"It is easy to focus on the oil and adventure, but this was about saving lives and humanity."
former ceo, noble corporation
- The Secret of Sherwood Forest
By the fall of 1942, World War II had engulfed the entire planet. Nazi Germany was tightening its hold on Europe, subduing each country in its path and eyeing Great Britain as its next conquest. The United States had joined the war less than a year earlier after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but was focusing its energy on the Pacific.
Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin had requested the Allies form a second front in western Europe, but England was barely holding on. A lack of resources, particularly fuel, was hindering the country's ability to defend itself, much less develop a western front with the United States.
These were the darkest days of World War II for the Allies.
Historians will long remember the iconic battles that turned the war against the Axis countries in 1942 and 1943 - the United States' naval victory at Midway, Russia's winter stand at Stalingrad, the reclamation of North Africa and D-Day.
However, one wartime story is often overlooked because it contains no military offensive, no espionage, not even a single fired bullet. Nevertheless, a secret oil drilling mission spearheaded by Lloyd Noble proved to be as pivotal as any battle. Without him, England's energy supplies may have disappeared, potentially changing the course of the war and history.
Noble was a central figure in the North American oil industry of the 1930s and 40s. A self-made man, he turned a single drilling rig into two global companies (today called Noble Energy and Noble Corporation). His belief in technology revolutionized oil exploration and produced considerable personal wealth, which he used for a variety of philanthropic causes.
"He was exceptionally generous and gave without wanting any fanfare," said Mike Cawley, president and chief executive officer of Noble Research Institute, which Noble established in 1945 to assist agricultural producers in the Southern Great Plains. "He was also intensely patriotic. So his spirit of generosity, his knowledge of the oil field and his love for his country set the stage for his contribution to World War II."
Noble's war effort began across the sea in what historians have called British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's "best kept secret" - one he hid even from his own people. The secret was a sizable oil reserve located in Dukes Wood of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, England - the same region made famous in the Robin Hood fable. This reserve was critical, considering that by late 1942 Britain was close to surrender because it was running out of oil.
But England lacked proper drilling equipment to extract the oil. More importantly, there weren't enough men available in England at the time, skilled or otherwise, to operate what equipment there was.
Marie Ashby, of the BBC's Inside Out news program, told viewers in a February 2007 documentary that the efforts of Noble Drilling Corporation "helped save (England) from surrender."
Pleading for Help
While the United States' booming oil industry provided Americans with reserves, England was dependent on imported oil, which was being cut off by the enemy. German U-boats hunted oil tankers and supply ships with ruthless success, leaving the island isolated and with dwindling supplies.
In August 1942, Geoffrey Lloyd, Britain's secretary of petroleum, called an emergency meeting of the Oil Control Board. At the meeting, Phillip Southwell, managing director of England's D'Arcy Exploration Company, pressed his fellow members to fully develop Britain's oil fields. However, the drilling equipment available in England was not suited for the necessary rapid drilling in shallow production fields.
Southwell was so convincing that Churchill dispatched him to Washington, D.C., to plead England's case to the Americans and to return with help.
Southwell ultimately met with representatives from four oil companies. Two contractors from California quickly bowed out, saying they would not be of any use.
Frank Porter, president of Fain-Porter Drilling Company, and Noble remained at the meeting, speaking at length to Southwell, (who still hadn't divulged the location of the oil fields), but finally- reluctantly - said they couldn't help. Porter's company was too small for the task, and Noble had just committed his resources to the Northwest Territories of Canada. Noble excused himself and left for his home in Ardmore, Okla.
Southwell, mindful of England's desperate situation and doggedly persistent, soon followed Noble to Oklahoma. Arriving in Dallas (the closest major airport to Ardmore), he rented a car and was allocated one tank of tightly rationed gasoline. Southwell made the trip on faith, trusting he would find fuel for the return trip to Dallas.
Southwell arrived in Ardmore in the early morning hours and found his way to Noble's home. According to The Secret of Sherwood Forest by Guy Woodward and Grace Steele Woodward, Noble himself answered the door, hair tousled, dressed in pajamas and obviously just out of bed. Noble invited Southwell in as he prepared for the day, and Southwell pleaded his case as Noble shaved, dressed and took business phone calls.
Undeterred, Southwell worked through the interruptions, explaining his dire need, and eventually won Noble to his cause.
Stirred by patriotic fervor, unable to resist the lure of a challenge or perhaps just impressed by Southwell's persistence in chasing him across the country, Noble told Southwell that if Porter would join in, Noble Drilling would commit to the venture. Noble would purchase the necessary equipment for D'Arcy and recruit men to run the rigs. Noble surprised Southwell by telling him he wouldn't expect any profit. The work would be Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling's contribution to winning the war.
Noble then convinced Porter to join the mission and Southwell left for Dallas- after the famed oilman secured him a tank of gas.
