“Charley, in war you can’t say no. If they want 12,500,000 rounds a day, we’ll have to give it to them somehow.”
— Chrysler President K.T. Keller to Chrysler Vice President Charles L. Jacobson
In mid-December 1941, as a war industry Office of Production Management meeting in Washington, D.C., was concluding, an OPM official asked Chrysler president K.T. Keller if the company had an available factory with a lot of water. After thinking for a moment, Keller replied, “We have a Plymouth assembly plant at Evansville, Ind., on the Ohio River.” The OPM man escorted Keller to the office of then-Lt. Col. Guy H. Drewry of Army Ordnance. Drewry told Keller the army needed three to five billion .45 caliber cartridges. He asked Keller if Chrysler could make them at Evansville.
Without pausing, Keller said, “Yes.”
The startled Drewry asked, “Do you always make up your mind this fast?”
“Not always, Colonel,” Keller replied. “But we have been hearing more and more about billions in recent years. I still can’t imagine what a billion is like, so I’d like to make billions of something and find out.”
Like the other automobile manufacturers, Chrysler had for the past three years devoted a small percentage of its production fulfilling for the military what were known as “educational orders” – small production runs of various military items, the purpose of which was to work out production problems in the boardroom and on the shop floor in advance of America entering the war. With the country now a belligerent, this pre-war exercise between industry and the military, not always harmonious, was being put to the test.
Within a week of Keller’s meeting in Washington, Chrysler vice president Charles L. Jacobson, tasked with organizing and running the new operation, got an Army Ordnance team to inspect and approve the Evansville plant and a letter of intent for the making of 5,000,000 .45 caliber cartridges a day.
One week later, Army Ordnance phoned Jacobson and increased the order to 7,500,000 rounds a day.
Within twenty-four hours Army Ordnance again called and gave Jacobson another change order – increasing production to 10,000,000 rounds a day. Before the month ended, that number had jumped yet again to 12,500,000 rounds. Jacobson had doubts such an order could be fulfilled, but with Keller telling him to make it happen, Jacobson worked out a co-production agreement with Sunbeam, who had a plant near Evansville. On Feb. 18, 1942, Washington’s Birthday, the formal contract with the government was signed. The transformation of the Evansville plant from assembly line to arsenal began the next day.
Cartridges made at the Evansville arsenal had seven parts, passed through 48 processing operations, and had to survive 334 quality control inspections. On June 30, 1942, the first bullets produced there were test fired. From June 1942 to April 20, 1944 when the contract ended, Chrysler’s Evansville arsenal produced 96 percent of the military’s .45 caliber cartridges: 3,264,281,914 rounds. Rejection rate of cartridges was less then .1 percent of production.
It also produced almost a half-billion .30 caliber cartridges, hundreds of thousands of specialty rounds, reconditioned 1,662 Sherman tanks, rebuilt 4,000 Army trucks, delivered 800,000 tank grousers (track extensions for use in mud), and was preparing to make 7 million fire bombs when the war ended.
Because there was a shortage of rolling mills, rather than copper, most of the cartridges out of Evansville were made out of steel, not brass. New technology and equipment had to be developed to make sure steel cartridges were as reliable as brass ones.
In the early summer of 1943, the Evansville arsenal won the coveted Army-Navy “E” – Excellence – Pennant. In presenting it to the workers, Lt. Col. Miles Chatfield of the Army’s Ordnance Department said, “Ninety days after you broke ground, you proof-fired the first ammunition made at this plant. When the Chief of Ordnance asked you to switch from brass to steel you did the seemingly impossible and then when you were asked to convert some of your machines to .30 caliber carbine ammunition, you made the first cup within a week and two weeks later you proof-fired the first round of that ammunition. This all adds up to a remarkable accomplishment performed by those inexperienced in the ways of making ammunition, but with a willingness and devotion to patriotic duty second to none.”