Petroleum and Sea Power

Reluctant Admirals recognized oil produced more energy than coal — and simplified resupply.


Commissioned in 1914, the USS Texas was the last American battleship built with engines to be powered with coal-fired boilers. Converted to burn fuel oil in 1925, the “Mighty T” experienced great improvements in efficiency as the worldwide change from coal boilers at sea would become another key chapter of U.S. petroleum history.

When the industrial revolution ended the “Age of Sail,” coal that fired the boilers of steam-powered ships became a strategic resource. Worldwide “coaling stations” were essential at a time when oil was little more than a crude lubricant or patent medicine.

USS Texas at museum site in Texas,

Commissioned in 1914, with coal-powered boilers that were converted to use fuel oil in 1925, the USS Texas “was the most powerful weapon in the world, the most complex product of an industrial nation just beginning to become a force in global events,” noted one historian. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department,

As early Pennsylvania oilfield discoveries continued, Congress in 1866 appropriated $5,000 to evaluate petroleum as a potential replacement for coal to fire the Navy’s boilers. The “experts” decided to stay with coal.

“The conclusion arrived at was that convenience, health, comfort and safety were against the use of petroleum in steam-vessels,” reported Admiral George Henry Preble. “The only advantage shown was a not very important reduction in the bulk and weight of fuel carried.” (more…)

Japanese Sub attacks Oilfield

Shelling of Ellwood field created mass hysteria and the “Battle of Los Angeles.”


Soon after the start of World War II, an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine attacked a refinery and oilfield near Los Angeles. It was the first attack of the war on the continental United States. About two dozen rounds were fired, causing little damage, but the shelling led to the largest mass sighting of UFOs in American history. 

Japanese submarine shells oilfield headline from Santa Barbara News

A February 1942 Imperial Japanese Navy submarine’s shelling of a California refinery caused little damage but created invasion (and UFO) hysteria in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Goleta Valley Historical Society.

At sunset on February 23, 1942, Imperial Japanese Navy Commander Kozo Nishino and his I-17 submarine lurked 1,000 yards off the California coast. It was less than three months since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Los Angeles residents were tense. (more…)

Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest

Top Secret WWII project sent Oklahoma drillers into British oilfield. They added more than one million barrels of oil production by 1944.


As the United Kingdom fought for its survival during World War II, a team of American oil drillers, derrickhands, roustabouts, and motormen secretly boarded the converted troopship HMS Queen Elizabeth in March 1943. Once their story was revealed years later, they would become known as the Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest.

Photograph of the 42 volunteers from Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling companies who drilled in Sherwood Forest during WWII.

A photograph of the 42 volunteers from Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling companies taken before they secretly embarked for the United Kingdom on March 12, 1943, aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted into a troop transport ship. Photo courtesy of the Guy Woodward Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

By the summer of 1942, the situation was desperate. The future of Great Britain – and the outcome of World War II – depended on petroleum supplies. At the end of that year, demand for 100-octane fuel would grow to more than 150,000 barrels of oil every day — and German U-boats ruled the Atlantic.

In August 1942, British Secretary of Petroleum, Geoffrey Lloyd called an emergency meeting of the Oil Control Board to assess the “impending crisis in oil.” (more…)

Big Inch Pipelines of WW II

The final weld on the “Big Inch” was made in July 1943, just 350 days after construction began.


A government-industry partnership built two petroleum pipelines from Texas to the East Coast that proved vital during World War II. “Big Inch” carried oil from East Texas oilfields. “Little Big Inch” carried gasoline, heating oil, diesel oil, and kerosene.

oil pipelines Nazi U-boat in Atlantic

Prior to the pipelines, German U-boats wreaked havoc on oil tankers from the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Caribbean to the East Coast. Photo courtesy the German Historical Society of Military History.

“Without the prodigious delivery of oil from the U.S. this global war, quite frankly, could never have been won,” noted historian Keith Miller. (more…)

Petroleum Survey discovers U-boat

Routine scan of Gulf of Mexico seabed for new petroleum pipelines reveals shipwrecks.


During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

Today’s petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf routinely provide government scientists with sonar data for areas with potential archaeological value. Several federal agencies review oil and natural gas-related surveys every year, and over the years the data have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

oil industry sonar and photo images of U-boat in Gulf of Mexico

A 2001 archaeological survey by BP and Shell prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline confirmed discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast.

In 2001, the Minerals Management Service (superseded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management a decade later) noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”


PLUTO, Secret Pipelines of WW II

“Conundrums” spooled off steel pipe when towed across the English Channel after D-Day.


To provide vital oil across the English Channel after the June  6, 1944, D-Day landings, within months secret pipelines were unwound from massive spools to reach French ports.  

Wartime planners knew that following the D-Day invasion Allied forces would need vast quantities of petroleum to continue the advance into Europe.

secret pipelines

The secret pipeline mission used a popular Walt Disney character for its logo.

Allied leadership also knew that petroleum tankers trying to reach French ports would be vulnerable to Luftwaffe attacks. A secret plan looked to using new undersea pipeline technologies.

To prevent fuel shortages from stalling the Normandy invasion, a top-secret “Operation PLUTO” – Pipe Line Under The Ocean – became the Allied strategy. It would fuel victory with oil production from the U.S. petroleum industry.

Although by 1942 the industry had laid thousands of pipe miles of across all manner of terrain, to span the English Channel would require an unprecedented leap in technology. The channel was deep, the French ports distant, and the hazards unpredictable. In great secrecy, two approaches were developed.

The first PLUTO system required a new kind of pipe that looked more like an undersea communications cable than an oil pipeline. It exploited existing subsea cable technology, but instead of a bundle of wiring at its core, a three-inch flexible lead pipe would carry fuel.


Following D-Day on June 6, 1944, Operation Pluto pipelines fueled the advance into Nazi Germany. Image from “World War 2 From Space,” a History Channel documentary.


Pin It on Pinterest