The 1943 Willys-Overland Jeep above, currently on exhibit in Driving America in Henry Ford Museum, represents the millions of vehicles, aircraft, and military items produced by American automakers during World War II. With many men fighting overseas, women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Ford’s Willow Run plant, which produced B-24 bomber airplanes, showed just how important these women were to America’s war effort.
The character “Rosie the Riveter” is celebrated in this sheet music from 1942. / THF290068
More than 42,000 people worked at Willow Run. Approximately one-third were women. Riveting was an essential craft there—each B-24 had more than 300,000 rivets. The skilled women who accomplished this work at Willow Run and elsewhere inspired the symbolic character “Rosie the Riveter.” Women also served in clerical and support staff positions at the plant. Women and men earned the same pay for the same work.
Real-life Rosies rivet B-24 tail cones at Ford’s Willow Run Bomber Plant, June 1944 / THF272701
Willow Run produced 8,685 B-24 bombers. The plant captured the public’s imagination, with Rosie the Riveter appearing on government-sponsored posters and magazine ads, encouraging more women to join the war production effort. Rosies built plenty of Jeeps, too. Willys-Overland manufactured 380,000 of them, and women and men at Ford built another 279,000 Jeeps, identical to the Willys models, at six plants across the country.
Ford Motor Company humble-bragged about its wartime production, including Jeeps, tanks, B-24 bombers, and more, in this 1943 ad. / THF93700
Altogether, the women and men who worked in American automotive plants during World War II built 4 million engines, 2.8 million tanks and trucks, and 27,000 aircraft—fully one-fifth of the country’s military materials. Many women came to enjoy the independence and economic freedom provided by their jobs. But, when men returned at war’s end, the same government that called women to the factories now encouraged them to go back to working in the home, so men could reclaim factory jobs.
The women who labored in wartime factories were essential to America’s Arsenal of Democracy. They made Rosie the Riveter into an enduring feminist icon—and a powerful symbol of women’s contributions to the American economy.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Postcard of Percy Jones General Hospital, 1944. / THF184122
When most people think of Battle Creek, Michigan, breakfast cereal comes to mind--the industry created there by “cereal” entrepreneurs W.K. Kellogg and C.W. Post at the turn of the 20th century.
Yet, Battle Creek was also home to an important World War II military medical facility, the Percy Jones General Hospital. By the end of the war, Percy Jones would become the largest medical installation operated by the United States Army. The hospital and its story are, perhaps, hidden in plain sight in a building now known as the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center—unless one notices the historical marker located there.
Before a Hospital, a Sanitarium
Even before its genesis as Percy Jones, the site and its buildings had rich layers of use and history. In 1866, the Seventh Day Adventists established the Western Health Reform Institute in a cottage on the site to promote their principles of preventative medicine and healthful nutrition. In 1876, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (older brother of cereal entrepreneur W.K. Kellogg) became its director, renaming the facility the Battle Creek Sanitarium and expanding it to include a central building, a hospital, and other cottages. In 1902, a fire destroyed the sanitarium. An elegant, six-story Italian Renaissance style building soon rose in its place, completed in 1903. In 1928, the sanitarium was enlarged with a fifteen-story tower addition containing more than 265 hotel-like guest rooms and suites, most of which had private bathrooms. This expansive health and wellness complex on 30 acres could accommodate almost 1,300 guests. After the economy crashed in 1929, business declined. By 1933, the sanitarium went into receivership, and the Great Depression that followed forced the institution to sell assets to help pay its debt.
The sanitarium with its 1928 fifteen-story tower addition. / THF620119
Percy Jones Hospital Springs to Life
With the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, the United States military began to build up its armed forces and medical treatment capabilities. In late 1940—in order to mobilize for what would become a growing need if the United States entered the war—the Medical Department began to develop a plan for providing a comprehensive system of progressive medical care from battlefield to stateside. A year later, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States did enter the war. The military not only constructed new hospital facilities, but also acquired civilian buildings, making alterations and expanding as needed.
