Genius of Production

A Danish TV crew visits Detroit to explore the legacy of Bill Knudsen, the auto executive who fostered mass production, streamlined logistics, and saved the world from tyranny during World War II.
97
Freedom Team - Then Gen. William Knudsen, center foreground in military uniform, led the U.S. war effort during World War II. To his left is Edsel Ford, president of Ford Motor Co., and to Ford’s left is Charles E. Sorensen, a vice president of Ford who oversaw the automaker’s defense contracts. The group was photographed in August 1942 at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township. The Danish film crew filming Knuden’s life story, opposite page, gathers at Willow Run Airport in front of a B-25D Mitchell bomber owned and operated by the Yankee Air Museum. // Courtesy of the Detroit Public Library
Freedom Team – Then Gen. William Knudsen, center foreground in military uniform, led the U.S. war effort during World War II. To his left is Edsel Ford, president of Ford Motor Co., and to Ford’s left is Charles E. Sorensen, a vice president of Ford who oversaw the automaker’s defense contracts. The group was photographed in August 1942 at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township. // Courtesy of the Detroit Public Library

Stephanie Surrugue likes to fly and enjoys, as she says, the “experiences that are not just, you know, the Boeing experience.” Her personal bests were helicopter flights over Iraq and Greenland as an international correspondent for the Danish Broadcasting Corp., known as DR.

One Tuesday last October, under an azure sky, Surrugue found herself a passenger in an entirely different aircraft — “Rosie’s Reply,” a vintage B-25D Mitchell bomber owned and operated by the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township. The sortie was part of the location work Surrugue and her film crew undertook for a special DR segment about William Knudsen, the Dane who came to the United States in 1900.

Knudsen helped to shape Ford Motor Co. in its early years before moving to General Motors Co., where he rose swiftly and became president in 1937. Three years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Knudsen chairman of the Office of Production Management, where, for the first time, he centralized government procurement and led America’s conversion to wartime production. The result was known as the Arsenal of Democracy.

Surrugue’s flight served as an emblem of Knudsen’s efforts and left her feeling a bit wistful as she considered the bomber’s eight combat strikes over Italy. “So that was what hit me, sitting in that plane,” she says by phone from her apartment in Copenhagen, the Danish capital. “I was actually sitting on seats where American soldiers had been sitting, fighting for freedom years ago.” The experience was “humbling.” 

Scheduled for broadcast on, Jan. 1, 2023, the episode hosted by Surrugue will kick off DR’s six-part series — the title translates as “Danes in the World.” It traces the fortunes, good and bad, of emigrants from the small Scandinavian country. The documentary is timely, as DR exploits renewed interest in Knudsen, who died in 1948. A pair of Danish biographies published in 2019 sparked the revival. (Curiously, the books have English titles: “Big Bill” and “One Dollar Man.”) Otherwise, Knudsen was little-remembered in the U.S. or Denmark until the Knudsen family collection came to the Detroit Public Library in 1999.

The Danish film crew filming Knuden’s life story gathers at Willow Run Airport in front of a B-25D Mitchell bomber owned and operated by the Yankee Air Museum. // Courtesy of DR
The Danish film crew filming Knudsen’s life story gathers at Willow Run Airport in front of a B-25D Mitchell bomber owned and operated by the Yankee Air Museum. // Courtesy of DR

Surrugue’s viewers will become acquainted with a fascinating and inspiring tale. Born in 1879, Signius Wilhelm Poul Knudsen arrived in New York City before his 21st birthday, becoming known as William S. Knudsen, then Bill, and finally Big Bill. His basic education was flavored with studies in French, German, and English, along with the violin and the piano. After an apprenticeship with a wholesaler of crockery, toys, and hardware, Knudsen spent two years managing an importer’s warehouse and assembling bicycles.

From there, he hired on at a Bronx shipyard. The gangly young man did brutal piecework as a “bucker-up” on a riveting gang by day; in the evening he practiced conversational English with neighborhood youngsters. There followed an 18-month stint in Salamanca, N.Y., working nights to repair locomotive boilers in the Erie Railroad shop. The $100 per month salary wasn’t bad, yet for less money — but more promise — Knudsen worked as a stockroom keeper at John R. Keim Mills in Buffalo. Rising to superintendent, he introduced acetylene welding and led 1,200 workers making axle housings and engine crankcases for Ford Motor Co.

With an eye toward obtaining the “deceptively rumpled, mild-tempered Dane,” as Ford biographer Douglas Brinkley puts it, Ford bought Keim Mills. Knudsen was to oversee the outfitting of Ford’s many branch factories. “Don’t worry about expenses,” the automaker said. “Draw on us for whatever you need.”