Jim Day, former chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Noble Corporation, has worked closely with the Noble family for 30 years. Day believed Noble's compassion and core values led him to commit his resources. "Lloyd was known as a very unselfish man," Day said. "He saw a country in need, an ally. It's what you would hope other citizens would do. He wasn't planning on making any money. He had the means to help and stepped up and made a major commitment."
Putting a Plan Into Action
Next, Noble designated the men to transform the commitment into reality. Gene Rosser was recruited from Wyoming, where he was serving as an assistant in a branch of Noble Drilling, and Don Walker was selected by Porter.
"The choices were well made. He picked Gene Rosser because of his can-do attitude," Day said. "And Don (Walker) was an individual that Lloyd and the people with Fain-Porter selected to keep it organized. Noble never traveled to England to see the Dukes Wood operation. He worked stateside, but he knew how to pick the right men for the project."
Rosser was ordered to Tulsa to see Noble. He was given four days' notice to finish his work, pack his family and head south. He arrived in Ardmore full of curiosity because no one would tell him why he had been so abruptly transferred.
Noble handled that task, asking Rosser how he would like to take four drilling rigs to the British Isles, where he would drill 100 shallow wells, each 2,300 to 2,500 feet deep. It would be a tough job in a war zone under wartime restrictions, Noble explained.
Walker, who would be Rosser's assistant, had lived in Ardmore for years, rubbing elbows with "roughnecks," the common name for oil field workers. While Walker didn't know a "damn thing in the world about oil," Noble said he would be the detail man Rosser would need. The pair recruited 44 men - most from Oklahoma and Texas, all in their late teens and early 20s. They were told about the dangers they would face and sworn to secrecy before leaving for New York City.
Shortly after midnight on March 12, 1943, the crew slipped onto the Queen Elizabeth (which had been converted to a troop carrier), packed into 10 rooms as they crossed the Atlantic. The trip was the first of many discomforts. Through the next year, they would work 12-hour days, seven days a week, subjecting themselves to British authority and limited food - conditions which pushed the mission to the brink.
"They were young and ready for adventure," Day said. "They wanted to be involved in a once-in-a-lifetime project and they were. Their youth served them well, because it was a difficult life."
Roughnecks in England
Rosser and Walker had gone ahead of the "boys" - as they were called - to coordinate equipment arrival and its transport to Dukes Wood. When the crew arrived in England and boarded a train to Dukes Wood, they were greeted by a large delegation including Rosser, Walker and representatives of D'Arcy, who were anxious to meet the roughnecks.
One Englishman remembered their arrival years later, saying he was impressed by the number of cowboy hats and boots.
Even Walker commented when one of the boys hit the ground with a banjo hanging from a shoulder strap and another arrived carrying a fiddle case. Those musical instruments would serve as reminders of home and help make friends among the British townsfolk during the few hours that the crew had for recreation.
The crew was delivered to Kelham Hall, a working monastery in the small town of Kelham, close to the Dukes Wood field. While the monastery was still occupied by the monks of the Society of the Sacred Mission, it had also been converted for wartime military use.
Although the roughnecks were there on serious business, they also had opportunities to interact with the townspeople. Doug Wallace, a boy when the adventure began, told the BBC that the Americans had inspired him to be a driller.
While locals were largely kept in the dark about what the boys were doing all day, the roughnecks were undoubtedly American. On their first trip into the nearby town of Newark-on-Trent, the crew put on a fiddle and banjo show that proved to be a hit amongst the townspeople.
"You can imagine bringing people from an industry that was rough and ready, like the early American oil field, and putting them into a staid setting like Sherwood Forest," Day said. "They worked hard and when they did have some time off, they mingled with the locals. I am sure it was quite a sight to behold."
Lewis Dugger, former resident of New Orleans, was the last surviving member of the crew that worked in England. (He passed away in 2007 in his mid-90s). In one of his final interviews about the Sherwood Forest experience, Dugger recalled the orders they were given before heading into town. "We were just told to keep our mouths shut," said Dugger, noting that some roughnecks joked that they were making a movie and waiting for John Wayne to arrive. Dugger also said the locals were smart enough not to ask what the men were doing.
Back in Ardmore, Noble also remained quiet. "I don't think even his children knew what he was doing," Cawley said. "He just told them that he'd be away on business more than usual, and he was. Noble traveled across the country to oversee and coordinate the various needs of the project."
The American roughnecks quickly got to work and their hosts weren't quite ready for their speed, according to The Secret of Sherwood Forest.
Noble crews could complete one well and put it into production each week. Their English counterparts took five to eight weeks. At the end of the first 12-hour shift on a D'Arcy rig, J.W. Nickle, the driller, reported 1,010 feet of hole drilled on his tour - a speed that had never been hit by D'Arcy crews.
