The Longest Operational Military Pipeline in History:
1943-1945

by William J. Pribyl
961st QM Petroleum Products Laboratory
1382nd Engineer Petroleum Distribution Company

March 21, 1996

I would like to provide a little history on the India-Burma-China PIPELINE SYSTEM in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, WWII. This isn't specifically geared to any one of the Engineer Petroleum Distribution companies working on the petroleum pipeline, but a general picture of the entire system.

I want to answer the following questions:

  1. When was the pipeline project initiated?
  2. Where was the project initiated?
  3. Why was this project- an almost impossible engineering feat- proposed?
  4. Who were the pipeliners?
  5. Where were these pipelines established?
  6. What was accomplished by the pipeline?
  7. What did it cost in human resources?
  8. Was the pipeline damaged by enemy action?
  9. What finally happened to the pipeline?

THE PETROLEUM PIPELINE

The India-Burma-China Petroleum Pipeline was the longest stretch of Operational Military Pipeline in the world. Even today, 60 years later, there has not been another pipeline longer.

The India-Burma-China Petroleum Pipeline was about 2,600 miles long. The pipeline system contained nearly 3,200 miles of pipe. By comparison, the North American Pipeline, the Big Inch, is 1,700 miles long. The Alaska Pipeline is 800 miles long.

WHEN WAS THE PIPELINE CONCEIVED? WHY?

The Allied Planners passed judgment on the PIPE PROJECT, Project 8 as it was called, in faraway Quebec, Canada, in May 1943. This project was motivated by the fact that it took a TON of GASOLINE to deliver a TON of SUPPLIES to China.

The Planners therefore envisioned a line of pipe from Calcutta, India, across Northern Burma, to Kunming, China, about 2,600 miles of jungles, rivers, canyons and mountains, through the worst terrain. Thus we have the identifying pipeline as the India-Burma-China Pipeline.

Let's take a look at the map of the area and see where these lines were located. The pipeline system contained 1,642 miles of 6" pipe, and 1,550 miles of 4" pipe.

The Western Bengal Line was a 6" pipe that fed the B-29 bases at Kharagpur, Dudkundi, Piardoba, and Chakulia about 70 miles west of Calcutta. There were 8 stations pumping to the following storage facilities:

1210,000 bbl8 pump stations
55,000 bbl26 tanks
61,000 bbl151,000 bbls
3250 bbl6,342,000 storage capacity

The Calcutta to Tinsukia Line, known as the Bengal Assam Line, was 6" pipe, 750 miles long. There were 35 pumping stations to the following storage facilities:

110,000 bbl35 pump stations
155,000 bbl61 tanks
131,000 bbl106,000 bbls
32250 bbl4,452,000 gallons

TINSUKIA TANK FARM CAMPSITE: TINSUKIA, INDIA 1945

The 961st Petroleum Products Laboratory was located at this campsite. The upper two buildings on the top left housed the physical test laboratory and the supply room of the laboratory.

The 700th EPD Company was stationed at this campsite until the end of the war and then they left the area. Then the 1382nd came in from China and occupied the camp until they also left for home.

The Chittagong to Tinsukia Line was a 6" line 560 miles long with 26 pumping station feeding the following storage facilities:

235,000 bbl26 pump stations
47250 bbl70 tanks
126,750 bbls
5,323,500 gallons

The Tinsukia Tank Farm was the hub of the India-Burma China Pipeline System. All the petroleum products flowing from the Bengal Assam Line and the Chittagong Line flowed into this tank farm. There were 24 tanks with the following capacities:

2210,000 bbl24 tanks
11,000 bbl245,250 bbls
1250 bbl10,300,500 gallons

Pumping Station Data

4" line stations usually had 3 pumps per station.
6" line stations usually had 5 pumps per station.
4" line pumps were 4 1/2" by 6" Duplex Double Acting reciprocating pumps driven by a gasoline engine mounted on skids.
6" line pumps were 4 1/2" by 10" Duplex Double Acting reciprocating pumps driven by a gasoline engine mounted on skids.

From the Tinsukia Tank Farm to the Burma border at Pangsau Pass was a distance of 78 miles. Originally, two parallel 4" pipes were built with one terminating at Bhamo and the other pipe went through northern Burma to Kunming China. This was a distance of 1,056 miles. The pipeline was extended to the Flying Tiger base at Chanyi which added another 100 miles.

When Myitkyina was taken and the offensive initiated, another 6" pipeline was run from the Tinsukia Tank Farm to Myitkyina in order to support the offensive operations.

WHEN WAS THE PIPELINE STARTED?

