Keller: My father was a very poor boy. And, in fact, their family had been broken up when he was eleven years of age. And he was indentured to a Mennonite preacher farmer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania who raised him. And when he was twenty, he went into business as a horse dealer in the town.
Groueff: Your father was a poor man?
Groueff: And not educated?
Keller: No, my father learned to read and write with we children when we went to school. But he did know horses well. And anyway, we had to work.
Groueff: Where was that, in Pennsylvania?
Keller: In a small town in Lancaster County, seventy-five miles from Philadelphia, a place called Mount Joy, a town of about twenty-one hundred people. And so we had to earn money wherever we could and help in the barn. I cared for horses from the time I had to stand on a chair to brush their mane. And I have done a lot of policing the stalls too when I was very young. We used wagons and washed harnesses.
We had about a four month holiday at school time in that time being a farming community. So I generally got a job for the summer. My first job, I was thirteen. And I got a job in a small factory at about fifty employees, mostly women, hemstitching handkerchiefs. I was making handkerchiefs.
Groueff: With sewing machines.
Keller: Sew on a sewing machine, yeah. And that was my first factory job. And then that fall when school started, I got a job before and after school in a small kitchen hardware company assembling hardware. And the next year, I ran the drill press. And so I grew up working on machinery and learned something about it.
I finished high school. And I then went to business college. I raised pigeons in my father’s barn and sold the squabs to get enough money to go into Lancaster, which was twelve miles away to get a business college education. I took shorthand, typewriting, double entry bookkeeping and commercial law. It was six months very intensive work, mostly the whole summer.
And when I was coming up to seventeen—I would have been seventeen in November and this was September—I was offered a job in a place called Lititz, which was about fourteen miles from where I lived. And I had a girl over there I was very sweet on. I could see the idea of taking that job and getting married. And my father and my grandfather thought I was a little young for that. But their approach was that I had not seen much of the world. I had not been any farther than Philadelphia and that just on one trip with my father.
So they bought me a second-class round trip ticket to England, a White Star steamer. I went over on the Olympic, second-class. They could buy that roundtrip ticket at that time in 1903 for fifty dollars. And they gave me fifty dollars to go over there and spend a couple weeks. My mother said if the girl loves you, she would wait for you.
Well I am three days out and I am sitting on the deck one day. A gentleman sat down alongside of me. He said he was going over there to do some lecture work. And, of course, an older man like that founds out from a kid his life’s history pretty quick. And he said he needed a secretary and he would give me a job if I would come with him. He would give me seven dollars and one-half a week and pay all my living expenses. So I figured that was pretty good. I could work with him for a month or so go and come back and still have my fifty dollars to get married with.
So we get over there and it turns out that he is a temperance evangelist. And he is going over there—
Keller: American, yeah. His name was John Quincy Adams Henry. He was a Baptist minister. And he had a whole schedule of meetings he was going to hold over there to get people to sign the pledge and stop drinking. It was a pretty drunken place in those days.
So anyway, I decided that would be a good thing to do. So it was going all right. It was about six weeks that had gone by. And I got a letter from mother; the girl had married another fellow. So to make a long story short, I stayed with him three years.
Groueff: With the minister?
Keller: Yeah. And he came back in the summertime. But the first summer that I had to put in over there, which was the summer of 1904, he put me up with Dr. Bernardo in the east end of London. And Dr. Bernardo was a fellow that picked up all those homeless children, the boys and girls at the east end of London. He put them out on farms, taught them trades, and then sent most of them to Canada. And I think he was financed primarily by the Earl of Salisbury. But he did a wonderful job over there. I spent eight weeks out there in the slums of London.
Groueff: But living there in his—?
Keller: Living in their headquarters building where they brought these kids in before they sent them out to the farm. And the next summer, I went with a group of young people to North Wales to the beach, which was a summer outing place. And they rented it. It was run by some people by the name of Wood from Dublin. And they had this school, a private school that was closed down, of course, during the summer. And that was in two parts. And there were two wings. And they put all of the boys in one wing and all of the girls in the other. And Mr. and Mrs. Wood had a room, you had to go halfway down the stairs and then there was their room.
We would go down to the beach and we would hold gospel services on the beach at eleven o’clock every morning. And it was a very wholesome thing. And I being one of the elders, I was a good bit like a camp counselor would be.
