Retrobituaries: Thomas Farrell, the Man Who Built the World

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In our Retrobituaries series, we spotlight those departed whose lives are insufficiently celebrated. Here is a look at the life of Major General Thomas Farrell, who died at 75 in 1967.

After Thomas Farrell died, it’s hard to believe that the world didn’t just give up and stop building things. Because while he was alive, Farrell, an Army general, seemed to help build everything. Throughout his life, he was one of those eerily competent guys whose name topped the go-to lists of military and civilian leaders alike for projects involving something (literally) as small as an atom or as large as Manhattan. 

1. Step One: Build the Panama Canal.

Farrell grew up a farm boy, but after attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute became an engineer. (Notable alumni of Rensselaer: George W.G. Ferris, of the wheel; Theodore Judah, driving force behind the Transcontinental Railroad; Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge; George Low, who managed Apollo 11; Ted Hoff, father of the microprocessor—are you seeing a pattern here?) After graduation, he set off to Panama, where he helped build the Panama Canal. 

2. He fought in a war or two.

After three years of working on the Panama Canal, Farrell had a pretty good idea of how to manage really large projects involving a lot of people. While there, he worked alongside the Army Corps of Engineers, which completed the canal. That experience is possibly the reason he joined the Army Reserve when he returned to the United States. Soon after, he led an engineering company in World War I. That was only his first war. He later served in World War II, and returned to active duty during the Korean War to help lead the Defense Production Administration, which directed materials production and manufacturing for the new Department of Defense.

3. He was a hero.

The second-highest decoration bestowed by the Army is the Distinguished Service Cross. The medal was first established during World War I to recognize “extraordinary heroism,” which must have been “so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the [recipient] apart from his comrades.” Thomas Farrell was an engineer—he built things for the Army like roads and bridges. In 1918, then-Major Farrell’s construction battalion in World War I was temporarily repurposed as infantry to fight in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. When he was ordered to secure a certain hill, Farrell “led his battalion to the attack, seized and held this vital point despite the fact that he was attacked by greatly superior numbers on three sides and nearly surrounded by strong enemy forces who showed extraordinary determination to regain this highly important position. He held the hill until reinforcements could reach him after darkness” the following day. As his citation for the Distinguished Service Medal continued, “His fearless leadership, utter disregard for his own safety, and complete devotion to duty raised the morale of his battalion to a high pitch and inspired them to acts of great endeavor.”

4. He built a few things in New York, too.

Most people would be content with a biography like that, and set life on cruise control for a while. Not Thomas Farrell. After the war, he taught at West Point before returning to reserve status in the Army. The governor of New York appointed him state Commissioner of Canals and Waterways. (If he was good enough for Panama, he was good enough for the Empire State.) He later led construction and engineering for the state Department of Public Works. Among the little hobby projects in his portfolio? LaGuardia Airport.

5. You’re probably familiar with his work in World War II.

In February 1941, it was looking like the United States might get soon get involved in World War II, and Farrell returned to active duty. He was made executive officer to Major General Leslie Groves at the office of the Quartermaster General, beginning a partnership that would change the world. At the time, the Quartermaster Corps was a disaster of an organization, unable to stick to a budget, timeline, or project. (Among the chaotic, disorganized projects that Groves and Farrell had to set right was construction of the Pentagon.) This was a particularly bad time for incompetence—Hitler was on the move. Groves and Farrell restructured the entirety of the Quartermaster Corps, and, while I don’t want to spoil the ending, the United States managed to build an effective infrastructure to handle the war to come. On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. 

(“What’s a quartermaster?” you ask. Good question! The Quartermaster Corps is a logistics branch of the Army that concerns itself with supplies, supply lines, food, and fuel. Remember Q from the James Bond movies? Q was short for quartermaster. When Farrell returned to active duty in 1941, the Quartermaster Corps was also responsible for construction projects.)

6. The biggest engineering project of the war? Yeah, Farrell was there.

The construction of the Ledo Road was the largest engineering project of World War II. It involved building a massive supply line from Ledo, India, to Kūnmíng, China. (We were in India and China in World War II? Yeah buddy!) The goal was to supply the Chinese before Japan could conquer it. The Japanese cut off the previous supply line, the Burma Road. The possibility of actually building the Ledo Road, which led through Pangsau Pass, a steep and curvy avenue that required the removal of 100,000 cubic feet per mile, was theoretical at best. Oh, and monsoons were a regular problem during the road’s construction. Eleven hundred Americans died over the course of the project.

