Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about the role area roughnecks played in helping defeat the Nazi’s and win World War II.
Not many would mistake the plot of the 1998 Michael Bay film “Armageddon” as a faithful retelling of actual events.
An earthbound meteor, “the size of Texas,” was set to end the world with a big bang in 18 days and NASA placed all its hopes in the oil-stained hands of roughnecks, plucking a ragtag crew of joke-cracking oilmen from their offshore drilling site. Some quick montages later, they were being blasted out of orbit on a rocket ship.
The star-studded cast playing the drillers made a big hole and nuked the rock to smithereens, saving the world as Steven Tyler’s “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” took the movie to its final credits.
Despite dazzling CGI action and big box office returns, Bay’s blockbuster was panned at the time for its far-fetched plot, scientific inaccuracies, and disaster-movie cliches.
“The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, [and] common sense...,” Roger Ebert wrote in his Chicago-Sun Times review, later adding. “This stuff is all off the shelf — there’s hardly an original idea in the movie.”
Unbeknownst to him, Ebert was on to something.
“Armageddon” was not an original story.
While Ebert moaned about the meteor-based cliches and subject matter following the release of the 1998 film Deep Impact — the real story took place 50 years before any 90’s doomsday thrill-rides were a sparkle in Hollywood's eyes.
The original story wasn’t told or written at the time. It was lived by an unlikely band of American heroes, who left home and the safety of the states for a foreign forest tucked within World War II’s European Theater.
From above the dense canopy of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, England, the landscape appeared similar to any other expanse of trees in England. But beneath the branches were what some historians would come to call “Winston Churchill’s best-kept secret.”
Hidden from Germany’s aerial fleet of bombers during World War II, a band of 44 roughnecks — dressed in the cowboy boots and hats they brought from home —helped shift the tide of an apocalyptic global conflict that eventually claimed 70 million lives — nearly 4 percent of the world’s population at the time.
Instead of a massive meteor, the Oil Field Warriors’ foe was Adolf Hitler’s Nazi war machine that was set on world domination.
Instead of a space shuttle, the Oil Patch Warriors, ranging in their teens and early 20s, were packed like sardines into a converted troop carrier, riding turbulent seas under the constant fear of being sunk from below by a German U-boat.
“It was a dangerous project,” said former Noble Corporation CEO Jim Day, who knew many of the surviving roughnecks through their work with the company and a trip honoring the oilmen in 1991. “These young men had real gumption. They packed into a boat, well aware that they might never get off. That was just to get there. If they were discovered, they would be mercilessly bombed from above. It’s harrowing how far those young men were willing to go.”
While the Oil Patch Warriors drilled on Earth instead of a flying ice rock, the men worked 12 hour days, seven days a week, sworn to secrecy, drilling without lights in fear of being spotted from above.
They did receive some attention as local celebrities in town, at the time, because their cover story was played off as part of the production of an upcoming John Wayne western set in the forest, according to the Noble Research Institute.
After the effort and the true nature of their role in England’s World War II effort was revealed, they would be celebrated as saviors around Nottinghamshire, Dennis Sheffield, an Englishman working at the Duke Woods oil field, told Day on a 1991 trip back to the drill site.
“We were on our knees for oil,” Sheffield said.
From 1939 to 1942, German U-boats had a stranglehold on the Atlantic, systematically sinking 79 British oil tankers and supply ships, costing the country more than 730,000 tons of oil.
Instead of invasion, the plan for Germany was to earn a British surrender by starving the country’s military from the outside. After dipping into its emergency reserves, the country began laying out plans for surrender in the event it ran out of fuel.
But in 1942, the true story of how roughnecks helped save the world began on the front porch of a home in Ardmore.
It was dawn, and before Ardmore oil magnate Lloyd Noble could put on proper clothes or wipe the sleep from his eyes, a rap on the door brought him stumbling to see what the commotion was about, Day said.
Following an unsuccessful pitch for private support at the Capitol, per the orders of Winston Churchill, Philip Southwell, managing director of England’s D’Arcy Exploration Company followed Noble home. Southwell, with Churchill’s orders to return with help, flew into Dallas and blew his one-tank gas ration on the one-way trip to Ardmore. It was boom or bust.
Noble opened the door and again heard the Englishman out.
Without a swell of production of oil from within the United Kingdom, it appeared the British front’s resistance to Hitler would come to a halt. It would be a massive pendulum swing against the Allied effort, which had been recently burgeoned by the support of the United States.
The Englishman, representing the oil company that would later become British Petroleum once again detailed the secret oil field in England. It had resources, but it needed an adrenaline shot and proper technology to begin making a dent in the losses from imports.
The Brit wasn’t taking no for an answer and Day said Noble had to be impressed by Southwell’s tenacity.
Click here for part II.