Groueff: And you were still in this temperance business?
Keller: Yeah, still getting my $7.50 a week.
Groueff: And not drinking?
Keller: And not drinking, no. And I never did drink very much. And, in fact, I never drank until we got Prohibition and then very little of it.
But anyway, after London, we went around. And I have been from Inverness to all down through Wales and all through the British Isles. And I stayed with all kinds of people. I stayed with the Lord Mayor of Glasgow. And I stayed with the head blacksmith of the Swan and Hunter Shipyard on the Tyne. I saw the Mauretania being built there. When the skew was first laid, I walked all around underneath it when it was just putting the ribs in. I stayed with a fellow and hoisted the coal out of a mine down in Pontgarreg, Wales. And I have been around. It was a marvelous experience.
So I came back in 1906. And I still had my fifty dollars or a little more. So I went to Pittsburgh. And on the way in on the train—I took a day train—the stationmaster told me about a cheap, good, clean hotel where I could go to where I first got there on Liberty Avenue. On the way in, we passed this Westinghouse plant. And that was the biggest thing I had ever seen in a factory. And I said yeah, I am going out there because if I am any good that is big enough to grow in. And if I am no good, it will be hard to find me.
So I went out the next day and I applied for a job. And I got a job as an assistant secretary to the works manager, a fellow by the name of Barton. And I got sixty-five dollars a month, which was good pay. I was there about three months and I went to him one day and I said, “Mr. Barton, I am in the wrong place here.”
I said, “Everybody around here has a job that I would like to have, either come out of the factory or out of the college.”
And I said, “I do not have a college education, I do not have the money to go to one, or parents to help me. And I would like to go into apprenticeship.”
So he set me up in the apprenticeship, twenty cents an hour. So I served my apprenticeship in the machine shop. And we took an order I think in 1907 or ’08 to build engines for Chalmers, the Chalmers 30, and I was put in that department. And I grew up to be the assistant master mechanic in that department.
Then out of that thing, Mr. Barton and a couple other men came up to Detroit. And they started an axle plant to make axles for Chalmers and Hudson. And they wrote me in, asked me if I wanted to come up and be chief inspector. So I came up there and got 150 dollars a month. And I worked there for a while. And then I went over to Metzger. I was canned over at Metzger, which was a good thing.
Then I went down to Tarytown. And then in the fall of 1911, Mr. Barton had gone over to General Motors. And he got me to come from Tarytown and come to Detroit again. And I went into General Motors. And I spent the next sixteen years with General Motors.
Groueff: I bet there was a lot of—
Keller: Well, I started out going through the different plants and picking up the best machine shop practice in each of the divisions and trying to persuade the others to improve their work. And then in 1913, I was made the superintendent of the engine division they had called Northway Motors.
And in 1917, I went to Buick in the brink of the war. I met Mr. Chrysler and I admired him very much. And so I went up there to work for him. And I was the general master mechanic in World War I. And I laid out the tool lead and bought the machinery and everything for the Liberty Engine and other war work that we were doing.
Then I came down with him to Detroit in 1919 when they built the new General Motors building down on the boulevard that they were building at the time. And he was brought down and given an important job in General Motors as the secretary vice-president. And he brought me along. I was the only man he brought in with him. And so he got on into a difference of opinion with [William C.] Durant. And so Durant left. He told me to stay until he got himself settled.
And I think that I should go back and say that after the war, Durant turned over to me the job of negotiation the settlement of all of the General Motors war contracts, which I handled. And Harlow Curtis, who later became president of General Motors, was assigned to me as a young man just out of school as my accountant. And Harlow and I spent quite a number of months on that job. But we got them all cleaned up.
In 1921, Durant got out of General Motors or the end of ’20. And I was chosen to become the vice-president and general manager of Chevrolet. And I reorganized Chevrolet under a man who was chosen. The name was Jim Hershey who was chosen president.
In 1924, they sent me over to re-organize the General Motors of Canada. And I was rather getting tired of moving around too much with my kids. In ’26, I left General Motors. And then I went to work for Chrysler. So that is roughly the outline.
Groueff: And you became president of Chrysler.
Keller: I became the president in ’35.
Keller: Mr. Chrysler had a stroke in ’37 and he died a year or so after that. But he was completely incapacitated. And you know when you have a terrible thing comes over you when there is nobody is backing you. You are the last guy on the field. There is going to be a touchdown that passes you. It just does a lot to you, I will tell you.
