It was December 1941. The war-depleted American oil camp at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was down to a quarter of its former size. Christmas was only a few weeks off, but the hundred lonely American men remaining in Dhahran couldn't muster up much holiday enthusiasm. Their wives and children had been shipped home to the United States. Family life had ended for the duration of the war, and the camp had quietly slipped back into pioneer ways.
On December 7 the hundred men heard the stunning radio announcement of Pearl Harbor. Within three days the radio told them that the United States was at war with Japan, Germany and Italy. Now they were truly isolated.
Without saying so they knew that the forthcoming wedding of nurse Anna Mary Snyder, one of the two women remaining in Dhahran, and Bob Williams would be the biggest—and probably the last—community get-together for a long time.
On the day of the wedding the men slipped into the auditorium-chapel well ahead of time. Each wore a tie, a white shirt and a suit. When a scratchy phonograph record gave up the strains of "Here comes the bride," men who had fallen back into the outpost habit of wearing rumpled suntans every day of the week sat up stiffly in their dark suits.
The happy spirit carried over into Christmas. The wedding taught the isolated men that not even war can stop the onrush of life. But there were some things the war did stop. For example, the small "tea kettle" refinery completed at Ras Tanura in the autumn of 1940 was shut down. And the 20-mile string of channel lights that guided tankships through the Persian Gulf to safe mooring was darkened.
But perhaps the most disappointing wartime setback to the Arabian oil pioneers came when it was decided to shut-in Abqaiq No. 1. This well had been started in August 1940 and within a few months flowed an exceptional 10,000 barrels a day. A laconic cable to the United States had said that the well showed "the possibility of a big new field,"
Then, one night in October 1940, Italian planes bombed the refinery on Bahrain Island (a British protectorate) and the crude oil separator plant in Saudi Arabia. Surely one of the strangest air raids of World War II, it missed both targets despite bright moonlight, the jewel-bright lights of the refinery and the high-noon brilliance of the bombers' magnesium flares. "Bahrain has been destroyed," the Axis radio proclaimed.
As a military tactic the raid was pure comic opera. But as a psychological thrust, it was effective. The Bahrain refinery was shut down immediately for blackout preparations. A few days later Abqaiq No. 1 was shut-in. It was, as postwar developments proved, the discovery well of one of the world's greatest oil fields.
Almost within hours of the bombing American women and children were being evacuated from Saudi Arabia.
It was a strange period for the men who chose to stay in Dhahran. Their diarist, balladeer and historian, Phil McConnell, has called it "the time of the hundred men." But as a diarist with a quick eye for the humors of human incident, McConnell could just as readily have called it the time of the Brussels sprouts or the time of the great cattle drives. For in the midst of shortages of every kind, the freehanded ingenuity of many of the hundred men and the astonishing fortitude of an elderly Bedouin provided some remarkable, and funny, adventures.
For instance, the truck farm that bloomed in the desert like a rose on the dunes. This verdant oasis was the camp's answer to canned Brussels sprouts.
Food supplies might fall off. Months might pass without a single freighter arriving with mail or provisions. But from some secret horn of plenty, Brussels sprouts turned up on the dining hall menu day after day. The hundred men were sure that Steve. Furman, the commissary chief, had an entire warehouse stacked to the roof with the little green vegetable.
The sprouts wore more disguises than a movie spy. They lurked in soup and salad. They turned up as stew and garnish. There are those who insist to this day that they can remember eating Brussels sprouts waffles.
Finally the truck garden was started. Plows were devised and ground was leveled and furrowed. The Dhahran victory garden soon began to yield tomatoes, cucumbers, lima beans, carrots, onions, sweet corn and other crops.
The next commissary project—a livestock farm and cattle ranch—was started to assuage the natural hunger of the American for meat. Steve Furman, apparently a cattleman at heart, bought rabbits, chickens, pigeons, goats, camels and cattle. All came from local sources. All were of the sinewy breeds that had adapted to the country's limited forage.
Then, in the winter of 1941-1942, a Saudi Arab known only as Mutlag—an old man, wizened, proud and tough—offered to bring a herd of cattle up from Yemen. The proposition was incredible. It meant driving the herd around the edge of the world's largest sand desert, across desert steppes and hardpan on a diagonal of more than a thousand miles.
Mutlag started in January from the mountains of Yemen. By slow stages he slogged along on his epic drive from well to well, from forage patch to forage patch; with only the help of a half-grown boy.
After weeks of slow progress the cattle bellowed into al-Kharj, an oasis south of Riyadh watered by brimming wells. Mutlag then turned east. The last leg, from the oasis at Hofuf to Dhahran, was the driest and most difficult. The cattle were little more than bones held together by hide when they got to "Furman's Ranch."
The old Bedouin, a man of fierce pride, had come through. Americans who knew the tales of the Chisholm and Bozeman trails were awed by what Mutlag had done. An old man and a boy—on foot.
Two winters later Mutlag went back to Yemen for another 200 head of cattle. But a severe drought had dried up the wells and burned out the forage. Dozens of the cattle died before Mutlag got them into al-Kharj. At that time some of the Dhahran engineers were in al-Kharj assisting the Saudi Arabian Government on an agricultural project. One of the engineers, Burt Beverly, radioed Furman that if he wanted any live cattle, he'd better come and truck 'em in.
Only about 30 cattle survived the second drive. For a long while Mutlag didn't even come to collect his money.
By that time Furman, with an eye to fattening up his stringy but growing herd, had managed a deal with an Arabian Gulf dhow captain. The sailor smuggled a bull out of Iraq, and not many months later Furman was able to boast some 1,000-pound steers. Quite an improvement over the previous 350-pounders.
The ranch also developed a dairy herd of 35 cows that supplied milk not only to the whole camp but also to American aircraft crews of the Persian Gulf Command who learned to miss their official landing point on Bahrain in favor of the makeshift airstrip at Dhahran. All such "emergency" landings led straight to a cold glass of pasteurized milk.
By late 1944 the tide had turned. Allied victory seemed assured. The time of the hundred men was nearing its end. The men could look back on many solid accomplishments.
For example, progress had been made in cooperation with Saudi Arab officials in the difficult day-to-day effort to control malaria. The al-Kharj irrigation-reclamation project conceived by Shaikh Abdullah Sulaiman had been earned forward with the help of company engineers. Further, 1940 to 1944 saw the greatest advance yet made by the Arabian American Oil Company in its education and training program for thousands of Saudi Arab employees.
In mid-November 1944, seven Aramco wives in various parts of the United States got telephone calls asking them if they could be ready to leave for Saudi Arabia in a week. After an extraordinary journey they arrived in Dhahran just ahead of St. Valentine's Day, 1945. It was time for family life to begin again.
The C-47 that brought the seven wives back to Dhahran landed after dark by the light of smoky red flares, right on target. But the pilot, fearing he might roll into the Persian Gulf, slammed down hard on his brakes. His deep skid marks drew a line between the time of the hundred men and the great years ahead.
The "bunkhouse" days were over. The time was past when a simple wedding ceremony would gather up the lonely outpost in its embrace of memory and promise.