As leader of the theater’s Construction Division, Thomas Farrell managed all of the work in India. One of his most important tasks was building a permanent bridge across the Irrawaddy River, something that had never before been achieved. The rising and falling of the river’s waterline and those aforementioned monsoons had previously made such a project impossible. So naturally Colonel Farrell made it happen. The resulting bridge was two lanes and 1627 feet long. Eight hundred fifty-three feet of the bridge was engineered as a floating pontoon structure to handle the variable water level. 

7. To keep the world safe, “we must arm to the teeth with the winning weapon.”

Major General Groves, leader of the most important, most secret project of the war, was offered “any officer in the Army, no matter who he is or what duty he is on” to be his second-in-command. His first choice was Thomas Farrell. As Farrell recalled, Groves “had too much top secret information wrapped up in his skull,” and the secretary of war “used to have nightmares dreaming what would happen if Groves were knocked off—one way or another—so I stepped in to share Groves’s secrets.” 

The big secret? The Manhattan Project. When Farrell was brought on to the project, he was given a 36-hour crash course in nuclear physics. But it was only after holding an actual piece of plutonium that he understood the project underway. To his surprise, the plutonium was warm in his hands. “It wasn't a cold piece of metal, but it was really a piece of metal that seemed to be working inside. Then maybe for the first time I began to believe some of the fantastic tales the scientists had told about this nuclear power.” As he recalled, “The odds were four to one against our developing a bomb that could actually be dropped during World War II. Even if we did ... not a living soul knew what an atomic bomb would do.” There was a real worry among scientists that the Bomb might spark an uncontrolled chain reaction and accidentally destroy the world. (Edward Teller was charged with studying the problem.) This led to some grim humor on the eve of the first test when Enrico Fermi took bets as to whether the Bomb would ignite the planet’s atmosphere. 

On the morning of the test, recalled Farrell, “The scene inside the shelter was dramatic beyond words ... Everyone in that room knew the awful potentialities of the thing that they thought was about to happen. The scientists felt that their figuring must be right and that the bomb had to go off but there was in everyone's mind a strong measure of doubt ... We were reaching into the unknown and we did not know what might come of it.”

8. “Words are inadequate.”

Wrote Farrell of the big moment: “In that brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly and startlingly to the fullest fruition. Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growing roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast. 

"The tension in the room let up and all started congratulating each other. Everyone sensed ‘This is it!’ No matter what might happen now all knew that the impossible scientific job had been done. Atomic fission would no longer be hidden in the cloisters of the theoretical physicists' dreams. It was almost full grown at birth. It was a great new force to be used for good or for evil. There was a feeling in that shelter that those concerned with its nativity should dedicate their lives to the mission that it would always be used for good and never for evil.

"The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized."

Said Farrell after the test, “The war is over.”

9. "To Hirohito, with love and kisses, T. F. Farrell."

After the project proved a success, Farrell was installed on the targeting committee. Their guidelines from General Groves were to choose a target that would “most aversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war.” The target “should be military in nature,” containing a major headquarters or a manufacturing center of weapons and supplies. On the morning of the bombing, Farrell scrawled on the front of Fat Man, "To Hirohito, with love and kisses, T. F. Farrell." 

10. After the war, Farrell was appointed chairman of the New York City Housing Authority.

You’re probably thinking Thomas Farrell had done enough by this point. You’re probably right, though Farrell disagreed. After the war, the mayor of New York appointed him chairman of the New York City Housing Authority. Farrell’s work as state Commissioner of Canals and Waterways, and later his leadership at the state Department of Public Works, wasn’t forgotten. Said the mayor at the time, “General Farrell’s appointment foreshadows a speed-up of the Authority’s work and closer relations with the city and the state.” 

11. He wasn’t out of the atom business just yet.

In 1951, Farrell was placed on military leave from the New York City Housing Authority, and assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission. There, he oversaw all work concerning the acquisition of uranium, the operation of processing plants, and construction of new facilities. But his atomic responsibilities didn’t end there. He later joined the planning commission of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The fair was a “carnival of technological utopianism.” Among its exhibits: “Atomsville, U.S.A.” 

He died on April 11, 1967 at age 75.

Previously on Retrobituaries: Theodore Maiman, inventor of the laser. See all retrobituaries here.

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June 5, 2013 - 2:00pm
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