I often think of a fellow running for President of the United States. And he is in the excitement of the campaign. And he is out to win. He makes all these promises. When he gets in there, there is not anybody behind him.
Groueff: Oh, yeah.
Keller: The great sobering influence comes over you.
Groueff: How is Chrysler organized? Is it a company in which the president makes the final decisions and actually rules? Or is it organized like a big corporation with a board of directors who decide everything? In what measure could you involve the company?
Keller: To begin with, I put most of this stuff in there too. We had what is known as the authorization system. I could not spend more than $150,000 dollars on a new plant or tuning up a new model or anything like that without the approval of the finance committee and the board of directors. But we had a very free hand.
And Jules Baslin (?) and I, who I always thought was a great director, said the primary responsibility of a board of directors is to pick good management. And, of course, we had independent auditors. And another thing I insisted on that the vice-president in charge of finance be selected by the board of directors.
Groueff: And not by you?
Keller: And not by me and to report to the finance committee because I wanted somebody to share that responsibility so that I would be free to take on the direction of the development of the cars, sales organizations, the manufacture of them, which was my part, the manufacturing side and working with the engineers. And we went along all right. And I think it is just as good as your management—if you select bad management, then you have to curtail their power.
Groueff: But personally, you were more of a production man than the finance and administrative?
Keller: Yeah, but I knew my way around the finance too. My little experience in going to business college, I had the fundamentals. I could read the balance sheet and I knew what I was doing. Matter of fact, I organized that work with Chrysler. And then we bought Dodge. And then I had to coordinate the work between Dodge and Chrysler and get that all moved in together.
I worked out a system. There was a man I brought in so that I knew every day whether the day before we had been on the losing side or on the profit side. We did it with keeping track of a few very key things that would be indicative of the trend that you were in. Because when you do not get your costs—you do not get February costs until 27 March, it is too late to do anything about it. We knew every day whether our employment force was balanced to our production or whether it was not and whether we were absorbing our burden or overhead.
Groueff: Decisions like, for instance, when General Groves contacted you?
Keller: I made those all entirely myself.
Groueff: So it was up to you to say yes and no?
Keller: That is right.
Groueff: You did not have to go to the board of directors?
Keller: No, I did take it to them and told them I was doing it. Like after the war, I had a chance to buy one million eighteen thousand square feet of floor space in this Gray and Page plant for one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It was about one dollar a square foot. And I stepped out and bought it without any approval at all. And I went to the finance committee at the next meeting and I told them what I had done. And I said, “I know that this has to be approved. It is all right with me if you want to approve or if you do not. If you do not want to approve it, I would take it over myself personally because I know it is a good investment.” They bought it.
Groueff: Do you remember the details or the circumstances of your commitments with the Manhattan Project?
Keller: Oh, very well, very well indeed. Ed Garbisch, who was a son-in-law of Walter Chrysler, who I knew. I had been at his wedding too, to Bernice Chrysler. He called me up and said that he wanted to arrange a meeting with General Groves and Mr. [Kenneth] Nichols and Mr. [Dobie] Keith that they had a very important matter that they wanted to take up with us.
And he said, “I am not in the position to tell you what it is. If you need anybody with you, limit it to just the few.”
And I said, “Is this is a problem with something we are to make?”
He said, “Yes, if you will take it on, it would be something you have to make.”
Well then, I said, “I think I better have Mr. Zeder and Mr. [H.L.] Weckler with me.”
Keller: Zeder—Fred Zeder, who was our vice-president in charge of engineering and Herman Weckler, who was my chief of operations for plant operations. So they came out and we had this meeting with them.
Groueff: Where, in your office?
Groueff: In Detroit?
Keller: In our office in Detroit. And they disclosed not what they were going to use it for. But that they had this equipment they wanted to have made. And they told us that it would work under a vacuum better than twenty-nine inches. And they gave us the approximate sizes of the things that we had to make, which looked a great deal like a surface condenser in the powerhouse fields.
Groueff: That was the diffusors, where they put the barriers.
Keller: Those are the diffusors in which the tubes were in for the barriers. But with my previous experience at Westinghouse, it came as near in what you might call a basic problem with the construction, as a condenser would be for a turbine line.
