CHAPTER 1: FROM TEXACO TO ARAMCO, HIGH HOPES FOR THE FUTURE, A CHRISTMAS WISH AND MOTHER AND DAUGHTERS FLY TO ARABIA
Ken Webster began his oil industry career in 1931, shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Signing on as an engineer trainee with The Texas Company (Texaco), he began his career in earnest, living and working in many refining towns throughout the United States. He joined Aramco in 1944 – while World War II still raged overseas – for what he initially believed would be only a 3-6 year contract in Arabia. This first chapter is dedicated to setting the stage for the Websters’ long stay in the Kingdom during the 1940s and 1950s. Very few letters from 1944 or 1945 survive, and with the help of articles from the Arabian Sun & Flare, I was able to tell a bit of the story of how my grandfather decided to join the company and what life was like in those first months.
From The Arabian Sun and Flare, May 1959:
An eventful 13 years followed in various Texas Company refineries: 4 ½ years at Port Arthur, Tex., where he advanced from student engineer to Area Engineer of Maintenance and Construction; Plant Engineer at Casper, Wyo., for six months; a 5 ½-year assignment at Sunburst, Mont., and a 2 ½-year stint at Lockport, Ill. During his Montana assignment he met and was married to Mildred Nelson of Texas when she was vacationing with relatives there. Webster joined Aramco in July 1944, and arrived in Saudi Arabia October 18. For the first 18 months he handled outside work on the Ras Tanura Refinery as Supervisor of Construction under Bill Cooper. Later he became Supervisor of Maintenance and Construction for the Refinery…
Ken Webster’s letter explaining his upcoming move to Saudi Arabia and why it will be a good thing for his family:
Riverside, Connecticut July 22, 1944 Dear Folks:
Summer 1944: the Webster family in
Riverside, Connecticut, after Ken’s
decision to join Aramco. Left to right: Ken
Webster, Judy (6 years old), Mildred,
Susan (3 years old). Photograph courtesy
of Ken Slavin
You have received Mildred’s letter regarding her final plans to stay in Riverside with Mother and Sister. Had an apartment been available she would have moved to Tulsa – as you know we moved in Lockport just before coming East – and after ten days the family convinced her to stay and the furniture moving is being arranged through Helen Larsen at Lockport. There is no question in my mind that the decision to stay here is the right one, as she will have no hay fever – she has friends here – and most appealing to me is the thought that after the girls go to bed at night, she will not be alone, but will have someone to visit with. I know it will be hard for her to do without me, but this chance is so big, I could not turn it down nor want to now. It is to be expected that we shall only spend 3 to 6 years out of the USA, thinking that when Judy is ready for high school we want her to attend a school in USA. There will be positions in this country by then – in Arabian company – and of course I can always return to Texas Co. with added prestige. The least I can do is make more money than possible here for the next 3 to 6 years, which with no income tax will mean a much higher net. My pension payments by me 15 percent and by Company 10 percent are 2 ½ times present ones, permitting retirement 15 years earlier at same amount or 2 ½ times amount at 65 than if I stay here. It is all to the good – except leaving Mildred and girls for two years more or less. She will come to Tulsa just as often as if she were in Lockport – you can bank on that. There is not much else I can say – get my last shots Monday next – expect to leave Aug. 1-2-3 for Miami and check out from there on a plane….Then on to Natal, Brazil, Ascension Islands, Dakar, Africa, Casablanca, Cairo, then Persia, Bahrain Island and boat over to mainland of Arabia. My boss left Saturday from here, but we do not know yet if out of the country. Will keep in touch with you and will see you in about three years – possibly sooner. Love, Ken
Excerpts of letter from Mildred Webster after her husband departed for Saudi Arabia:
Riverside, Connecticut October 12, 1944 Dearest Nana and Pop: Well it has come at last and Ken is gone. He left sometime Monday – I’m not sure when. The three weeks have been hectic even though we were delighted to have the extra time together. He was ‘alerted’ twice and once was down to go to the plane when he and two others were scratched to make room for more gasoline in the plane. Then last week on Wed. morning they called for him to come in and be on an alert, which means they are on 60-minute call and have to be where they can be reached every hour. We went in and stayed at the Hotel expecting to be called any minute and every time we went out we had to call into the Hotel every hour – they wouldn’t let him go home or to work – so we just bummed around for a week you might say. The call came at 5:30 in the morning to report at 7:45…He got out some time that morning I am sure. I don’t know if he went (via) New Foundland or Miami. As soon as he arrives the Company will send me the cable – then to wait for a letter. Some of the men went over in from 6 to 8 days but you can never tell how good your connections will be…. I guess I’m going to be able to take it but it sure isn’t any fun… Love from us all, Mimi
