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Volume 21, Number 1January/February 1970

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DISCOVERY! The Story of Aramco Then

Chapter 12:Air Raid

Written by Wallace Stegner
Illustrated by Don Thompson

SYNOPSIS: By 1940 the search for Arabian oil was clearly a success. Casoc, the American company that had followed the 1920 financiers and adventurers into King Ibn Sa'ud's Arabia, had explored the vast concession area awarded it by the King, found oil in quantities that promised an exciting future for Arabia, built a modest refinery, loaded its first tanker and built, on a slight rise near the Gulf coast, the rude camp that would become the community called Dhahran.

For the men of Casoc the search had never been easy, and sometimes, as they ranged into the unmapped Empty Quarter, crossed the peninsula to the Red Sea, spent 10 days fighting one of the world's great oil well fires or sailed anxiously out into the Gulf in search of the bodies of poor Charlie Herring and his wife, they wondered if it were worth it.

Nor were the physical challenges and hazards always the worst problems. There were also the misunderstandings that were probably inevitable in the first confrontation of aggressive technological society with the pastoral passivity of the desert but which, nonetheless, could put a colorful driller named John Ames in jail for accidentally hitting a boy who darted into the path of his car.

Still the search went on, aided now by the second wave of such young but able professionals as Tom Barger, later to become president and chairman of the board of the company, but at that stage merely an apprentice geologist with an appetite for work and a feeling for the language and people of the country in which he found himself.

In Europe, meanwhile, war had broken out as Hitler sent his angry legions storming into Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Poland and France. No one in Casoc was very-surprised, but in view of recent efforts by German and Japanese spokesmen to win oil concessions in Arabia, some did feel that they should take basic precautions. They recalled all field parties, sent Tom Barger out to scout the concession area for evidence of German infiltration, and began to stockpile supplies.

After a while, though, everybody relaxed. There were shortages, of course, as the war gradually pinched off supplies, and there was a slight concern at the vulnerability of both Bahrain, which, as a British treaty-state was at war, and Dhahran, which was, some thought, uncomfortably close.
But no one really worried. Not at least, until the night of October 19, 1940.

The night of October 19, 1940. The sky is full of light from a late three-quarter moon, the purity of its cup is broken only by one trailing film of cloud, the stars are pale but very many. Over the Gulf, where sometimes a heavy fish splashes in water still as oil, the lower air is faintly pearly. Bahrain lies afloat, its houses dark, the crocked alleys of Manama blackly rutted among the moon-white walls. Only the refinery blazes with light, a hub at the center of lighted spokes of roads, throwing its harder, brighter, five-and-dime glitter back at the softer glitter of the stars and the cooling metal of the moon. Five hundred yards to one side, the gas flares gush flame.

A little after 3 A.M. the Bapco guard in the field gave a warning that there were planes going over. Somewhat later, he warned again, worried about who they might be. At the Sitra terminal a worker outside having his past-midnight lunch saw them and called William Gentry, who in turn called Ward Anderson. Anderson got up and put on his pants and went out on the porch. That was just about the moment when a jolting roll of explosions shocked the Phil McConnells out of bed. Gertrude McConnell, shocked awake before she had had time to stop sleeping, groped around on the floor under the impression that there was an earthquake and that she should be down where falling objects wouldn't hit her. Phil McConnell cursed the elusiveness of a man's pants whenever an emergency arose, found a pair neatly laid out and started to drag them on, threw them aside because he realized they were good ones that might get dirty, rushed to the closet for another pair, and finally made it outside.

Directly over the Bapco refinery's bright stare of light, between that and the moon, hung two tremendous stars, too big and bright to be real. Phil could have read a magazine in his yard. Next door, Ward Anderson's door slammed, then his car door, then his car shot gravel as it zoomed out into the road. McConnell yelled to him vainly to turn off his lights, and Gertrude McConnell yelled vainly at Phil not to go out, and Phil yelled again at Mrs. Anderson to ask if Gertie could come over, and in a minute or two he was headed down the road after Anderson, but with his lights turned off.

