Arsenal of Democracy: Cannons

So far, we have talked about how the Dodge Brothers built a reputation for being badasses at everything they did and took a look at how they contributed to America’s first motorized attack. This brings us to The Great War years and where we continue the story.

The United States entered The Great War years after the fighting began. President Woodrow Wilson maintained the neutrality he campaigned on for as long as he could, but when German U-boats began clipping civilian commercial and passenger ships at an impressive rate, America entering the fray became inevitable. At the beginning of 1917, Congress passed an arms appropriations bill totalling $250,000,000. Once that bill was signed, the U-boats sunk 4 more U.S. merchant vessels in a matter of weeks. With his hand forced, President Wilson declared war.

With the ordnance budget passed, domestic manufacturers lined up in D.C. trying to seal the deal on lucrative government contracts. Our country wasn’t just building up its own military from relatively nothing, but the nation’s industry was being called upon to aid in supplying all the Allied Forces with weapons and ammunition. $250M was just a start; the number quickly escalated into the billions.

The Dodge Brothers took a slightly different approach than their contemporaries. Horace and John told military officials, via mail, that they were “at the government’s disposal whenever it was found necessary to use them.” Instead of selling the government on what DB would like to build for them, the brothers basically said “when you run into something nobody else can do, we’ll do it.” At the end of 1917, the most difficult task America was faced with was put upon the brothers.

Letter from the government received by the Dodge Brothers

France was renowned for their artillery expertise. 155mm Schneider Howitzers and 155mm Filloux (or designated G.P.F. in the States) rifles were French designed, and up until this point, only manufactured by French craftsmen. They were built by hand to exact specifications, and the tolerances were almost nil, specifically for the recoil mechanism or “recuperator.” Germany had, in fact, captured many of these field guns, but they simply couldn’t reverse engineer the recuperators. Even in France, where they had a 20-year head start, only five could be made each day. They just couldn’t keep up with the need. The French begged the U.S. to build more, giving them the formerly secret blueprints and offering to send their experts to train American workers.

In simple terms, the guns are cannons that consist of three main parts: the carriage (which is the base that also allows for the cannon’s mobility), the rifle (or barrel) and the recuperator. The recuperator’s job is an important one: to absorb the force of a blast that sends a projectile out of the barrel miles down range. It was far and away the most challenging part to build.

Before inviting John Dodge to Washington to ask for his assistance, Secretary of War Newton Baker had already been turned down by other manufacturers who deemed the project impossible. “No heavy articles ever before turned out in American workshops required in their finish the degree of microscopic perfection the recuperators called for.” Secretary Baker and a delegation of French officials met with John upon his arrival in D.C. The ensuing conversation is legendary, and went something like this:

“Do you know anybody who can do this kind of work?” they asked John.

“We can make all you want of anything you can give us a blueprint of” was his confident, if not a little cocky, reply.

“The man is mad!” the delegation told each other and Secretary Baker.

“He thinks that this is a production job, this delicate mechanism,” they continued.

The French had figured on setting up satellite schools and spending months teaching the art of building recuperators. Now this guy in Detroit is telling them he’s gonna do it on his own? They were in disbelief.

“Do you want these things or don’t you?” bellowed John.

“But this is not a mass-production task!” came from Baker.

John shot back: “The hell it isn’t, that’s nonsense!”

“Look here, Mr. Dodge,” Baker said sternly, “I’m not accustomed to being spoken to in that kind of language.”

“The war would be a hell of a lot better off if you were!” John quickly replied.

Once going over the prints with Horace, John estimated they could make up to 50 a day. John knew D.C. was in no position to bargain, but there was just one major stipulation that needed to be met before he’d sign on the dotted line: The government needed to leave Dodge the hell alone. Typically with these large military contracts came attached federal officials crawling all over every part of the process. In this case, the government agreed to only worry about the final inspection. Sec. Baker accepted the deal on October 27, 1917.

hand drawn sketch
Hand drawn chart of time for equipment capacity and production capacity as Lynch Road geared up. on DAC stationary

Now, all the brothers had to do was build large precision mechanisms based on blueprints in French, in quantities thought impossible, using machines not yet built, in a factory that didn’t exist, for a war that needed them yesterday.  

