ONE OF SUNDT’S SIGNATURE JOBS came when World War II was almost a year old. The company had been very busy building military projects all across Arizona and New Mexico — hospitals, training barracks, and expanding runways at airfields.
While Gene Sundt was working on a new installation for the Army Air Force Ferry Command at Fort Luna, New Mexico, he received a message, on November 30, 1942, to be in the Army Corps of Engineers’ Albuquerque District Engineer’s office at 8 a.m. the following morning. In the booklet From Small Beginnings… he recalled the events of that fateful day.
“A few minutes before 8 on the morning of Tuesday, December 1, 1942, I walked up the steps of the old brown sandstone Simms Building at Fourth and Gold and told the receptionist that Tommy Hightower was expecting me,” Gene said.
“As I entered Tommy’s office, I asked him ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘Let’s go for a ride.’ “I followed him out of the building, got into the back seat of a government car and he told the driver to get going. I asked where we were going and what it was all about, but Tommy just grinned and said I would find out when we got there.”
‘There,’ in this case, was at the end of a two-hour drive at an isolated area in the Jemez Mountains, about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe. Gene soon learned that he was at the exclusive Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys. They were joined by two Army officers, Major Elmo Morgan and Captain Carl Lovett, and they said that M.M. Sundt Construction Co. had been selected to build a super-secret project. They told Gene he could not be told what, or why, the project was going to be built, and Gene could not discuss the project with anyone except the top managers in his company and members of the Corps of Engineers.
Sundt Awarded Top Secret Government Contract
Later, Gene telephoned John Sundt in Tucson to tell him the company had been awarded another government contract that would run around $300,000, which was quite a bit of money in those days. The project was so super-secret that it was labeled simply “Job 444” in the company’s records.
The project was urgent, and speed of construction was essential. No plans were available yet, but Gene was given a list of the buildings they had to get started on first. The list indicated to Gene that the project was a small military post to house about 200 men.
Sundt’s contract called for a scientists’ enclave, complete with housing and laboratories, fenced and ready for occupancy by May 1943. The contract came with a host of mixed blessings. For starters, the schedule was incredibly tight. As Gene Sundt noted in his memoir, Job 444, scientists and engineers were notoriously adept at creating confusion and bending rules as the Sundt crews worked feverishly to meet deadlines amid ever-changing orders.
To quote from Job 444:
“Lt. Col. Whitney Ashbridge was not happy in his original living quarters and wanted something better. General Groves’ directive of June 27 under item 2-E authorized converting the Arts and Crafts building of the school into two apartments. Ashbridge decided to take one for himself and assigned the other one to Dr. Hughes. After the school moved out in February, $32,091 had been spent remodeling the buildings including $150,000 on the Arts and Crafts building. July 7, W.C. Kruger received instruction and we got the Arts and Crafts remodeling plans on July 14th.”
Ashbridge was not pleased with Kruger’s plans and went directly to a Sundt project superintendent, who found him hard to please. The foreman had pulled some of his best men off of Sundt housing projects at Los Alamos more important work to satisfy Ashbridge. Ashbridge’s complaints varied from major structural changes necessary for safety standards to the utterly ridiculous changing of glass in china cabinet doors. For instance, in his letter of August 30, 1943, which reads, in part:
“At the time the preliminary sketches were made for the china closet in the south apartment of the former Arts and Crafts Building, it was intended that there be glass doors for the upper part. However, somewhere along the line the original rough sketches were apparently mislaid and the china closet as constructed does not have the glass doors. I have requested Contractor furnish these, and this confirms and makes a matter of record the request that the glass doors be installed as originally contemplated.
