World War II and Oil

In September 1943 my father, then-Brig. Gen. Howard L. Peckham, Director of the Fuels and Lubricants Division in Washington, participated in Congressional hearings that took place in the Senate Office Building. The subject discussed was a project near the Yukon Territory in Canada. This project, known as Canol (for “Canadian oil”), was supported by the U.S. Army, which was convinced that oil products from this resource were important for national security and were needed to facilitate construction of an Alaskan highway. The chief supporter of the project, then-Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell. submitted a directive on its behalf in 1942.

     The War Department, under Secretary of War Henry Stimson, also favored the project. The Secretary expressed his favorable attitude in a letter he wrote in May 1942 to Standard Oil of California:

     As a defense measure, our Government has decided to develop the oil resources at Norman, District of McKenzie, Canada, to construct and operate a pipe line between that point and Whitehorse, the Yukon, and to construct and operate a refinery to produce 100-octane gasoline and other petroleum products at Whitehorse, the Yukon. The products of this refinery are needed for military use in that region.

     The Department of the Interior, headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (who was concurrently serving as Petroleum Administrator for War), didn’t fully endorse the project. Despite his hesitations, it did proceed, and on September 11, 1943, Congressional hearings were begun for the purpose of securing more money for the project.

     My father was thoroughly briefed on the events that had transpired back when the project first started, but he did not officially become chief of the Fuels and Lubricants Division until the fall of 1943, when he succeeded Brig. Gen. William Covell as director of the division. Julius Amberg, special assistant to the Secretary of War, formally introduced my father to the subcommittee that had convened the hearings:

     MR. AMBERG: I may say that General Covell, who has been the Chief of the Fuels and Lubricants Division of the Quartermaster Corps, is leaving for overseas and will not be in town after tonight. If you have any questions particularly for him, you think you might wish to ask him, I would appreciate your doing it tonight. He will be succeeded by General Peckham, who is here now.

     Several pairs of curious eyes turned to look at my father, who would now be under scrutiny. Like the other army representatives, Dad felt that the project was important for national security. Additionally, he believed they had the proper facts to support their point of view. General Brehon Somervell, head of the Army Service Forces (ASF), was particularly insistent that it not be abandoned.

     Serving on the Congressional committee investigating the Canol Project, named the Truman Committee after its soon-to-be famous chairman, Senator Harry Truman, were some well-known senators: Connally of Texas, Mead of New York, Wallgren of Washington, Hatch of New Mexico, Kilgore of West Virginia, Ferguson of Michigan, Burton of Ohio, Ball of Minnesota, and Brewster of Maine.

     The senators needed to learn some valuable technical information, so they didn’t hesitate to admit their lack of technical expertise. At a session on October 26, 1943, Senator Homer Ferguson of Michigan, a silver-haired former judge with distinctively dark eyebrows, wanted to know the length of a certain road in Canada. While enforcing his usual penetrating style, he asked my father that question, as well as one concerning the cost to drill a particular oil well:

SENATOR FERGUSON. How long is that?
GENERAL PECKHAM. The scale of this map is 1 inch, 200 miles.
SENATOR FERGUSON. The $290,000 is a certain percentage of $5,800,000?
GENERAL PECKHAM. Five percent.

     Both answers came quickly. As I often discovered during our many long trips by car while I was growing up, there was no faster or better map reader than Howard Peckham. Before we took off to a new home, he would spread out a map on the car’s hood and carefully study our route. We never had to worry about getting lost or arriving someplace late; inevitably, we arrived on time wherever we were headed, whether to our ultimate destination or some tourist spot along the way. Answers to mathematical problems came easily to him, also.

     In addition to giving technical answers verbally, my father gave the committee pertinent information in written form. One  day the text of a memorandum he wrote was entered as an exhibit before the committee adjourned. Rudolph Halley, Executive Assistant to Chief Counsel, and Herbert Friedlich, a representative from the Office of the Under Secretary of War, discussed it first:

COLONEL FRIEDLICH. May we have the letter, the memorandum? I would like to get it in the record here.

MR. HALLEY. Which memorandum is that?

COLONEL FRIEDLICH. The one I just gave you, the memorandum of November 19 on the subject Canol project, signed by Brig. Gen. H. L. Peckham. May that be an exhibit?

 MR. HALLEY. Surely.

SENATOR FERGUSON. It will be put in the record.

     The memo was filled with technical details and had been addressed to Herbert Friedlich of the Office of the Under Secretary of War, Room 3E739 at the Pentagon. It was marked Exhibit 1104 and entered into the permanent record. A major point my father made in the memo was that the Whitehorse Refinery, which was then under construction, would have the capacity to produce 100-octane gasoline, a product that was much needed in the various theaters of operation.

     A few weeks later, Senator Harry Truman requested that a conference take place so that matters relating to the Canol Project could be fully discussed. Among the approximately twelve attendees were Secretary of War Stimson, in whose office the conference took place; Harold Ickes, Petroleum Administrator for War; Ralph Davies, Deputy Petroleum Administrator for War (under Ickes); Julius Amberg, Special Assistant to Secretary Stimson; Donald M. Nelson of the War Production Board; and Howard Peckham, Director of the Fuels and Lubricants Division. When the conference ended, my father was confident that he had effectively presented the army’s point of view.

(Note: Army Service Forces, Canol Project, Historical File RG 160, states that the conference occurred on December 9, 1943).

     The red and gold leaves of autumn had long-since fallen from Washington’s deciduous trees when, on December 20, my father’s presence at the Congressional hearings finally ended. The Committee tried hard to force abandonment of the Canol Project, primarily for economic reasons, but army representatives worked diligently to represent their viewpoints effectively. The U.S. Army prevailed over the Congressional committee in these hearings and won its case for more funds for the project.

     General Somervell’s position on the Canol Project and other fuel matters can be summed up in these famous words, which he spoke at the height of World War II:

     Any addition to our gasoline supply and our oil supply is of the utmost value.