Groueff: But Groves did not tell you anything about the atomic bomb or splitting the atom?
Keller: Nothing about an atomic bomb or splitting the atom.
Groueff: Gaseous diffusion?
Keller: But I did know that this would have to handle [uranium] hexafluoride gas.
Groueff: Yes, through barriers.
Keller: And through barriers and those barriers would be furnished see.
Groueff: I see.
Keller: And we were to do the designing and the work on this thing.
Groueff: Did they say that it was tremendously important or a secret?
Keller: Very important, very important, very secret.
Groueff: You did not ask questions?
Keller: No, I know better than to question.
Groueff: Nobody asked questions? I mean during the war, you were used to this?
Keller: Oh sure, I was cleared for secret anyway on the things that we were doing. I was getting sufficient information for what we had to do. And not knowing anything about it, I did not want to know any more than that because you are not suspect. I want to know enough so that I know what I am doing without the rest of the stuff. And you are much better off that way.
So it was not long though until an Ernest Lawrence asked me to meet him down at Oak Ridge that I discovered what it was all about. And I would say that inside of six or eight months I knew pretty well what we were doing.
Groueff: At this first meeting, did you have any idea or what did you think it was about?
Groueff: Just a technical job to do?
Keller: The technical job of making these things.
Groueff: Did it look very complicated and difficult?
Keller: Yes, it looked very complicated because they said it had to be made out of solid nickel. And Mr. Wechler figured out from the approximate sizes they gave him and being a Carnegie Tech graduate, he knew about how thick the material would have to be in order to stand the vacuum. And he computed rather rapidly the amount of nickel that we would use. And he came up with the information. In the time that we would do the job, it would take three times the amount of nickel that the world was producing that was available to us.
Groueff: Did Groves and Keith have some idea how to solve that? Or did they say that is your problem? We want it out of nickel.
Keller: No, no, they had this word that they had a Triple A Priority on nickel. And they were in a place to take all of the nickel that was necessary for the job. But I took the position that did not produce the nickel. And that if they took the nickel out of the armor plate, the guns, and the other things in the war equipment, it would mean a complete rebuilding of the heat-treating processes for all that equipment. And it would change the armor on the tank and everything else. And it would take years to make that change because you would have to have all new controls and equipment made for it. And I could see about a two-year tie up on the rest of the war stuff with a lot of confusion. And it struck me that it was a long way to go. And I asked them why we could not nickel plate it. And they told me it could not be done, that they had already spent one hundred thousand dollars.
Groueff: Groves, Nichols, and Keith?
Keller: Yeah. That they had already spent one hundred thousand dollars and they determined that it could not be done. And that nickel would be the only thing that would stand up against the fluorine. So I said, “Could we try it?”
And they said, “Well, if you want to spend your own money.”
So I said to Fred Zeder, who had charge the engineering and that kind of development work, I said to Fred, “I think we better make an effort on this thing and try to get it done.”
Groueff: Did you accept immediately the assignment of this meeting?
Keller: Oh yes, I said we would do it.
Groueff: Under what conditions? Did you establish a contract or what?
Keller: That they would furnish the money and we would undertake it.
Groueff: With profit?
Keller: There was just a minor profit.
Groueff: Minor profit.
Groueff: But you accepted it as a part of the war effort?
Keller: That is right, that is right.
Groueff: Now, could you say no?
Keller: I could have said no, yes. But I did not want to.
Groueff: And you did not have to refer it to the Board of Directors?
Keller: No, as a matter of fact, we did not say anything to the Board of Directors on it.
Groueff: It was a secret among you, the top people?
Keller: That is right.
Groueff: And the technicians?
Keller: That is right.
Groueff: But in other words, it was quite the risky in case of failure. You would have involved the company in some way.
Keller: No, I do not think the company was very much involved because we had to account for our expenditures and they reimbursed us. We just had to have enough cash on hand to carry it from the time we spent it until we got reimbursed by the government.
Groueff: You did it directly with the government or with Kellex?
Keller: Well, we did it with Kellex. When you were doing business with Kellex, you were doing it with Groves, Nichols, and Kellex together. The Kellex thing was organized to give them greater flexibility under the laws.
Groueff: Yeah. Did you know any one of those three men when they came to see you? Did you know them before?
Keller: No, never saw them before.
