EGEE 120
Oil: International Evolution

The Prize Chapter 18: Japan’s Achilles’ Heel


Consider the following questions:

  • Are there present day equivalents to Japan’s wartime fuel production?
  • What are the ecological impacts?
  • How did Japan value life versus fuel?
  • Was dropping the atomic bomb necessary?
  • How did America exact revenge on Admiral Yamamoto in April 1943 for Pearl Harbor?
  • What are your views on the way the Razor, General Hideki Tojo, died?

Balikpapan Oil Fields Destroyed but Victory Fever grips Japan

Right after Pearl Harbor, the families of oilmen in Balikpapan, in Borneo, in the British East Indies were evacuated in anticipation of Japanese advances into Southeast Asia. Balikpapan, with all its oil wells and refineries, was one of great prizes for which Japan would go to war. In mid-January 1942, crews began to destroy the wells as the Japanese were closing in. They pulled out tubing, cut them up, jammed them down the wells, and placed cans of the explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) in each well to destroy them. The crews started with the least productive wells until at last all were destroyed. The refinery complex was also completely destroyed, and with that action, four decades of oil industry that had been created was destroyed in less than a day. The next plan was for the crew to escape. Some crew were evacuated, but 75 people were left stranded at the Bay of Balikpapan still awaiting rescue as the Japanese had already landed on the south side of the bay. Out of the 75, only 35 survived the jungle and the Japanese firing squads and prisons.

It should be pointed out, however, that the initial attempt to deny Japan the oil in East Indies was only an initial setback. Within a short period, Japan was able to restore the Balikpapan oilfields with astonishing results that far exceeded their goals. Oil production in the Southern zone in 1940 was 65.1 million barrels. In 1942, the Japanese managed to restore 25.9 million barrels, and in 1943, 49.6 million barrels (75% of the 1940 level). With the East Indies oil, Japan was able to import enough oil to make up for the oil embargo in July 1941 by the Americans, British, and Dutch. There was no lack of oil, and Japanese fleet could even refuel locally at will. They even struck a giant field in central Sumatra in the Minas structure. All these events helped make Japan feel that the oil problem, which was the driving force for its aggression, had been solved.

By mid-March 1942, Japan’s control of East Indies was complete, and in just three months, Japan had won all of the rich resources of Southeast Asia. With the stunning and rapid military successes in Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, a “Victory fever” gripped Japan.