Within 36 hours of the deal being finalized, construction on the massive manufacturing facility in Detroit began. Time was of the essence because of both the war and the weather. Detroit construction workers raced to get cement poured ahead of what proved to be one of the most severe winters Michigan has endured. And yet the factory went up quickly, with rough machining operations starting in March.

men standing around cannon

To give context for the size of what they’d be building there, the two pieces of billet steel that made up the barrel and the recoil mechanism of the howitzer weighed almost 6 tons combined. For that gun, Dodge did both the rough and finish machine work; after which, they weighed a third of that. The howitzer, when completely assembled, weighed 4 tons. The G.F.P. cannon weighed close to 10 tons when completely assembled. 

155mm Howitzer in firing position (top) and travel position (bottom)

While the Lynch Road plant was going up, the Dodge automotive factories were busy putting together 129 specialized machines, most designed by Horace. But that wasn’t all they needed, and in a time of national machinery shortages, there were drastic measures taken to help Dodge gear up. “Trainloads” of equipment headed cross country was requisitioned. A train full of special machinery commissioned by the Russian government, in port ready to sail, was caught and redirected to Detroit. There was even a nautical mission undertaken when a giant planer, a machine used to cut and flatten steel, went overboard as it was being taken by barge to a steam freighter. Government divers rescued the planer and sent it on its way to the Dodge Brothers.

cannon parts and sketches

April 1919 was when the earliest rough forgings arrived in Detroit. In June, or about 7 months from the Lynch Road facility breaking ground, Dodge had 155mm Schneider howitzer recoil mechanisms ready to deliver. After August testing of the full assembly, there were minor issues that needed to be fixed, but by November of 1918, the factory was making 20 of the giant mechanisms a day, eventually peaking at 35 a day when combined with the 155mm G.P.F. numbers.

Despite several reports to the contrary, Dodge didn’t make the recuperators for the 75mm guns, although it is likely that they assisted the Rock Island Arsenal and Singer (yes, the sewing machine manufacturer) in their respective uphill efforts. Combined, those two did the final machining and assembly of 59 75mm recoil mechanisms by the end of April 2019, as they struggled to get their mechanisms to pass quality checks. In that same timeframe, a total of 2,481 155mm recuperators had been completed by the Dodge Brothers at Lynch Road.

cannons in a field
155mm Howitzers at Aberdeen Proving Grounds
building of cannons
155mm GPF in process at Lynch Road in Detroit

Once the war contracts ended, John and Horace offered to buy the factory at Lynch Road. While they facilitated the construction, equipping and operation of the plant, it was technically the government’s property. The military first balked at the selling price, but then ended up removing much of the machinery and relocating the assembled cannons that were left to the Rock Island Arsenal. After spending more money on moving and storing the plant’s contents than they did building the place, they sold the factory to Dodge in 1920.

machine pieces
Assortment of artillery returned to APG after World War I

The Dodge Brothers and Graham Brothers eventually entered into a partnership, building trucks at Lynch Road before Chrysler bought the brand in the late 1920s. Chrysler moved truck production to Dodge Main in Hamtramck, a city completely within the borders of Detroit. The corporation then moved all of their axle production to the Lynch Road complex. It became known as Detroit Axle, where they built axles until 2010.

Next: Other large contributions that John and Horace made to World War 1 efforts and what might have been if the Armistice had not been signed; and how the story above inspired and shaped the military and industry’s relationship going into World War II. Also to come: The tale that led me to tug on the string of the Dodge Brothers’ early defense work, the one that connected the two World Wars and drew me to this Great War era of Dodge history, isn’t even true. A modern-day game of “telephone” where facts are better than fiction! 

A HUGE thanks to Madelyn Rzadkowolski, archival curator at Meadow Brook Hall for granting access to original documents from the era, including hand-written notes by John Dodge himself.
“The Detroit Brothers” by Charles K. Hyde
“America’s Munitions 1917-18” by Benedict Crowell
“Liaison: The Courier of the Big Gun Corps”
“How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital”
“Tanks are Mighty Fine Things” by Wesley Stout
“Dodge Dynasty” by Caroline Latham and David Agresta
“Why Germany Quit” by Cleveland Moffett
Detroit Saturday Night newspaper
“A Mechanical Triumph” Dodge booklet
“Handbook of artillery: including mobile, anti-aircraft and trench matériel” 1920

Past Arsenal of Democracy Installments:
Arsenal of Democracy: Dodge Brothers Build a Reputation
Arsenal of Democracy: America’s First Motorized Attack