An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – From mining engineer to field geologist

oil sands

When Bill Leach graduated from the New Mexico School of Mines he did so as a mining engineer but he had taken courses in geology and petroleum engineering and in those days a degree in almost any type of engineering meant that you had the requisite tools to work in almost any industry, after all for many years every West Point graduate matriculated with a degree in civil engineering. In a place like Venezuela Standard oil wanted to use and develop the talent they had and so Bill went from a mining engineer working primarily as a draftsman to a mining engineer working as a field geologist. This is part of the story of the transition.

oil well

April 3rd, my birthday, I passed the day riding around with J. L. Kraemer, the district Geologist with whom much of my work will be connected. Days have passed slowly in which I rode around with Kraemer, just riding around to the various wildcat wells.  On April 5th I had my first official work outlined for me and it happened to be what is called a sand formation tester, an instrument made by the Johnson outfit.  It was all Greek to me but I noted all that I could and made the best of it.  My first appearance on the job and the test went haywire.  In the following jobs I have been pretty well occupied and some of the hours were plenty long; one in particular lasted 36 hours without any sleep – I sure was a tired hombre.

claim jump

When you are drilling an oil well you are poking a hole in the ground and hoping that you will come up with oil. The early wells were drilled where oil had already oozed to the surface and pictures of early producing fields show wells close to one another in an exercise of “proximity discovery” – very close to what the average miner would have called claim jumping! As the experience factor grew about where oil might be found and the exploration tools improved oil exploration became a more scientific endeavor and as the demand for the product increased production engineering became more important. The deeper you drill the more expensive it is and the more important it is to know exactly what you are drilling through and into.

tester hose

In 1926 near El Dorado, Arkansas, Edgar and Mordica Johnston performed the first commercial drill stem test (DST). Frequent tests were necessary in the  because of the irregular nature and thinness of formations, but the only means of testing was to set casing, cement, and bail. The Johnston brothers wanted to develop a more practical and less expensive way to test. They conceived the idea of a test tool that could be run on the end of the drill stem. To try out their idea, they made a tester out of discarded belting and a test tool out of a poppet valve and a heavy spring from a railroad box car.

looking at mud

Field runs were successful, and by 1927 the Johnston Formation Testing Company had more jobs than it could handle. More people were hired and trained for locations in the major oil-producing areas of Texas and California. In 1929, the Johnston Formation Testing Corporation was granted a patent  for the well formation testing device. In 1933, Luther Johnston bought a pressure recorder from the Standard Oil Company and ran it on drill stem tests in Louisiana. The pressure recorder was a success and became a regular procedure in well testing. In very simple terms you could now get a read out of the pressures at each level you were drilling through and you could pull a sample from any fluids you encountered to see if it was oil and the quality of the oil. Needless to say pulling the sample up and transferring it from the tester to a sampler bottle that could be taken into a lab for testing was no clean job.

examine mud
April 7th, the Rockefeller party stopped in on us and I had the opportunity to meet Winthrop and Nelson Rockefeller, Major Armstrong, the legal advisor of the Standard of N.J., and Mr. Linam the “big man” of the company here in Venezuela. As it happened we were taking a special test on one of the wildcat wells, namely the Yabo #1.  The test went along to the satisfaction of the whole visiting party, but I surely was a sorry-looking sight at the conclusion of the job.

The party left later in the afternoon but returned at a later date; on the 11th.  This second trip was a much better trip or should I say visit for I had a more through and enjoyable talking visit with the party.  It surely did surprise me at the attitude of these visitors for they were not the snooty type that I thought that they would turn out to be.  Winthrop had actually worked as a roustabout in the Conroe Field in Texas, and I understand that he did not ask any favors from any of the group that he had to work with.


In 1930, Nelson Rockefeller had graduated with a BA in economics from Dartmouth College and took jobs with the old family firm including Chase Bank in 1931;  Rockefeller Center,  and Creole Petroleum, the Venezuelan subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey, 1935–1940. The Creole Petroleum Corporation was  formed in 1920 to produce fields on Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela and was acquired by Standard Oil in 1928. Until 1951 Creole Petroleum was the world’s number one oil producer. A man who was born to be president he never made and only reached the vice-presidents office through appointment.


His younger brother Winthrop attended Yale University (1931–34) but was ejected as a result of misbehavior before earning his degree and was probably along for the trip while the family tried to figure out something to do with him. In early 1941 he would enlist in the Army as a private. As a soldier of the 77th Infantry Division, he fought in World War II, advancing from Private to Colonel and he earned a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Clusters and a Purple Heart for his actions aboard the troop ship USS Henrico, after a kamikaze attack during the invasion of Okinawa. His image appears in the Infantry Officer Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia.

pipe thread
Here it is the 25th of April and much water has passed under the proverbial bridge.  Have been actively busy and keeping out of mischief  – who could be otherwise after working as much as 14, 16, and 24 hours a day. It started to rain about 4:00 A.M. and it came down in a good heavy and steady downpour and at present it is still coming down although not as hard and not in as much volume as in the earlier part of the day.  This is the first real rain that has come down on us since I have been here; it is a relief for this section really needs the rain since the area is as badly sanded as the southwestern part of the states, and this makes the riding pretty and hard and rough at times.

mud machine

May 27th. Early this morning this area was subject to a few slight earth tremors but they did not do any damage.  It is evident that this area will not suffer to any extent when subject to quakes.  However many of the men left their rooms in pretty much of a hurry.

The drilling program in this field is certainly keeping me plenty busy for it is always a matter of going from one well to another.  It would not be so bad except that the roads are rough and the distance between wells is long and tortuous.  One feels pretty well-worn out after a day’s bouncing over these savannahs.


POSTSCRIPT: When Bill Leach served in the Navy during WWII it did not matter that he had worked for Brown Brothers Shipbuilding in Houston helping to turn out destroyer escorts. The Nay sent him where they wanted him and that turned out to be the island of Samar in the Philippines. He got there on a ship very much like the USS Henrico which was the ship Winthrop Rockefeller would be on when it was attacked by a kamikaze pilot. The navy record of the attack follows and we have included some pictures to show where these men served.


The veteran ship [USS Henrico]  was assigned to the Kerama Retto attack group under Rear Admiral Kiland, and began the landing 26 March. The important islands, needed as a base for the invasion of nearby Okinawa, were secured 30 March. Henrico retired at night during the operation, and Japanese air attacks were nearly constant. While retiring 2 April, the ship was attacked by a fast suicide bomber diving out of a cloud formation. Although Henrico quickly brought guns to bear, the plane crashed into the starboard side of the bridge, her bombs exploding below. The ship lost power but her well-trained fire parties soon brought the flames under control. Forty-nine officers and men were killed in this attack, including Henrico’s captain, her embarked division commander, and the two troop commanders. Her executive officer took command, however, and brought the ship to Kerama Retto. She sailed under her own power for San Francisco 14 April and arrived 13 May, having contributed much to the decisive compaign in the Pacific.



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