Fuel for Freedom - The ABC Pipeline

ABC Pipeline


There is no civilian counterpart for the world's longest pipeline to China. It is truly an outstanding engineering achievement of this war. It has not only contributed largely to the successful conclusion of the North Burma Campaign and the building of the Ledo Road, but has been of inestimable value to the fighting forces in China. Every man who has participated in the building of this petroleum lifeline, no matter his branch of service, can be justly proud of the accomplished work.

Commanding General, USF IBT   


  Gasoline and fuel oil are flowing in an endless torrent through the world's longest military pipeline, direct from Calcutta's docks to the men of western China's far-flung bases.

  Since the Japanese sealed off the Burma Road land route to China, the fuel hungry tanks, trucks and planes have depended entirely on air transportation over the hazardous Hump for their supplies. Completion of the pipeline soon after the opening of the fabulous Stilwell Road is the realization of a seemingly impossible dream to supply China from the distant ports of India and keep her in the war.

  The story of the India section of the pipeline has been told, though never completely, in pictures and words... of men sweating in the terrible heat to unload tankers, to build the terminals, to make possible the refueling of giant Superfortresses direct from the pipeline.

  The story of the building of the 6-inch pipeline to northern Assam, of operating the terminals and pumping the gasoline which contributed so much to the annihilation of the Japanese in north Burma, the building of the Ledo Road and the opening of the land supply route to China... has been told.

  But the story of the ABC Pipeline, Assam-Burma-China section of the line has been shrouded in military secrecy for security reasons. Only now, with a furious tidal wave of Allied might being unleashed against the Japanese aggressors can those facts on the building of the Advance Section of the line be revealed.

  The pipeline is in itself a monument to the courage and endurance of the soldiers who, by their devotion to duty, have made it a reality. Working without publicity or outside recognition, these men have completed a seemingly impossible task in record time.


  Only a handful of pipeline engineers, newly flown in from the States, were in the little bazaar town of Ledo, Assam, India, that October morning in 1943 when Col. Lewis A. Pick returned from an inspection tour.

  "I must get that pipeline started," he commented, thinking of the sizable stockpile of 4-inch invasion pipeline he had observed beside a railway siding. Putting the thought to action, the man who was to win worldwide fame and the two stars of a Major General for building the Ledo Road, gave orders which began the ABC Pipeline, Assam-Burma-China section of the world's longest military pipeline.

  That historic day, Pfc. Mitchell Williams, little dreaming of the destination fate had in store for him, was unloading hay when he was told to take a five man detail from his General Service Battalion and report to S/Sgt. Bill Watson and T/5 Fred Cabell at the stockpile.

  While stacking the pipe, Williams had long conversations with Watson and Cabell about the technicalities of coupling pipe, but nothing happened until one day he and his crew found themselves caught up with their usual work.

  Filled with the burning desire to push the war effort to the maximum, Williams decided that now was as good a time as any to start the pipeline and pump the oil for the lamps of China. With no more ceremony then the command "Let's go!" they started coupling pipe, China bound on a line which was to traverse the world's most unbelievable terrain and encounter conditions that only a nightmare could conjure.

  To the satisfaction of Lt. Clark Nickle, a pipeline officer, Williams was doing a good job of stringing pipe from a flat car and coupling it as he went. Each day, he would ask for "just a few more men" from his outfit, and soon he had an entire platoon and five miles of line ready for testing.

  The work of these men was so exceptional that the entire "D" Company of the 982nd General Service Engineering Battalion was put at it, and they pushed the line onto the 25-mile mark. There, troops from Company "A" of the 209th Combat Engineers joined them, and the two companies "grasshoppered" one another until the line was completed to the 71-mile mark on 6 February 1944.

  In those early days of pipeline construction, tools and supplies were at a premium. No wrenches were available, so ordnance companies made them from 1-inch pipe. A few Indian axes and shovels were purchased and cable for suspensions was obtained from salvaged drag lines.

