The Building That Runs Rings Around the Wiliest Generals

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Getting lost in the Pentagon is a time-honored tradition. George C. Marshall did it. So did Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Richard B. Cheney.

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 and the byzantine basement -- not to mention the sheer vastness of the 6.2 million-square-foot place. The task is particularly challenging these days, as the extensive 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 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 Aug. 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 a full colonel on Friday; others insisted he only came out a major.

Another tale involved a pregnant woman -- lost in the Pentagon -- desperately accosting a security guard. "Quick! You've got to get me out of here, Officer," the woman said. "I'm about to have a baby!"

The officer shook his head reproachfully. "Lady, you never should have come in here in that condition," he said.

"I wasn't when I came in," the woman snapped.

Other stories have the benefit of being true. In August 1942, Marshall, who as Army chief of staff was the most indispensable man in the American war effort, showed the new building off to Field Marshal John Dill, chief of the British military delegation in Washington. They wandered down a corridor with the project's chief architect, and all three were soon entirely lost. A construction supervisor tracked down the party and rescued the heart of the Anglo-American military alliance.

Soon after Eisenhower became Army chief of staff in 1946, the general was disoriented the first time he tried to return to his office by himself from the mess.

"So, hands in pockets and trying to look as if I were out for a carefree stroll around the building, I walked," Eisenhower later wrote. "I walked and walked, encountering neither landmarks nor people who looked familiar. One had to give the building his grudging admiration; it had apparently been designed to confuse any enemy who might infiltrate it."

Eisenhower finally approached a group of stenographers and quietly asked one of the women, "Can you tell me where the office of the chief of staff is?"

"You just passed it about a hundred feet back, General Eisenhower," she replied.

As Eisenhower noted with chagrin, "By grapevine, the Army's astoundingly efficient bush telegraph, the word got around the Pentagon quickly."

After Cheney became secretary of defense in 1989, he took the elevator from his office suite to the wrong floor and found himself lost in the Pentagon basement When he finally emerged after much wandering, aides were running about wondering what had happened to the secretary. True to form, Cheney acted as if nothing was amiss. "I sort of tightened my tie and walked out like I knew exactly where I was and arrived outside," Cheney later said. "Nobody had the nerve to ask me where I'd been."

I recently joined the ranks of the lost. I had an appointment at the building's Air Force recreation services store to sign copies of my book about the Pentagon's history. I wrote the room location on a slip of paper but transposed two numbers. Such an error is fatal in the Pentagon, where an intricate system assigns four numbers and one letter to each office -- 5E932 in this case -- according to its floor, its ring, the nearest corridor and specific office bay, in that order.

I roamed down unfamiliar corridors and dead-end hallways, searching fruitlessly for a nonexistent room. Finally, an Air Force officer pointed me in the right direction.

Nearly half an hour late, I apologized profusely to those waiting. I had been lost in the Pentagon, I explained. That's kind of embarrassing when you wrote a book about the place.

But they all nodded understandingly.

Vogel is the author of "The Pentagon: A History."

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