Two 1943 oil pipelines from Texas to the East Coast helped win World War II. “Big Inch” carried oil from East Texas oil fields. “Little Big Inch” carried gasoline, heating oil, diesel oil, and kerosene.

oil pipelines

Prior to the pipelines, German U-Boats wreaked havoc on oil tankers from the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Caribbean to the East Coast.

“Without the prodigious delivery of oil from the U.S. this global war, quite frankly, could never have been won,” says historian Keith Miller.

“Besides, without the outstanding cooperation of the Petroleum Administration for War with the numerous oil companies of America, World War Two very likely would never have been won by the Allies either,” Miller adds.

Thanks to a combined effort of the government and industry, two pipelines were constructed to carry oil from Texas to Midwest and East Coast refineries…and win the war.

“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,” Miller proclaims in his 2002 article for the History News Network.

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oil pipelines

Welding a section of the Big Inch pipe by the “stove pipe” method in 1942. Courtesy the Library of Congress, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs.

Beginning in August 1942, War Emergency Pipelines, Inc., launched the longest petroleum pipeline construction project ever undertaken in the United States – two pipelines spanning 1,200 miles.

Conceived to supply wartime fuel demands – and in response to deadly U-boat attacks on oil tankers along the eastern seaboard, the Caribbean and in the Gulf of Mexico – the oil pipelines lines were extolled as “the most amazing government-industry cooperation ever achieved.”

With a goal of transporting thousands of barrels of oil per day, the $95 million project called for construction of a 24 inches in diameter pipeline (Big Inch) from East Texas oilfields to Illinois.

In addition, an accompanying 20 inch in diameter (Little Big Inch) line would take refined products as far as New York and Philadelphia.

oil pipelines

The Big Inch was completed just 350 days after construction began. After World War II the pipeline became war surplus – and was sold in 1947 to Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation, which incorporated specifically to bid on it.

oil pipelines

Construction of the Big Inch began August 3, 1942, and was completed on August 14, 1943. Little Big Inch construction began April 23, 1943, with the placing of the last pipe on the East Coast on October 8.

“A ditch four feet deep, three feet wide and 1,254 miles long was to be dug from Longview (Texas) across the Mississippi River to Southern Illinois and then east to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, with lines from there to New York City and Philadelphia,” explains the Texas State Historical Association.

Ceremonies marked the final weld on the Big Inch in July 1943, just 350 days after construction began.

The Little Big Inch line, completed three months later, could carry four products: gasoline, heating oil, diesel oil, and kerosene – each separated by solid rubber balls that are slightly smaller than the inside diameter of the 20-inch pipe.

Before the two oil pipelines began to operate, German submarines had sunk so many tankers, that many beaches on islands in the Caribbean were seriously polluted with oil, says historian Miller.

U.S. Oil wins WW II

Miller, a speaker with the Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999, claims that Burt E. Hull of the Texas Company, “was what one might call the ‘dean of the pipeliners’ in the U.S. Under his direction the Big Inch was completed in record time.”

The pipelines, both finished before the D-Day invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944, made possible the delivery of huge quantities of oil and its refined products for Operation Overlord, the landing in northern France, Miller explains.

oil pipelines

Between January 11 and February 28, 1942, 74 ships were attacked and all but one were sunk or damaged – with no losses to the U-boats.

U.S. oil became indispensable for laying runways, manufacturing of synthetic rubber for tires, creating lubricant for guns and machinery and the distilling into gasoline (particularly at 100-octane levels) for use in trucks, tanks, jeeps, and airplanes.

“Now, it cannot be stated too forcefully,” Miller concludes, “American oil, which amounted in all to 6 billion barrels, out of a total of 7 billion barrels consumed by the Allies for the period of World War Two, brought victory! Without the prodigious delivery of oil from the U. S. this global war, quite frankly, could never have been won.”

Post War Oil Pipelines

After the war, the famous oil pipelines became war surplus property. Uncle Sam put them up for sale.

“The pipelines became the focus of a clash of interest groups, with the oil and gas industry wanting to convert them to natural gas pipelines and the railroad and coal industries opposing this,” notes the Texas State Historical Association.

oil pipelines

Texas Eastern Transmission, today part of Spectra Energy, bought both pipelines in 1947.

The Surplus Property Administration hired an engineering firm, which recommended the pipelines be converted to natural gas transmission. A four-month lease with the Tennessee Gas and Transmission Company proved natural gas transmission feasible and the pipelines were auctioned.

Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation was created specifically to bid on the planned War Assets Administration sale of these World War II surplus pipelines.

The new company submitted its winning bid of $143,127,000 just nine days after incorporating on January 30, 1947. It then managed the Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines for more than four decades.

In 1989 Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Company bought Texas Eastern Transmission for $3.2 billion and became PanEnergy. Eight years later, Duke Power Company purchased PanEnergy and formed Duke Energy. In January 2007, Spectra Energy separated from Duke Energy to become an independent publicly traded, natural gas company.

Today, Texas Eastern and its historic 1,200-mile pipelines (the Alaskan pipeline is 789 miles) are owned by Spectra Energy.

Learn more in The Big Inch and Little Big Inch Pipelines, The Most Amazing Government-Industry Cooperation Ever Achieved, Texas Eastern Transmission Corp., May 2000.

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