It was perfectly clear that Bahrain had been, or was being, bombed. By the time they had gathered to check the damage—Fred Davies, Lloyd Hamilton, McConnell, Milton Lipp, Don Hanna, a collection of bosses both resident and visiting—the intense magnesium flares had winked out and rumors had begun to come in. One of them said that some men interrupted at a late poker party had been hurrying home just now when they thought they saw flares in the sky over Arabia, and thought they heard muffled explosions.

In Dhahran many people had heard those same explosions. "Spike" Spurlock, the lawyer who had drawn up the papers for the incorporation of Casoc in 1933 and who had until recently been in the London office, lay there awhile listening for something more, and then rolled over and went back to sleep. But Spurlock was a philosopher by nature, so unexcitable that his friends swore a self-winding wrist watch would invariably go dead on his wrist. Others, not so calm, ran out in shirttails, pajamas, or less, to discover what went on. Bill Eltiste dashed out of his quarters, and his neighbor, Mrs. Dreyfus, out of hers, and together they talked for a while, before Bill realized he had neglected to dress. He denies indignantly, however, that he was naked. "I had my shoes on," he says, and besides, as if in mitigation of the informality of his attire, "it was dark."

By then the Italian planes which had dropped two or three dozen small 50-pound fragmentation bombs on Arabia and more than 80 on Bahrain were a long way off to the west in the shining metallic sky, headed for Eritrea. They had come, it appeared later, from the Dodecanese Islands. Since no wreckage was ever found, it was presumed that they made their African sanctuary on the fuel they had. W7hy they had bombed the refinery on Bahrain was obvious enough, but why they had dropped bombs on Saudi Arabia, a neutral country whose government they were trying to woo, was a harder one. And when people got out in the morning and began to inspect the damage they had done, everything disintegrated into guess and speculation and incredulity mixed with ribald rumor. If the bombers had been manned by Mark Twain's version of James Fenimore Cooper's Indians they could not have performed more ineptly.

On a night shining with moonlight, the planes had come over Dhahran, flying at 6,000 feet and in no hurry. Below them the blaze of lights from the wells and the gas-separator plant glittered up at the sky's illuminated dome. They flew with stern directness over the gas-oil separator plant. They may be presumed to have squinted through their bombsights. Presumably young men aboard the aircraft grew tense. There came an order. Deadly missiles tumbled out of the planes' bellies and lit with devastating effect at the edge of the jabals, several hundred yards from anything, puncturing an oil flow line and cutting a water main.

Then the bombers, having done their deadly work, circled once to observe it, and bored on through the night to Bahrain. Below them here the refinery was jeweled with lights like a Texas oil town. They circled at least once, looking it over. No one bothered them, no alarms went out, no planes rose, no ack-ack came up at them. Bahrain, as a matter of fact, was thought to be so far away from enemy bases that it needed no defenses at all. There it lay, lighted up like a California supermarket opening.

Carefully the raiders dropped flares—more or less the equivalent of lighting a match to look into a movie projector's beam. Again came the order. Again deadly missiles tumbled out of the planes' bellies. This time they played havoc with a coke pile. Then the bombers turned westward again and droned away toward Africa.

It was simply inconceivable that they should have missed, not once but twice, from that height and under those conditions. Some thought they must have missed on purpose—that the raid was made as a stunt, to scare the British into diverting part of their already inadequate guns and planes from the Mediterranean or elsewhere to defend Bahrain. Some thought it had been done for propaganda reasons, and therefore wasn't concerned with doing damage. Yet if you had your enemy right in your sights why would you deliberately miss him? Some believed that the Bahrain refinery was missed because it was an American neutral installation, though effectively part of the British war effort. These same people thought the bombs dropped on Dhahran were a mistake, the result of some pilot's confusion about exactly where he was.

The explanation that satisfied more people than any other was that the raid suffered from too much care, not too little. In both Dhahran and Bahrain the bombs fell well-clustered, and in each case near the flares. But the flares at Dhahran had been moved farther away from the installations within the past week. A man carefully briefed to sight on the flares might possibly have stayed with his instructions even though the brightly-lighted GOSP and wells suggested that other targets might be simpler and more effective. Over on Bahrain, also, the flares had been moved farther from the refinery shortly before the bombing. Having arrived at the Arabian flares thinking he was over Bahrain, a well-briefed but unimaginative squadron leader might have realized his geographical error and flown on to Bahrain to repeat his tactical blunder. And if that explanation didn't satisfy you, what had you to offer?