Groueff: And what were your first impressions of those three men?
Keller: I was very much taken with Groves. Groves seemed to have a fine capacity in viewing confidence in him. I had confidence in him. He seemed to know what he was talking about. He kind of headed it up. Dobie Keith, I could not quite figure Dobie. I did not know what he was doing in the thing anyway. It was for the government. That is the only contract or job that I took to do where there was a third fellow outside and I did not know what those boundaries meant.
And Nichols did not say very much except I liked him. But I learned to know Nichols. I had a little more contact with Nichols than I had with Groves. But I soon found I could talk over my problems with the Nichols and Groves. In fact, I was only in the Kellex office once during the whole affair.
Groueff: You did not have much to do with Keith then or those people?
Keller: Well Keith would come out you see. But I guess our accounting had to go through Kellex and all of that. That did not bother me. But I got into the thing; I watched it very carefully. And whenever there are any technical problems to be straightened out, any policy problems, or coordination between the government people and our factory people, I took the responsibility on.
Groueff: And then you would report directly to Groves and Nichol. You discussed it with them.
Keller: I would discuss it with them, yes.
Groueff: And you worked well with them. You did not have conflicts.
Keller: No, I never had any conflicts at all. I got along beautifully with them.
Groueff: In spite of this reputation of Groves with being tough on people—
Keller: I did not find him tough at all. I was always surprised hear and read that he was tough. I did not see anything tough about him.
Groueff: And he was not rude or tactless?
Keller: No, never rude, never tactless, never domineering.
Keller: When I went to talk to him, he listened. And we just got along splendidly.
Groueff: And intelligent, he understood your problems?
Keller: Yeah, he understood them.
Groueff: There was no kind of military attitude—that you do not know anything and they know everything?
Keller: Nope, none of that at all.
Groueff: But what kind of man, as the boss of Chrysler, were you? Did you have a reputation of authoritarian, bossy person?
Keller: Well the way we ran Chrysler, we had two, I think, very unusual committees. We had a committee that was known as an Operations Committee. And that had been started by Mr. Chrysler in the beginning because he lived in New York. And we had about twenty-eight people, top executives. And we never made an important policy decision, including the prices on the cars and which car we were going to build, that we did not bring it up. We met twice a month. And we had a good agenda, we kept minutes, and we had in that committee the four vice-presidents, the controller, the public relations council, and the presidents of the different divisions. That amounted to twenty-eight, the secretary of the company and so forth.
We hammered out our policy matters there. And I think that is one thing that gave the Board of Directors a great deal of confidence. And I think it is a very good to operate because I do not think any one man can be what you might call a dictator manager of anything.
Everybody had their say. But when we finally reached a decision, it was up to everybody to get in and back the decision. And it was generally done by a vote. And if we did not have enough facts or come one, we would put it over to the next meeting.
The other meeting we had, I used to have lunch every Monday with our plant managers. And we would take up the problems and come up with the field service as related to the manufacturing, quality, output, and the problems of running the factories. And we discussed it very thoroughly in there see.
I remember one job—to show you how that conference worked out—we had gone into the air conditioning business. And it was a very small volume business at the time. And we had to have the parts made wherever we could through the corporation. And we had it all assembled at one place and they put it together.
We were having a lot of complaint of the vibration in the compressor. And I had done brought this complaint into the Monday meeting. And asked the boys if they would check their work over, each one of them, very thoroughly that were involved in the thing. It was about five of them making different parts. And we reported the next Monday.
So the next Monday, we were set down to lunch. And I know we had finished our soup and I asked them what [problems] they had and everybody said their stuff was all right except a fellow that was building these. He said they were still vibrating. Well the place they were doing it was about one and a half miles from lunch. So I said, “Well come on, come on with me.” I said that this problem was in assembling them. I said I want to go down and see it. But I always found if you get in the physical presence of your problem, it begins to evaporate.
So we got in the car and we went over to this plant. And the rest of them trickled over too. And I noticed the flywheel was running out. It was running on the test. It was vibrating. I said, “Shut her down.”
And I again asked each one, I said, “What do you know about this?”
“My work was okay."
I said, “So none of you know what is wrong?”
None of them knew what was wrong.
I said, “Get me a wrench and a back hammer.”
