Decline & War
In the 1920s, these were the years when the Miri field began to decline. Exploration was carried out further and further afield. In 1926 an exploratory team had gone as far as Padang Barawa between the Sungai Seria and Sungai Barawa. Not much attention was paid to their findings then, but now with the Miri field declining the old maps and charts were taken out and studied again. The result was the discovery of Seria field in 1929. In the years that followed people, equipment and installations began to be moved from Miri to Seria although the field was not really developed till postwar. The refinery remained in Lutong, but Miri contributed less to it. By 1940 the field had produced just over one million barrels during the year. By then, however, the operators were less concerned with producing oil than with shutting the field in, in case of enemy invasion.
War found two opposing forces who tried to influence the flow of Miri oil. On one side were the Allies (and the Company), determined to keep the oil in the ground. On the other side were the Japanese, equally determined to get the oil out.
Soon after news of Pearl Harbor, the first Japanese planes were seen making reconnaissance flights over Miri and Lutong. Immediately Company officials, with the help of the tiny garrison sationed in Miri, put Operation Denial into force. All producing wells were sealed up, vital equipment and machinery were dismantled and shipped off to Singapore. Skilled workers and important Company papers went along. The Company was determined to deny the invaders of all possible means of producing oil. So busy were they with the Denail Scheme that the Company officials themselves had barely time to leave on the three ships which were to take them to Kuching. They were attacked on their voyage. The G.M. Mr. B.B. Perry who stayed behind was last seen escaping up the Baram, never to be heard of again.
On 16th December 1941, a mere nine days after the Pearl Harbour, a Japanese invasion force of about four thousand and five hundred men landed at Tanjong Lobang. And a few months later, not long after the Fall of Singapore, there landed at Miri a large number of skilled, experienced oilfield workers, accompanied by a great deal of oilfield equipment and machinery - the very same that had been so carefully sent off to Singapore just before the invasion. The Japanese had managed to find out where exactly in Singapore both men and machinery were hidden, and had promptly brought them back. So much for the Company's denial scheme.
Ex-Company workers now found themselves working for the Nen Ryo Hai Kyu Sho or the oil Supplying Service. As one of them says, it was much like working for Shell (or Sarawak Oilfields Limited, as it was known then). Living conditions were naturally slightly different, and food, medical facilities and rest were short, but oil there was plenty of. It is said, much of the equipment used by the Japanese was portable. Not just derricks, but production and supply tanks, and even the refinery are reported to have been portable, or at least more mobile than they tend to be. It was by this remarkable combination of Japanese ingenuity and local labor that nearly three quarters of a million barrels were produced during the three and a half year's occupation. Production reached its peak in 1944.
By that time, living conditions had seriously deteriorated. Towards the latter half of the Occupation, Miri and Lutong became the target of innumerable air raids - systematic bombing, part of the Denial Scheme. Food, clothes and medicine were scarce; sickness and malnutrition rife. Those who worked for the Oil Supplying Service were marginally better off. They got regular rations of food, even though rice was being substituted by sweet potatoes and 'ubi kayu' with alarming frequency. But even they were not free from tribulation. It was not at all unusual, after a hard day's work on the oilfield and at the refinery, to be made to work on the construction of the Lutong Bridge and the Lutong Airstrip.
But if construction was strenous, maintenance was even more so, especially where the airstrip is concerned. In the dead of night one would be woken up by Japanese soldiers for the purpose of carrying heavy baskets of sand from the nearby beach to fill up the holes in the strip caused by Allied bombs. And more often than not, one would find one the following evening that Allied planes had paid yet another visit during the day, leaving the airstrip once again as pitted and potholed as the surface of the moon. Indeed, as the war went on, this filling up of holes became almost a nightly ritual.
Miri Oil Well No.1 lived through it all - she must have felt strange tremors of the earth under her feet as bombs were scattered, setting all they touched aflame. There was the night for instance when the shipyard and the nearby tanks were bombed and the fire spread through the town defying the rain that was coming down in torrents. The Old Lady of Miri serenely waited for someone to come along and set her going again. It was the Australians who came first.