, trucks of all sizes, and a wider array of communications devices, and for the first time airplanes would also play a dominant role in warfare. Moreover, the United States government did not sponsor private companies, such as Vickers Armstrong in England or Krupp in Germany that specialized in designing and manufacturing munitions. In the U.S., responsibility for design and development of ordnance fell to the army's own Ordnance Department, which then contracted for production with private companies as necessary. The U.S. Army maintained six permanent arsenals, each of which specialized in a particular class of arms or ordnance, engaging in research and development of future ordnance systems as well as production. The arsenals could meet demand during peacetime, but they did not have the production capacity to meet wartime needs. They did, however, have the capacity to provide technical assistance to private companies producing ordnance under contract. Another factor was the great scale of the impending war. During the American Civil War, the U.S. Army equipped and supplied about 1.5 million soldiers. In the First World War, the U.S. Army had about 4 million men to equip. It appeared that the scale of the Second World War would be much greater than previous wars. The U.S. Army had fought only on the North American continent in the Civil War, and mainly northern Europe during the First World War, but the Second World War was being fought on several continents. The ordnance the U.S. Army needed to supply its troops had to function reliably under several extremes of terrain and climate.