Yankee Air Museum fights to save Willow Run Bomber Plant

July 9, 2013

The clock is ticking on an effort to save the Willow Run Bomber Plant, located at Willow Run Airport outside of Detroit. Organizers have until Aug. 1 to raise $3 million to keep the historic plant from being razed and to realize plans to make part of it the new home of the Yankee Air Museum.

The 5 million square foot plant was among many General Motors properties that were handed over to the RACER Trust, created in March 2011 by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The trust is charged with cleaning up and positioning former GM properties for redevelopment. It now owns more than 44 million square feet of industrial space in 66 buildings across 7,000 acres in 14 states, mainly in the Midwest and Northeast, including the bomber plant.

The plant, home to the original Rosie The Riveter, built nearly 9,000 B-24 Liberator bombers during World War II, said Ray Hunter, chairman of the Yankee Air Museum. “At the peak of production, the plant had more than 40,000 workers making one bomber per hour,” he said.

There were many sociological changes during World War II and the bomber plant was a big part of that, said Hunter. “Large numbers of women and minorities were hired and paid the same as men,” he said. “Henry Ford had a recruiting team go to circuses and sideshows to recruit little people, and around 2,000 of them ended up doing work inside the B-24’s wings.”

Of the 9,000 B-24s built at the plant, there are only four left, said Hunter. “One is at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, two are in England, and one is at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana,” he said. “We’ve asked the U.S. Air Force museum that if we’re successful in rescuing the plant that they transfer it back to its birthplace. They didn’t say no.”

RACER has been trying to find other uses for the plant, but it’s almost impossible to reuse, so it will be torn down if the campaign to save part of it is unsuccessful, said Hunter.  The museum is trying to save 175,000 square feet of the facility to build its new home, which would include a reception hall, hangar, museum, and an education center, he added.

The cost to separate that space from the original building is enormous, said Hunter. “There’s the cost to separate electricity, sewer, water, building walls, and installing heat. After that, we’d have a box, which is when the real fundraising begins,” he said.

Although the Yankee Air Museum is in a facility right now, it has three flyable aircraft—a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-25 Mitchell Bomber, and a C-47—and they are not co-located with the main building that houses exhibits, said Hunter. “We were under one roof, but lost everything during a fire in 2004. So we want to get everything under one roof.” 

Hunter admitted the Save The Bomber Plant campaign is on a short fuse. “Bids have already gone out for demolition. Some of the companies that have bids have also contacted us to donate money,” he said. “Everybody is behind us, but we need folks to go to savethebomberplant.org and buy square feet. We feel we have a fair chance to succeed.”

People should help preserve this piece of World War II history, said Hunter. “This plant was an arsenal of democracy. It will be a tribute to women and minorities, help inspire students to go for technical careers, and use it for community events. It’s the right thing to do.”

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