Vivian Litchard, 90, of Ypsilanti. started working at the Willow Run Bomber Plantwhen she was 18. Knowing the plant is already being demolished to make way for new development, the 90-year-old can't help but shed tears. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Ypsilanti — Vivian Litchard stood inside the Willow Run Bomber Plant on Saturday, seeing the vacant shell of the massive complex where she spent three years sewing pieces of fabric for the B-24 bombers that would help win World War II.
Knowing the plant is already being demolished to make way for new development, the 90-year-old can’t help but shed tears.
It’s difficult. Not because it’s history, but because it’s her history.
“Good people were here,” said Litchard, who started working at the factory when she was 18. “This was a whole new life for me. I really grew up in here.”
A group trying to preserve those memories and transform part of the plant into an aviation museum is getting closer to an $8 million fundraising goal. On Saturday, the Save the Bomber Plant campaign announced it will now have until May 1 to complete fundraising to purchase 175,000 square feet of the abandoned facility. The previous deadline was Nov. 1.
The site has been vacant since last used by GM in 2010 to build transmissions.
RACER (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response) was formed in 2011 by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to sell properties not part of the new General Motors Co. The trust plans to tear down most of the 4.2 million-square-foot structure. Plans call for Walbridge Development to buy most of the 332 acres and develop them into a shared research and development center.
Save the Bomber Plant campaign organizers have just under $2 million left to raise to buy the property, renovate it and help save part of the factory where “Rosie the Riveter” helped build bombers during the war.
“Rosie,” inspired by one of the female workers at the Willow Run Bomber Plant, became a cultural symbol, representing the need for everyone to contribute to the war effort.
The Save the Bomber Plant organizers have adopted the iconic image, only now “Rosie” tells people, “We can do it again!”
On Saturday, parts of the plant were opened for a glimpse inside. Hundreds attended, including some of the original Rosies and men who also worked at the factory during World War II.
In 2004, the Yankee Air Museum lost its home base to a fire. It later moved to a spot at Willow Run Airport, but a lack of space forced the museum to store its flyable historic aircraft — the B-17 “Yankee Lady” and the B-25 “Yankee Warrior” — in Hangar 1 on the other side of the airport.
“We are going to show and tell how we’re going to move beyond just an aviation history museum to show how this plant completely changed production,” said Michael Montgomery, fundraising consultant for the Michigan Aerospace Foundation, which is running the Save The Bomber Plant campaign.
It’s unlikely that even if a portion could be saved that it would be able to get historical designation status, said Robert Christensen, state coordinator for the National Register of Historic Places. He says partially demolished properties do not fit the criteria. “It’s not hard to imagine that someone could find a way to use the space. But it’s hard to fathom that something so important cannot be kept and new uses found for it,” said Christensen.
That’s a sentiment Chelsea residents and World War II enthusiasts Jeremy and Sawyer Northrop agree with completely.
“I’m pretty appalled that something that played a major part in saving the civilized world could just be torn down,” said Jeremy Northrop, 14.
Added his brother Sawyer, 11, “It’s a factory. You think they could use it for something.”
Anna Kinsey, who spent 19 months working at the plant early in the war effort, said she isn’t sad to see it demolished. “It served its purpose,” she said.
Kinsey was a riveter and eventually lost her hearing due to the noise, but she gained a lifelong sense of pride. “I was thankful that we could help,” she said.
Bill Kenzie was in high school when his mother, Mary Jo, started working at the bomber plant. She died four years ago at 109.
“I remember we were going to school at the same time as my mother was coming here,” said the Livonia resident. “They’d come with a bus to pick her and the other workers up.”
If the Yankee Air Museum organizers have anything to say about it, a part of the plant will live on.
“This isn’t just a building to us,” Montgomery said. “(It’s) the social cultural history of the people who came to this area, the plant itself and what it did for the war effort and the origin of Rosie the Riveter.”