Ken Webster sends a Christmas letter:
Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia December 17, 1945 Dear Folks:
Ken Webster’s Christmas card from Saudi
Arabia, 1945. Photo courtesy of Ken Slavin
A little late but nonetheless sincere. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. These cards were made in the Italian Camp, and were all we had available. My thoughts are not on Christmas, but on Mildred and the kiddies coming to Arabia. I wrote her November 22 the official invitation to come out, as soon as transportation is available she will be here. Haven’t heard from her yet about the plane she has, and hope my letter did not go astray, for my greatest lack is her and the kids. It will be fun here for them, nothing to do except grow fat and sassy, and it is a healthy climate. When it gets hot, the air conditioning makes the houses and offices comfortable, and when it is raw and chilly, we run warm water through the air conditioning and warm the houses. Our beach is beautiful, the food is grand, the new houses will be really nice, and we have so many friends here from other locations we worked. I have no news, the last big unit starts up December 22 and then we shall be running about 76,000 barrels a day. We met the schedule set, and had a lot of heartaches doing it, but proud we all are of the part we played in building this project so far from home and during wartime. I wish I could tell you about the country, the people, etc., but telling and writing are two different things for me. After I write Mildred I have little to put on paper. I am glad that Mildred was able to visit you so long this past summer, and you may rest assured we shall visit you in 1947 if not sooner. It (has been) rougher on her than me in many respects, but it is almost over now, and she will enjoy her trip out and the time spent here. If we like it we may come back, if not can always go back to Texaco. The future holds much, and in the meanwhile we shall see something of the world and enjoy each other day by day. All I want for Christmas is my family, and I’ll never complain about anything else. They will be happy here I think, and the experience gained will be good for us all. I am sending this by APO by the kindness of a friendly GI who leaves Dec. 26, that is why the Sgt. Srafin on the envelope. Love, Ken
Fly the Friendly Skies
Letter to Mildred’s stepmother, Beverly
“Nana” Nelson, officially announcing
Mildred’s safe arrival in Saudi Arabia.
The letter is from Ralph Wells, supervisor
of Aramco’s Employee Relations
Department in San Francisco.
Letter courtesy of Ken Slavin
Mildred Nelson and her daughters, eight-year-old Judy and five-year-old Susan, boarded an Aramco company plane, The Sphinx, on March 6, 1946. Departing New York, they traveled for the next six days, stopping several places along the way for refueling, to escape sandstorms and to allow the flight crew to rest. Daughter Judy played stewardess and young Susan adopted a stray cat. The travelers encountered a very cold Paris where wartime rationing made it impossible to bathe or get a good meal. They experienced the “luck of the Irish” with real whiskey and storytelling. They met their first Arabs in Palestine. And hit bad weather in Cairo. They finally arrived in Ras Tanura on March 11. After taking a few days to acclimate to the weather and to take in all the new sights, she sat down at her husband’s desk in the refinery office to write her first letter to her family, describing the sights she and the children had seen along the way, the tearful reunion with her husband, and her initial impressions of life in Saudi Arabia.
Excerpts from Mildred Webster’s first letter from Saudi Arabia:
Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia March 15, 1946 Dear Folks: I finally got to the office to get letters off – under the deadline, too. The APO will be off the 20th, so you will all have to answer by straight airmail which will cost you 70 cents – us 92 – or send it boat mail which will cost you 5 cents – but take weeks to get here. I have kept a diary of the trip and will copy it for you – that way you will all know just what we did and when – it really was fun even when it was tiresome.
