- Historic Sites
Sorry No Gas
How Americans Met the First Great Gasoline Crisis—Nearly Forty Years Ago
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Chester Bowles, the advertising executive who was then head of rationing in Connecticut and who would replace Prentiss Brown as OPA head in October, called 1943’s pleasure-driving ban a “fiasco.” “From the beginning,” Bowles recalled, “it was clear to us that this edict was totally unenforceable, and the public soon came to realize it.” The completion of the “Big Inch” oil pipline (and the near completion of the “Little Big Inch”) from Texas to the East Coast gave the OPA a face-saving excuse to lift the ban in September. In all probability it had saved very little gasoline, succeeding only in souring the public’s view of those in charge of rationing.
In any event, gas rationing was proving to be startlingly effective. During 1942, largely because of the emergency rationing in the East, civilian consumption fell from 18.0 billion gallons to 14.4 billion, a drop of 20 per cent. In 1943, the first full year of nationwide rationing, consumption fell another 20 per cent. Car owners in 1941 had driven an average of 9,663 miles; in 1943 the figure was down to 6,366. (A portion of the dramatic drop was due to the fact that there were 3,700,000 fewer cars on the road, as vehicles wore out or were put up on blocks for the duration.) And thanks to rationing and the lowered speed limit, it was far safer to drive during World War II than it ever had been before; there were over sixteen thousand fewer traffic deaths in 1943 than in the last year of peace.
Gasoline rationing, in short, was accomplishing exactly what was intended of it: keeping Americans on the road in spite of themselves; keeping the Arsenal of Democracy racing along in high gear; and keeping the huge military machine fully supplied with rubber and gasoline. The driving public, however, began to reveal an ambivalent attitude toward the rationing as the war dragged on. Part of this was simply the result of war weariness. Part was a general resentment of the tangle of red tape involved in rationing and controls. OPA rulings such as the pleasure-driving ban certainly irritated public opinion. Finally, even the most patriotic citizen could not always resist sampling a touch of the freedom so long taken for granted in the car culture.
Consequently, beating the system became a common pastime. Initially at least it was a system fairly easy to beat. The lowest caliber violation was the use of a friend or relative’s unneeded gas coupons, a practice winked at by most gas-station attendants, for it was relatively harmless and produced no actual net change in the amount of fuel allocated for civilian use. More serious was the patronage of the black market. Chester Bowles stated the case nicely when he wrote that “gasoline rationing presented a dangerously ripe field for black market operations.” There were black marketeers dealing in every imaginable scarce or rationed wartime commodity, but nowhere were they more commonly found than around the nation’s 225,000 filling stations.
The criminally inclined found the gasoline black market irresistibly attractive because of the ease of operation, the high profits, and the low risks. All that was needed was a supply of “hot” gas coupons and a complaisant station owner. The easiest way to obtain hot coupons was to steal them, and the OPA’s rationing system offered numerous opportunities for the resourceful thief. The coupon chain began at the printing plant, from which coupon booklets were shipped to local OPA boards, where they were doled out to car owners. The coupons were collected from customers by the fillingstation operator, who periodically turned them in to his wholesaler; the gallonage the coupons represented was the basis for the dealer’s next gasoline delivery. From the wholesaler the coupons went to the supplier, and from there to a collection point, usually a bank, where they were logged in and destroyed.
Thieves operated all along this coupon chain, but they found the easiest pickings at local ration boards. Security tended to be lax, occasionally a bribe bought an “insider,” and the supply of coupons was sizable. Bureaucratic excess sometimes contributed significantly to this supply; OPA investigators found some boards stocked with five or ten or even twenty years worth of gas coupons, and one board was found to have enough coupons on hand for a 137-year war. During the first eighteen months of rationing, coupons worth 300,000,000 gallons of gasoline were taken in 650 robberies of OPA boards.
A second source of hot coupons was counterfeiting. The appeal the inch-square gas coupons held for veteran counterfeiters is suggested by the fact that the amount of phony currency seized in 1944 was only one-tenth of that picked up in 1939. Late in 1944 the OPA reported that fake coupons worth an average of 1,500,000 gallons a week were being discovered, no doubt only a fraction of what was being passed. Organized crime was deeply involved. In March, 1944, for example, the Boston police picked up members of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang who were found to have twenty-six thousand phony A coupons sewn into the linings of their overcoats.