When the flow line was punctured at Dhahran, a stream of oil flowed down among the houses where many of the Saudi workmen lived; Dick Kerr and Charlie Davis had the job of routing everybody out before somebody's barasti fire or a carelessly tossed match should touch off a blaze. Everybody stayed up all night; and about 6 A.M., Cal Ross heard the official Italian announcement over his radio: "Bahrain has been destroyed. Fires were left burning that the pilots could see for a hundred miles as they left the scene."

The next morning at Dhahran there were about 50 or 60 Americans, along with a number of Saudis, scratching around in the line of small bomb craters that ran along a level stretch of ground, then up and over a rise and down the other side. They were searching for bomb fragments to keep as souvenirs. All at once Oliver ("Danny") Boone burst from one of the craters, running as if for his life. The others, following his panic-stricken, backward-straining gaze, saw two Saudis who had just come over the rim, each carrying a dud bomb. Within seconds there wasn't an American in sight—only a pair of Hofuf sandals that Joe Carroll had run out of in his dash for cover.

From behind a rock, Boone screamed at the Saudis to put the bombs down. He did not have to resort to Slim Williams' form of Arabic; he knew the right word for down, which was taht! But he nearly swallowed his tongue when the innocent Saudis took him at his word and tossed the bombs wonderingly aside. Before the Americans went back to their scavenging they assigned Cal Ross and Bill Eltiste the job of disposing of the duds. Nobody was curious enough to disassemble them and see how they worked, or why they hadn't gone off. Eltiste and Ross laid a stick of dynamite beside each one and detonated them from a good safe distance.

Whatever the explanation of this most futile of all air raids—and no one knows the real answer yet—there was one instant effect. If the motive was to scare the British, the raid was a success. It also scared the Americans, who as neutrals had less cause to stay there and be shot at. Before another night of moonlight rolled around, the Bahrain refinery was blacked out and shut down while the crews worked on air raid shelters.

In Dhahran, a few people took to the dunes and slept out, but most of them, including the wives, refused to budge. The contemporary members of the Tinkerers and Gadgeteers' Society of Saudi Arabia began what would turn out to be a four-year series of experiments in meeting the threats of war. They sprayed the whole town with oil to keep streets and sidewalks from shining, and made it a housekeeper's nightmare; they began rigging air injection systems—Venturis—on the flares, and turned them into giant Bunsen burners that threw a blue and much less visible flame into the sides of the jabals. And a lot of them, including some who had stayed after the Italian declaration of war in June only because they hoped Arabia would be outside the war zone, began to get out.

The women of Bahrain started moving with the first British India boat. Gertrude McConnell went on that, not so much because she wanted to go for herself as because her friend Gretchen Foley, pregnant and frightened, didn't want to leave without her. Some women from Casoc were aboard, and a few men whose contracts were up anyway, or who for one reason or other were about to leave. In a day or so planes took out some more.

Then Floyd Ohliger got approval to use a tanker. He put an emergency launch aboard it to augment the lifeboats, the shop built life rafts to be slung on the deck, and a whole crowd of evacuees started the five-day trip down the Gulf to Bombay. On November 12, a couple of weeks after the Bahrain refinery had cautiously opened up again, 99 Casoc and Bapco evacuees sailed for home from Bombay on the President Garjield, leaving Bahrain practically bare of American women and Dhahran with only a watchful handful, waiting to see if anything more would happen.

In February, 1940, Dhahran had been a community of 371 American employes, 38 American wives and 16 American children, plus a force of 3,300 Saudi Arab, Bahraini, Indian and other employes. In fact, the whole Casoc operation was getting so large that in September, 1940, it was separated from Socal's foreign producing department and was made an independent entity, with its own board of directors and with Fred Davies as president. But within a few weeks after the opera bouffe bombing, the American group in Dhahran was down to 226 employes, 19 wives and 5 children. By May of the next year the camp was totally womanless and childless, and many men with families and obligations in the States were leaving. The Company, on the principle that staying in Dhahran was a kind of war service that no one should be required to do against his will, did not try to hold them.