March 6 – They called us at 12 o’clock and we hustled ourselves around getting ready – the children had slept about 4 hours but I hadn’t at all – but I was excited and it didn’t matter – all went in one bus and arrived there about 3 – after all the passport stuff and weighing in I went to send a telegram and they gave me a corsage – it was a tremendous thrill and the flowers were lovely – I really felt like something! (We took off) at 9:15. The plane was a lovely one – a Douglas C-49 Skymaster – called “The Sphinx” – seats for 41 and crew of 6 – we only had 31 passengers. Two rest rooms, a cloakroom, storeroom and kitchen. Reclining seats – heat, even if the floor was cold, blankets and pillows. The children were not confined to their seats – and with the four other kids managed to get around and visit and not get tired. The crew was swell – and our little hostess, Miss Johnston, was a little blonde beauty – but we lost her on the first stop. Of the 31 aboard, seven were women and the six children. Mrs. Fulmer and her three (a girl 9, a boy 8 and a boy 2) Mrs. Spears and her boy 3 – two brides (Kiddo Hogg and June Schott) – then Lou Hausser who was meeting her husband to be in Cairo and who will live in Ras Tanura with us when they get here from their honeymoon. All were very congenial and swell sports. The children all turned out to be excellent travelers – no one was sick and they all learned to eat and sleep at all odd hours. At 2:30 we landed at Gander, New Foundland to stop 10 hours so our crew could rest. We went by bus to barracks – it is an Army camp – and were assigned to rooms. There was a club across the street with a lounge and we sat around there until dinnertime. The food wasn’t very good but welcome. We went to bed about 7:30 to be called at 11 – got up and dressed and went to the club to eat only to find we weren’t going after all – they had to wait for a part from the plane to be sent out from New York, so we went back to bed.
March 7 – Got up and…found the weather in N.Y was such the part hadn’t even left there, so just killed the day getting a few things done in the room – playing bridge with the crew and the others – there was a lot of traffic through there – planes coming and going and people coming in to eat – Clippers and “Connies” as they call them – it is supposed to be the biggest airport in the world and it is very large. Susan found a cat in the barracks, so adopted it and it stayed in our room the whole time – everyone makes a fuss over the children so they are OK. The hostess adopted Judy and she helped her on the plane serving, etc.
March 8 – Took off at 3:15, a little drizzly and foggy but soon cleared and we had a lovely smooth trip across the Atlantic. We made a record trip of 9 ½ hours – I really wasn’t concerned, even though I had thought I would be. Everyone spent part of the time sleeping. We landed at Shannon, Ireland at 5:30 their time – having lost six hours from N.Y. It was clear and the trip from the Irish coast in was lovely – just as you would expect – neat little farms – sod roofs – and lots of green. We had a grand dinner in Shannon: bean soup, prime ribs of beef, potatoes, fresh peas – orange pudding and coffee. I think we were all subconsciously happy we had made the crossing safely even though no one said so – a couple of the men had thought to buy Jamieson’s Irish Whiskey – we didn’t even think of it – so the bottles began to pass and everyone got sort of happy. We had Colonel Eddy with us, the American Minister to Arabia – and he came out of his shell he had been in ever since Gander – and was lots of fun. (We left for Paris and made) a non-stop flight there, arriving at 3:30 a.m. and the airport was covered with snow … it was bitter cold.
March 9 – We went through the customs and passport business again and a sleepy, cold crowd all piled in a cold bus and drove 30 minutes into Paris. We went to the Palais D’Orsay – a regular palace of a hotel – we were given rooms by 5 o’clock. They had wired ahead. The place was magnificent, but no heat in it at all and I know our suite was about 10 above! We had a bedroom with marble fireplace, satin damask chairs and draperies – inlaid stuff all on the bed – a big double one – with real Irish linen sheets with cluny lace all around them – and the spread was beautiful cut work on linen – all sorts of fancy light fixtures, etc. The sitting room was just like it and they had put a single bed in it for Judy – but it was so darned cold I didn’t have the heart to put her by herself. So we kept on most of our clothes and took all the covers off the little bed and crawled in the middle of the big bed and just DIED! I guess we would be there yet but our phone rang at 12:30 and it was the gang down in the lobby – they had pounded on our door and couldn’t rouse us – we hopped up and dressed in a hurry – couldn’t bathe – no soap or water -- and met in the restaurant, but there wasn’t anything we could eat. They had cold beets for their meal and the girls had a shriveled apple apiece and I had a cup of ersatz coffee for about 80 cents. There was other stuff but nothing appealed so the children ate an orange and a couple of sandwiches I had brought from the plane. We left for the airport at 4 and took off at 5:15 to make a non-stop flight to Cairo.