A D'Arcy official suggested that Nickle recheck his figure, because it could not be correct. Nickle politely told him that it was correct. A production department supervisor then questioned the report. Nickle again said the report was correct and went back to feeding drill pipe into the hole. A third interruption came from a high ranking D'Arcy manager, who told him the figure couldn't possibly be true. Nickle, now irritated, introduced the official to a colorful array of American oil field language while assuring him that the figure was indeed accurate and extending him an invitation to take his own measurements.
Rosser intervened and a count of drill stem joints finally convinced D'Arcy officials that Nickle's tour had indeed hit 1,010 feet. The pace was unimaginable to the English management and drillers.
"Nobody believed they could go that fast," Day said. "They brought over the latest and greatest equipment that was available during that era. It was designed to move quicker and set up quicker. Soon the daily drilling reports became routine."
Noble twice planned on visiting the Sherwood Forest site, but both trips had to be cancelled because of stateside responsibilities. "In my 22 years, this is the first time that I have not been on the scene of operations where some really vital project was underway," said Noble in a letter to the crew.
The work was hard, even for men used to the grueling pace of the U.S. oil field. Complicating matters was that the same strict food rationing that British civilians faced was applied to the hardworking roughnecks. With no meat available, they primarily ate potatoes and Brussels sprouts, with an occasional egg or apple thrown in. They proclaimed what little beer they could obtain as "soapy water with no alcohol in it."
Motorman Ray Hileman had packed some seeds, and the boys planted a small garden at the monastery. Hileman was able to supplement the crew's diet with fresh lettuce, green beans, onions, tomatoes and radishes. Ever industrious, Hileman made trades for a shotgun and began shooting pheasant, breaking England's poaching laws and triggering an investigation. Hileman ceased his hunting effort and turned to egg-laying hens, a hive of bees and domesticated rabbits for additional food.
Despite Hileman's valiant efforts, the situation grew steadily worse. Crews working 12-hour shifts often went without breakfast and several men lost more than 20 pounds each. "We were starving," Dugger said.
The lack of food was beginning to affect performance, and minor accidents began to occur. Rosser took the situation in hand and went to military officials arguing that his crew was performing a service crucial to the war effort.
Further delays and red tape culminated in a loud confrontation with Gen. Robert M. Littlejohn, who was in charge of food services for all British military units. Rosser gave the British leader an ultimatum: more food or they were going home. Extra rations were provided and work continued.
By September 1943, a year after Southwell had been dispatched, the American crew had drilled 64 producing oil wells.
The work continued, complicated by external forces. The crew braved England's treacherous weather, working in pouring rain with frigid winds from the North Sea.
War restrictions required them to take extra steps like painting each pump jack (called "nodding donkeys" by the English) green to blend in with the surrounding forest. They also used dim lighting to avoid being spotted by German bombers.
Even though war activity swarmed around them, the Americans only experienced one fatality during the trip. Herman Douthit, a derrick man, fell while he was climbing a drilling mast. Douthit was given a hero's funeral and is the only civilian buried in the American cemetery at Cambridge.
Noble continued to encourage his crew through letters. He wrote: "I am sure that when the record of this project has finally been written, it will not only be a credit to the organization, but it will be one to which you can look back to with a feeling of great satisfaction and pride. You have made a real contribution toward shortening this terrible conflict in which we are now engaged."
Oil: the Fuel of Victory
More than 100 wells would eventually be drilled, sending more than 2.2 million barrels of high grade crude to British refineries just through the end of 1943. The oil field would continue to produce for an additional 20 years.
With a lifeline established for the English, the Americans returned home at the end of March 1944. According to the BBC documentary, the Dukes Wood oil field proved crucial as its oil was suitable for conversion to high grade aviation fuel, thus giving British pilots a significant advantage over their German counterparts.
Dennis Sheffield, a former Dukes Wood worker, bluntly summarized the vital nature of the project, "It was this country's salvation. We were on our knees for oil."
England did not forget those who had so bravely - and quietly - served the country. Southwell was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1954.
The Energy Advocates, a Tulsa-based oil and gas advocacy organization, spearheaded an effort to memorialize Noble Drilling Corporation and the roughnecks for their extraordinary valor. With support from a wide range of companies in the energy sector, Noble Drilling Corporation and the roughnecks were honored at the Dukes Wood site with the Oil Patch Warrior, a 7-foot-tall bronze statue bearing the names of the 44 men who were the backbone of the project. A twin monument was dedicated in downtown Ardmore through support of the local community Day had the opportunity to hear the crew's stories in 1991 when Noble Drilling Corporation underwrote a trip for the 15 surviving roughnecks to return to England to dedicate the Dukes Wood memorial.
"When we went over for the dedication, several of the locals knew the Noble personnel," Day said. "They laughed and talked and told stories. That brought out a real human part of this whole project. It is easy to focus on the oil and adventure, but this was about saving lives and humanity."