Knudsen left home in Buffalo and hit the road. Some facilities needed to be reconfigured. The tab for contractors came to $400,000. Upon returning to Detroit, he had an “oh-oh!” moment when Ford’s business manager, James Couzens, summoned him. Instead of getting chewed out or worse, Knudsen received Couzens’ highest compliments and found he’d earned not only a big raise in salary but also a $5,000 bonus.

By 1914 — the same year U.S. citizenship was granted — Knudsen moved his wife, Clara, son Semon Emil, and daughter Clara south of Hamtramck to 122 Medbury St. in Detroit. Two more girls, Elna and Martha, were to follow. “Grandpa loved nicknames,” says granddaughter Judy Christie, 82 years old, who lives in Birmingham. The children were called Bunkie, Tuttie, Dottie, and Girlie. (William and his son bunked together while Clara nursed their daughter, Clara, hence the moniker “Bunkie.”) The family’s next home was a large Highland Park bungalow at 137 Moss St.

City life could be oppressive, though. In 1917, Knudsen enlisted an agent to locate a summer house. “I want you to find me a place on running water within driving distance of Detroit — a place where I can put my wife and kids in the summer so I can drive back and forth to the shop,” he told his biographer, Norman Beasley. A house on Grosse Ile filled the bill. The main shop-related task was building a large factory to make Eagle boats, the 204-foot-long submarine chasers for the United States Navy, along the Rouge River in Dearborn.

After World War I, Knudsen victory-lapped Denmark, setting up a Ford plant in Copenhagen. As Ford himself noted, Knudsen emerged in these years as “the best production man in the United States.” Success brought further financial reward with an annual salary of $50,000 (around $720,000 today). But in the spring of 1921, it was over with Ford. “Mr. Knudsen was too strong for me to handle,” the boss said.

Reaching this career impasse, Knudsen had to take stock of his success to date. Surrugue reckons it was the result of innate opportunity and energy within the American system. “I think it’s an extremely important lesson to take that this was an immigrant,” she says, recalling the dropping of his Danish citizenship. She paraphrases him: “In Europe people always tend to show you old things. In America we want to show new things.” It’s a “key to understanding his drive, but also to understanding what can be the American drive.”

She glances out the window at an 800-year-old church in her trendy Copenhagen neighborhood, reflecting further: “Knudsen got to create himself in the new country. It was still a new country back then. In some ways, it still is.”

Mementos of Knudsen’s life. // Courtesy of DR
Mementos of Knudsen’s life. // Courtesy of DR

In 1922, after a one-year interlude running Ireland and Mathews Manufacturing Co., a supplier of metal parts, Knudsen joined General Motors, which had stumbled in the economic recession following World War I. Chevrolet Motor Co. barely survived. As vice president of operations, and once again earning $50,000 per year, Knudsen pushed Chevrolet to become the mass-market brand it was supposed to be after its creation in 1914. He also reorganized plants to increase capacity.

Ford was outselling Chevy by eight to one when he advanced to company president in 1924. Now he had the Model K, a mechanically refined car with fully enclosed bodywork. Lower and longer than the Ford Model T, it came in a palette of Du Pont’s fast-drying Duco lacquers. Chevy closed the gap down to three to one.

As long as things were going well, the Knudsen family moved to a stately manor at 1501 Balmoral Drive in Palmer Woods, an upscale neighborhood in Detroit. Knudsen himself remained on the go, visiting Chevy’s nine plants and various sales points. Near the end of 1925, the dealers, flush with prosperity, met at Chicago’s Palmer House.

Expecting a comprehensive banquet oration from their leader, they heard Knudsen stand and utter five syllables: “I want vun for vun!” He declared this much and sat back down. Deciphering the Danish accent and discerning the mandate to match Ford’s sales, the dealers roared approval. Chevy surpassed 1 million units in 1927, and then exceeded Ford, which shut down the Rouge works to retool for the Model A. Two years later, Chevy threw a haymaker, introducing the standard six-cylinder engine. “A Six for the Price of a Four,” said the hype.

Producing the powertrain entailed retooling the main Flint factory over six weeks and spending $28 million on systemwide updates. GM president Alfred Sloan gave a dinner for those involved in the changeover, but noticed more than a few nodding heads. Knudsen told him, “Yes, many of them have worked for two months with only six hours’ sleep each night.”

The general inspects an anti-aircraft gun on display at an Army Air Show (date and location unknown). // Courtesy of the Detroit Public Library
The general inspects an anti-aircraft gun on display at an Army Air Show (date and location unknown). // Courtesy of the Detroit Public Library

For his work, Knudsen received acclaim in newspaper headlines that called him a “Genius of Production.” He rose to GM executive vice president in 1933, taking responsibility for all car, truck, and body manufacturing. After the sit-down strike of 1936-1937, Sloan stepped up to chairman and Knudsen assumed the presidency.

