Friday, June 21, 2013

Richmond Workers’ Sustained Excellence

For the workers at Standard Oil, Ford, Kaiser, and other industries in Richmond, the war years were not business as usual. They required everyone to do their best...and then do a little better. F.A. Smith, the manager of the Standard Oil refinery said, "The impossible we can do. Miracles take longer...but just a little longer."

Today’s Chevron was formerly Standard Oil, which was critical to the war effort. In 1943 the chairman of the board proclaimed: "Our company is very much in this war: We fly with the bombers and fighters; we roll with the tanks and trucks and jeeps; we steam into battle with the warships.

In the transportation of troops; in the use of locomotives, ships, landing barges, amphibian trucks and jeeps; in the activity of tanks, artillery, tank-destroyers and other mechanized equipment in battle, it’s gasoline and oil that moves them."

The Richmond refinery grew in importance during the first world war. In 1902, it was built to be "the colossus" among west coast refineries. Popular products such as Zerolene motor oil, Red Crown gasoline and aviation fuel oil were first developed to meet the growing needs of an early civilian motoring and flying market. These products were also critical in 1941, in the Pacific and European theaters, where the fighting edge rested on 100 octane gasoline. Seven out of every eight gallons of high-octane fuel for the Allies was produced by workers in U.S refineries.

The high-compression engines in bombers and fighter aircraft demanded high-performance fuel-lotsofit.Butontheeveofthewar,in 1937, the entire nation produced only 800 gallons per day. One raid on Bremen in 1944 burned a million gallons.

As war clouds gathered over Europe in the late 1930s, Standard Oil anticipated the wartime demand. In 1938, the company invested nearly $4 million in 100-octane plants at its Richmond and El Segundo refineries. Later, an additional $20 million high octane plant was placed at the Richmond refinery, with output sufficient to power a daily flight of 50 B-29 Super-Fortresses on a round trip from Saipan to Tokyo, nearly 3,000 miles. Of course the physical plant was only half of the equation. The men and women employed by the refinery at all levels of production, and who worked unstintingly, were responsible for its unprecedented output.

Fay Bell, a Standard Oil worker who had enlisted in the Navy, saw first hand how important Richmond production was to the war effort. In a letter to his former boss he wrote, "There have been scores of lives saved in this war because we got the necessary gasoline on time so that we, not they, could wage the offensive. I truthfully believe that getting the necessary fuel here when we needed it has accounted for the turning point in the war."

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz was more direct, remarking that the refinery’s output would "put power into the sustained hammer blows we will continue to deliver against the enemy."

Innovation was critical to meeting wartime demands. Standard Oil engineers worked with the Navy to solve a submarine lubricant problem that had baffled experts for years. They developed RPM Delo engine oil and other specialized lubricants that revolutionized submarine warfare by tripling a vessel’s cruising range and eliminating the telltale emission of water surface greases.

In all, refinery chemists developed more than 500 products for military use. The list included strategic chemicals: machine and cutting oils that sped the cutting, shaping and assembling of marine craft; cable oil that added to the efficiency of the giant cranes that lifted a ship’s sections into place, and even products that strengthened the fibers in sandbags.

These innovations and the remarkable output of Richmond workers, earned the men and women of the Richmond refinery numerous awards; none surpassing the "E" for excellence award for the production of war supplies. First bestowed on the refinery in 1943, the plant was awarded an additional five stars by war’s end for sustained excellence.

Rosie the Riveter Trust (ID # 94-3335350) — PO Box 71126, Richmond, CA 94807-1126 — (510) 507-2276

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