  The work of the untrained engineers was almost completed before 2000 feet of cable and a large quantity of 3/4-inch rope arrived. With the use of the rope, trolleys were built to get the pipe over deep, impassable gorges into the jungle trace, where it was strung by the engineers.

  No surveyors laid out the course of this line. Two men walked ahead with a few natives from the Ghurka country, cutting the trace in the more accessible places, usually paralleling the road, but taking every shortcut.

 ABC Pipeline

  The Stilwell Road is a super highway now by comparison to what it was in these days. Chinese student drivers gained experience by driving regular Army trucks up the unsurfaced road with supplies for the pipeline engineers. Access roads either did not exist, or were impassable, making it necessary for the men to dismantle the pump stations and carry them into the jungle on their shoulders.

  The 6-inch pipeline from Calcutta was just getting started, so all gasoline used was supplied by air or from the Assam Oil Company refinery at Digboi. The first POL refueling station was built at the Zero mile mark on the road, and on 4th February 1944, the first truck was fueled directly from the pipeline at Loglai situated at the 48-mile mark.

  At this time, the 699, 706, and 775th Engineer Petroleum Distributing Companies arrived in Ledo and took over construction of the line. None of their trucks, welders, or other heavy equipment had yet reached the Theater, so the engineers were forced to borrow what the could from units working on the Ledo Road. Small tools which they had brought with them soon found to be inadequate to cope with problems encountered in the mountainous jungle terrain. From the very first those specially trained pipeline engineers had to depend largely on their own ingenuity to keep the work progressing at the rapid pace set for it.

  Transportation continued to be the biggest problem. Trucks depreciated rapidly in the heavy hauling they were subjected to over the mountainous roads. A set of brakes could be expected to last one month, and brake bands were almost
 ABC Pipeline
unobtainable. Access roads were usually little more than jungle trails, but pipeline truck drivers became known up and down the Ledo Road for their ability to get a loaded vehicle into any place their truck wheels would touch the ground. Motor pool mechanics hardly knew how they kept their equipment rolling, but they did, and seldom was a vehicle deadlined for more than a few hours.

  The vital urgency of the job was felt by all who worked day and night to speed the project. On 19 May the first aviation gasoline arrived at the strategic airbase of Shingbwiyang, but engineers did not pause. Another airstrip was under construction at the advance base of Tingkawk Sakan, and the pipeline must reach there for the opening of the field.

  The long heralded monsoon struck in full fury in May and for the engineers it could not have arrived at a more undesirable time. Between Shingbwiyang and Tingkawk, road engineers were going about the seemingly impossible job of bridging the 13-mile swamp which the monsoon had converted into an inland sea. A one-way causeway was in operation, but traffic was so heavy that pipeline engineers could not monopolize its use.

  They were, however, given a high priority working mostly at night they took pipe from trucks moving at slow speed along the bridge and walked it into position through waist-deep mud and water. The pipe was coupled from boats and allowed to sink into the morass. When the water receded in December, it was found that the pipeline was all on dry ground, and the job could have been done under normal conditions in a fraction of time it actually took.

  Needs of the road builders took priority on the first shipments of fuel through the line to Tingkawk. Gasoline and diesel oil arrived there on 10 June, relieving approximately 40 percent of the truck shipments which previously had to battle causeway bottleneck. By 17 June, 100-octane aviation gasoline was being dispensed directly to fighter planes, bombers, and combat cargo planes at every airstrip then in the forward area.

  The fury of the campaign to drive the Japs from north Burma was constantly mounting, and the demand for petroleum products increased proportionately. To meet the need, the 778, 779 and 780th Engineer Petroleum Distributing Companies were assigned the task of putting in a second line to parallel the first.

  The line was always put into operation as fast as it was completed, which meant that more and more trained engineers were needed. In early August the 776th Engineer Petroleum Distribution Company arrived in Assam and was moved to Warazup, where another airfield was being built.

  Shortly thereafter, the 709th, which had made a splendid record at B-29 bases in India and had been seasoned by work on the 6-inch line from Calcutta, was assigned to constructing toward Warazup.

