United States Department of Defense. The Pentagon.

9/11: The Pickle Factory and a Miracle

By Susan DeLay


On September 11, 1941, Leslie Groves went to the site of a former pickle factory in Virginia and calculated the monumental task ahead of him—transforming 34,000 acres into something more useful than a pickle factory.

Armed with 3,000 laborers, a fleet of steam shovels, and an $83 million budget, Groves was ready to bring it on. It was time to break ground and excavate the area outside Washington, D.C., affectionately known as “Hell’s Bottom.” Hell’s Bottom was infested with gambling dens, murderers, dilapidated shacks, and a garbage dump. Combine the smell of a dump with the pungent odors of a pickle factory, and you’ve got yourself a place begging for an extreme makeover.

Terrorists du Jour

On the night Leslie and his crew broke ground, the President addressed the nation to inform Americans of the new War Department Building. Warning the country of the threat imposed by the terrorists du jour—AKA Nazis—he said, “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck.” (You get two points if you know who the President was. If you’re over 60, then you only get one point.)

“Not waiting” meant doing whatever it took to be prepared for war. The building was designed as five concentric pentagonal rings, surrounding an open-air courtyard. When completed, military and non-defense contractors would relocate to one central site.

The Cat’s Pajamas

Why would anyone want such a sensitive, highly classified area to look like a giant bull’s eye? Even the Fine Arts Commission approached the President just days before the groundbreaking, advising him that a pentagonal-shaped building with 17 miles of corridors would make it the biggest target in the free world. But the President thought it was the cat’s pajamas, which in 1941, meant he thought it was cool.

The architectural plans were not changed—plans, which by the way, were presented to the President in May, approved in July, and implemented in September. Congress must have moved much more quickly back then, which could explain why some call it the good ol’ days.

Did You Hear the One About

Leslie and his contractors worked 24/7 to complete the mammoth building and sixteen months later, the Pentagon was dedicated. Oh, there were jokes about it. Did you hear the one about the Western Union clerk who walked into the Pentagon to deliver a telegram on Monday and walked out five days later as a colonel?

Miracle at the Pentagon

On 9/11/2001, sixty years to the day of the groundbreaking in 1941, al-Qaeda terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the western side of the Pentagon and killed the passengers, hijackers, and 125 people working inside the building.

Now, here’s what’s interesting. Ordinarily 4500 people would have been working in the area that was hardest hit, but in anticipation of a renovation, there were only 800. Most of them escaped, thanks to a massive project that had gutted and reconstructed parts of the Pentagon to bring it up to code.

The place on the E-ring of the building where the jetliner crashed had two-inch thick blast-resistant windows and steel columns—built specifically to withstand explosions. Those columns kept the building from imploding for 30 minutes—just enough time for hundreds to get to safety. And the site of the crash, which resulted in multiple fires, was the only area of the building with a sprinkler system. Interesting? Yes. Miracle? I think so.

Contractors working on the renovation now had a new task—rebuild the damaged section. The work called the Phoenix Project  had to be completed within one year. Apparently when you do construction at the Pentagon, permits clear quickly and overtime budgets get green lights because Phoenix was completed in record time.

Colonel Leslie Groves would have been proud.

Copyright 2023, Susan DeLay


DeLay-Susan HeadshotSusan DeLay is from the Buckeye State where she took her first paying job at the age of 15, writing a newspaper column called Teen Talk. She lived in the Chicagoland area for 20-some years before giving away her shovel and ice scraper and moving to The Villages.

An industry veteran in publishing services, PR, and media relations, Susan wrote “DeLayed Reaction,” a newspaper column, for 25 years. The column is now a blog at www.susandelay.wordpress.com.

She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, The Florida Writers Association, Pen, Paper & Pals, The Writers League of the Villages, and Working Writers Critique Group. She is currently learning that poems don’t have to rhyme and is working on a novel entitled “Saving Jesus.”

28 thoughts on “9/11: The Pickle Factory and a Miracle”

  1. The good ole days for sure. A Western Union clerk walks in the Pentagon and five days later comes out a colonel. Today, columns of colonels drum thumbs awaiting promotion because a congressman doesn’t like some abortion policy.
    Nice presentation Susan of simpler dangerous times where courage and leadership came before politics. Lucky for us, to say the least.

