December 1941 changed everything. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7 as part of their plan to dominate the eastern Pacific and capture the valuable oil and other resources of the area. The Germans on December 11 joined in the war against the United States, which had been the lifeline for the English in their stubborn refusal to cave in to the Third Reich.
A logical extension of the war was the establishing of U-boat patrols off the the American East and Gulf Coasts where the shipping vital to the war effort was moving close to shore. Five U-boats headed out, starting on December 18, 1941:
During the first 6 months of the German U-boat offensive out of the US east coast some 397 ships totalling over 2 million tons were sunk, costing roughly 5000 lives.Among those ships were oil tankers, heading from the Texas oil fields to refineries in New Jersey and other East Coast locations. Many sinkings were close to shore and made headline news.
As the U-boats struck, supplies to the refineries dwindled, leading to a crisis of supply:
Tankers continued to be the number one target of the U-boats, and shortfalls in oil and oil product deliveries were beginning to seriously worry the oil industry. Oil companies were afraid they would be unable to deliver enough heating and fuel oil for the northeastern states.Some of the responsibility can be placed on Admiral King, who was late to accept the idea of convoying ships on coastal routes, though, in his defense, he didn't have much in the way of escorts available, either (which led to some innovative ideas, such as the use of the Civil Air Patrol in sub-hunting, as discussed here).
Before the war, concerns over America's ability to protect its shipping had arisen, and one man, "Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes realized as early as 1940 that shipment of petroleum to the northeast by tanker ships would be impossible in time of war because of German submarines." Mr. Ickes argued for an increase in pipelines, well within the boundaries of the United States, to supplement or replace the sea-going and vulnerable tankers. He was initially unsuccessful:
In 1941, at Ickes's urging, oil industry executives began to plan the building of two pipelines–one, twenty-four inches in diameter, called the Big Inch, to transport crude oil, and another, twenty inches in diameter, called the Little Big Inch, to transport refined products. Although Ickes asked the Federal Allocation Board for steel to build the pipelines, he was turned down in September and again in November 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor another request, now to the War Production Board, was rejected, but Ickes still persuaded Jubal Richard Partenqv to head the Petroleum Administration for War transportation department. On June 10, 1942, the WPB gave approval for the first section of the Big Inch, which stopped in Illinois. Construction was through a private company, War Emergency Pipelines, Incorporated, but the pipelines were owned by the federal government through its Defense Plant Corporation, a subsidiary of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.How important? One historian notes:
Work began on the Big Inch on August 3, 1942. The WPB approved the second leg of the pipeline on October 26, 1942. A ditch four feet deep, three feet wide and 1,254 miles long was to be dug from Longview across the Mississippi River to Southern Illinois and then east to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, with twenty-inch lines from there to New York City and Philadelphia. Crude oil was delivered to the end of the first leg, Norris City, Illinois, on February 13, 1943. By August 14, 1943, the Big Inch had been completed. In January 1943 approval was given for the first half of the Little Big Inch; approval for the entire line was given on April 2. This line, beginning in the refinery complex between Houston and Port Arthur and ending in Linden, New Jersey, was completed on March 2, 1944. Cost of the two lines was $146 million, financed entirely by the RFC. Together the pipelines carried over 350 million barrels of crude oil and refined products to the East Coast before the war in Europe ended in August 1945.