“The glass lights in the top of the entry doors and in the Dutch door between bedrooms turned out to be rather larger than originally anticipated, and with a child in the house who is apt to toss toys through the glass it is considered wise from a safety standpoint to put wood grills over these doors of the type now on the center door from the entry into the hall leading to the bathroom and bedrooms. As in the case of the china closet doors, the Contractor has been requested to furnish and install these, and this confirms …”
“One wonders at this late date,” Sundt wrote, “who needed the fancy china cabinet: the Commanding Officer of the Corps of Engineers, Lt. Col. Whitney Ashbridge, or
the other occupant of that duo apartment, Dr. Hughes.”
Squabbles, Problems Plagued Job 444
There were so many squabbles, some resulting in charges and counter charges of disloyalty and outright treason, it is a wonder the project went ahead and was successfully completed. Sundt came in for its share of accusations, which obviously annoyed Gene Sundt.
“We Sundts have been accused in print of being outspoken, often blunt, sometimes difficult, but generous and efficient,” Sundt wrote. “The fact that we were often, in those early days of Los Alamos, caught between a three-way tug-of-war didn’t add to our good nature. The scientists thought they knew best what ought to be provided, would plan more efficiently, and above all draft construction [orders] far beyond the professionals brought in for doing that particular job, [and this] ruffled the reserve of those highly trained specialists more than just a little. The military demanded their way and were vociferous, sometimes vindictive, and usually decisive. The Corps of Engineers manfully tried to follow their orders, valiantly attempted to keep the construction moving along so as to meet the deadlines. We were often caught in the melee, so often forced to make our own decisions as to how something was feasible to accomplish. Sure we were blunt, outspoken and quite often critical.
“It is somewhat ironical – nonetheless an irony that we were later to enjoy – that our early ‘Sundt Apartments’ so vehemently castigated for their primitiveness in the beginning were to become the community of the elite and to be referred to later as ‘snob hollow’ due to the comfort and luxury that those lucky ones who lived there enjoyed.”
The problems between the various groups living at Los Alamos were enormous. None of the groups seemed to be able to get along, and according to Gene Sundt, nobody was harder to deal with than the scientists. While Col. Ashbridge was not one of Gene Sundt’s favorite people, he was still able to commiserate with Ashbridge because Ashbridge was so obviously out of his element.
“The gentlemen’s code [that Ashbridge lived by] did not envisage name callers, mischief makers, and housewives who flung hamburger on his desk, shrieking ‘dog meat!’” Gene Sundt wrote. “On a trip back to Washington, he collapsed at the Amarillo airport with a damaged heart.”
Job 444 Finished by Two El Paso Firms
These problems became moot for Sundt because when Major Frank N. Newell was sent to Los Alamos from Tulsa to replace the hapless Ashbridge, his first decision was to try and import an Oklahoma firm to replace Sundt. Newell was outranked by a Col. Cole, and he vetoed Newell’s request. But ideas once floated are often hard to sink; Col. Cole instead brought in two companies from El Paso to replace Sundt.
In the official history by the Corps of Engineers, Construction in the United States: Under the Quartermaster General and the Chief of Engineers, by Lenore Fine and Jesse A. Remington, the authors’ version is very similar to that of Gene Sundt. They wrote that
“Maj. Frank M. Newell, whom Groves had brought from the Tulsa District to head the Area office, wished to import an Oklahoma firm to replace the capable, but outspoken Sundts. Colonel Cole, who felt the Tucson outfit had done a splendid job, agreed that new blood might be beneficial; after months of 14- to 16-hour days and 7-day weeks, Sundt’s men seemed near exhaustion.”
The $300,000 contract negotiated by Gene Sundt, with the help of his uncles John and Thoralf, was modified 70 times and eventually totaled $7,112,397. In 2012 dollars that would be equivalent to over $125 million!
Sundt Learns Job 444 Is Part of Manhattan Project
About 18 months after their project was completed, Sundt officials learned that Los Alamos was part of the Manhattan Project, and its sole purpose was to build an atomic bomb.
“Just imagine,” Gene Sundt said in a speech 30 years later, to the Newcomen Society. “We marched up the hill on a road barely able to accommodate a pickup truck, to a beautiful mesa occupied by a handful of log buildings, and 12 months later we marched away and left a city, complete with schools, a hospital, water supply and sewage treatment facilities, complicated technical facilities that produced the first atomic bomb and a testing area wherein the scientists could hopefully come as near as possible to being sure [the bomb would work].”
A year after the war ended, John Sundt was called to New York to receive a special award for his military construction projects, given by the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. Although he kept about 6,500 employees on payroll during the war, and built between $35 to $40 million worth of military installations, Sundt as usual played down his role and emphasized that of his employees.
“We didn’t know what it was all about,” Sundt said in a newspaper interview in 1946, “except that probably the Army was working on explosives, because of the required power plant output.
“We had to start from scratch up there in the mountains and snow. There were no roads, and we had to build roads at the same time that we used them to move in great quantities of building equipment and set up a permanent camp for 3,000 men who had to be quartered and fed there for a year, for we didn’t finish our work until December 1943. That 3,000 represented only part of the men because many others lived at Santa Fe and surrounding towns.
“We had to put in a great water system, piping that water across several mountain ranges. It was really rough stuff, working up there in the cold and in the mountains under almost impossible conditions. But we got it done, even if it was a nightmare, more complicated and with more heartache that any other military job we handled during the war.”
Other War-related Construction Jobs
In the same interview, John Sundt talked about the war-related construction jobs Sundt took on. They included:
Most of the work at Davis-Monthan air base; the Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Plant (now part of the Tucson International Airport) and Marana air base (all located in southern Arizona); Japanese-American relocation camps at Lordsburg, N.M., and Sacaton, Arizona; the Navy Indoctrination School at the University of Arizona; an air base at Alamogordo N.M.; a railroad battalion engineers air base at Fort Sumner, N.M.; air transport command base at Las Vegas, Nevada; Sandia and Kirkland fields at Albuquerque, N.M., and the Marine Corps Air Station at El Centro, California.
Of interest to those familiar with the University of Arizona is the fact that the Navy Indoctrination School was located within “Old Main,” the school’s first structure, which was completed in 1891. By 1938 it was in such poor condition that the Tucson Building Inspector declared it unsafe. For the next four years it remained unoccupied, and under threat of demolition, until Sundt’s project for the Navy saved it from the wrecking ball. Today it remains a functional, and much revered, part of the campus.
War’s End Brings Uncertainty
The war’s end brought uncertainty to Sundt, as Gene Sundt noted in his speech to the Newcomen Society in 1974:
“Thus, in early 1944, we found ourselves rather exhausted but in a position of having completed all of our major war effort work except the Marine Corps Air Station at El Centro, California, and certainly at a loss to be able to determine what the future would be. Our work force was at a minimum. A very few highly specialized government jobs were let, of which we got our share, but our record shows no public work projects otherwise and no private work, in that part of 1944 and 1945.
“One of the most vivid recollections of this period is when a Government Renegotiation Board, grateful for our supreme effort at Los Alamos, decided that because these contracts were negotiated, we had no risk even though we had full responsibility for completion under bond. Accordingly, it was their first judgment that no risk, no entitlement to profit. These renegotiation hearings were really a revelation as to the quality and efficiency of a thoroughly misinformed and incapable bureaucracy, even then growing in size and scope.”
One can almost hear the sigh of relief when Gene uttered these words:
“But truth and right prevailed and in the final decision we were allowed to retain the modest profit realized from our effort.”
New Leadership Joins Sundt
Shortly before the United States entered World War II, two future leaders of the company were hired. Duane Anderson came to Sundt as a timekeeper in 1938. He had a Business degree from the University of Colorado and soon became a cost accountant and the business manager for the company. In 1940 Bill Naumann came on board and managed a brick plant that the company owned at the time. He then became the manager of the Underground Utilities Department and a Vice President.