New Detroit News photo book details city's vital role in World War II, afterward

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When Detroit transformed into the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II, one group had a front row seat more than nearly any other: The Detroit News' photographers.

The newspaper's photo staff captured thousands of images of auto factories retooled for the war effort in the 1940s, tanks and trucks rolling off Detroit area assembly lines and women working in factories, or Rosie the Riveters. And when the war finally ended in 1945, they also captured the incredible joy of a city, nation and world, finally at peace.

All of those images, and hundreds more, are featured in a new book, "War & Peace: Iconic Images of Detroit's Past, the 1940s and 1950s through the lens of The Detroit News." Published by Pediment, the 160-page book, which depicts one of the most transformative periods in Detroit's history, is available for pre-sale orders now at a discounted price of $32.95. It will be shipped Nov. 18, just in time for the holidays. 

A Detroit News image from Dec. 29, 1944 shows workers in a munitions factory assemble parts for radio controlled bombs. It's included in a new book, "War & Peace: Iconic Images of Detroit's Past: The 1940s and 1950s Through the Lens of The Detroit News."

"This is Detroit when it was at the peak of its powers," said Charlotte Massey, a retired Detroit News photo editor who gathered many of the images for "War & Peace: Iconic Images" from the newspaper's photo archives and wrote captions and chapter forewords. "It was already an industrial powerhouse — the Motor City. It was at its apex."

The book, which includes 280 images, is the latest culled from The Detroit News' vast photo archives. Pediment is a Washington-based publisher that specializes in books compiled from newspaper images. "Iconic Images of Detroit's Past: History through the lens of The Detroit News" was published last fall by Pediment, focusing on Detroit News photos from the late 19th century through 1939.

"War & Peace: Iconic Images," unlike the first book, focuses on a much shorter time period and isn't organized chronologically. Instead, it's divided by subject, with the war effort a large focus in the beginning. Other subjects include transportation; youth and education; public service; and, of course, for a sports-obsessed town like Detroit, professional sports.

"There was so much going on in Detroit at the time (the 1940s and 50s) and the archives were so laden with great images that they wanted to focus in and not go too broad," said Caitlin Waite, an acquisition editor with Pediment Publishing.

And War World II and Detroit's vital role in the war effort is a big focus of the book. The cover really captures Detroit's joyous mood on V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945, marking Japan's surrender to the United States and the end of World War II. Approximately 60,000 Michiganians served in the war and 15,000 were killed.

"There are just so many layers of what's going on" in the cover image, said Massey. "...There were a lot of famous pictures of soldiers and sailors, hugging girls. But it was a big deal. It was an iconic picture."

Images throughout "War & Peace: Iconic Images" show the Motor City's shift to Arsenal of Democracy during the early 1940s. One picture shows a hangar at the Ford Willow Run plant transformed into barracks with 1,300 cots for Army personnel who were brought in to fly out the newly built B-24 bombers. The plant completed one B-24 every hour. 

"The auto industry basically, with the support of the government, transformed itself into the defense industry," said Massey, who relied on the Detroit Historical Society for much of her research.

African American USO workers prepare to leave Detroit for a visit to Sault Ste. Marie to entertain the black soldiers stationed there in October 1942. Segregation in the U.S. military continued until President Harry Truman signed an executive order in officially ending it in 1948.

And it wasn't just the men who went to war, said Massey. Women took jobs in factories, becoming "Rosie the Riveters." Several images in the book show them working as machinists, building planes and working in auto plants, particularly the Willow Run plant, making airplane parts for the war effort.

"That was the beginning of a very profound transformation in American society with all the 'Rosies' who came to work in factories," said Massey.

After the war ended, Detroit continued to grow, reaching its peak population, 1.8 million, in 1950. One featured image, taken Oct. 29, 1954, shows thousands jammed into Cadillac Square downtown to hear President Dwight Eisenhower talk about the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy.

An aerial image taken Jan. 13, 1956 shows downtown Detroit and Windsor, Ontario across the Detroit River. Detroit hit its peak population, 1.8 million, in 1950.

But with the city's growth came the early seeds of what would become major challenges down the road, including housing shortages, highway expansion and discriminatory housing policies such as redlining.

"The beginnings of white flight from the city really started in the postwar era, not the 1960s," said Massey.

Labor issues also are depicted with several iconic images. One taken by photographer Milton Brooks that depicts strikers confronting a strikebreaker during the 1941 walkout of Ford’s Dearborn Rouge plant 

in 1941 was the first photo to win the new Pulitzer Prize category for photojournalism.

Two boys enjoy a ride at Jefferson Beach Amusement Park, circa 1957.

Still, there's plenty of fun depicted too. There are photos of kids swimming in the fountain in 1941 at Detroit's Grand Circus park, several of the city's incredible salt mines and a 1959 image of the Primettes, the four women who'd go on to become one of Motown's biggest acts, the Supremes.

Several factors converged in the 1950s, a shift to the suburbs, the growth of highways and malls (Northland Mall opened in the 1950s), and federal housing policies, "all of that led to Detroit's outward expansion and the inner core being left behind and seen as a less desirable place," said Massey. "...The transformation was gradual but that really came to a head in the 1960s and that'll be in the next book."

Massey said she hopes readers walk away from the book with a sense of Detroit's growth, vitality and significance.

"Detroit is really one of the most consequential cities in the world," she said. "If you look at its history and its contributions, both good and bad, both negative and positive, it's been tremendous."

"War& Peace: Iconic Images of Detroit's Past" includes hundreds of images from the 1940s and 50s from The Detroit News photo archives.

 'War & Peace: Iconic Images of Detroit's Past'

 The 1940s and 1950s through the lens of The Detroit News.

Published by Pediment

Available for pre-sale orders for $32.95; book ships Nov. 18.

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