Pipeline to Victory

Ex-CBI Roundup
November 1951 Issue

By Lee Bakker

Pipeline to Victory

Pumping Station, Shingbwiyang - U.S. Army photo.

BACK IN OCTOBER or November, 1943, the first of the Engineer petroleum distribution companies arrived in Bombay, India, followed by the 707th and two others during January-March, 1944. They reached Eastern India over the Bengal-Nagpur Railroad from Bombay via the Deolali staging camp.

The oil facilities were very scant, a few storages and equipment owned by the Burmah-Shell Oil Company. The Engineers had a huge project to perform. Oil and gasoline were needed by the forward echelons and airfields. Thus, a pipe line, or rather a network of pipe lines, would have to be constructed. That was the job ahead. Many men were needed. Personnel had to be trained. Some of the Engineers were trained back in the states, ut many were drawn from the services already in the CBI. The outfits came from the Infantry, Air Force, Medical Corps, Signal Corps, Artillery, Engineers, and Quartermaster Corps. Some had just been shipped over directly from basic training. Some were assigned to the pipe outfits upon their return from sick leaves. More than a thousand miles of pipe line would have to be laid. The pipes would eliminate vehicle delivery of the precious petroleum, releasing them for other duties.

The men had to be trained. Most consisted of combat engineering. But specialist schools had to open so the men could learn about pipes themselves and how to lay lines over hills and across rivers. Pipe lines would be portable. Pump maintenance schools taught the soldiers about various types of valves for systems of reciprocating pumps. In training, valves were stripped down and put back together again. There were maneuvers to practice under actual conditions. For these rehearsals pipes were filled with water to train the pipe line walkers. Pipe line walkers reported leaks. If the leaks were small, the repairs were done by the walkers. In practice, centrifugal pumps were used. There was even a school for welders, capable of turning put eight welders every three weeks. This school was located at Budge-Budge Terminal, twenty miles below Calcutta. One of the teachers was S/Sgt. Lou Harris. Fabrication was taught by T/3 J. W. Arrington.

MUCH OF THE welding was done in the rain, due to the heavy and almost continuous torrents during monsoon seasons. The welders had dangerous jobs. Many received severe burns from wading up to their hips in gasoline to repair breaks in the underwater lines. A single spark could ignite the gas, resulting in sudden and horrible death. Some had to repair leaks while inhaling gas fumes. Two airmen were overcome by fumes and were discovered by S/Sgt. Charles Russ and T/4 John Koc. Russ and Koc broke the lines in two to drain off the gasoline. Then they dashed into the area, dragged out the men, and revived one of them with artificial respiration. After desperate attempts to save his life, the other died, too far gone to survive.

ARMY C-47 being loaded with pipe, to be flown to forward areas
during construction of the pipeline. U.S. Army photo.

After construction, the line was operated by a detachment of the 707th. At this outfit Paul "Pop" Kerns was in charge, located at Piardoba Airbase and various other spots, moving at various intervals. Kerns and Deusalt checked tanks (there were over 25) containing 10,000 gallons each. These tank checkers were known as gaugers. The 707th had some tanks at Salbony, a British managed airbase, gauged by Harold Lane and William Fuches. Tom Arct was a pipe walker and later on entered the maintenance crew. A 707th welder was named Novotony. There was a cook named Hanson; Fry and Constano were repairmen, fixing reported leaks. The 707th was in the 12th District, of which Colonel H. G. Gerdes was Executive Officer.

The West Bengal line was a 160 mile, four and six inch pipe line from Budge-Budge to the 20th Bomber Command B-29 bases in West Midnapur District. These were Kharagpur, Piardoba, Dudh Khundi, Chakulia and Kalaikunda.

While the 707th operated the line, reconnaissance was going forward on the Bengal-Assam 800 mile line and on arrival of materials in March, 1944, construction started in a big way with five companies each having an approximate 150 mile section. These companies were: the 700th, headquarters Budge-Budge; the 708th, headquarters Gauhati (their camp was on a hilltop just outside of town and above most of the mosquitoes); the 709th, headquarters Nowgong; and the 777th, headquarters Jorhat. Afterward the 700th was moved up to finish the line and tank farm at Tinsukia and remained there to operate the line above Jorhat and the British system from Dibrugarh to serve the hump lift at Chabua, Dinjan, Mohanbari and Sookerating air fields. The 708th also built a large unloading terminal and pipe line to supply Tezpur and Misamari air fields on the west side of the Brahmaputra River. Along the way the pipe line supplied Lalmanirhat and other fields which probably many of the Air Force boys will remember. This pipe line was built in record time, for the CBI or any other theater, in 4 months, April to July, 1944, inclusive. It reached Tinsukia on the first of August, 1944, and the pipe line pumped twelve million gallons per month from then until September, 1945.

ENGINEERS CONSTRUCTING petroleum tank farm in China. U.S. Army photo.

