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DYNAMITE IN A TIFFANY BOX
Stimson looks for the right man
Henry Stimson was agitated. At age seventy-three, the secretary of war was the elder statesman of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet in both age and demeanor, known for his dignity, wisdom, and Yankee reserve. To his staff at the War Department, Stimson seemed “like the Rock of Ages.” But he also was imbued with a deep streak of Old Testament temper, and an agitated Stimson was a fearsome thing. “Everybody always seemed to think of Stimson as a wonderful old gentleman,” one officer later said. “He was old all right, but he was a tough guy. If he had to, he knew how and when to use profanity.”
Stimson was swearing regularly in the fall of 1940. The largest peacetime military mobilization in American history had begun that spring, and it was bogged down. France had fallen in May, the Low Countries were overrun, and Britain was in grave danger. Roosevelt responded with a call to dramatically build the armed forces, and Congress answered with legislation raising the authorized strength of the Army eightfold, from 174,000 to 1.4 million. But before this great Army could be raised, it needed a roof.
Dozens of military camps had to be built immediately around the country to house and train hundreds of thousands of draftees. Work was flowing into the Army Quartermaster Corps’s once-sleepy Construction Division at unprecedented levels; the division’s monthly budget of less than $10 million soared to a figure eventually seventy times that amount. Orders to construct camps, munitions plants, housing projects, airfields, and ports were piling up. Construction headquarters took on the air of a Middle East bazaar, with some offices so crowded that workers had to hop over desks to move around. “The halls teemed with visitors, as contractors, materialmen, equipment dealers and a good many others beat a path to the men with a billion dollars to spend,” the Army’s official account of World War II construction in the United States notes.
The men with a billion dollars struggled and spent mightily, but soon fell on their faces. “They had gotten into desperate confusion,” in Stimson’s view. The mobilization of the entire Army was dangerously delayed by the construction mess. Almost nothing could be done until the facilities were built. General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, had set ninety-day deadlines to build the camps, an order that proved hopelessly unrealistic. By November 1940, good weather for construction was vanishing, and the pressure was increasing. With few camps finished, Marshall’s ambitious schedule had to be drastically revised, and only token numbers of draftees called up. Guardsmen had quit jobs, vacated apartments, and left families to find they had no place to report. The Army was being portrayed by the press as an organization of dunces. “Even sadder than the delays were some of Mr. Stimson’s excuses,” scolded Time magazine, which laid the blame on “the bumbling quartermasters.”
Stimson was on his second stint as secretary of war, having served in the same job almost three decades earlier for President William Taft during the years leading up to World War I. Back then, he had seemingly endless time to get the Army ready for war, but no money. Now, Congress had appropriated fantastic streams of money, but there was no time.
“I am not satisfied [the Construction Division] is doing as rapid work as I think should be done,” Stimson noted in his diary. As the delays stretched on, the secretary grew “more and more agitated,” observed John J. McCloy, the “gnomelike” assistant secretary of war often at the old man’s side. McCloy, an astute Wall Street lawyer, had been recruited by Stimson earlier that year and quickly earned a reputation as the secretary’s top troubleshooter.
Stimson told McCloy they needed someone with the “necessary drive” to speed up the construction program. “If only a good man could be found the problem would be solved,” Stimson said. But who? The secretary’s attention was directed to a dynamic Army Corps of Engineers lieutenant colonel, Brehon Somervell, who had turned around the Works Progress Administration program in New York City in four years as administrator. Stimson instructed McCloy to check with his New York connections about Somervell’s temperament and ability. McCloy found Somervell had a “reputation as a driver and almost fearless energetic builder. . . . They all added up to the conviction that whatever the form of the organization, he was the man to head it.”
Somervell was already slotted for a humdrum assignment with a training command in the Midwest, but Marshall intervened. “Have him assigned for temporary duty here in the office of the Chief of Staff,” Marshall instructed his chief of personnel on November 8, 1940. “. . . Confidentially, the Secretary of War wants to get a look at him without Somervell being aware of this.”
Stimson wanted to see this man for himself.