Operations shrank as the labor force dwindled and as the flow of supplies was pinched off. Everything they obtained—and for two or three years they had trouble getting anything—had to come to them around the Cape of Good Hope. Industrial parts, cars, trucks, tires, food, equipment of all kinds, grew harder and harder to obtain, and at length impossible, and though they tried to stockpile everything they could, they were crippled by shortages that threatened, but were never quite able, to shut them down altogether.

When the war interfered, they were on the verge of being one of the major oil producers in the world, with the most extravagant prospects for expansion. Although the Ma'aqala wildcat had been closed down in March, 1940, as a dry hole, Abu Hadriya No. 1 had struck oil that same month at a depth of 10,115 feet, and a second well had been started there to test the extent of the field. Just after the bombing, in November, 1940, the drillers dirtied up the rig with a big new producer at Abqaiq No. 1, about 35 miles southwest of Dhahran.

The second Abu Hadriya well was suspended and the first shut in immediately after the bombing; Abqaiq No. 1 was shut in the following February. But even by that time they knew enough of the potentialities of the Abqaiq field to know that it was incomparably larger and more important than that at Dammam. Perhaps Max Steineke's greatest single achievement had been the series of intuitions that led to this suspicion of closure at Abqaiq, later demonstrated to be one of the world's great oil reservoirs. He had weighed and collated such random and uncertain clues as the occurrence of salt flats, the occasional patches of Tertiary outcrops, even the alignment of the sand hills. He had suggested the use of structure drilling and by that means had corroborated his guess that there was around Abqiaq a well-defined domal feature whose surface features had been all but obliterated. The test well was spudded in on August 4, 1940. In November San Francisco cabled its congratulations. According to a memorandum by Terry Duce, one of the directors, just before the well was shut in February, 1941, "the drill-stem test ... indicates that the well was flowing at the rate of 405 barrels an hour or 9,720 barrels per day ... These are of course only drill-stem tests and merely indicative that we have a big well ... with the possibility of a big new field."

Considering that in the United States, where competitive leasing and drilling put a maximum of holes down into a field, a well that produced 100 barrels a day was a good one, and that some wells, with constant pumping, produced 12 barrels or less, Mr. Duce's restraint seems almost chilly. Abqaiq No. 1 was a better well than any at Dammam, and if Steineke's guess about the structure was correct (as it proved to be) the field itself was many times greater.

Instead of developing it, they closed it down; they had to. Without adequate manpower or adequate supplies, they were able, by great effort and ingenuity, to keep the Dammam field producing, though the 12,000 to 15,000 barrels a day that they got through the stabilization plant, down to al-Khobar by the six-inch pipeline, and by barge across the channel to the Bahrain refinery never satisfied the home office, and would not have satisfied themselves if they had not known their daily production was more than they were entitled to in the circumstances. At Ras Tanura the crude oil tank farm stood idle, the pumps were still, the port facilities went unused. The 3,000-barrel-a-day "tea kettle" refinery, which had been completed on the Ras Tanura sandspit in the autumn of 1940, was shut down the following June. The 20 miles of channel beacons leading in to the port no longer flashed their lights down the shallow Gulf. No crude coursed through the pipeline from Dammam, no tanker followed the course of the D. G. Scofield to the moorings, the El Segundo was off on more pressing business. Any tankers plying the Gulf, and any naval vessels in need of refueling, were headed for Bahrain or Abadan, where they could obtain refined products.

But what isolated them from the world and from the clamor of great events made their own problems more absorbing, their little society more cohesive. One effect of isolation and shortages was to return them to the frontier makeshift and ingenuity that had obtained before the big growth year of 1936. Another was to return them to the bunkhouse way of life by withdrawing all their wives and children and suspending everything that had made Dhahran a sort of home. Still another was to put the Saudi Arab Government in a bad hole financially since both oil royalties and the hajj fell off sharply. By now, when the Saudi Arab Government got in a hole, it automatically consulted the Company. Fortunately its need coincided with the enforced release of many Company geologists, engineers, and relations men from business duties. Instead of expanding its oil operations, Casoc found itself expanding its goodwill activities. The revolutionary, disturbing but increasingly fruitful, meeting of cultures that had begun in 1933 was accelerated, not halted, by the war. Al-Hasa was still a frontier, with every thing that implied.


This article appeared on pages 17-21 of the January/February 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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