Without the leadership and petroleum engineering background of UT PGE Distinguished Alumnus Robert L. Parker, Sr., the world we know today could look a lot different. Parker's time on campus was short, but his global impact is immeasurable.
Students today feel the pressure to graduate on time from their parents and themselves. However, they do not feel pressure from Uncle Sam’s “I want you” campaign; the well-coordinated campaign that pulled young graduates from campus to the battlefield during World War II.
“Pearl Harbor Day had a message to all of us—study harder and hurry, because they are gonna need you,” said Parker (BSPE ’44).
Parker attended The University of Texas at Austin during the peak of World War II. He selected petroleum engineering as his major, since his father, (Gifford C. Parker), owned Parker Drilling Company. The elder Parker formed the company in Tulsa, Okla., in 1934. As a result, Parker spent many hours of his childhood on rig floors.
“One of the things that attracted me to the business was the quality of the people that work on rigs,” said Parker. “They were called ‘roughnecks’ and it is rough work, but they were good, salt of the earth people.”
Parker’s father did not have a college education, so he reluctantly sent his son off to the petroleum engineering program at UT Austin. Due to the need for army personnel, students agreed to study constantly, skipping their summer vacations to complete their degree plans in three years before heading overseas to join the war effort.
Campus during the 1940’s had a much different atmosphere than today. The Forty Acres was designed to accommodate the war with The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), so most students on campus were in military uniform—not the typical shorts and Longhorn t-shirts of today. Parker was in a fraternity, but had to give up his house as did all the other fraternities and sororities so ROTC students could live on-campus.
“Some of the Longhorn football games had to be played up in Georgetown, because the administration didn’t want to have the stadium tied up during the war in case it needed to be used for other purposes,” said Parker.
A Date Which Will Live in Infamy
Parker vividly remembers sitting in a small math class at UT Austin on Dec. 7, 1941, when a friend pulled him out of the classroom and asked him if he had heard the news.
“I said ‘yes,’ but thought it was unusual, as everyone had heard the news of the Pearl Harbor bombing,” said Parker. “I went back to my work, but, when I met up with my friend later that day, he clarified he was trying to tell me my brother had become a casualty of the war. After that moment, going to school and focusing on my degree was the only thing that kept me from returning home at night and crying.”
The Only Thing We Have Left to Fear is Fear Itself
After completing his degree in 1944, he was immediately shipped from Austin to Germany, where he worked under U.S. General George S. Patton.
“The minute I landed, the U.S. Army said, ‘good, we have been looking for a petroleum engineer that knew all the answers,’” said Parker. “I had just graduated from Texas and I did not know if I had any answers, but I was promptly given the role of handling all of the petroleum products, and it was a busy job.”
Parker was assigned to serve as a quartermaster, a senior soldier who supervises, stores and distributes supplies and provisions, in the 941st quartermaster unit positioned at the submarine pens in Bremerhaven, Germany. His unit’s role was to unload the U.S. oil tankers and put them in five-gallon cans since they had no pipeline. Parker’s engineering skills came into play when he built the plants to make the cans.
(Parker in front of five-gallon oil cans)
“I was in charge of about 4,000 German prisoners who helped me construct the plant,” said Parker. “I also worked with Czechoslovakian prisoners, who were the best engineers I have ever been around.”
The final stage of logistics was devising a plan to keep a constant convoy of trucks speeding up and down the Autobahn ensuring oil got into the hands of U.S. generals, including Patton. Both the Allied and Axis Powers recognized they could not win the war without oil—naturally, it became both sides’ lifeblood.
Not only was Parker responsible for the energy supply efforts, but another part of his job was taking over the German-built quartermaster depot, the then-largest underground storage system for products in the world. The U.S. military took a keen interest in the systems the Germans had developed underground, particularly in terms of the engineering.
The depot included a 20-mile tunnel system connecting bunkers and oil plants. Individual plants in the depot were pre-marked by the Germans for post-war victory use; one East Texas oil and another Oklahoma oil.
“There was no doubt about it, Mr. Hitler had plans of capturing the United States and using all of our oil for his different needs,” said Parker.
Parker would descend into the dark tunnels, driving from one bunker to the next to check valves and connections, trying to understand which way the oil was going to flow—a hard task, considering there was no oil movement since Hitler’s army was running low. Trips into the tunnels carried a lot of danger, as members of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the Nazi party, were often present. In the darkness, bullets would whiz by Parker and without the modern technology of night vision glasses, Parker could only rely on luck.
“We were being shot at all the time—it was thrilling, but you couldn’t see what you were shooting and neither could the Germans,” said Parker.
To obtain fuel, the German army had to attack, but Parker said smart leadership from Patton and good soldiers kept the depot in the United States’ possession.
To Reach a Port, We Must Sail—Not Drift
Since Parker returned from Germany, he has continued to play a significant role in providing the U.S. and the world affordable energy. His life has many noteworthy chapters, including roughnecking in Mississippi and West Texas and taking over his father’s company, Parker Drilling Company, in 1954. He ran the company until 1991. Parker proudly flew a UT flag over the office, much to the dismay of local Oklahoma fans.
Parker established himself as a pioneer in the construction of helicopter rigs capable of operating in remote locations, as well as the development of Arctic drilling techniques on the North Slope of Alaska. In 1981, Parker received the U.S. Secretary of Energy’s Distinguished Service Medal. In 2007, he was inducted into the Petroleum Hall of Fame.
Parker’s time spent at UT PGE influenced his life’s trajectory and furthered his love and passion for the petroleum engineering discipline.
As a petroleum engineer, you always feel like you are needed,” said Parker. “You feel like you can provide answers to a lot of today’s problems in the world—and energy is certainly right on top of the table.”