I took off the nut. And I tapped off the flywheel. As I took it off, I noticed some burrs on the key way slide. So I set that aside, I took the key out and it was bruised in a number of places. And the key groove in the crankshaft had a bad radius in the bottom.
I said, “Give me a six-inch file or an eight-inch smooth file.”
So I dressed out the key way in the shaft. I took the burrs off the flywheel.
Keller: Personally, I put the key and I draw-filed the burrs off the key, wiped it all clean, and I put the flywheel back on in place. And I took the key, tapped it into the slot, put the nut on, and I said, “Start it up.”
And it ran as true as the dye and the vibration was all gone. And I just turned around, got in my car, and went back to lunch. And the rest of them came dropping in. In about five minutes, they were all there. I never said another word about it. And they never said another word about it. We never had another bit of trouble. [Laughter]
Groueff: Was that after the war?
Keller: This was before the war.
Groueff: Before the war?
Groueff: So you were known in the company as a man who also knows the technical side? A mechanic, you are a good mechanic.
Keller: They knew I could run any damn machine in the place.
Groueff: You could because you are a mechanic yourself.
Keller: Yeah, I served my apprenticeship in a darn good shop. And then when we got this Bofors gun order, we did not have anything on that order but a Van Dyke, a print that is made from a tracing that you can use again for making blueprints. And the thing was about twenty inches long and about eighteen inches high. And it had every part of that gun on it in small-scale drawings with the instructions of the material, the joints, allowing so much for file, finish, and fitting. We got that out of the State Department and it was in Swedish.
So we took that drawing and I turned it over to the engineering department that designed our engines. And I told them that I wanted them to lay that gun out with the plus and minus so many thousands on each fit so that we would make it right to size and put it together. And I told the boys, I called in the different plants, this is a hurry-up job, and I said there is really four major parts to this gun. I said there is the feed mechanism, there is the breach and breechblock, there is the barrel, and then there is the assembly and the other parts, the small parts that go into it.
I said, “Now, you fellows decide which one of these parts you are going to take.”
I said we would put it in four different plants—five different plants altogether. And I said then we will get five good tool rooms working on the tools and we will get some speed on this thing.
So I saw them a week later and they were all jockeying. They saw which the tough ones were and which the easy ones were. And I got them together at that next lunch.
And I said “Well, have you decided on what you are going to use on the take on this gun?”
Well no, they did not. They began telling me the troubles I was going to run into.
And I said well, “I am going to give you one more chance. If you cannot decide this afternoon, I would have to assign it to you.”
So they went out and they decided. One plant took the breach and the breech mechanism; the other took the barrels; the other one took the feed mechanism; Plymouth took the assembly. And then the case—there was a big casing that sets into the other division.
So we designed the gun. We put the American materials onto it that our metallurgist thought to be the right thing. And we made two guns in our tool rooms and we assembled them. And I had the engineers there when they were assembled. We only had three dimensions we had to change. So everything was completely interchangeable, even the threading of the barrel into the breach, which was a square English type thread with interruptions, a quarter turn that locks it in. They all locked right in there beautifully.
The Navy wanted some of these guns and the Army wanted some of the guns. And the only difference was that the Navy had a water jacket on theirs, which was a silver soldering job and the Army did not want the water jacket. So I persuaded the Army and the Navy to have one contract.
We started out on that job. The Army wanted the major part of them. The Navy only wanted a few. But the chief of ordnance in the Army agreed to lift the head of the Bureau of Ordnance of the Navy administered the contract. So we had one contract to serve them both. Well it was a good thing because the Army hardly took any of them.
But the Navy got into this war in Japan. And they had a cruiser that was equipped with some. We ended up putting thirty-one pair of these guns on every cruiser. We had to work day and night to get them out. And it is a very decisive thing I believe with the cruisers and battleships in the war in the Pacific; they were shooting down these kamikazes. Anyway, we took these two guns down to Aberdeen. And they said that all they had to do was shoot 170 rounds a minute. Well we beat that with our gun.
Well I found out later that in Sweden there are forty hours of work in assembling, testing, (which was just an air test to see that everything worked automatic enough) and painting, and boxing the gun. We did it in a half and hour because we had no fitting or anything see. And boy, we turned out thousands of those things. That was a nice job.
A funny thing about this war, I was very much interested in the Army Ordnance, which afterwards became the American Ordnance Association to get coordination between industry and the armed services. I am still very active in it, although I am not an officer anymore. It is super-annulated.
