A History of the Pentagon Building Construction on the Pentagon didn't begin until the U.S. was about to enter World War II. The race to complete it is the inspiration behind a new book, The Pentagon: A History. Host Debbie Elliott speaks with author Steve Vogel.

A History of the Pentagon Building

A History of the Pentagon Building

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Construction on the Pentagon didn't begin until the U.S. was about to enter World War II. The race to complete it is the inspiration behind a new book, The Pentagon: A History. Host Debbie Elliott speaks with author Steve Vogel.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Seventeen and a half miles of corridors, 7,700 windows, 67 acres of parking -those are just a few of the figures that illustrate the scope of the nation's largest and most imposing office building - the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. In 1941, the landscape was radically different.

Mr. STEVE VOGEL (Military Reporter, The Washington Post; Author, "The Pentagon: A history"): This ground here was full of dumps and shanties and old whiskey stills and the name Hell's Bottom was actually quite appropriate for it.

ELLIOTT: That's Washington Post military reporter Steve Volger. His new book is the "The Pentagon: A history," the untold story of the wartime race to build the Pentagon and to restore it 60 years later.

I met Steve Vogel this past week on a breezy hilltop at Arlington, where President Franklin Roosevelt once stood with the Army's construction chief to survey available land for a new War Department building.

Mr. VOGEL: General Brehon Somervell, who dreamed up this whole concept, was trying to find a permanent home for the War Department headquarters. And they were scattered all over Washington in about 17 different buildings, warehouses apartment buildings, garages. And this was in July of 1941 and there was a real sense that the country might be going to war and the War Department wasn't prepared. So he gathered his staff in a secret meeting and said we're going to build a new headquarters that's going to be enough for 40,000 people with four million square feet of office space and we're going to have the whole thing done in a year and by the way I want the plans on my desk Monday morning.

ELLIOTT: General Somervell was quite the character in your book. He was practically a force of nature in making things happened and making things happened quickly.

Mr. VOGEL: He was. He was very sharp and he more or less left bodies littered along the side as he climbed to power. He was, I think, was one of the most remarkable figures of World War II. He's more or less forgotten now. But the site that Somervell and his staff chose had good foundation conditions and it was a nice novel site. It's right at the foot of Memorial Bridge. It's in higher ground, below the Lee Mansion. And over the course of that weekend, they tried to figure out how they're going to fit such a huge building onto the site, and they toyed with a square, they toyed with a rectangle. The problem was they couldn't build a tall building because they were restrictions on the use of steel, which was needed for munitions and battleships and the like because of the preparations for war. So they finally realized that the only way to they could really make it work was to make the shape of the building fit the shape of the land, and the land was five sided.

ELLIOTT: But that property proved to be controversial because of its prominent position overlooking the National Mall from the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

Mr. VOGEL: Roosevelt was suddenly stricken with pains of conscious. He was concerned that he was going to be held responsible for destroying a grand part of the great vistas of Washington. So just days before General Somervell and the Army were ready to break ground on this huge building, President Roosevelt directed them to move down to this site that we're looking at, Hell's Bottom.

ELLIOTT: So once General Somervell agreed to build it on the new site because the president says this is where I want it. Why did they end up still building a Pentagon, they were no longer constrained by the lay of the land?

Mr. VOGEL: There just wasn't the time to change it. They were moving at such a fast pace. Somerville had ordered that they have workers moving in within half a year, and the whole thing done within one year. And there was no way they could start from scratch. The designers were literally just one step ahead of the pile drivers.

ELLIOTT: And they broke ground on September 11th?

Mr. VOGEL: That's right. It's one of those odd coincidences that you can't really explain.

ELLIOTT: Well, let's go take a closer look at the Pentagon now.

Mr. VOGEL: Sounds good.

(Soundbite of construction)

ELLIOTT: Construction of the Pentagon proceeded at a furious pace. Sped up, three months later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Workers dredged 680,000 tons of sand and gravel from the Potomac to make the concrete for the massive project - five concentric buildings connected by a system of hallways. The outermost ring is called the E-Ring, a full mile around. The rings get progressively smaller until you reached the inner A-Ring.

Where are we now?

Mr. VOGEL: Well, this is on the E-Ring along the mall side of the building, which is where the Joints Chief of Staff are and the secretary of defense is one floor above us. There's renovation going on still in much of the building so the secretary of defense was evicted from his quarters last year, while they renovate the place.

ELLIOTT: Steve Vogel leads me through the maze of hallways to the same shortcut that Pentagon employees have been using since the start - cutting right to the middle. They say if you used the open space at the center of the five pentagonal layers you can get from any one office to another in no more than seven minutes.

So you've just taken us down a long corridor and now we've come out into a courtyard. I'm a little bit confused as to where we are. How do you navigate this complicated building?

