Lawyer details Detroit's contribution to World War II effort

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Gregory D. Sumner enjoyed law school. But he didn’t enjoy being a lawyer.

“When I got into corporate practice, I found that it just wasn’t a good fit for me, so I worked my way back to grad school,” said Sumner, an Indianapolis native and self-proclaimed “recovering lawyer,” who lives in Ferndale.

In 1980, Sumner graduated with his juris doctor from the University of Michigan Law School. Additionally, he has undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees all in history all from Indiana University. Since 1993, he has taught history at the University of Detroit-Mercy and is currently the co-chair of the university’s History Department.

According to Sumner, law school helped him think, speak, and write more clearly. This served him well when writing his three books. His previous two books are 1996’s “Dwight Macdonald and the Politics Circle: The Challenge of Cosmopolitan Democracy” and 2011’s “Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels.”

His third and current book, “Detroit in World War II” (Arcadia Publishing $21.99) focuses on Detroit’s contribution to the war effort during World War II.     When President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the country to become the great “Arsenal of Democracy,” Detroit helped turn the tide against the Axis Powers with its industrial might. Numerous citizens were committed to the cause, putting their own careers and their personal ambitions on hold. Factories were retooled from the ground up as various war machines and munitions were produced. Ford Motor Co. founder/industrialist Henry Ford, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh, legendary boxer Joe Louis, future Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, and many real-life Rosie the Riveters all helped drive the city that was forging thunderbolts for the front lines.

“I  like writing for a general audience – and I like telling stories – and I am ever-fascinated with the World War II period. (This book) was a good vehicle to satisfy those requirements,” he said. “My book is ‘one-stop shopping’ for readers interested in Detroit as the Arsenal of Democracy and the home front in general. I talk about the military and production sides, but also the dance ballrooms and night clubs and scrap drives and movie theatres (as well as (Greenberg and Louis). People who lived through those times tell me I got the spirit right, and it’s a fun book that triggers memories. My college students find it accessible, which makes me glad (because) most of them, sadly, know almost no history.”

Sumner spoke about Edsel Ford, who succeeded his aforementioned father as president of Ford Motor Co. According to Sumner, Edsel was instrumental in the formation of Willow Run, the manufacturing complex located between Ypsilanti and Belleville that mass-produced war munitions during World War II. “Edsel is a hero in my book. He’s the man who made Willow Run happen – at great personal sacrifice,” said Sumner. Willow Run became the largest assembly line in the world during that era. The first B-24 Liberator, a bomber jet, rolled off the line in late 1942. At its peak in 1944, Willow Run produced 650 B-24s per month. By 1945, Willow Run was completing each B-24 in 18 hours, rolling one off the assembly line in just less than one hour. Ford produced 9,000 B-24s at Willow Run during World War II, half of the 18,000 total B-24s produced during the war years.

When asked how different things would be if Detroit wasn’t involved in the war effort, Sumner discussed the first summit meeting between Roosevelt; Winston Churchill, prime minister of the United Kingdom; and the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin – the core of the Allied Powers. At this meeting, Stalin proposed a toast.

“Raising his glass of vodka, he said, ‘To Detroit, the city that is winning the war!’” explained Sumner. “‘Nuff said.”

Sumner – who also serves as emcee on occasion at various movies at the Redford Theatre in Detroit, most recently its screening of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece “Vertigo” with James Stewart and Grace Kelly earlier this summer – is currently hard at work on his next book about World War II POW camps in Michigan.

“There were about 6,000 Germans and Italians in 32 camps around the state,” said Sumner. “Another great story: They were treated so well that many became American citizens after the war. I would like to hear from anyone who has information on this rich yet little-known topic. At this point, I only write things I want to write about – it’s a tough job. World War II is such a fascinating era: dramatic stakes, incredible personalities, teamwork. I agree with those who say that most of the time it brought out the best in people. There are values from that generation that we need today: resiliency – I like the word ‘moxie’ – the ‘can-do’ attitude, doing more with less, and working together for a higher purpose than self.”


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