In August 1942, the United States Army purchased the near-vacant main Battle Creek Sanitarium building and converted it into a 1,500-bed military hospital, with crews working around the clock for six months to complete it. Dedicated on February 22, 1943, the hospital was named after Col. Percy L. Jones, a pioneering army surgeon who had developed modern battlefield ambulance evacuation during World War I. By the time the hospital opened—a little over a year after the United States entered the war—American troops had fought in the North Atlantic, North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific. Two and one-half more years of fierce fighting in Europe and the Pacific lay ahead. World War II—a global war which would directly involve 100 million people in more than 30 countries—would become the most costly and far-reaching conflict in history.
Percy Jones Hospital was one of the army’s 65 stateside General Hospitals, providing more complex medical or surgical care—those more difficult and specialized procedures requiring special training and equipment. Percy Jones Hospital specialized in neurosurgery, amputations and the fitting of artificial limbs, plastic surgery, physical rehabilitation, and artificial eyes. The Army’s rehabilitation program included physical conditioning and the constructive use of leisure time in educational pursuits to achieve the best possible physical and mental health for each convalescing soldier.
Percy Jones would become one of the army’s nine Hospital Centers, medical facilities that included both a General and Convalescent Hospital. Nearby (three miles from Battle Creek) Fort Custer, a military training base and activation point for Army inductees from Michigan and the Midwest, also served as the site of Percy Jones Convalescent Hospital for patients further along in the recovery process. In 1944, W.K. Kellogg’s summer mansion on nearby Gull Lake became a rehabilitation center for Percy Jones General Hospital and the Convalescent Center.
As the number of casualties increased, the facility grew—its authorized capacity would reach 3,414 beds. In one month alone, over 700 operations were performed. At the end of the war in August 1945, the number of patients at the hospital’s three area sites peaked at 11,427.
The massive Battle Creek hospital complex was self-contained and fully integrated. It had its own water supply and power generation, as well as a bank, post office, public library, and radio station. An indoor swimming pool and a bowling alley helped wounded vets regain their health. Rails and ramps were constructed throughout the facility. The Percy Jones Institute, an accredited high school, offered educational and training programs for patients, ranging from photography to agriculture to business.
Convalescing soldiers at Percy Jones Hospital in April 1944. The soldiers are wearing the Army-issued convalescent suits and bathrobes provided to patients at stateside hospitals. / THF270685
In August 1944, private Dean Stauffacher—training at nearby Fort Custer—sent the postcard at the top of this post (THF184122) of Percy Jones General Hospital to his wife, noting that “This is now an Army Hospital & is full of war casualties, etc.” This postcard was first published during the sanitarium era—the caption on the back dates from that period. Only the title on the front was updated to reflect the building’s use as a military hospital. / THF184123_redacted
Supporting the Troops at Percy Jones
People on the home front found ways to support the troops at Percy Jones. Hundreds of people visited soldiers daily. Celebrities Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Ed Sullivan, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers visited as well. Organizations provided snack food, reading material, and other gifts for the soldiers. Other groups organized social and recreational activities for convalescing soldiers.
A Ford Motor Company employee purchased two wheelchairs for Percy Jones Hospital with his muster out pay from the military, March 1944. / THF270681
In April 1944, Ford Motor Company employees gathered gifts of food (including candy and potato chips) and reading material for Percy Jones’ convalescing soldiers. / Four images above: THF270683, THF270699,THF270705, THF620569
Musical performances also provided entertainment for the convalescing soldiers. / THF620567
Detroit’s AFL/USO Committee organized a series of weekend social activities for servicemen from Percy Jones Hospital. Volunteer hostesses provided companionship for these soldiers during dinner, dancing, or a visit to local points of interest, as seen in the four images above: Program of social activities, April 1945; soldiers and hostesses gather for the day’s activities; visiting the Willow Run Bomber Plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan; enjoying dinner at the Federal Building in Detroit. / THF290072, THF211406, THF211408, THF289759
After a short deactivation period after World War II, the hospital reopened soon after the Korean War broke out in June 1950. Once again, wounded soldiers found medical treatment and emotional support at Percy Jones Hospital until the war’s end three years later.
