The First Oil Wells in the Alaska Arctic
The path to Alaska’s modern day oil prosperity began with a top priority and long forgotten WWII expedition. This mission was a true epic, worthy of remembrance.
‘The difficult we can do at once, the impossible takes a little longer.’
Alaskan people always knew some sort of oil supply lay beneath the Arctic. For generations, Alaska Natives collected tarry lumps of sand and burned them for warmth. Early explorers mentioned finding oil sands. Rumors floated around of tar-filled lakes north of the Brooks Range. The “King of the Arctic,” Charles Brower, reported oil seeps along the Arctic Coast to the chief geologist of Standard Oil Company in the 1920s. A Wainwright teacher even filed oil claims for seepages he found at Cape Simpson, also in the ‘20s.
President Harding designated an Indiana-sized chunk of Alaska as Naval Petroleum Reserve 4 (NPR 4) in 1923. The times saw the US Navy converting from coal-fired ships to oil burners. Securing land for an emergency wartime fuel source made sense. At that time, the states of Texas and Oklahoma rolled in oil money from their booming oil fields, keeping the isolated Alaska North Slope off the oil man’s radar. Through the 1920s there’d been geologic and topographical surveys north of the Arctic Circle, but of the oil potential there, little was known.
Under the pressure of a mechanized war run on limited oil resources, the US Navy sent an exploratory group to check NPR 4 for oil in 1944. Lieutenant William T. Foran USNR led the party. As a member of one of the 1920s geological survey teams, Foran believed the North Slope held large amounts of oil. Flown from Fairbanks by the famous Bush pilot Sig Wien and led by Simon Paneak of Chandalar Lake, the naval explorers found oil seep evidence throughout NPR 4. Interestingly enough, the horrible North Slope weather gave a fortuitous break. Foran wrote: “Impossible flying conditions forced considerable waiting in Barrow, but much was accomplished, and waiting periods provided time for gathering invaluable information from old-time resident trader Charles Brower and from the parties’ veteran pilot Sig Wien.”
In his final report on the month-long expedition Foran noted, “A petroliferous area of indicated major importance exists in the confines of NPA 4.” He recommended oil exploration be conducted there immediately. Officials in Washington DC, with the blessing of President Roosevelt and the chief of Naval Operations, ordered a fully equipped drilling expedition be sent to NPR 4.
Never before had oil been extracted from the Arctic. The fiasco of the Canol project in Canada depleted a lot of time, money, and sorely needed wartime resources. Pulling oil from the ground, even in the sub-Arctic, proved to be difficult. Would it be impossible under the tougher and even more remote Arctic conditions?
The nucleus of the men for the first North Slope oil drilling expedition came from Naval Construction Battalion 12. These were men who had built and fought their way in Alaska from Kodiak to the bloody shores of Attu. These men were Seabees, the legendary construction men of the US Navy. The “Fighting Seabees” were naturals for any herculean task with their motto of “Can Do” and their philosophy of “The difficult we can do at once, the impossible takes a little longer.”
From the Seabee ranks, roughnecks, toolmakers, drillers, and petroleum geologists gathered at Camp Peary in Virginia and joined a core group of Aleutian veterans. Handpicked men “who were capable of carrying out the arduous tasks which would confront an expedition of this type, entering the Arctic for the first time in history” made the roster, according Navy records.
The 1944 push toward victory against two major enemies kept the skills of the Seabees in high demand, so the secretary of the Navy issued a freeze order on the selected group to keep them from being assigned elsewhere. As the military prospectors marked time in Virginia, two liberty ships (a type of vessel designated for emergency construction), the U.S.S. Spica and the S.S. Jonathan Harrington of the Alaskan Steamship Company, as well as a Navy Catalina flying boat for ice patrol, were readied on the West Coast. The ships were outfitted with radar. Ship pilots with ice navigation experience were assigned to the crews.
In July 1944 the 1058th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB 1058) detachment set sail from Tacoma carrying more than 8,000 tons of tools and supplies: enough to sustain 196 Seabees oil drillers for one year. Their commanding officer was a proven leader from the Aleutian Campaign, Commander W.H. Rex. The battalion’s final orders could be summarized as follows: “Find oil in commercial quantities on the North Slope of Alaska.”
Concurrent to the sea expedition, an overland pipeline survey team launched from Fairbanks seeking a pipeline route for oil from the Arctic. Alaskan Scouts (the 1st Alaskan Combat Intelligence Platoon) accompanied the team. The scouts were all long-time Alaskans; men specialized in Alaska wilderness survival. Ultimately this survey team found a path through the Brooks Range, a path the trans-Alaska pipeline closely follows to this day.
NCB 1058’s plans called for a landing at Cape Simpson, where the Seabees would build a camp and drill for oil. From the Cape, they’d freight drilling supplies across the tundra to Umiat, a prospective site along the Colville River. At Umiat they’d build a camp and airfield, as well as drill.