Jeep is used as a locomotive tor this train, the entire
contraption the idea of ingenious GI's. Much of the
Pipeliners' equipment came over this line in Burma.
Photo by Julius Michini.

DURING CONSTRUCTION, much improvision was necessary during the pipe line construction. Some equipment was not always handy. When the portable steel tanks were constructed, no hoisting equipment was available to lift side-staves and roof-plates up to a height of 24 feet. The engineers borrowed a telephone pole from the Signal outfit and used it as a boom over the cab of a dump truck. The winch was attached to the pole, and with a rope and pulley, the plates were lifted. If bulldozers were not available, walls 55 feet in diameter were filled with sand to make level tank foundations. 300 Indians carried dirt to one foundation eight feet high and 35 feet in diameter, built in a swamp. It was built in five days. The fill was packed by the Indians' feet stamping the dirt down.

UNDER SUPERVISION of EPD men, Indian soldiers string pipe
at 40-mile mark on Stilwell Boad in North Burma jungle. U.S. Army photo.

An urgently needed storage tank was damaged by a storm at an air base. The sides of the incompleted tank were caved in. The repair crew used winches, battering-rams, and sledge-hammers, completing the rebuilding in the same day.

Pipes were built and connected by the means of couplings. Two or three men were needed for the work. One laid the board, or plank, under the pipe so the other two could put on the couplings. These couplings were divided into two parts. Rubber gaskets were placed on the ends of two pipes to be coupled. These couplings were then placed on, half on the bottom, and the other half on top. Bolts were then placed through the two halves and nuts screwed on.

Not all the work was grim. Once while walking the line, Private John Walters stepped on an 11 foot python, thinking it was a pipe. He didn't remain that "pipe" long. This incident was never lived down. The python was killed by his buddies, T/5 Charles Marvel and T/3 John Arrington.

At another time a party of Indians were camped at the edge of a railroad yard in Gauhati. They built a camp fire which happened to be on top of a coupling and went to sleep. Some time during the night the heat of the fire melted out the gasket and set a blazing fountain of oil in the middle of the Indian encampment.

MEN FILL REINFORCEMENT clamps with concrete.
Clamps act as weights when pipeline is laid
across Irrawaddy Biver at Myitkyina. U.S. Army photo.

Unusual incidents were too many to be named here, but an outstanding one was when a coupling leak dripped into a roadside ditch near Nowgong, ran down the ditch to the river and floated down the river about a quarter mile where a fishing fleet was tied up. Someone in the fleet tossed a lighted cigarette overside and the flash burned down the fishing fleet, the bridge across the river and about a dozen houses straddling the ditch alongside the road.

MEN Of THE 1381st EPD Co. transport a pipe to side of China hill by trolley.
U.S. Army photo.

A coupling leak, at one time, ran down into a tank near the railroad. Two Indians washed their dhotis in the tank, went up on the bank to warm themselves at a campfire by their grass hut. They set their dhotis and the grass hut on fire, then dove into the tank to put themselves out. The result? The tank went off, and the two natives disappeared.

After installation, the first 300 odd miles of the line were operated by the 709th under Captain Troy Peterson. The outfit arrived in Calcutta during the summer of 1944. The 708th then moved to Nowgong to operate the second 300 miles under Captain Al Shefts, and the upper section was run by the 700th under Captain Roy Payne.

The oil lines extended to the front lines and even behind the lines up through Assam and via the Ledo-Burma Road to China. The Budge-Budge lines were fed from ships that came up the Hooghly River. Lines along the Ledo Road were fed by booster pumps at various stations along these lines. The stations consisted of 7 or 10 men, usually no more. The line up East Bengal via Chittagong, 500 miles in length, was built in January through May, 1945, by the 777th Company, operating out of Chittagong under Captain Jess Johnson and several of the other companies. Some of the pipe line men went up on to the Ledo Road for the China extension, supplied out of the head terminal at Tinsukia.

The main line of Bengal to Assam had twenty six pump stations. Their loss during a period of over a year was less than two per cent of the gasoline put in the line. This included fire and disaster. The soldiers, in little outposts of six to eight men, as mentioned above, each built themselves living communities, keeping the gasoline moving up the line.

SOME OF THE pipe line project men were drawn from the skilled pipe line personnel 01 the oil fields of California, Texas, Oklahoma, and other oil districts Many Indians also were used for construction and maintenance. They and the U. S. Engineers built barracks, bridges, and many other structures in addition to their work on the pipe lines.

Many pipeliners never saw combat, but they contributed much toward the eventual winning over the Japaneses in Asia. They supplied oil to the most vital areas, without which planes never could have left the ground; trucks couldn't have traveled the Ledo-Burma, or Stilwell, Road; bulldozers couldn't have operated; our troops couldn't have been transported; supplies would have only trickled in. For their work, the many companies of the pipe lines have been awarded the Bronze Star. Yet, somehow, this honor seems trivial. They deserved more reward. Perhaps, to them, their greatest reward was getting the job finished and going home. -THE END.

Please send additions / corrections to