  2. On 9/11 I was working in my office in downtown DC about a block from the White House. I saw smoke from the direction of the Pentagon even before the announcement on television. I wondered if the impossible had actually happened. My daughter was in mid-town New York City and had to walk 8 miles home that day. I’m sure we all have memories of that day that will never fade.

  3. Thank you Susan for your very informative story. Just another True Adventure I’ve learned in my old age from a fine writer.

    1. in-depth and thought-provoking Linda. Little things have such a big impact on occasion, while monumental events reduce to a smudge.
      We await your return. Hurry

  4. william (Bill) Frakes

    Excellent article. This coming Monday is the twenty-second anniversary of 9/11. It is a sad commentary that in today’s environment, it takes a major catastrophe such as 9/11 for the country to unite. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. Susan, you have a way of wrapping a story around your reader. Your writings are always interesting and informative. I was so excited to think that I would automatically get 2 points because I knew the president who thought the Pentagon was the cat’s PJ’s. Alas, you reminded me that I am over 60 and my thrill was gone. I love that you pointed out a miracle within the tragedy of 911. Lastly, you didn’t say if Colonel Leslie Groves worked for Western Union. Please advise.

  6. Thanks, Susan, for this very informative article. I’m sure we all have our personal stories of where we were on 9/11. I enjoyed reading your story and thank you for sharing it with us! Ann Marie

  7. Sara Sally Jones-McNamara

    Susan, this was a great read! I learned so much about the days before The Building was built. 9-11 was awful. we were right in front of macy’s by the help pad at The Pebtagon. Rog was driving me to National airport for a flight to Columbus and home. It hit. in 3 seconds Roger, the Former FAC in Nam, had the Crhrysler turned around and flying down Shirley Highway to our king St exit to our condo. Home in front of the tv for days. Others on the roads were trapped for 13 hrs. I tried to grab a rental car to drive him but we were not able to get ours wide of the beltway. His West point classmate Gen.(?)( harriott’s husband whose name i can’t recall now) had to attend 52 funerals of those who died who worked for him. That took a toll, I am sure.
    “ Sister” Sally

  8. I personally knew neighbors that died at ground zero. Nicky Rossomundo, a fireman, and Adam Arias, an extremely bright son of a friend.
    May god and America keep them in their heart
    Staten Island lost many beautiful people

  9. Great story Susan! You know I love history as much as you do. Interesting that the ground breaking and attack were on the same day. Hmmm… love that we know Who is in control and how the story actually ends.

  10. Steve "Doc" LeShay

    Thanks for the poignant “remembrance of “the worst day” in American history. Great story! I felt I needed to include a chapter in my autobiography, Tales from an Asylum” about 911 (written from the perspective of one of my 12 alter egos, The Old Man, a passenger on the first plane to hit the Twin Towers restaurant where I had enjoyed lunch a year earlier. Shivering account, but everyone our age remembers where they were or what they were doing on that fateful day. Your story is beautifully written. Kudos!

    1. Thank you, “Doc”
      I know I’ll never forget where I was or what I was doing on that day.
      I think adding about 911 from the perspective of one of your alter egos would be chilling.

  11. Loved your story – it needs to be published particularly on a day like today. I’m so impressed by your research skills – what an interesting piece of American history. Thanks for sharing.
    Carol Helfer

  12. Really neat article! I did know that Roosevelt was president and I am really old 79😇! Did not know about the ground breaking on 911 or the miracle of 800vs4500! The weekend following 911 my wife had a Christian woman’s retreat scheduled! So I took off from Ohio by myself on Friday to go to New York and see the pentagon! Got within about a 1/2 mile of the towers !Can still visualize the destruction and remember the horrific smell of destruction! Then drove to the pentagon and it was still smoking! Just eerie ! Like I said, I am old, old school and conservative and I know the three things “they” say we are not to talk about! Sex, religion, politics ???Well here it goes ! On politics – I can remember a time when one year a democrat would win then another year a republican would win and although we may not agree on some issues, we at least came together for the good of the country! Not now -divide and conquer and if it continues further, it will be the destruction of our free society as we have been blessed to live- not that it has been free- our men and women of our armed forces bravely fought ( and die ) for our freedom! On religion- just read our Declaration of Independence and see how important it was to our forefathers and reading the Bible also! Science is nice but faith a must! On sex- just drop you pants look down and you should not be confused about who GOD created you to be! As a veteran- I am appalled and embarrassed that our president did not show at 911! Unthinkable! Thanks Carol for sending me the article! You said to comment and I did ! Roger

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