General Lewis A. Pick (builder of the Ledo Road) gave the order in November 1943, which began the Assam-Burma-China section of the world's longest military pipeline. Work started at Digboi, 16 miles from Ledo. Pfc Mitchell Williams and a five man detail from the 382nd General Service Engineering Battalion started coupling pipe, China bound. The work of these men was so exceptional that the entire "D" Company of the 382nd was put to it, and they pushed the pipeline to the 25 mile mark. The troops from Company "A" of the 209th Combat Engineers joined them. On 6 February 1944, the pipeline reached the 71 mile mark. Indian and Gurkha troops were cutting the trace.

Engineer Petroleum Distribution Companies began arriving in February of 1944. The 699th, 706th, 775th were in the theater before their heavy equipment arrived at Ledo.

By April 1944 the 700th, 708th, 709th, 776th, 1381st, and the 1382nd were well into the building of the 6" lines from Calcutta to Tinsukia and from Chittagong to Tinsukia.

With the arrival of the 778th, 779th and 780th EPD Companies, work on the 4" parallel pipelines from Tinsukia eastward was stepped up.

Gasoline reached Myitkyina by September 1944, ten months after construction was started. The gasoline was received at Myitkyina before the builders of the Ledo Road had reached Myitkyina. Aviation gasoline (100 octane) flowed into storage tanks at the rate of a fifth of a million gallons a day. Myitkyina was some 300 miles from Tinsukia.


Tinsukia Tank Farm Camp Site
Tinsukia, India 1945

The 961st Petroleum Products Laboratory was located at this campsite. The upper two buildings at the top left housed the physical test laboratory and the supply room for the laboratory.


The Tinsukia Tank Farm entrance.
The Tank farm was operated by the 700 Engineer Petroleum Distribution Company.

The 700th EPD Company was stationed at this campsite until the end of the war and they left the area. Then the 1382nd came in from China and occupied the camp until they also left for home.

WHO WERE THESE GI PIPELINERS?

The oilfields of Texas, Oklahoma, California and Pennsylvania provided a majority of the seasoned pipeliners, but men from every state carried technical ratings in Pipeline Companies. Oil company executives turned GI's provided the push at the District Engineering level.


Foreground, a typical manifold system with a pumping station built in the background. Staff Sgt Walter E. Moore of Junction, Texas, EPD Company, turns a valve in a manifold system that sends 100-octane gasoline to different airbases in China. A pump station is being built in the background. (164th Signal Photo Company. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)


Sgt. Jacob McIver (left) of Shreveport, Louisiana, and Technical Sgt. Philip Fischer of Gastonia, North Carolina, put finishing touches on the pump station at Kunming, China, terminal of the world's longest pipeline. (164th Signal Photo Company. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)


Master Sgt David Bell of Edina, Texas, works at a stack of pipe in the jungle. Bell, with Lt. Richard Rhoades, a native of Florida, on February 1, 1945, became the first members of a pipeline construction unit to enter China on foot from Burma. (U.S. Army Signal Corps. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)

Types of pipe (Lengths of pipe were 20 feet)

6" Invasion weight 9.32 #/ft (186 lbs/length)
6" River crossing welded 25.0 #/ft (500 lbs/length)
6" Standard weight 14.97 #/ft (299 lbs/length)
4" Invasion weight 4.5 #/ft (90 lbs/length)
4" Welded weight 7.9 #/ft (158 lbs/ length)

WELDING OF PIPE

In the early days of construction, most any welder could qualify for pipeline work. Following several serious fires, it was recognized that a school was needed to train welders in pipeline welding. An electrical welding school was established at Budge Budge, outside Calcutta, where eight certified welders were turned out every three weeks. To certify, a welded pipe had to withstand static air pressure of 105 psi without leaking. Electric welders in the States refused to do electric welding in the rain, but GI welders working on the India-Burma-China pipeline did a lot of their work in monsoon downpours.

With work on the 6" lines in India nearing completion, the 779th, 780th, 1381st, and 1382nd E.P.D. Companies dismantled their equipment in Assam for air shipment over the Hump to China. The 1382nd took over pipe stringing at Paoshan, China. By mid November 1944 more than 500 tons of pipeline equipment rested on China soil. Air Transport Command (ATC), Troop carrier, and Combat Cargo planes carried the men and equipment over the Hump.


Indian soldiers of the 1299th Indian Pioneer Corps load six-inch pipe with a quickway crane at the Shingbwiyang Airbase. (164th Signal Photo Company. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)


The 10th Combat Cargo Squadron, 3rd Combat Cargo Group, and other air transport units airlifted pipe into areas of pipeline construction. Some pipe was hauled over the Ledo Road by truck. The C-47 transport could haul as much "iron" as the truck and make several trips a day, while the truck took days to get there. Here men unload the plane's cargo onto a truck for delivery to a construction site. (Photo courtesy of Dr. John G. Martin.)

Pipe was also moved by elephant and boats. Where none of these modes of transport was possible, the pipe was carried on the shoulders of the GI's.


