Even Eisenhower and Cheney Got Lost in the Pentagon

There is a long tradition of getting lost in the Pentagon, as shown by these two soldiers perusing a Pentagon hallway map in 1949.
There is a long tradition of getting lost in the Pentagon, as shown by these two soldiers perusing a Pentagon hallway map in 1949. (Coutesy of the U.S. Army)
By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009; 12:07 PM

Getting lost in the Pentagon is a long and time-honored tradition. Everyone from George C. Marshall to Dwight D. Eisenhower to Dick Cheney has done it at some point.

Even in the best of times, navigating the Pentagon is not easy for the uninitiated. Newcomers have always been daunted by the 17 miles of corridors, the pentagonal rings, the byzanntine basement -- not to mention the sheer, 6.2-million-square-feet enormity of the place. It is particularly challenging these days, as the massive Pentagon renovation project has closed off the concourse at the Metro entrance, forcing those arriving by subway to zig and zag their way into the building.

The Pentagon is developing a new handbook to help Obama administration appointees and other newcomers with tips on the nuances of getting around the building. But the Obama people should not feel bad when they get lost, as they inevitably will.

People have been getting lost in the Pentagon since the day it opened on April 30, 1942, in the midst of World War II, with less than half the building completed. The first workers -- the "plank walkers," so named because they had to balance their way on boards of lumber snaking across mud puddles to even get to the building - - wandered the long corridors and vast office bays, looking in vain for their desks.

The Pentagon quickly entered the national consciousness as an unfathomable maze. A soon-to-be-famous joke first appeared on August 17, 1942, in The Washington Post: "And have you heard this one? About the War Department messenger who got lost in the Pentagon Building in Arlington and came out a lieutenant colonel."

With time, the joke evolved to include a freckled-faced Western Union messenger boy who went into the Pentagon to deliver a telegram on Monday and walked out Friday a full colonel; others insisted he only came out a major.


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