America’s Chrysler Outbuilt Germany’s Third Reich in WWII Tanks
During times of national duress, major companies are often called upon to assist in production and support. For instance, then-Fiat Chrysler automobiles—now Stellantis—built ventilators at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it wasn’t the first time Chrysler was called upon to make something other than cars, trucks, and SUVs. In the early 1940s, they answered the call from Uncle Sam to build WWII tanks, eventually outbuilding the top Axis power.
Chrysler got a head start building tanks
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s foreign policy during the chaotic 30s and 40s was to remain militarily neutral. But the attack on the U.S. Navy’s fleet in Pearl Harbor changed everything. Although America would soon put boots on the ground to fight in Europe, a larger battle was fought at home. WWII was won with mass production, and America had the populous to fill millions of new manufacturing jobs. Nearly all civilian vehicle production halted between 1942 and 1945. The automotive industry retooled its factories to fill defense contracts. Whether it was airplane fuselages, support vehicles, bombs, bullets, or nurses’ bonnets, every major U.S. company played a vital role.
One year before the U.S. entered the war, however, Chrysler CEO K.T. Keller got a call from General Motors (GM) President William Knudsen. GM’s boss asked Keller if Chrysler could build tanks if the U.S. eventually fought against the Axis powers. History.com reports that Keller replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen one of these things.” Fortunately, American ingenuity persevered to begin the planning stage after the U.S. government sought a mass of WWII tanks.
Where was Chrysler’s WWII tank plant located?
The company had to pick a place close to Detroit and cheap enough to manage with taxpayer money. Chrysler decided to break ground in the Michigan suburb of Warren, beginning construction on the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant.
Over the course of 13 months, factory construction, the hiring of thousands of workers, and tank engineering would happen all at once. The first tanks rolled off the assembly line even before workers finished building the walls. The same winter Roosevelt declared war on the Japanese Empire and the Third Reich, Chrysler workers had a steam locomotive parked inside the factory to keep warm.
Which WWII tanks did Chrysler build?
The first M3 Grant tanks left Detroit Arsenal in 1941. Medium-sized M3s were used by the British to fight Rommel in North Africa. In 1942, Chrysler began building arguably the best Allied WWII tank: the M4 Sherman. Chrysler developed the engine at its own expense. The 32-liter absurdly complicated A57 Multibank was effectively five straight-six engines configurated in a star pattern. By the end of WWII, Chrysler also began building the M26 Pershing tank.
Throughout the war, Chrysler built more than 25% of the nation’s tanks. Over 25,000 WWII tanks rolled off the line at Detroit Arsenal. In comparison, the leading Axis power made barely 20,000.
What happened to Chrysler’s old tank plant?
Following the allied victory in WWII, tank production at the factory was suspended, firing up only for the Korean War. In the 1980s, Chrysler sold its defense division to General Dynamics, which repurposed Detroit Arsenal to build the M1 Abrams seen in Operation Desert Storm. By the turn of the 20th century, the City of Warren had taken most of the property back for civilian use. Yet, some of it is the current home of the United States Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, a present link to the site’s past.