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William Signius Knudsen (March 25, 1879 – April 27, 1948) was a leading automotive industry executive. His experience and success as a key senior manager in the operations sides of Ford Motor Company and later General Motors led the Franklin Roosevelt Administration to commission him as a Lieutenant General in the United States Army to help lead the United States' war materiel production efforts for World War II.
Knudsen was working for the John R. Keim Company of Buffalo, New York when the Ford Motor Company bought it in 1911 for its steel-stamping experience and tooling. Knudsen worked for Ford from 1911 to 1921, a decade that saw the formative development of the modern assembly line and true mass production. Working first for the Ford Motor Company and later for General Motors, Knudsen became an expert on mass production and a skilled manager. Knudsen was president of the Chevrolet Division of General Motors from 1924 to 1937, and was president of General Motors from 1937 to 1940.
In 1940, President Roosevelt asked Knudsen to come to Washington to help with war production. Knudsen was appointed as Chairman of the Office of Production Management and member of the National Defense Advisory Commission.
In January 1942, Knudsen was commissioned a Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army, the only civilian ever to join the Army at such a high initial rank. and appointed as Director of Production, Office of the Under Secretary of War. In this capacity, he worked as a consultant and a troubleshooter for the War Department.
In both of these positions, Knudsen used his extensive experience in manufacturing and industry respect to facilitate the largest production job in history. In response to the demand for war material, production of machine tools tripled. Total aircraft produced for the US military in 1939 was less than 3,000 planes. By the end of the war, America produced over 300,000 planes. Production of both cargo and Navy ships also increased astronomically. Knudsen's influence not only smoothed government procurement procedures, but also led companies that had never produced military hardware to enter the market. America outproduced its enemies. As Knudsen said, "We won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen, nor dreamed possible."
Knudsen was the father of Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen who also became a prominent automobile industry executive.
Knudsen was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1944 and again in 1945 for his service in the Army during World War II. He also received the American Campaign Medal, and World War Two Victory Medal for his wartime service.
Knudsen was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1968.
Alfred P. Sloan, Jr.
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Charles E. Wilson