Builder's Life Masked WWII Achievements

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

For more than 60 years, Robert Furman lived a quiet life in the Washington suburbs as a businessman with a successful building and contracting company.

He was an engineer who had worked on a large construction project as a young man -- few people knew exactly how large -- and used his early experience to build the Potomac Mills Mall in Prince William County, the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua and hundreds of other structures.

He was a member of the vestry at St. John's Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, a president of the Rotary Club and the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce and, for years, sang baritone in barbershop quartets. He died Tuesday of metastatic melanoma at Buckingham's Choice retirement community in Adamstown at age 93.

It was only in the past few years, as historians and scholars began to knock on his door, that Furman revealed the full extent of his achievements during World War II and his extraordinary life of intrigue.

He was at the center of two of the most remarkable developments of the war: the building of the Pentagon and the development of the atomic bomb. Yet his roles as an engineer and as the point man in an international espionage operation were cloaked in such secrecy that his name did not appear in official documents for decades. He was known as the "Mysterious Major."

"You could never imagine a man who was more secretive by nature," said Thomas Powers, a historian who first met Furman in the late 1980s when he was working on "Heisenberg's War," a book about German bomb-building efforts in World War II. "He was the guy who actually handled all this stuff. He was extremely young, and he had extraordinary power."

Robert Ralph Furman was born Aug. 21, 1915, in Trenton, N.J., where his father was a bank teller. He was interested in building and, as a young man, wanted to own a construction company. He graduated from Princeton University in 1937 with a degree in civil engineering, and after several failed career starts, he found a low-level job with Turner Construction Co. in New York.

As a member of the Army Reserve, Furman was activated in December 1940 and assigned to the Washington headquarters of the Quartermaster Corps Construction Division. He was named executive officer to Clarence Renshaw, a captain in charge of the construction of a new War Department office building planned for just across the Potomac River from Washington. He had a desk outside the office of then-Col. Leslie R. Groves, Renshaw's boss.

Furman, then a lieutenant, became a key figure in the day-to-day construction operation that began in September 1941. He took a short flight over the site in the Goodyear blimp, watching "his dream of building come true on an unsurpassed scale," Washington Post reporter Steve Vogel wrote in his 2007 book, "The Pentagon."

With 13,000 workers toiling round-the-clock, the enormous five-sided building went up quickly. Furman supervised everything from materials to manpower to illicit alcohol sales on the night shift. Every fifth day, he was on overnight duty, making a circuit of the entire building on foot.

"I can tell you right now," he told Vogel more than 60 years later, "there are 921 and a half feet to a side."

The Pentagon was completed in 17 months, and in mid-1943, Furman was ready for a new assignment. By then, Groves had been promoted to general and was in charge of the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb.

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