"Detroit Tools for War"


By ELMER A. CLARK, Vice-President, Budd Wheel Company; Member, Board of Directors of Automotive Council for War Production

Delivered at War Production Conference, American Society of Tool Engineers, Springfield, Mass., October 17, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 85-87.

ONCE three thousand visitors a day came to Detroit to see automobiles put together. Some came in turbans, others in boots. There were sailors off ships and cattle-raisers from the Argentine. Young women in slacks and old women in shawls. They looked on in amazement and uttered words about giants and miracles and went their way. Detroit would like to see those people today. It would hire every last one of them and make giants of them all if it could. For Detroit is busy with a new show now and manpower to run it is short.

In January and February of this year still other visitors came. These were not sightseers. But they were amazed. Amazed that a giant and a worker of miracles was spending his days over drafting boards gazing at odd-looking parts instead of shipping tanks and guns and planes by the thousands the day motor cars ceased building. Investigators came and politicians and writers to learn whether this was Detroit-the-Dynamic or Detroit-the-Dormant. Even a playwright came. For there was a dramatic feel to the air in Detroit. Something America had lived by for forty years was gone. An era was ended. Here was a story.

But the real story was not the desolation of snow-fieldspiling up with the black hulks of presses and tangled paint ovens and old conveyor lines. Nor even the 125,000 men sitting idly at home waiting for their jobs to open up. It was rather the story of master mechanics and superintendents and plant-lay-out men, method-men and tool designers and toolmakers, the men who bridged the chasm from peace to war and paved the way for the automobile industry to handle one-sixth of this nation's war production. They were the brine that saved the hide.

When Pearl Harbor's radio flashed news of the Japanese attack on that Sunday in December the message decoded itself into a personal meaning to every man alive on this planet. It spelled out hope to the slaving Poles and the starving Greeks, because nothing could happen to make their lives worse. It hung the badge of mourning on the homes of three thousand American sailors and soldiers. It blazed the word Unity across this nation. But to the men who tool Detroit it said, "Get going!"

Just how large an order did Pearl Harbor radio to Detroit that Sunday? No American can sense today the immensity of Corregidor rock by the number of its cubic yards and, likewise, no man can read a scale up to billions inmeasuring Detroit's job. Reduced to terms of motor cars, which we do know, the message said this:

"As to the war goods, costing more than a million cars, which you shipped on the side, while making your regular run of automobiles in 1941, forget it! It may have been the equivalent of all you built for the first World War, but still forget it!"

Washington placed orders with Detroit before Pearl Harbor equal to a record year car production. Within three weeks the job was doubled to two years' work in ordinary times. By February, double and a half. Today, over triple the best car year and that in terms of shells, planes, tanks, guns, boats, engines, bomb-sights and the million forms of waste it takes to feed a war.

But can we be certain Pearl Harbor directed that message to the tool man? It could be to none other. Not to the plant builders, because there were square miles of buildings. Not to the paymasters, because there was money galore. Not to the production managers or the workers, because cannon don't come off fender dies. Pearl Harbor meant the tool man because all others must stand by until the hammer and the anvil are placed before them. Pearl Harbor meant an entirely new machine in Detroit. And that meant your kind of man.

Upon receiving this great command, did the tool man, in all his different forms, get out his clothes marked "Giant" and stencil "Miracle House" over his office . . . an office that he did not see for months? He did not! But today there are thousands of the rest of us who have painted those signs for him. The most that was done for the tool engineer then was to honor him at an impressive but simple ceremony. He was decorated . . . decorated by burying him with tons of prints of strange parts that he had never heard of before. Management and labor gave forth wild shouts and urged him to speed up still faster because he was so behind with his work, hounded him to get through and get out of the way so that men who really knew how to produce could get going. "Finish that drum and we will show you how to beat it!" America was in a deadly hurry.

