“I’m just a country boy from Arkansas,” one of America’s most important generals used to say about himself. In spite of his modesty, Brehon Somervell had anything but an ordinary life. His organizational skills and planning skills were considered essential for the success of American efforts in World War II. In a generation that produced legendary military figures, Somervell was regularly called one of the best officers in the army by the press, his superiors, and fellow officers alike.
Brehon Burke Somervell was born in Little Rock in 1882. His father was a noted physician, and his mother was a school teacher. At age 14, the family moved to Washington, DC, where his parents opened Belcourt Seminary, an all-girls school. However, they maintained close ties to Arkansas. Because of this, in 1910, Congressman Charles Reid of Morrillton gave Somervell an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Somervell proved an able student at West Point and graduated in 1914. Given leave time after his graduation, he traveled to France. World War I, however, erupted during his sojourn, and he reported to the United States Embassy to offer his assistance. He was immediately made a military attaché and organized the evacuation of American citizens from France away from the war zone.
In 1915, he returned to the United States and was assigned to an engineering unit in Washington, DC, where he was promoted to first lieutenant. After Pancho Villa attacked the small community of Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, Somervell served as a supply officer in Gen. John J. Pershing’s military expedition against Villa. He returned to Washington afterward and organized the 15th Engineer Battalion, a rail transport unit.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Somervell and his battalion were sent to Great Britain and France to complete a number of construction projects to help the Allies. Throughout the war, his unit helped repair outposts, bridges, and railroads to keep the war effort running. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal for his service during the war, one of only a handful of officers to receive both medals during World War I.
In the years after the war, he was involved in a number of different projects for the army and the federal government. He completed a navigation and trade survey of the Rhine River for Germany and an economic survey of Turkey, both of which were important for their post-war economic recoveries. In 1935, he was put in charge of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal Project, an important military and commercial project. However, funds were diverted to other projects, and Somervell was reassigned to the Works Progress Administration in New York. It was in New York that he oversaw construction of New York Municipal Airport, dedicated in 1939, and later renamed LaGuardia Airport. LaGuardia Airport, named for one-time New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, is today one of the busiest airports in the world.
Somervell was put in charge of the army construction division in 1940, and worked quickly to complete barracks for the new troops entering the army from the peacetime draft. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1941 and put in charge of the military’s efforts to consolidate into a single headquarters. His efforts led to the construction of the Pentagon, the massive heart of America’s armed forces and defense planning. The 5.1 million square foot building was completed by 13,000 construction workers at a cost of $63 million by early 1943 (or $925 million in 2019 dollars).
In the meantime, Somervell was promoted to lieutenant general in 1942 and put in charge of the new Services of Supply branch, responsible for organizing the construction of bases, supply routes, requisition of war materiel, and distribution of supplies to American and Allied forces across the globe. These efforts ensured that troops in the field had the ammunition and supplies they needed to keep moving forward to victory. He developed a reputation for being stubborn and demanding, but construction and supply were considered vital for the success of the Allies during the war.
He earned two more Distinguished Service Medals and honored by the governments of Great Britain, France, and China for his efforts during the war.
With World War II over, Somervell retired from the army in April 1946 after 36 years in the service, settling in Florida. Upon his retirement, he was lauded by War Secretary Robert V. Patterson, “In organizing and directing the worldwide supply lines on which our troops depended for their offensive power, General Somervell performed a service without parallel in military history.”
Still only 54, his services were in high demand. He was quickly hired as president of Koppers, Inc., a Pennsylvania company that produced mining equipment and coal products. Somervell was credited with reorganizing the company and tripling profits in a short time.
By the early 1950s, he suffered a number of major health problems, including a series of operations and heart attacks. He died of a massive heart attack at his home in Florida in February 1955 at the age of 62. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1987, the navy named a small logistics craft after Somervell in his honor.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.