March 10 – You can’t come down in Rome or Athens, where we were scheduled to stop, at night because they can’t staff their airports – so we took the coastline with better weather reports – we did see the Swiss Alps by moonlight and covered with snow, but that is about all. We were due in Cairo at 5 a.m. We were there but circled the field and came down to 600 feet – then up again and down again and up until we were all getting a little apprehensive – when they announced that were was a terrific sand storm and we couldn’t land – couldn’t even see the field. We had picked up three TWA officials in Paris and they didn’t seem alarmed so we just settled down. (F)lew to Lydda, Palestine – arrived in 55 minutes and when we came down were met with soldiers with guns, etc. That is ticklish territory there and they didn’t know who we were – they took us off the plane and we had a delicious breakfast at the RAF port there – and stayed four hours – we couldn’t leave the field, however – we were 10 miles out from Tel Aviv – a lovely English garden in front of the port and our first Arabs. Our trip back to Cairo was longer and very rough and very hot over the desert – but very pretty to see – the Mediterranean in the distance and the lovely orange groves and neat little farms all underneath. Arrived in Cairo at noon to find a lot of sand yet in the air and the wind blowing a gale. We rushed into the (air)port and the storm came up again so that you couldn’t even see the plane. They said the worst in 20 years and the officials were apologizing that we should see Egypt at its worst on our first trip. We were definitely very weary! Took off for Arabia at 12.
March 11 – We were all excited when we took off and they expected to reach Dhahran at 6:30 next morning. So we all settled down for a snooze – I didn’t think I could but was glad I did – at 4:30 they turned on the lights and told us we were coming down an hour early. Well, the men all had a swell time kidding us and we all got busy powdering and fixing up and bless Patty when we landed there wasn’t a soul there to meet us They didn’t even know the plane was due. It was rumored for days and the whole town had been out the day before and the men had been there on and off for days. But finally gave up and went home – so there we were with an Army lieutenant and a bunch of Arabs to meet us! The men did razz us then! They called Dhahran right away and pretty soon they all began to arrive and what a happy reunion for them….
Judy Webster, left, and her sister, Susan,
running into the surf at Ras Tanura on the
Persian Gulf, Spring 1946. Their house is
visible on the horizon behind them and
seated on the beach are their mother,
Mildred, and two unidentified Aramco
workers. Just behind the girls is the baby
black lamb presented to them as a welcome
gift by the men assigned to Ras Tanura.
Photograph by Aramco, courtesy Susan
The Stapletons (Mr. and Mrs. Vic Stapleton) took us under their wings and took us to their house to wait for the boys. We cleaned up in their darling house and had a delicious breakfast. The place is very pretty with its shrubbery and oleanders and flowers – I was agreeably surprised. Pretty soon up came the boys in a cloud of dust and then everyone was happy – Ken looks fine – is much heavier and is almost white headed – but very brown and looks in the pink — he was so happy to see us almost all of us were in tears, including the Stapletons! After a while we started to Ras Tanura – and it wasn’t a bad trip – the boys had snagged cars so we didn’t have to make it a jeep. Art Johnson was with Ken and drove us back. Our apartment is very roomy and nicely furnished – in fact I am surprised…it is all much nicer than I expected and know we shall be very happy here. We settled our luggage in the he apartment and went to the family mess hall for a most delicious dinner with all sorts of service. There are three “boys” and they really wait on you. The kids will be rotten. They are all fascinated by children and love them. We drove out to the houses, which are grand – ours is right on the beach and believe me, the Persian Gulf is beautiful. It is about four shades of the most gorgeous blue you have ever seen and the sand is white and fine.
Passport photo for Mildred Webster and
her young daughters, Judy, left, and Susan.
Mildred was 39 years old when she traveled
to Saudi Arabia for the first time. Judy was
8 and Susan was 5. Courtesy of Ken Slavin
We visited the hospital and everything else. It is amazing how much is done and how complete it all is. We went to the Coopers’ for dinner – they are seven miles away at the Terminal – all the food is wonderful – all the butter and sugar you want. I am in the office now and Ken has taken the children out so I can get this done. Three men were just here and brought them a little baby black lamb. They already have swings at the apartment – found them there this morning. And everyone is spoiling them to death. It is pathetic to see these men who are so lonesome for their families. The children haven’t been swimming, it is still too cold, but they did go wading. It is very cool at night. I am still wearing wool dresses and a coat at night. The winds blow pretty much so you have to wear a scarf or bandana. Ken is on vacation till tomorrow so we spend the time looking around everything. I can’t get enough sleep and as of last night my tummy got on the schedule instead of nine hours difference in N.Y. and I am hungry at the right time. The children are eating like pigs – and very happy – no school arrangements yet but I am already a native: I’ll do it tomorrow! Judy already knows several Arabic expressions and they will have lessons in about a week – it is funny to stop in the car and have 15 or 20 Arabs press as close as possible and stare at you. Love, Mimi