  Here the pipeline entered the Mogaung Valley, where jungle vegetation is reputedly the heaviest in all northern Burma. The rains continued, and for a 45-day period, pipeline engineers in the area worked 12 hours a day without dry clothes. Few had even a dry bed to sleep in. Keeping personal equipment useable was one of the biggest problems at this time. A pair of heavy duty Army shoes had a life expectancy of ten days in the mud and water. Jungle boots came apart in less than a week. Clothing mildewed in water-proofed bags. Finally despairing of keeping dry, the men worked in the rain without being hampered by boots or raincoats.

  The insistence of the monsoon and the jungle insects began to demand a heavy price on the health of the men. Malaria, dysentery, and typhus incapacitated a large percent of the workers but still the work went on. Suppressive atabrine treatment and rigid malaria control became compulsory, and with its administration the malaria rate began to decline, until today it is negligible. Vitamin deficiencies caused by lack of sunshine and the Spartan diet imposed by absence of fresh meat and vegetables was partly remedied by the issue of a daily ration of vitamin tablets.

  Leeches became one of the biggest nuisances to plague the workers. When a man stepped for a moment in the jungle the little creatures literally swarmed over him. One of the standing jokes at this time was that blood plasma through one of the lines to enable medics to replenish blood taken by the bloodsucking worms.

  The stories about snakes and wild animals are legend, but there is no record of a pipeline engineer being harmed by either. Hunting offered about the only diversion for the men, and many tigers and pythons were killed. Deer abound in north Burma, and parties were regularly sent out to obtain venison for the mess halls.

  Shortly after trained pipeline engineers took over construction work, Indian Pioneer troops were assigned to work with them. These Indian soldiers are highly intelligent and their ability to live and work in the jungle made them
 ABC Pipeline
invaluable to the Americans. They were primarily used to prepare pipeline trace, and to carry pipe and supplies into the swampy jungles, but their aptness for the work made it possible for them to supplement the skilled workers actually engaged in construction. Without the Pioneer troops the pipeline would have been built, but the cost in health to the American workers would have been tremendous.

  Fighting for the strategic railway and supply city of Myitkyina was officially ended on 3rd August, and within nine days the 775th EPD Company had been flown into the battered airstrip and had received 20 miles of pipe by air.

  The taking of the city by the legendary Merrill's Marauders with the able assistance of Combat Engineers and the American-trained Chinese soldiers made possible the final phase of the north Burma campaign. To take full advantage of the situation, air bases had to be expanded even before the road was completed there. Huge quantities of diesel fuel and aviation gasoline were needed immediately, and construction of a temporary pipeline offered the best remedy for the situation.

  Before gasoline arrived at Warazup, engineers had begun construction of the temporary line by way of Kamaing and Mogaung, starting simultaneously at Myitkyina and Warazup. The only time the line was damaged by enemy action was at Warazup, when fragments from an exploding bomb punctured the line.

  Only the combat trail existed between Warazup and Kamaing and it was impassable. Water was 4 to 5 feet deep along parts of the proposed right-of-way. Tractors pulling pipe sleds bogged down along the trail, and only pontons and assault boats were able to get the supplies into position. Some elephants were used, but they proved unsatisfactory because of the long trips and the inability of the native handlers to understand the urgency of the work.

  Pumps and pipe were sent by ponton rafts to Kamaing, where two American and some reclaimed Japanese trucks were available for use. In some places pipe was coupled into 600-foot sections on dry ground and floated into position.

  One 700-foot welded section of the line was put across the Mogaung river at its highest flood stage. To accomplish this submarine crossing, 5000 feet of abandoned Japanese cable was obtained and stretched over the flood to a snatch block on a tree, and back to the dry side, where a truck could pull the line across. When the water receded it was discovered that 70 feet of pipe would have been sufficient.

  Diesel fuel arrived at Myitkyina days ahead of schedule and soon 100-octane gasoline was flowing into the storage tanks at a rate of 200,000 gallons per day.