A Lasting Legacy
With the end of the Korean War, the hospital closed permanently in 1953. But its legacy lived on in the lives of the nearly 95,000 military patients who received care at Percy Jones during World War II and the Korean War. And in the fact that Battle Creek became the first American city to install wheelchair ramps in its sidewalks, created to accommodate Percy Jones patients who visited downtown.
The hospital’s story would begin its fade from recent memory in 1954, as federal agencies moved into the building (now renamed the Battle Creek Federal Center)—only to reemerge (albeit subtly) in 2003. That year, the complex was renamed to honor three United States senators who had been patients at Percy Jones Hospital during World War II: Philip Hart of Michigan, Robert Dole of Kansas, and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. The building’s new name honored the public service careers of these men—and also quietly reflected what Percy Jones Hospital and its staff had offered not only these World War II veterans, but tens of thousands of their fellow soldiers.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
In January 1941, World War II raged in Europe—but the United States of America had not yet gotten involved. Many citizens believed remaining uninvolved with the war was best. On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to Congress, and laid out key principles he saw as at stake in this conflict. Among other arguments for American involvement, FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech included this significant section, for which it is remembered:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants - everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.
These Four Freedoms have entered our collective conscience as universal ideals—perhaps always imperfectly manifested, but always worth working towards.
However, the Freedoms have also been interpreted differently, by different people and at different times. Four of our curators examined The Henry Ford’s collections through the lens of each of the Four Freedoms to create their own interpretations.
We hope these thought-starters inspire your own contemplative journey: What does freedom mean to you?
Ford Motor Company devoted its employees and manufacturing facilities to military production during both of the 20th century’s world wars. Ford’s efforts in World War I were slow to start, given Henry Ford’s outspoken opposition to the conflict, but once the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the automaker rose to the challenge. Over the next two years, Ford built passenger cars, supply trucks, aircraft engines, gun caissons, tanks, helmets and body armor. Ironically, one of Ford’s best-known wartime products, the Eagle anti-submarine boats, never saw action before the Armistice. However, the factory that built the Eagle boats subsequently became the core of Ford’s River Rouge plant.
Ford’s efforts for World War II were greater still. Like other American automakers, the company suspended all civilian production in February 1942. Ford famously turned out B-24 bombers at its Willow Run facility, but it also produced a variety of wheeled vehicles including jeeps, amphibious cars, armored cars, trucks and tanks. Ford’s non-vehicle production included military gear of every type, from aircraft engines to guns to helmets to tents.
Red Cross Workers with a Ford Military Ambulance at the Highland Park Plant, 1918. THF 263442
Needless to say, ambulances were among the most crucial vehicles used in both wars. During World War I, Ford personal collaborated with the United States Surgeon General’s Office and frontline drivers to design a Model T-based ambulance ideal for battlefield conditions. The company donated $500,000 to the Red Cross, enabling the humanitarian organization to purchase nearly 1,000 vehicles for wartime use – including 107 ambulances. Beyond those Red Cross units, another 5,745 ambulances were built for the Allied armies.
Red Cross Motor Corps members took classes in auto maintenance. These women are checking under a Ford ambulance’s hood in 1942. THF 265816
Dodge produced most of the frontline ambulances used by American forces in World War II, but Ford units were active on the homefront. The Red Cross’s Motor Corps, established in World War I, rendered important service during the Second World War as well. Corps drivers working in the United States ferried Red Cross staff and supplies, couriered packages and messages, and occasionally stepped in to assist with Army and Navy transportation needs. An estimated 45,000 women were active in the Motor Corps during World War II. Corps members generally drove their personnel vehicles in this service, but Ford-built ambulances were also used in the transport of the sick and wounded.