The truth is--oil was the indispensable product, in all its forms, to the Allied campaigns around the world. Without it World War Two could never have been won. For oil, once processed or refined in various ways, became the source or indispensable material for laying runways, making toluene (the chief component of TNT) for bombs, the manufacturing of synthetic rubber for tires, and the distilling into gasoline (particularly at 100-octane levels) for use in trucks, tanks, jeeps, and airplanes. And, that is not to mention the need for oil as a lubricant for guns and machinery.While the pipelines were being constructed (and existing pipelines were being upgraded), American tactics began to change in response to the U-boat threat:
Tactical changes were in the works for Andrews’s fleet, which by April was made up of 23 large and 42 small antisubmarine vessels, including the British trawlers. The new system grouped merchant ships into mini-convoys dubbed “bucket brigades.” During the day, the convoys would be escorted on their way, and at night, they would put in at sheltered harbors. Planes, including Civil Air Patrol craft, would fly overhead. The mere sight of an airplane was known to send U-boats diving, so even an air patrol Piper Cub might disrupt an enemy attack.Due to the timing of the completion of the "Inches" with the improvement in shipping protection, it can be questioned how much they contributed to the war effort. One response to that question of the value of the "Inches?"
These measures slowed but did not stop the loss of merchant ships. One tactic merchants had used to avoid attack was to sail 300 miles east of the Outer Banks, but the U-boats found them and continued the slaughter.
At the end of April, King and Andrews agreed that Andrews would take direct control over tanker sailings. All tanker traffic on the coast was ordered into port to await further orders. While Andrews worked on what to do next, the seaborne hauling of oil was halted, which hampered the Allied war effort from the oil-hungry factories of New England all the way to the empty petrol tanks of old England. A solution was needed fast.
Meanwhile, the range of the submarine war was increasing. In May and June, Dönitz expanded operations into the Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico. The mouth of the Mississippi turned out to be a particularly lucrative killing ground for the U-boats.
By mid-May planning was coming together for a true convoy system for the Eastern Sea Frontier. As convoys were implemented, U-boat skippers began to notice that sightings of individual ships occurred much less frequently. When ships were sighted, they were found in clusters with trawlers, cutters, and destroyers scurrying about in escort. Overhead, army and navy patrol planes kept an eye out for subs. The risks of attacking grew as the waters and skies filled with sub-hunters. The rejuvenated American effort began to take a toll on the Germans. The coast guard’s Icarus sank U-352, and army pilot Lieutenant Harry Kane dropped two depth-bombs on the U-701 in a perfect attack that put the sub on the bottom for good.
In May and June 1942, as the convoy system was still being phased in (with increasing enthusiasm from King, a former foe of convoys), there were 87 attacks on Allied shipping. In July and August, with well-escorted convoys moving under air cover and with the coast finally blacked out at nighttime, there were only 26. In June one U-boat was sunk, in July three, and in August one. The battle for the Eastern Sea Frontier was ending. Dönitz brought his remaining forces home in August.
The U-boats had scored the most one-sided and damaging victory against the United States of any foreign naval power. Germany had sunk 233 ships off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico and killed no fewer than 5,000 seamen and passengers. Every month of Operation Drumbeat, German subs destroyed 3.5 percent of the tanker fleet for a total of 22 percent. The operation caused major disruptions in war-material production and in the shipping of supplies to the war fronts. This was Germany’s first strategic victory of the war that directly impacted on the American homeland. Fortunately, it was also its last.
The Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines, it should be stressed, aided almost beyond estimation the winning of World War Two by the Allies. For one thing, protected as they were from enemy attack, it was possible to circumvent submarine attacks by the Germans, which had wreaked havoc on oil tankers from the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Caribbean to the East Coast. In fact, before the two pipelines began to operate German submarines had sunk so many tankers, there were many beaches on islands in the Caribbean, which were seriously polluted with oil. But, it must be added--the Big Inch and the Little Big Inch pipelines were both finished before the D-Day invasion at Normandy on 6 June 1944. That made possible the delivery of huge quantities of crude and its refined products for Operation Overlord, the code name for that landing in northern France.The pipelines also freed railroad tank cars and tanker ships from refinery supply service and allowed them to be used for other war fighting efforts.In fact, that's my point in including a land-based pipeline in a ship history piece - the freeing up of escorts, tankers and aircraft to take the fight to the enemy was a major consequence of the "Inches."
A more complete history of the "Inches" can be found here (pdf).
The pipelines may have inspired a toy: