Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about the role area roughnecks played in helping defeat the Nazis and winning World War ll. Click here for part one.
It’s difficult to measure the impact of the Oil Patch Warriors, a group of 44 American roughnecks that snuck into England on a top secret mission to help sustain Britain’s World War II effort.
It can be weighed in tons, counted by the rig and barrel, but also lives saved.
But for a moment, it appeared oil’s real-life folk heroes, primarily from Oklahoma and Texas — now immortalized on statues on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean — were not to be.
It was 1942 and Nazi Germany was licking its chops, waiting for the critical fuel shortage to result in Britain’s surrender.
Churchill had the papers drawn up. But the Prime Minister also had an ace in the hole.
He had a man in Ardmore.
Philip Southwell, of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later known as British Petroleum) which owned the secret oil field tucked behind the pines of the Sherwood Forest, had already been turned down once by Ardmore oil magnate and philanthropist Lloyd Noble.
It was boom or bust for the Englishman.
And after his unsuccessful pitch in Washington D.C., Southwell once again came face to face with Noble on his front porch in Ardmore, arriving at dawn. Before long, Southwell left with a boom.
“That Southwell, I’d like to have known him because he sure was tenacious,” said former Noble Corporation CEO Jim Day. “Britain was in dire straights and he could’ve just given up. But he won over Noble that day and I think it was just as much his effort and tenacity as his pitch that changed Noble’s mind.”
Noble’s resources were stretched thin at the time, with the oil company starting an operation in Canada. But after the in-home visit, Noble lent his company’s support for the British cause and then some, agreeing to lend his superior drilling technology and more importantly, his oil savvy roughnecks to the war efforts.
“Lloyd made it all happen,” Day said.
When Noble joined, Fain-Porter, an Oklahoma oil company based out of Tulsa, followed suit. They signed up for a project that required secrecy and cooperation between several companies spanning two countries and hundreds of men.
“Lloyd was a man of principle and the ultimate patriot,” Day said. “He thought it was the right thing to do. He didn’t have anything to gain, and a lot to lose. But he understood helping Britain helped America’s troops.”
Soon after agreeing, Noble had to find men he could trust would get the job done. They’d also have to be just crazy enough to take a gig in a war zone.
He recruited heavily, drawing volunteers from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, but most came from Oklahoma and Texas.
“Their reasons for coming, were all different,” said Day, who met several of the original 44 during the dedication of a statue at Kelham Hall, the monastery the men lived in alongside monks, that’s since been converted into the Duke Woods oil museum in Nottinghamshire, England. “They were young and ready for adventure. They wanted to be involved in a once-in-a-lifetime project and they were.”
On March 13, 1943, the men departed New York City for England’s war-tattered coasts.
The trip across the Atlantic was brutal. The men were packed inside the quarters of the Queen Mary, sleeping beside drilling equipment. It was hot, crowded and it smelled, Day said. Death from below, in the form of German U-boats, could’ve happened at any moment.
Once they arrived and retrieved what was left of their equipment — one of the rigs was lost at sea — the roughnecks got to work, quickly.
On the first day, they began shattering long-held oil patch records.
The American efficiency astonished the Brits. Noble’s crews completed a well and put it into production each week, seven weeks faster than their English counterparts.
“Nobody believed they could go that fast,” Day said.
But the roughneck’s work certainly wasn’t a breeze. It was constantly wet and soggy. The men were underfed and overworked, being on the same food-rations as British civilians. There were no weekends or days off, Day said. The “boys” as they were called, worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Week after week because of the Americans, another rig would pop up and start pumping oil.
“These were great oil men and crews, coming into the forest from years spent in the rough and ready environment of the early American oil field,” Day said. “But they also had technology and technique. The Englishmen didn’t know how long you could push the drill. Our guys just kept going until it gave out.”
More than 100 wells would eventually be drilled in Sherwood Forest, producing 2.2 million barrels of crude through the end of 1943.
The contract ended that year, and Britain remained sovereign.
Though the Warriors were under constant threat of attack, just one man, Henry Outhit, died during the secret drilling operation. Lewis Dugger, the final surviving American roughneck, passed away in 2007.
The names of these American-crude heroes are etched in granite, spanning the Atlantic Ocean from Ardmore to Nottinghamshire, England.
Day traveled to the forest in 1991 along with a group of surviving crewman to honor the Warriors at the commission of the statue at Duke Fields museum at Kelham Hall, commemorating their effort abroad.
Ten years later an identical statue was raised just outside the Ardmore Chamber of Commerce where it’s stood proud since.
What struck Day the most from his interactions with the Warriors, many of whom he called friends, was seeing the camaraderie still rampant even though almost 50 years had passed.
Ardmore and Oklahoma have a lot to take pride in when it comes to the Oil Patch Warriors.
“These men are worth remembering,” Day said. “It took courage to do what they did. They’re an example of how a few ordinary men can make an extraordinary difference.”
Recently, Day said he’s been approached by a handful of producers with interest in producing a feature film on the Oil Patch Warriors.
Getting the word out about the men and their sacrifice and service to the war effort is great, Day said.
But he’s cautious.
“I doubt I’d recognize the story by the end of it,” he said. “You know how they exaggerate things and manipulate in Hollywood. It’s a fantastic story on its own.”