  While the temporary line was being built, other pipeline engineers had started the permanent double line to parallel the road cut off to Myitkyina. Their work was completed and the line was in operation before the road was finished.

  Never was there any pause in construction activities, while the line was being pushed to Myitkyina, other engineers had started it on toward the besieged city of Bhamo. One detachment was unloading pipe from combat cargo planes on the first day the newly captured airport in Bhamo was in operation. Three days after the fall of the Japanese stronghold, gasoline was being dispensed to trucks at the Bhamo POL, and engineers had bypassed the town to continue construction of the line toward China.

 ABC Pipeline

  The success of the Northern Combat Area Command in clearing north Burma of the Japanese to open the land route to China was assured, but far from a reality in October 1944, when it was decided to start the pipeline back toward Burma from the China side. Simultaneous work on the pipeline from both directions was a necessity because the pipeline engineers could not bypass the men doing the actual fighting.

  A small group of engineers were flown over the Hump to establish Advance Headquarters of Pipeline Section. They were to prepare the way for large groups of trained pipeline personnel to follow.

  While the ground work was being laid in China, the 779,780,1381, and 1382nd Engineer Petroleum Distribution Companies were at airbases in Assam, dismantling their equipment for air shipment. Soon personnel and supplies began to move out, and by the middle of November, over the Hump shipment of personnel and equipment had exceeded 500 tons and was rapidly mounting.

  Advance headquarters was a floating organization, being established progressively at Yunnanyi, Paoshan, Tsuyung, and Kunming. In its formative days, the Headquarters' biggest job was to establish liaison between the engineer supply sources of the India-Burma and China Theaters, but soon it was handling all administrative work for China personnel and performing most of the engineering duties.

  In early November survey parties were sent into the field to determine the best supply route for the petroleum lifeline. At times, their work was held up while Chinese Expeditionary Forces pushed the Japs back down the former Burma Road. When their work was finished, it was found that by their utter disregard for the mountainous terrain they reduced the estimated length of the line by 200 miles. This represents a savings of over 4000 tons of supplies and seven months work for one company.

  In some places the line scaled 9,000-foot mountains, or cut far off the road. To get pipe, pump stations and other equipment into seemingly impassable places, access roads were built, but even such roads were sometimes impassable for the hard pressed motorized equipment.

  Thousands of Chinese coolies worked with the pipeline engineers, dismantling equipment and moving it into position on their shoulders. In one area pipe and supplies were carried over 11 miles in this manner.

  Until two months after the opening of the Stilwell Road, every piece of equipment used in the China project came over the Hump by air. Thousands of tons of equipment and large forces of personnel were moved into the new Headquarters by Air Transport Command, Troop Carrier Command, and Combat Cargo planes.

 ABC Pipeline

  While the first convoy over the Stilwell Road was waiting at Namhkan on 25 January for the road between there and Wanting to be cleared of the last Japanese, pipeline engineers too were waiting to connect the final link of the line.

  The double line had been extended to Bhamo and was serving the planes, tanks, and trucks of combat units and road engineers in the area. The line had been pushed east from Bhamo over the most rugged mountains in Burma, and had crossed the Shweli River. It is interesting to note that where the line had come down from the mountains to the Shweli River valley, the pressure, caused by the tremendous drop in elevation, was so great that only heavyweight pipe could hold it.

  The Salween River had been cleared of Japanese, and pipeline engineers were engaged in building a suspension bridge to carry pipe across the 5,000-foot gorge. Only a few miles remained to be connected before the line would be complete to its major China terminal.

  Supply in the China Theater was never certain, but through improvisation and the cooperation of the China Service Forces, work never fell behind schedule. When the first gasoline arrived through the line at the first major Chinese-American base on 9 April 1945, six days had been cut from the original target date.

  The completion of the pipeline to China is a major military engineering achievement of this war. Without complete cooperation of forces fighting the Japanese in Burma and China, the engineers building the Ledo Road and those repairing and improving the Burma Road... without the overall spirit of cooperation and helpfulness of all forces in the two theaters, the petroleum lifeline could never have become a reality.