Mr. VOGEL: Well, you know, that's been the problem since day one. You know, General Eisenhower when he moved into the Pentagon as Army chief of staff after the war, the first time that he was off by himself and tried to find his way back to his office, he suddenly realized that he was hopelessly lost, and he wandered around with his hands in his pockets, trying to pretend he was out for a stroll. Finally, he quietly approached this group of stenographers and asked one of them: Could you tell me where the chief of staff's office is? And the lady said: General Eisenhower, you just passed your door 10 feet back and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VOGEL: …story will soon spread over the entire Pentagon. Eisenhower remarked that they had to give the designers their due they've made sure no enemy could ever infiltrate the Pentagon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: We crossed through the courtyard and enter another part of the innermost A-Ring. It's bustling with activity - uniformed men and women carry on conversations that rattle off the cement walls.

Now the first workers actually moved into the Pentagon mid-construction. They moved in six months into the project. That must have been odd working in a construction zone of this magnitude.

Mr. VOGEL: Yeah, they had pretty amazing conditions when they first moved in April 30th of 1942. I mean this is, you know, basically about seven - seven and a half months after groundbreaking, and they went into a building, which was completely open to the elements, so you have clouds of dust, were rolling through the building. There was water, sawdust everywhere. The first workers called themselves the plank walkers because they have to walk across planks of lumber that were strewed over the construction site over the mud and muck to just get to the building and a lot of them ended up keeping pieces of lumber underneath their desks because there was water just streaming into the building from rain storms and that sort of thing was happening quite a bit. It was just a chaotic scene but there was a feeling that there was no time to waste, they needed space and people were moving in.

ELLIOTT: Who were these workers? What were they doing?

Mr. VOGEL: A lot of them were what were called government girls. These were young women from around the country that were coming in to fill some of these War Department jobs. A lot of men were being drafted or enlisting into the armed services and there was a big need for more people to come to work for the War Department, so they came from all corners of the country and they found themselves in the midst of this chaotic scene here.

ELLIOTT: Once the building was completed in 1942, what was the response to the building?

Mr. VOGEL: It became sort of a national joke for anything really big or outlandish was a Pentagon-type project. It was just - nobody could imagine that there will be a need for such a large building once the war was over.

ELLIOTT: But the Pentagon did remain well after World War II and has served the military to this day. Six years ago, war came to the Pentagon.

I'm back outside the Pentagon with author Steve Vogel. This is the very spot where American Airlines flight 77 hit the Pentagon. I see here there's a small stone memorial - September 11th, 2001 - right here on the outside of the building.

Mr. VOGEL: That's right. That's a piece of the limestone facade that was burned on that day. It's blackened and they kept some of the original limestone when they reconstructed and this piece was put back in a ceremony on the nine-month anniversary of the 9/11 attack.

ELLIOTT: Described the scene for us here that day, the plane struck this outer ring - the E-Ring - but went all the way through two more levels into the C-Ring.

Mr. VOGEL: That's right. It was something like an avalanche as it went through the building. The building ruble, the debris from the aircraft and also the 36,000 pounds of fuel that the plane was carrying rolled into the building and much of the fuel exploded and that it was hard to really get a gauge on how devastating the scene was inside and part of that's a function of how large the Pentagon is. The gash in the wall after the outer part of the building collapsed was about 80 feet wide and when you compare that to a 921-foot long wall. It just seemed like a little scratch almost on the building. But the scene that the rescue workers found inside was completely different. It was just utter devastation with many people killed.

ELLIOTT: A hundred and eighty-nine people were killed that day. But you write that because of the impact point, it could have been much worse?

Mr. VOGEL: It could have been much worse for sure. There were a number of fortunate circumstances. One was that because this area had just been renovated, they're only half as many workers as normally would have been hear that day, about 4,600. Moreover, because that renovation, a number of security upgrades have been added. The limestone wall here was reinforced with steel. Glass resistant windows have been added.

ELLIOTT: Steel that wasn't available during World War II, when it was being built.

Mr. VOGEL: That's right. It unquestionably saved some lives.

ELLIOTT: Once the rescue and recovery effort was over, immediately the reconstruction project began. And again, there was this sense that we can do this in one year much like General Somervell.

Mr. VOGEL: Yeah. A lot of people have thought that that World War II is free. That we - you saw 60 years ago would be impossible to duplicate today, but in the days after 9/11, the construction workers more or less came up with this on their own, that they wanted to have a response to the terrorist's attack and it was a pretty phenomenal effort.

They, you know, just like you saw after Pearl Harbor, the workers were just going around the clock, refusing to take days off, you know, union, non-union workers working together. You didn't have the usual squabbles that you see. Everybody was pitching in and they ended up finishing the exterior part of the reconstruction a month early. They began moving people back into the building at the point of impact in August of 2002.

Peter Murphy, who is the counsel for the Marine Corps - counted on the Marine Corps, have been standing at his office window here on the E-ring on 9/11 and when the plane struck, he was, you know, very close to the point of impact. The glass-resistant window saved his life. And they managed to escape just before the office behind them collapsed. Eleven months later, he was the first guy to move back into the Pentagon, and it was, you know, a pretty remarkable event.

ELLIOTT: Steve Vogel reports on the military for the Washington Post. He's also the author of the new book, "The Pentagon: A History." Thank you for taking us on this tour.

Mr. VOGEL: My pleasure. Thank you.

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