With such encouragement at this, and because it was the only way of life he knew, the tool man landed and took command. There was nothing he did not dare and nothing he did not do. The playwright went home and the millwrights came in. They hitched their tractors to the stars and dragged them all over the place. For sixty days a turmoil like Dunkirk ruled the plants. Machines, useless for war work, went to scrap, to vacant fields, to yesterday's competitors or to some boat builder down in the Louisiana swamps. Loading docks were torn out and seven foot boring mills set up in the corner of the press shop where the men's lockers used to be. Things were moving. Tools and parts were flying through the air by plane and by crane. The change-over could yet catch the spring demand . . . and it did. March saw the low point in men employed. April crawled. May higher. Higher again in June. And in July a new top figure in men working and dollar value in the history of Detroit. Every month since then a further new high has been set. Detroit's producers are again producing. They are producing . . . but only because tough mechanics took and held the landing beaches last winter. The few who work for the many came through. Were there fighters and soldiers in that performance? Was drama there for the playwright? There was and there still is! Especially for the playwright who can show men dropping from strain and fatigue, for the one who can show the creases and cracks that came in men's lives from the doing of it!

With thousands of separate contracts for more than three hundred distinct kinds of war goods all coming from one industry, how can talk describe all the individual accomplishments? There are incidents by the scores and the thousands to write into the detailed history. A single company has undertaken as many as one hundred fifty different war projects and engineering developments. Major concerns asked Washington to give them only the hard jobs and leave the less difficult ones for smaller plants with fewer engineers. Foreign gun designs of five hundred parts were converted to assembly line methods with one hundred of the pieces revamped to stampings. Forty-nine hundred dies, jigs, fixtures, templates and patterns to make one plane wing. The man who could put all these deeds into one word would be the man to make a top die for Grand Canyon. Where is the one great mechanical invention that has come out of this war preparation? There hasn't been one. But there has been in Detroit the rediscovery of an old device, an old universal tool that has been dragged forth before now in the face of disaster and only too often laid aside when the danger has passed. It was the simple reliance of one man on another when in trouble.

The thirty-first of last December was one of those murky winter days that often settle down off the lakes on Detroit. In the afternoon cars made their way about with headlights and street lights burned in parts of the city. It was no day for heroics or speeches about glory. In that atmosphere a group of men who had been competitors all their lives gathered to talk about their common job in the war. Mr. Alvan Macauley, dean of the industry presidents, took his seat at the head of the table. There was C. E. Wilson, representing three hundred thousand General Motors stockholders and John Anderson who builds windshield wipers and claims three hundred thousand dealers sell them. Robert Black who makes ten-ton White trucks sat next to Joseph Frazer who builds Jeeps. Charles Davis, speaking for the job shops and the Automotive Tool and Die Association, sat between Edsel Ford and K. T. Keller. There were others, and, taken together, they represented the solid front of an entire industry. Out of that meeting came a new name. The name was the Automotive Council for War Production. Morning papers on New Year's day published a letter sent the night before to the President of the United States and signed by that Council. It contained a pledge that this nation and her allies should not lack for one gun, one tank or one plane that the capacity and ingenuity of the automotive industry could produce. Month after month since that day this pledge has been in the process of redemption.

"Capacity and ingenuity to produce," these were the words. "Capacity" meant that every available machine, and the man to go with it, be set at war work. An inventory was made for the whole industry showing the description and the use of a quarter-million machines, both toolmaking and production. Idle equipment was offered for sale or least to whomsoever could use it. Chrysler balanced out lines from the General Motors list. Ford built tools for Chevrolet. Parts builders helped life-time rivals fill the order they lost to the same plant a month before. A boring mill free for the week-end worked on somebody's casting from across town. Independent tool shops reversed their process and hired their old customers to do special operations in pinches. Tool and equipment men walked freely about in the largest machinery warehouse ever to open its doors. And what was done about "Ingenuity?" Far more than doors were opened there. Minds and secret chambers were unlocked. Telephones between plants became open confessionals. There isn't a private trick left in the industry today. Circulation of short-cuts and special techniques and know-how between old-time competitors clogged the wires in efforts to get through until the Council had to start a young newspaper of its own to broadcast the news faster.