  For the part it played in clearing the Japanese from north Burma and in the building of the Ledo Road, the pipeline was well worth its cost in effort and money. Now with a torrent of gasoline flowing through it to the defenders of freedom in China, it will no doubt be one of the deciding factors in the certain and ultimate annihilation of the Japanese aggressors on the Asiatic mainland.


  The 6-inch pipeline from Calcutta to Tinsuki is 750 miles long. A 6-inch high pressure line extends from Chittagong to Tinsuki. Two 4-inch lines and one 6-inch line extend to Myitkyina, two 4-inch lines go to Bhamo, and one 4-inch lines goes on to advance bases beyond Kunming, China, making the total length of the line over 1800 miles. Hundreds of miles of feeder lines serve bases and depots in both the India-Burma and China Theaters.

  In the ABC Pipeline system alone, there are over 50,000 tons of pipe and pipeline supplies in use, exclusive of
 ABC Pipeline
equipment of the individual pipeline companies. Over one-half million joints of standard and invasion weight pipe are in use.

  From the time the ABC Pipeline was started until V-J Day, over 150,000,000 gallons of fuel was delivered through the system to Allied troops in northern Assam, Burma and China. This is in addition to that delivered by the pipeline to points between Calcutta and Tinsuki and Chittagong and Tinsuki and does not include solid lubricants or white gasoline for generators, small motors, field stoves, and other purposes. The aggregate total of petroleum products delivered through the line is in excess of 528,000 short tons.

  In full operation, the line is capable of delivering 70,000 tons of petroleum products to Myitkyina per month, or 42,000 tons to Myitkyina, 14,000 tons to Bhamo and 14,000 tons to China. This aggregate tonnage represents 14,000 sorties per month by planes which have been transporting gasoline, or 23,000 sorties by combat cargo planes.

  American soldiers worked over 1,000,000 man-days in constructing the ABC Pipeline. Indian Pioneer troops, natives, and Chinese worked an additional 1,000,000 man-days. For the most part, the pipe lays along the surface of the ground, but it has been buried in some places, submerged in large rivers, suspended from cables over steep gorges and across other rivers. Over 100 miles of access roads were built by pipeline companies in order to construct the line.

  In construction of the line, it was necessary to overcome 11,500 feet of elevation pressure and 23,500 feet of friction loss. Lowest elevation of the entire line is 300 feet in Assam. Highest elevation in Burma is 4,500 feet. In China the line reaches an elevation of 9,200 feet. Most of the Chinese section is above 7,000 feet, the lowest being 2,600 feet in the Salween Gorge. Fuel for pumps along the line is supplied from the line itself, and is stored at each pump station.

  Not enough can be said of the accomplishments of the enlisted men of the Engineer Petroleum Distribution Companies. Often functioning as small construction units far from their parent unit, and without officer supervision, they performed the seemingly impossible by improvising to meet each special condition. Few of the enlisted men had previous pipeline experience, yet they have done a job more experienced but less hardy men might never have accomplished.

Commanding Officer   
Advance Headquarters   
Pipeline Constr, China   

 ABC Pipeline


by Sgt. Ray O. Howard

Prepared by Cpl. Sherwin Lando, the Office of Public Relations, USF in IBT, Advance Section, APO 689, in conjunction with the Information and Education Division, IBT. Passed for Publication by U.S. Army Press Censor, India-Burma Theater.

Special thanks to Leo (Sapienza) Leonhart
son of S/Sgt. Leo H. Sapienza, 1381st EPD
for providing the material on which this page is based.

Copyright © 2005 Carl Warren Weidenburner



  This page has been adapted from the original 1945 document which appears to be the final text draft of an intended informational booklet for soldiers in the India-Burma and China Theaters.  Minor changes have been made to the original text which was written sometime after V-J Day.  It is not known if the booklet was ever published.  The text makes reference to prints (photos) to illustrate the booklet being available from the Army Pictorial Service.  Since there was no indication of what photos these may have been, images related to pipelines in CBI have been added from various sources to illustrate this page.