I suppose the fellow who built the Pyramids was efficient, too
None of Brehon Somervell’s seven predecessors had fared well trying to tame New York City’s work-relief system. “Several had resigned in despair or disgust, one had died, probably of overwork, and none had lasted a year,” the New Yorker noted. There was no doubt that the New York office of the Works Progress Administration—the New Deal agency providing emergency public employment for the nation’s jobless—was in dire need of assistance. The New York WPA was one of the largest employers in the nation, providing jobs for 200,000 workers, and it spent one out of every seven WPA dollars in the nation. The program was grossly inefficient, in part because of its immensity but also because the city was home to powerful unions and left-wing parties that drew their support from the huge ranks of unemployed. WPA head Harry Hopkins had turned to the Army Corps of Engineers to bring some military discipline and engineering expertise to the agency.
Hopkins appointed Somervell Works Projects Administrator for New York City in the summer of 1936. “I consider it to be the most difficult WPA job in the nation,” he said. Funding cuts that spring forced thousands off the WPA payrolls in New York, sparking almost daily picketing and sit-in strikes. Somervell’s immediate predecessor, Victor Ridder, a philanthropist and liberal, had ended up foaming at the mouth about “Communist rats and vermin.” He suffered a nervous breakdown and resigned. The communist newspaper Daily Worker, which had campaigned against him under the slogan “Get Rid of Ridder,” crowed in victory. A similar fate was widely predicted for Somervell.
The only one not worried was Somervell. His first public comment on the fate of his predecessors was to cheekily suggest a new slogan for the Daily Worker: “Sink Somervell.” Somervell found the idea of workers on relief going out on strike “just fantastic” and tried a different tack from his predecessors. Instead of sending police to forcibly eject the protesters—a step that guaranteed screaming headlines—Somervell simply locked the bathrooms. Strikers held out as long as their bladders did, then filtered off one by one.
Somervell imposed Army discipline on the WPA, threatening to fire any workers who interfered with the program. Leaving his office one day to find protesters had laid down in the pavement directly in front of his car, the colonel did not hesitate. He ordered his driver to start the car, hopped in, and slammed the door. When they realized Somervell was not stopping, the protesters leapt to their feet and fled. His war against shovel-leaners so aggrieved the Workers Alliance —the major WPA union—that it distributed cartoons depicting Somervell as Simon Legree, whirling a huge blacksnake whip above a terrified WPA worker. But Somervell soon made peace with labor; picket lines grew infrequent, and strikes a thing of the past. He cut administrative costs by two-thirds, bringing the WPA in line with private construction. Somervell transformed the sprawling, dysfunctional office into a quietly efficient billion-dollar business enterprise that laid sewers, built parks and playgrounds, battled child malnutrition, and constructed enough roads to reach Denver, by one estimate. “Charges of boondoggling, once the order of the day, have been rare during the Somervell administration,” the New York Times reported. The local union head was obliged to admit Somervell had done an able job getting the WPA’s management in hand, adding bitterly, “I suppose the fellow that built the Pyramids was efficient, too.”
Somervell cut a dapper figure in his mufti and trademark bow tie, and his dry and carefree sense of humor won over the New York press. “Well, girls, what’s wrong today?” he’d ask reporters, generally all men. He even chatted amiably with the Daily Worker reporter. “His manner is pleasant and shrewd, and there is a touch of Will Rogers in his public personality,” the New Yorker said.
His amiability could not always mask his ferocious temper, made all the more striking by his otherwise elegant ways. “Dynamite in a Tiffany box,” was how one industrialist would later describe Somervell. “He is out of the tradition of the Elizabethan Englishman, all lace and velvet and courtliness outside, fury and purposefulness within,” a journalist wrote.
Somervell was one of only two men who could hold his own with New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia using the “Little Flower’s” weapon of choice—a pair of lungs. The other, Robert Moses, the city’s powerful redevelopment czar, would actually outyell La Guardia, while Somervell’s technique was to beat the mayor to the first shout. “Either way,” said an admiring witness, “it was no mean feat.”
Somervell, hardly a New Deal liberal, had little sympathy for the more humanistic aspects of the WPA program. He paid an unannounced visit to Bellevue Hospital, where the WPA was assisting with a therapeutic finger-painting class for mentally disturbed patients. One of the patients had just disrobed, and the colonel walked into the classroom to find a naked man with paint all over his hands. Somervell “went up like a torch,” a witness said, and the program was stopped. A furor arose when Somervell accepted a complaint that airport murals painted by August Henkel included a likeness of Joseph Stalin and depicted the Wright Brothers in Russian-style uniforms. Somervell had the murals burned in a pot-bellied stove.