World War II Poster, "Free a Man to Fight," 1943. Made by the artist Leslie Darrell Ragan (1897-1972) and published by the Brett Lithographing Co. for the New York Central Railroad. (ID THF154861 / 2013.49.1 )
Women have always worked and worked hard. But how and where has changed over time. During the 19th century, the growing middle class in America promoted the ideal of a woman's primary work being in the home. This viewpoint promoted a woman's primary role at home to make it a haven for her husband from the evils of the outside industrial world and a place to rear civilized children. This ideal of women's place continued throughout much of the 20th century – except when the U.S. faced global wars. I think that looking at posters in our collection from World Wars I and II provides a fascinating view of women's changing roles during these all-out national defense efforts.
A colleague's insightful blog post from March 19, 2012, focuses on the famous "Rosie the Riveter" poster and many photographs of women factory workers at Ford Motor Company during the 1940s.
The first poster (above), "Free a Man to Fight," shows a woman worker not in a factory but in a railroad's maintenance roundhouse. She is lubricating a locomotive wheel, previously a man's occupation. It is part of the early 1940s home front effort encouraging women to join the work force to replace men serving in the armed forces. New York Central Railroad hired the artist Leslie D. Ragan to make the poster artwork. He is the same artist the railroad company used for their well-known posters in the 1920s and 1930s featuring locomotives and travel destinations.
World War I Poster, "For Every Fighter, a Woman Worker," circa 1918. Made by the artist Adolph Treidler (1886-1981) and printed by the American Lithographic Company for the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association. (ID THF81764 / 53.5.406.1).
The next poster, "For Every Fighter a Woman Worker," shows a young woman in a typical factory work outfit from the First World War. She symbolically holds a biplane and a bomb, standing in front of a large blue triangle. In 1914 the Young Women's Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) was one of a group of organizations in the U.S. that formed the United War Work Campaign, Inc. This campaign recruited women to serve in industry, government and agriculture positions. The Y.W.C.A. supported the war work in diverse ways, including opening and maintaining many "Blue Triangle" houses, which provided safe and morally upright places for young working women to gather for rest and recreation.
World War I Poster, "Back Our Girls Over There," circa 1918. Artwork by Clarence F. Underwood and printed in the United States for the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association. (ID THF112607 / 18.104.22.168).
Another poster of the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association, this features a young woman in uniform working a telephone switchboard. The background includes marching soldiers through a window. The Y.W.C.A. helped to recruit and sustain women working for the government in military jobs in the U.S. and abroad during World War I.
World War II Poster, "Equipment Is Precious!" 1943. Made by the artist B. Rig and printed by the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Washington, D.C. (ID THF111484 / 89.60.5).
During World War II many women served in offices. This U.S. government poster made in 1943 features a young woman cleaning her typewriter in front of an outline of a combat soldier. The text below, pointedly asked women office workers to "Remember his needs. Your care of office equipment will save vital materials and help him win."
World War II Poster, "You, Too, Are Needed in a War Job! Work in a Food Processing Plant," 1945. Artwork by Frank Bensing (1893-1983) and printed by the United States Government Printing Office for the United States War Manpower Commission, Washington, D.C. (ID THF108510 / 94.5.4).
While many posters focus on harnessing youthful energy for the war effort, the reality during World War II was a collaborative endeavor by all Americans. This poster shows one of the ways mature women could help by working the conveyor line in a food processing plant.
World War I Poster, "The Girl on the Land Serves the Nation's Need," circa 1917. Made by artist Edward Penfield (1866-1925) and printed by United States Printing & Lithograph Company, New York, New York. (ID THF112812 / 89.0.565.88).
Many young men left farms to serve in the military during World War I. An acute labor shortage soon ensued and to help farmers continue producing vital food, the Y.W.C.A. Land Service Committee recruited young women to work on the farms. This poster depicts "farmerettes" wearing uniforms walking next to a team of horses while one carries a rake and another a basket of vegetables. Often working with young women from the cities, the Y.W.C.A. and other groups like the Farm and Garden Association provided these young women with training in agricultural skills.