The Arctic Ocean wrecked these carefully made plans. Rough and icy seas, 35-knot winds, and the lack of a suitable landing beach at Cape Simpson forced the 1058th to land near Barrow (now Utqiaġvik). Just about anything that could go wrong did during the twelve-day offload. Giant waves and strong winds tossed the barges and landing crafts like corks. More than thirty men ended up in the cold sea, only to be saved by quick-thinking shipmates. Young Navy coxswains used landing ship tanks to push ice floes out of the way of the unloading efforts. Ice forced the liberty ships to shelter east around Point Barrow. A windstorm destroyed the Catalina patrol plane, the hulk of it sinking at its moorings while the lighter parts blew away across the tundra like so many lost feathers. The 8,000-ton load was beached, though it took months to collect all the supplies. At one point fuel barrels covered more than eight miles of beach. Well into winter, clean-up sleds combed the frozen shores and collected a barge’s worth of scattered gear. Before the ice closed in, the liberty ships retreated south.
Doubtful at first, Barrow locals insisted the “big Seabee would bury the little ones and then they would bury the big Seabee” when they first saw the temporary tents of NCB 1058. The Alaska Natives knew all about surviving in the Arctic, but the Navy men surprised everyone and finished a livable camp in thirty-three days. This feat came about in the typical Seabee fashion of making the impossible possible with cooks, clerks, and even officers grabbing tools and working for the cause.
The battalion’s city consisted of living quarters, a hospital, recreation center, galley, powerhouse, garage, storage, administration buildings, and a radio station. In time refinements came: a barber shop and a church. Initially, air service was provided by aircraft that landed the beach. Proper fill for an airstrip was hard to come by, but Seabee ingenuity created a fill of pea gravel and tundra. By late September, a 5,000-foot airstrip made beach landings unnecessary.
Sig Wien and his group of Bush pilots from Fairbanks serviced the Navy camp with small Bush planes, but their main customers were the North Slope villages. Important military needs went unmet. By January 1945, Naval Air Transportation Service and the Army Cold Weather Unit from Ladd Field dedicated heavier hauling aircraft to the needs of the expedition. Pacific Alaskan Airways contracted to haul supplies to Barrow, too. Eventually air service became so efficient one Texan got mail from home within six days.
With the settlement in place and winter solidly freezing the tundra, the mission of NCB 1058 could now be carried out. The slogan of the Seabees’ northernmost freight outfit was, “We deliver the freight, regardless of weather, supplies, communications, or personal hardships.” The dark Arctic days brought blizzards and temperatures of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But the freighters lived up to their motto. During the first few months of 1945, Caterpillar D8s pulling live-in wannigans—along with the drilling rigs and supplies needed to set up airports and camps—inched from Barrow to Umiat or from Barrow to Cape Simpson, averaging one mile per hour. These tundra trains operated 24/7 with the Cat engines only shutting down for fifteen minutes each day to allow for lubrication. Eight trips were made to Cape Simpson and Umiat, totaling 4,000 miles. Once again the Seabees, using materials at hand, made things work. The freight sleds ran smoothly on skids made of one of the few things found in quantity: oil drilling pipe.
Each tundra freighter carried a navigator and was proceeded by Alaskan Scouts who journeyed ahead on dogsleds, marking the trail and seeking safest passage. Scout Andrew Curtin disappeared on an Umiat trip, never to be found. The men composed his epitaph:
The Lost Scout:
In this spot,
Which is truly no man’s land,
In darkness and in swirling snow,
An Alaskan Scout,
As with all our dead of this war,
Gave his life so that we alive,
Find the way less difficult.
Nothing came easy, as is the way of the Arctic. Wien Airlines used a frozen lake near Umiat to supply the budding camp, operating their aircraft on skis. In time the surface became so bumpy from snow drifts that passengers were ordered to lie down for takeoffs and landings. To smooth the lake, heavy equipment was needed. Sig Wien flew a Caterpillar D2 from Chandalar Lake in pieces. To get the D2 to Umiat, he flew fifteen trips across the Brooks Range. In Umiat the D2 required complete assembly. This little Cat provided legendary service in Umiat. For a long time it was the only piece of equipment at the site. It even survived submersion in a lake.
In the spring, drill rigs were erect and ready at Umiat and Cape Simpson. The drillers were now just waiting on warmer days. In the summer of 1945, the first Umiat well bit spun down into North Slope soils. By the end of the season, the drill reached 1,800 feet and passed through many layers of oil-bearing sands. The Seabees had fulfilled their mission: black gold lay beneath the Alaska tundra.
Few Seabees remain from the 1058th, but their 1945 expedition book immortalizes the spirit that carried them through their urgent mission. In the understated way of that generation, their record explains it thus: “This was our goal, our purpose for coming to the Arctic, and that goal has been achieved and that purpose fulfilled. The Reserve contains oil and the amounts and further locations will be determined in the future years, but another great oil producing area has been opened to exploration and development by NCB 1058.”
By 1945 the war against Germany and Japan ended, negating the need for vast amounts of fuel. The Navy, seeing the need for smaller forces, determined Alaska oil prospecting should be done by a civilian contractor. A group known as Arctic Contractors (ARCON) assumed the oil watch and the NCB 1058 Seabees scattered to their hometowns throughout America.
This wartime Navy Seabee expedition answered foundational questions about Arctic oil drilling. From this foundation, the Alaska oil industry became the safe and prosperous industry we Alaskans know today. Alaskans owe a debt of gratitude to this group of long forgotten Seabees who risked it all to complete their mission.