GM hummed right along. Reaching home in the evening, Knudsen unwound by playing a xylophone in the basement, then joined his family. His wife said she hardly knew what he did at work. Some of their wealth went to building Lutheran churches around Detroit and to helping his Danish relatives acquire homes. His son, Bunkie, who worked on the line at Pontiac during summers back from MIT, set out to follow him in the car business and would carve quite a path of his own.

The outbreak of World War II initiated Knudsen’s third corporate act. Full mobilization demanded the conversion of factories for arms production. “Few people realize the dimension of the task imposed on us then, or the manner in which we performed it,” Sloan recalled. President Roosevelt invited Knudsen in 1940 to join the newly formed, seven-member National Defense Advisory Commission, which meant forsaking $300,000 per year (nearly $1 million) for a $1 salary.

“I’m not a polished man,” Knudsen told the Washington press, “but I know how to make things.” (He soon made the cover of Time.) Focusing at first on aircraft production, Knudsen met with political and defense leaders, looked at blueprints, learned how radial engines were assembled, and walked through 17 aircraft plants. Through it all, he dealt with bureaucratic inertia, not to mention reluctance and discord among leaders of industry.

After the momentous 1940 election, Roosevelt formed the four-man Office of Production Management and appointed Knudsen to represent industry. Another of the four leaders, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, wrote in his diary, “I told Knudsen he was to be the chief figure.” Big Bill’s shoot-from-the-hip style was somewhat novel by capital standards, but he managed to sign up Detroit automakers for the manufacture of aircraft, tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, and more.

In the capital, he worked in the Social Security Building and lived in the Rock Creek Park neighborhood. If one of his daughters visited, they went out on the town. “He carries himself lightly for a two-hundred-and-thirty-pound man of sixty-one and can dance for hours without puffing,” The New Yorker reported. No longer “deceptively rumpled,” he even made a best-dressed list.

Labor unrest and raw materials shortages further impeded the drive to full production. In his account, “Freedom’s Forge,” Arthur Herman quotes Knudsen as he reassured Roosevelt: “Not everyone knows that mass production takes time to get started.” Political problems arose with “New Dealers,” who undercut Knudsen by pressing for creation of the Supplies, Priorities, and Allocation Board to take over some of the work.

Trade Secrets - Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Co., and William Knudsen, president of General Motors, attend an auto industry dinner in Detroit on Aug. 15, 1938. Two years later, Knudsen would be selected by President Roosevelt to lead U.S. war production. Knudsen had previously worked at Ford. // Courtesy of DR
Trade Secrets – Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Co., and William Knudsen, president of General Motors, attend an auto industry dinner in Detroit on Aug. 15, 1938. Two years later, Knudsen would be selected by President Roosevelt to lead U.S. war production. Knudsen had previously worked at Ford. // Courtesy of DR

Still, by time of the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, preparations were laid for copious production. “It was all due to Knudsen and his team,” Herman writes. “They had created, in effect, an almost self-perpetuating mechanism that fed upon its own individual dynamic elements.”

Appointed U.S. Army lieutenant general in 1943, Knudsen toured the Pacific theater, a journey requiring such feats of endurance as San Francisco-to-Honolulu on a C-87 Liberator Express transport, which he logged as “a very nice flight of 14 hours.” He watched soldiers train for battle, looked at bases, and toured towns in Fiji, New Caledonia, Australia, and New Zealand. On Guadalcanal, liberated at terrible cost from the Japanese six months earlier, he was greeted by “some excitement” in the form of an ammunition-dump fire lasting four hours. After-dinner conversation with a pair of generals acquainted him with their preference in bombers. “They use B-24 and B-25 exclusively,” he noted.

Knudsen finished the war with a distinguished service medal. After resigning his commission on May 1, 1945, he received a letter from General H.H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces. “I look back with great appreciation upon the way you handled the creation of new factories, the tooling required, and the changes necessary in the production lines,” Arnold wrote. “These were not easy problems.”

In 1946, King Christian X of Denmark awarded Knudsen the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog. Knudsen also chaired that year’s Automotive Golden Jubilee, sometimes considered “Detroit’s World Fair.” Responding to the invitation to the Jubilee’s industry dinner, Henry Ford wrote Knudsen, “I will be very pleased to attend … and am looking forward to seeing you then.”

Back in Copenhagen, Surrugue’s bell had just rung for a delivery. Soon returning to the call, she picked up her thought, saying, “I know it’s a cliche to talk about the American dream, but for a poor Danish boy, becoming the head of GM, one of the highest-paid people on the face of the planet — and he’s a part of the reason that World War II turned out as it did — that makes me really proud.” The nearly 6 million Danes will soon know more.

Facebook Comments