It’s difficult to quantify the impact of WWII on the country and entire world. Every aspect of people’s lives were touched, including here at the Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC). Today, June 6, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. In honor of this anniversary and our own 100th anniversary this year, we look back on a few ways that WWII impacted WCRC and road commissions across the state.
The most telling way that WCRC was impacted by the war was through its own employees. During the war, the following 10 WCRC employees served in the armed forces:
- Ben Cope
- Willard Curtis
- Albert Decker
- Col. K.L. Hallenbeck
- Julius Huber
- Harold Jahnke
- Edw. Mamarow
- Dee Sanderson
- Fred Sheldon
- Ray Steeb
Of these, five returned to work at WCRC after they were honorably discharged – Cope, Curtis, Hallenbeck, Jahnke and Mamarow. Lt. Col. Hallenbeck came back to WCRC in his role as superintendent-manager, click here to read an article from the Ann Arbor news detailing his service and return.
While these 10 men were serving in the war, staffing levels dropped dramatically during the war due to budget constraints. In 1941 there were 138 employees however by 1944, staffing was reduced to just 90 employees.
Already faced with reductions in staffing, WCRC and many other road agencies were asked to support their state’s national guards in various ways. For example, according to WCRC’s 1942 annual report, WCRC rented it’s RD-8 Diesel Caterpillar tractor for use on the military airport near Alpena. WCRC was also asked in August 1944 to assist with the movement of Michigan troops from the Ypsilanti Amory if they were mobilized. Click here to see the letters and handwritten notes about this order.
Despite the ongoing war emergency, the roads of Washtenaw County still required maintenance. In fact, there was a huge demand for road improvements but no money available for it. Additionally, there were years where all county road construction was halted, by law, due to the war emergency.
The “New” Bomber Plant
One particularly interesting challenge facing WCRC during the war were the roads around the “New Ford Bomber Plant” in Ypsilanti Township, what we know today as Willow Run. The problem was simple – all the major roads surrounding the new factory – what are now Wiard Road, Tyler Road, US-12 and Airport Drive were all gravel. Despite these road conditions, traffic levels had exploded, 20,000 – 60,000 additional people were heading to the plant for work every day. The gravel roads just couldn’t handle the increased traffic and at the time WCRC didn’t have the money to improve the roads.
These struggles were discussed in WCRC’s 1941 annual report, click here to read an excerpt. WCRC officials, along with Wayne County officials, pleaded with the federal government for help. WCRC wanted the federal government to take over parts of Chase, Wiard, Tyler, Bridge, Ford-Textile and Van Born Roads. Eventually some of these roads were improved with federal funds under the “War Emergency” fund; Wiard Road and Chase Road were the first to be paved. With this federal investment, portions of these roads were converted to state and federal trunk lines, what we know as US-12 today near the West Willow community in Ypsilanti Township. Click here to read more about this issue from WCRC’s 1942 annual report.
Before the war even ended, there was work being done to plan for the transfer of the nation’s war economy into a peace economy.
One topic where this transition played out was with surplus war equipment. Large equipment and their replacement parts were nearly impossible to come by due to war shortages. Seemingly every local government agency across the country, including WCRC, desperately needed and wanted surplus war equipment. It was a major legislative battle on the federal level over this equipment. Check out these letters to see this struggle firsthand.
These are just a few ways that the largest conflict of the century impacted WCRC and other road commissions in Michigan. It is impossible to stress how much this event changed the county. As we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the 100th anniversary WCRC, we look back at our history as a way to honor the sacrifices made by all.