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
Susan 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.”