World War II Poster, "Call to Farms. Join in the U.S. Crop Corps," circa 1943. Artwork by John Vickery (1906-1983) for the United States Crop Corps, Washington, D.C. (ID THF108507 / 94.5.1).
During the Second World War, an agricultural labor shortage again developed. The government formed the U.S. Crop Corps to recruit and train young women from the cities to replace the men called to military service. This poster shows a young woman driving a tractor through a farm field, pausing to turn and give the "V for Victory" sign. The government printed thousands of posters and provided a space at the bottom for use by local groups. This poster has a handwritten note in red pencil following the printed "Enlist Today" by the "Junior Board of Commerce - Philadelphia."
World War I Poster, "Corn, the Food of the Nation," 1918. Made by the artist Lloyd Harrison and printed by Harrison Landauer for the United States Food Administration. (ID THF62409 / 22.214.171.124).
Even with the successful recruiting of young women to work on the farm, another challenge during wartime is inevitably food shortages. During the First World War "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays" became campaigns of the United States Food Administration seeking voluntary changes in the eating habits of Americans. The mainstay of many a woman's work continued to be as food shopper and cook for her family. This poster from 1918 shows a woman cooking muffins and pancakes made from corn products like corn meal, grits and hominy. It was a challenge substituting corn for wheat and the government used this poster to encourage women to do this by promoting corn as "appetizing, nourishing, economical."
Our collection of world war posters from the 1910s and 1940s features women contributing to the war effort in so many different ways. I think it is illuminating to see the variety of jobs that the poster artists chose to help rally women for the national effort during these wars.
By Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Henry Ford, with much thanks to the catalogers of our hundreds of world war posters, especially Jan Hiatt, Marian Pickl and Carol Wright.
By now most of us are familiar with the iconic image of a working-class woman during World War II known as "Rosie the Riveter." As you may know, "Rosie" is a character based on images of real working women at the time. What you may not know is that the Benson Ford Research Center has a wealth of these Rosie-the-Riveter-type images within its collection of photographs donated from Ford Motor Company.
What I find delightful about these images is that they tell a story about American women set in a specific place and time — not to mention documenting the budding social change that would flower in later decades.
(By the way: The woman shown below, Norma Denton, was photographed February 10, 1943, as part of Ford Motor Company's P.R. photo essay entitled "Around the Clock Activities," which documents a day in the life of several working women in a war production factory. You can learn more about Norma and the "Around the Clock Activities" photographs on our Flickr site, as well as on our Collections page.)
From 1942 to 1945, when many American men were overseas fighting the war, women were hired to fill in for the lack of male employees in factories. These women were expected to do everything that men had to do to build tanks, jeeps and bombers for the U.S. "Arsenal of Democracy." All of the automotive companies in the Detroit area, as well as those in the rest of the country, ceased making automobiles and converted their assembly lines to wartime production. Ford Motor Company's Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, were two of the largest such facilities.
During peak production at the Willow Run plant, up to one third of the workforce consisted of women. This does not seem like a particularly sizable number to us today; however, it was significant at the time because prior to World War II, very few manufacturing facilities employed that many women. Once the war was over, women were expected to return to being housewives and mothers so that the returning GI's could go back to work. It would take years, if not decades, before women re-entered the work force in significant numbers.
I particularly like the following two photographs that show women employees with the B-24 "Liberator" bombers they helped to build. I think the enthusiasm of the women in photo #P.833.80544.6 and the confident stride of the woman in photo #P.833.80180.1 are indicative of the pride and economic independence women felt as productive members of the workforce. The image of these women posing with their "Liberators" is also a fitting metaphor for the future women's movement whose seeds were arguably sown here.
Linda Skolarus is Manager of Reference Services at The Henry Ford's Benson Ford Research Center, where you can research 'Rosie' and much more.