The Army is a services-need industry you see. And when you get all through with it, industry needs the services because when we get into a war you see, all of this work we do in peacetime is, to me, like use and occupancy insurance. It fits you to take something that keeps the key men of your organization together if there is a war and your business stops. And that is one of the first things they stopped, automobiles, because it [the industry] has a marvelous history and a great capacity for manufacturing. And at the same time, you can always drive your car another year if you have to you see and it saves gasoline and everything else.
But they started so called educational orders before the war broke out. And Chrysler was picked to make 75-millimeter shells and shell cases. And they really forced me to take an educational order on it. I fought it like everything.
Groueff: What does it mean educational? Just in order to learn the—
Keller: Learn the art, yeah. And I said to the ordnance district manager who was up here, I said “You can get those made in any alley shop. Don’t waste our time on that. Give us your hard jobs see.”
Well I had gone through World War I and I knew what these things meant. And here we had engineers. We had master mechanics. We had production men. We have marvelous tool rooms, tool-making capacity.
Groueff: So you thought it had to be used to full potential?
Keller: Yes, and I did not want to be fooling around with making shells that you can make them in any alley shop. All you need is another equipment point. And so the first job we got was a tank. And we had quite a time with that because old [Charles M.] Wesson, who was head of ordnance at the time, he did not think an automobile company could make tanks. He gave a contract to Baldwin and American Locomotives. We were the last one to get a contract. And we got it in September. And I had the plant pretty well up and I had a tank ready by Easter for them. And he said he could not come up and get it because he wanted to get Baldwin and American Locomotive’s tank out first. Well they had a terrible time getting the transmission. And they finally got a transmission made. They took it to Albany. I got my tank sitting there see.
They take it to Albany and they have this big show. Then they take the transmission out and send it to Baldwin, put it in the Baldwin tank, and a week later they had the Baldwin show. So while they were doing that, I built a second one. So then, they come up to see my tank. So we ran the tank out and gave them a demonstration. Not only that, but I got the Chrysler dealers all to throw in the money. And we gave him the first tank as a present. Right after he finished his speech of acceptance, now he is all glowing. I run the second one out shooting blank cartridges. Boy, that really registered with him.
So our show came along. And it really went along in great shape. So finally, when it got time for Roosevelt to be running again for another term, he decided he would make a tour of inspection. Do you remember when he made the tour of inspection?
So [Mike] Reilly, who was head of the Secret Service, came up to see me about three weeks ahead of that making the arrangements and how they were going to get the president in. And I lay it all out for him them. This is to be very secret. He said, “Now, the president wants you to keep the plant running because he wants to see how you build a tank.”
I said, “Now listen Reilly, when the president comes in there, you won’t have a damn fooled man at a machine, you know that. Do not give me a problem I cannot handle.”
And I said, “If you want to have it look as though the plant is running, you get me up enough secret service men and I will put them on the machines along the line and break them in.”
So I got them.
Groueff: He gave it?
Keller: Yep, I got a flock of secret service fellows and we had them all running on machines. And we laid this tour out through there. And we had a convertible. So I had a driver in the front, the governor got in next to him, then Mrs. Roosevelt got in, I am in the middle, and the president is here. And we start through the plant. And I had gone through the plant before and I had a book prepared you see of pictures of everything just in order as we came to them because I knew he would not see this thing anyway.
So we start through. Of course, people are waving to him. And he is going this way and that way. You would see him do this while he was sitting here. So I am leafing over the books you know and he would take a look at it. And I would say, “Now you are passing this. This is where you do this.” So she is waving at the people you see. And I know we had a pile of tires, my gosh, that must have gone up there twenty-some feet. There were foremen up there and she waived to them.
So I had this tour through and I am leafing the book over. And I had sent all of the drivers home so that I had our full night and day crew on there. And I had forty tanks on that track. And they were kind of racing around there. It was really that exciting. And we went out to the track. I remember the president said to me, he said, “Do you allow smoking out here?"
And I said, “Please light up, I am dying to have one myself.”
So we got along very good. We got along so well that after he made that trip, every time he had somebody to send up here from foreign countries, the White House would call me up to look after them. I had the generals of South America and I had the five princes of Saudi Arabia to look after.