Men of the 709th Engineer Petroleum Distribution Company repair the suspended four-inch pipeline at Pangsau Pass, on the India-Burma border, April 14, 1945. (164th Signal Photo Company. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)

The pipeline was put on top of the ground, buried, submerged in river beds, suspended from cables above streams and gorges, and strung up and down steep mountains. The lowest of elevation of the line in India was 300 feet in the Assam Valley. The highest elevation in Burma was 4,500 feet. The highest elevation in China was 9,200 feet. Most of the China section was 5,000 to 7,000 feet. The lowest elevation was about 2,800 feet in the Salween River Gorge.


Suspension bridge for the Pipeline takes it across the Salween River at a point where the elevation of the river gorge drops from around 5,000 to less than 3,000 feet in about a mile. It was built of abandoned Japanese and Chinese equipment. Special material from the States had not arrived. (U.S. Army Signal Corps. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)

The most spectacular sight along the Burma Road was this suspension bridge carrying the pipeline across the Salween River Gorge. This suspension bridge was built from abandoned Japanese and Chinese equipment. The pipeliners cut armor plate from burned out Japanese tanks, cannibalized trucks and took 1,700 feet of cable off bombed bridges. Welders built framework from heavyweight pipe to form the anchorage cable connections. 800 foot long chutes were made from empty oil drums to move the gravel and cement. 30 tons of concrete was poured through the chutes into each anchorage and 8 tons into each pillow block. Some of the 4" pipeline pipe was used to bring air from the compressors to operate the jackhammers and saws. Wheels from Japanese tanks were mounted on rails at either end to allow for max expansion and contraction caused by temperature. The bridge was between 600-700 feet long. The calculated suspended load on the main cables was 4 tons and the tensile strength at 25 tons. This suspension bridge was calculated to withstand 75 mph winds across it.


Cpl. John W. Blessing of Knoxille, Tennessee, operates a machine used to bend pipe which was constructed of completely salvaged material. The Pipeliners developed the machine. (164th Signal Photo Company. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)

PIPE BENDER

This pipe bender is another example of GI ingenuity. Lack of crucial supplies and equipment did not stop the building of the pipeline. This bender was made by taking the hydraulic lifter from a wrecked dump truck and fitting it with a curved metal shoe. This was mounted on a light trailer that enabled it to be moved into inaccessible areas to trucks.

TAWANG RIVER

During the flood stage of the Tawang River in Burma, outboard motors did not have the power to buck the flood. Pipeliners borrowed a 10 ton aluminum boat, mounted the V-8 motor from a Bren gun in it, salvaged a driveshaft and universal from a 6x6 truck, used a second hand truck pillow block for a bearing, and cut a propeller out of the Bren gun armor plate. The boat carried 42 men, 40 joints of pipe, or 3 1/2 tons of cargo across the thousand feet of Irrawaddy River at Myitkyina.


Isolated Pump Station

The pipeline at numerous points along the line was 15 or more miles off the Ledo and Burma Road. Pipelines walked the line continuously, day in and day out, looking for leaks. Supplies were usually flown into these isolated stations. New Years Day 1945 found the Pipeliners working in China, Burma, and India.

In April 1945, Captain Hugh C. Adam's 775th E.P.D. Company, working from the Burma side, met captain James J. Nolan's 1382nd China side Pipeliners north of Wanting and coupled the Burma line to the one in China. This put a four-inch line in use all the way from Tinsukia, Assam to Yunnayi, in China. The first gasoline reached Kunming April 9, 1945.

END OF THE LONGEST OPERATION MILITARY PIPELINE IN THE WORLD


Ray O. Howrd of Austin, Texas (right), non-commissioned public relations officer of the Pipeline from Assam in India through Burma into China, grins at his Chinese companion when he sees the sign on the filling station at the end of the 1,900 mile petroleum lifeline to China. (164th Signal Photo Company. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)


Nineteen hundred miles from where gasoline is received from American tankers at Calcutta, these men have completed the last filling station for the world's longest pipeline. Front row, left to right, N.F. Nichols, Parkersburg, WV; James Beveridge, Pana, IL: Naish Bohn, Scranton, IL; Henry F. Colte, San Jose, CA; back row, left to right, Melvin Crowder, Lake City, MI; William E. Cross, Marion, IL; and Clarence D. Hartley, Orlando, FL. All are members of the 1380th Petroleum Distribution Company. Chinese friends join them. (164th Signal Photo Company- Tech 4th grade Henry Allen. Photo courtesy of Ray O. Howard.)

The first gasoline reached Kunming, China 9 April, 1945. All personnel are members of the 1380th Engineer Petroleum Distribution Company.