Conversion to war work was solely a problem of tooling. The proof of accomplishment is shown by today's production output. With the present rate of increase from month to month, the automotive industry will, by December, be producing at twice its peace-time rate. For this the primary credit must go to the tool men. But next year's program calls for a further increase in production to the equivalent of three times normal. Still more tools will be needed but, with the cooperative spirit that has been developed, that goal, too, will be reached. There has been high stimulation in the performance of the past year; stimulation, yes, but little comfort. For how can there be comfort in the face of this war's needs until the last plane has been tooled and built and dropped its load. The job is started but it is not finished.

But that job will be finished. This war will end as have all wars, through exhaustion if by no other weapon. Then what sort of a world will confront the tool man? A much smaller world, for one thing, and a poorer world than we have ever known. Patients die of shock quite as readily as from the accident that produces the shock and it will be shock with which we shall have to contend. There will be no all-clear siren with the end of armed hostilities. The day following the laying down of guns will be quite as serious as the day before. Just as you were first in the conversion of this country for its own protection, so you will be first in the reconversion for what shall come after . . . and I hesitate to call it peace. Long before the public dreams of a new model the tool engineer is busy and it is only proper he should give thought now to how he shall carry on. Tools will be worn out. Men will be fewer. Skills such as yours do not grow in tank turrets. Such will be true to a large extent in our own country but how much more true in the world at large. And our present plight has shown that we can no longer disregard what goes on in corners of the globe we used to think remote from our lives. The future will call for world citizenship as well as devotion to the town of our birth. Today we can be grateful that a few tool men had the vision to venture beyond their own country's shores a few years ago.

Back in 1930 American tool engineers were in Australia, sharing their wealth of experience with the Australians, showing them the best we had in modern ways of doing things. A great many more were in Russia, helping develop a race of mechanics out of peasant farmers so that they could do for themselves. But for those hands at work now where would we be during our waiting time of getting ready? Where might we not be today had we done more of it for China, for South America, for India? If we are seeing the valuein today's help from what was done in the past, may we not prepare for tomorrow's protection by doing more? The tremendous masses of those populations are our future hope or our future downfall. Isolationism is a dead theory the world around today.

Take India. She stands today one of the big question marks before the United Nations. India that has been written into the fables for its riches! India, the prize of such worth that Columbus must discover America while trying to beat an ocean path to its gates! India, the land of four hundred million with a life span expectancy of thirty years as against the sixty-four years an American may hope to live!

When you leave the station on one railroad leading out of Detroit you pass acres piled high with strange looking gray scrap. Those piles are bones! Bones from India! White bleached bones of cattle that have been gathered off the Indian plains and raked up out of the bed of the Ganges. Natives received seven cents a day in wages for collecting them. Those bones are barged to tide-water and shipped through two great oceans half-way around this globe to Detroit. Later they are ground up and bought by Michigan farmers that their crops may be more generous. Rich India and rich Detroit! And the traffic between them is bones! Can a world peace stand on that footing? But today, and out of Detroit, is coming a reversal of that traffic. A man I know there, whose whole life-time has been spent as one of the great master mechanics of the automotive industry, is handling the buying and dismantling of American sawmills for shipment to India where other Detroit master mechanics will re-erect them. And he has bought for India a boot factory and that will be knocked down and shipped. And likewise a plant for drugs and medicines which will be set up and operated as well by Americans. The sawmill, the symbol of shelter, boots that the Indian may walk over rough places, medicine to guard his health and allay his fever . . . this is the mechanic's kind of speech to a people in need. And a speech understood by every race on earth. If men in one industry, in one country, have learned the lesson and enjoyed the fruits of working together, then cannot nation learn from nation that real riches do not lie hemmed in by one country's borders?

On the 15th of last February, Winston Churchill* spoke to the English people. He had just returned from America. He felt encouraged. "The Tide Is Turning," he called his talk. In conclusion he raised his voice and spoke westward across the Atlantic to us. "Give us the tools," he begged. "Give us the tools and we'll finish the job." That cry was made in the midst of war. But whether in war or in the time to come after war, that shall ever be the cry of humanity. "Give us the tools and we'll finish the job."

And you are the men to provide them!

* Vital Speeches March 1, 1942.