Yet it was hard to argue with his results. Somervell’s tenure culminated in the biggest WPA project ever undertaken. Ground was broken for a new airport at North Beach in Queens in September 1937. The airport was La Guardia’s vision, but it was built with Somervell’s whip. “The day before yesterday” was Somervell’s invariable reply every time the architect asked when drawings were needed. It was the sort of project Somervell loved. Much of the $45- million, 558-acre airport was built on land reclaimed from the East River. Somervell built a steel trestle over Bowery Bay to reach a trash dump on Rikers Island, allowing trucks to transport a great mound of cinders, and rubbish to be used as fill at the airport site. Overseeing a workforce that reached 23,000, Somervell relentlessly rushed the project to completion in little over two years. An excited crowd of 325,000 people attended the airport’s dedication on a cloudless day in October 1939. Many public officials took bows, but La Guardia—for whom the airport would soon be named—later said the real credit lay with Somervell.
Among those who toured the new airport that month was George C. Marshall. “I was much impressed,” the Army chief of staff wrote in a note to the colonel. War had come to Europe in September, and Marshall added Somervell’s name to his list of officers whose services he might depend upon in the near future.
Just a country boy from Arkansas
“I’m just a country boy from Arkansas trying to get along in the big town,” Somervell would invariably say. The claim was preposterous. There was nothing of the bumpkin about Brehon Burke Somervell. He had been born in Little Rock, and his parents, hardly country farmers, came from prominent, well-established families. In the 1740s, James Somervell, of Kennox, Scotland, had immigrated to St. Mary’s County in southern Maryland and built a great plantation, Mulberry Fields, on the banks of the Potomac. His grandson, Richard Bullock Somervell, was a prestigious planter in west Tennessee who helped lead the state into secession during the Civil War.
Richard Somervell’s son, William, raised amid wealth and sent to fine schools, was practicing medicine in Little Rock when his wife gave birth to a son, Brehon, on May 9, 1892. The boy’s mother, Mary Burke Somervell, an elegant, sophisticated schoolteacher, was the dominant force in her son’s life. She raised her only child to believe his upbringing and ancestry made him special; it was a lesson he took to heart.
After William Somervell lost much of his hearing and gave up his medical practice, the family moved in 1906 to Washington, where Mary Somervell established a girls’ finishing school. Belcourt Seminary was soon one of the most fashionable in the city. There Brehon was raised “in an atmosphere of tittering young girls, classical literature, and relentless application of the principles of good breeding.” The boy was so handsome his mother made him sit with his back to the girls at dinner.
Brehon had a wild streak, and, irked by Belcourt’s genteel atmosphere, he frequently escaped to play sandlot baseball. He was known as “the irrepressible one” at Washington’s Central High School. “Brehon is about the liveliest one we have come across lately and no one knows what he is going to do next,” the class yearbook, The Brecky, noted upon his graduation in 1909. But Brehon knew. Army officers were a common sight in the capital, and the boy was mesmerized by them. “One day in Washington I saw a couple of West Point cadets. They looked perfect to me,” he later said.
Somervell won an appointment from an Arkansas congressman to enter the U.S. Military Academy in 1910. There, he shone in all he did. He was a superb marksman and rider, and a star fencer; he was a natural in a sport demanding quick rapier thrusts. With his elegance and fine looks, Bill—as most friends called him—earned a reputation as a dandy, but he was also near the top of his class in all major areas of study. Fellow cadets marveled at his powers of organization. “If you could take Bill’s mind out and examine it you would find it pigeonholed and arranged like a card index,” the class yearbook, The Howitzer, reported. His major deficiency was one that would plague him throughout his life: his volcanic temper. Somervell forfeited his chance at the cadet captaincy by throwing china at mess. He graduated sixth in the Class of 1914, a ranking that easily won him assignment to the Corps of Engineers, the branch that traditionally drew the brightest from West Point. Small and elite, with only 190 officers when Somervell was commissioned as a second lieutenant, the corps saw itself as separate from and better than the rest of the Army. It was an elitism for which Somervell was perfectly suited. Besides, with projects such as building dams and canals, the engineers offered the most hope for an interesting career during the peaceful times most of the world enjoyed in the spring of 1914.