From South America to South Texas the adventures of an oil prospector


As with so many stories of Margaret Edythe Young’s family this one begins with a tramp steamer and a passenger list. The tramp steamer was the Esso Aruba and like so many other things will weave its way through this story. To start out with the Arubawas a tanker that belonged to the Standard Oil Co of New Jersey having been built in 1931 by  Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd. at Wallsend, Sunderland and having a capacity of about 9,000 tons. During the 1930’s she was used to run crude oil from Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela to the Esso refinery at Aruba in the Dutch Netherlands Antilles and to bring refined products from there to the United States east coast.

On the voyage that left Caripito, Venezuela on July 20, 1940 and arrived in New York on July 31st was a young mining engineer who had been born in Schenectady, New York on April 3, 1906 – William Joseph Leach – whose current residence was his brother’s home in Hobbs, New Mexico. He and his brother were both graduates of the New Mexico School of Mines and while his brother had married a girl from Santa Fe and gone to work for Esso in New Mexico Bill had not quite gotten over his yondering and after a period of prospecting for silver in Colorado had worked for Standard Oil in Venezuela. Like so many in the oil business he wound up in Texas and never really left.

In 1901, drawn no doubt by the lure of Spindletop, John Young had founded the Beaumont-Hitchcock Oil Co., Inc. with offices and 414 Tremont Street in Galveston. He acquired land throughout Texas but his two most promising prospects were some swamp land in Jefferson County [Beaumont/Port Arthur area] and a few counties north of there near the small east Texas town of Saratoga. While he may have had dreams of being the next Rockefeller his working life began and ended with what went on at the port of Galveston and it wasn’t until after he died that his son, John W. Young, began developing the prospects.

When Bill Leach arrived in Houston in 1940 the United States had yet to emerge from the depression of 1929 and in many ways the social programs of the Roosevelt government had done nothing but institutionalize the economic malaise. This was not the age of sending out a dozen resumes and taking your pick of the three best offers that came in – it was the age of holding two or three jobs and hoping you got 60 hours a week in between them and could get by on it. By happenstance Bill wound up boarding with Mrs. Laureene Anna Young Bettencourt – sister of Margaret Edythe Young, stepmother of her daughter Laureene Bettencourt and sister of Col. John W. Young, USA [ret] of the Coastal Artillery.

With a degree in mining engineering, experience in the oil fields of Venezuela, time served in the coastal artillery and having caught the eye of the landlady’s daughter Bill found himself as chief geologist and head operating officer of the Beaumont-Hitchcock  Oil Co., Inc. and responsible for developing the Saratoga field. It was no Spindletop, although it still coughs out a few barrels and a little natural gas from time to time, and Bill would go on to other jobs – helping to build the tin smelter at Texas City and as a draftsman for Brown Bros. shipyard and wound up married to the landlady’s daughter.

And that is where the story begins to double back on itself. At 0630 hours on the  27th of August 1942 the German submarine U-511 fired a spread of four torpedoes at the convoy TAW-15 about 120 miles south-southeast of Guantanamo and claimed two ships totaling 17,000 gross tons sunk and another damaged. The San Fabian and Rotterdam were sunk and the Esso Aruba was damaged

The Navy tug MONTCALM – these vessels did duty as everything from harbor tugs, to intercostal towing to acting as submarine chasers and mine sweepers.

The Esso Aruba carried the convoy commodore, was hit by one torpedo on the port side between the #5 and #6 tanks. The explosion tore up the deck and blew it 20 feet into the air and also destroyed pipelines but failed to damage the engines or steering gear. The tanker stopped to examine the damage and the eight officers, 33 men, 13 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 5 inch and two .50 caliber anti-aircraft guns) and the convoy commodore and his staff of five men prepared themselves for leaving the ship. But the chief engineer reported the machinery in good order and the damaged vessel, in spite of being in danger of breaking in two, proceeded under her own power in the convoy.

The Cities Service Missouri which lightered the cargo off the Esso Aruba was, in turn, attacked by a German U-boat and sunk March 13, 1943. The most dangerous duty in WWII was to serve in the merchant marine.

At 22.00 hours on the 28th of August, the Esso Aruba reached Guantanamo Bay and was run aground to take the strain off the bottom plates. The remaining 60.000 barrels of fuel were offloaded into the Cities Service Missouri with the help of the American salvage tug USS Montcalm until the 8th of  September. After temporary repairs the ship proceeded to Galveston for permanent repairs at the Brown Bros. shipyard where Bill Leach was senior draftsman. Another project of the shipyard is now permanently moored at Seawolf Park in Galveston, the USS Stewart was one of  over 350 ships built for the Navy by the company that also built the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station and employed over 25,000 men as the nation used the war to recover from Mr. Roosevelt’s utopian schemes.

Bill Leach would leave Brown Bros. to serve in the U. S. Navy taking part in the Philippine campaign and we have a copy of his last pay stub. He worked 4 hours at a rate of $0.875 and 64 hours at a rate of $1.75 for a gross wage of $115.50 from which withholding of $11.60 [it was referred to as “voluntary” tax payment in those days] and Social Security of $1.16 were deducted leaving him with $102.74 for the week – which placed him solidly in the middle class and combined with Laureene’s salary as a teacher [about one-third of his] they were, as the saying used to be, “comfortable”. By comparison when he was serving in the Navy his monthly remittance to Laureene was $8.10!

Taken at San Diego at the end of basic training. The insignia on his sleeve indicates that he is a gun fire control specialist – once in the artillery…

Bill was probably one of the countless tens of thousands of American casualties saved by the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was able to return whole to his family. Here the story doubles back on itself one last time. John W. Young had sold the mineral interests in the Jefferson County properties and the Saratoga field to his aunt, Margaret Bennett, who sold them in turn to her late husband’s youngest brother, Mills Bennett. Mills Bennett already owned considerable oil interests in South Texas near the King Ranch outside of the little town of Falfurrias and Bill became his chief geologist and production engineer and worked with the firm until his retirement.

 

 

 

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