Since aviation gasoline was green, regular octane white, and diesel oil was brown, a Chinese dignitary present when the first pipeline products reached Kunming stated, "Sirs, you are not only delivering to China these vital and highly precious petroleum products, but you are also bringing them to us in technicolor."

WHAT WAS ACCOMPLISHED?

The Pipeliners delivered more than 150 million gallons of fuel through the system to Allied troops in Assam, Burma, and China. This did not include deliveries between Calcutta and Tinsukia, Chittagong and Tinsukia, or the white gasoline for generators, small motors, field stoves, and similar purposes.

WHAT DID IT COST?

Despite monsoon rains, insects, leeches, malaria, dysentery and typhus, GI's worked more than a million man-days constructing the pipeline. During the peak of construction, 5,000 men worked on the line, 2,500 from Engineer Petroleum Distribution Companies and the remainder general engineer companies.

As a sidelight, Army GI shoes lasted the Pipeliners 10 days. And the canvas jungle boots 5 days, as they built the line from trucks, trains, boats, and on their own shoulders. They coupled it over and under water, across canyons and rivers and up and down mountains.

ENEMY ACTION

Enemy bomb fragments punctured the pipeline at Warazup, Burma. This was the only time the pipeline was damaged by enemy action. Numerous vapor fires were started. Fallen trees, mudslides, and monsoon rains caused other breaks.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PIPELINE?

With the end of the war, Uncle Sam sold it with the understanding that it was to be used as scrap and never would it be used as a military pipeline. One individual, an Indian, bought everything in Burma. This included 735 miles of 4" pipe, 39 pumping stations with up to 6 pumps each station and tanks with a capacity of 10 million gallons.


1382nd Engineer Petroleum Distribution Co.

The last American troops to leave the Assam Valley of northeastern India. Photograph taken at the Tinsukia tank farm, 22 April 1946.

Front row, left to right:

T/4 Paul H. Cain, 1st Lt. William J. Pribyl, T/5 Earl P. Barber

Second Row, left to right:

T/5 Rufus C. Hodges, T/4 George F. Donahue, S/Sgt. John A. McCoy, S/Sgt. Franklin S. Adams

These were the last seven GI's in the Upper Assam Valley. As the phase out of bases and equipment was accelerated, I was assigned the responsibility of picking a team of volunteers to conduct the final inventory of pipeline assets (pipe, tanks, valves, pumps, etc.) The section of pipeline assigned was the 350 mile section from the Burma border (Pangsau Pass) to Gauhati, India, including the huge Tinsukia Tank Farm. Assets would be turned over to a representative of the Indian Government who accompanied the disposal team. This task was completed 22 April 1946, whereupon the team returned to Tinsukia. At this time all aircraft, vehicles, and personnel had left the upper Assam Valley. The team returned to Calcutta using the only means of transport available, the Indian Railroad.


Officers of the 1382nd Engineer Petroleum Distribution Company in late 1945:

Captain Richard H. Adams, 1st Lt. Scott, 1st Lt. Joe Bobins, 1st Lt. William Pribyl

Lt. Pribyl was assigned to the 1382nd EPD Company after the deactivation of his own 961st Petroleum products Laboratory, 20 Dec 1945. Photo taken at the Tinsukia Tank Farm.

I boarded the Marine Adder on 3 May 1946 for the trip to the United States by way of a stop in Shanghai. The Marine Adder docked at the Army Pier in San Francisco on 30 May 1946. I arrived at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland on 4 June 1946 for separation and discharge.

Reference: Confusion Beyond Imagination, Book 3 (Pipe, Rails, and Wire, Supply Salvage, Shortage, and Surplus) by William Boyd Sinclair, 1988.


Sgt Smith Dawless, CBI's poet laureate, paid his respects to the Pipeline and the Pipeliners in:

"The Life Giver"

From the great port of Calcutta
A serpent forged of iron moves forth,
Winds on its fateful journey north
Along the Brahmaputra---

Pauses in the green rice paddies of Assam
To feed impatient transports,
Eager for the hour of flight
Invades the trim tea gardens,
Bright in the monsoon sun---

Fills hungry bombers that at night
On Singapore and far Formosa
Let their deathly burdens fall---

Pushes forward, ever upward,
Spiraling around the Patkai Mountains
With the intention and the purpose
Of a living thing---

Inches up the jungle slopes
Across deep gorges where the hollong
Lifts its monarch head toward heaven---

Curls in changing pattern southward,
Subtly slips into the Hukawng Valley,
Hurdles many a flood-high river
To pierce the core of teakwood forests---

Rises toward the austere Hump, that white
Half world between the earth and sky---

This is the life giver,
Pulsing with the drink of planes---

This is the mother vein,
Throbbing with abundant strength
For thirsty trucks and tanks,
Twisting, turning, moving ever on---

A vast, strong artery that pumps
The endless-flowing stuff of war.


Compiled by