The Americans Who Fueled Hitler’s First Military Victories

Mary Jo McConahay's book The Tango War covers the struggle for the hearts, minds, and riches of Latin America during World War II. Read on to learn about the money-hungry Americans that launched themselves into the fray. 

Mary Jo McConahay
4-minute read

Hitler’s first military victories in World War II were fuelled by two upstart Americans shunned by the big shots at home. One was none other than Fred C. Koch, father of the Koch brothers Charles and David, who would become billionaire backers of extreme right-wing politics in the United States. The other, William Rhodes Davis, referred to by the New York Times as “the mystery man” of international politics for his wartime maneuvering in oil, would die a messy death, not living to see his grandson, Joseph Graham “Gray” Davis Jr., inaugurated as the Republican governor of California in 1999.

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Together Koch and Davis would build one of the largest oil refineries in the world for the Reich. Called Eurotank, the operation was one of the few in Germany capable of producing the high-octane gasoline demanded by the fighter planes of the Luftwaffe.

Davis, born in Montgomery, Alabama, rose from working in the dirt and grease of Oklahoma oil fields to becoming a millionaire operator with wells, refineries, European outlets, and a tanker fleet. Beginning in the early 1930s the cartel of big firms like Standard and Shell -- Davis called them “the international combine” -- tried to crush the brash newcomer, and succeeded in battering Davis’s network. 

While Davis was building his would-be empire and struggling to defend it from Big Oil, Koch, born in Texas, was becoming a chemical engineer, and eventually graduated with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He invented a newly efficient way of processing petroleum that gave smaller operations – like Davis’s -- a fighting chance to compete with the major companies. Not at all pleased, Big Oil was moved to crush Koch also, by launching dozens of lawsuits against him, including charges of patent violations. Koch decamped to the Soviet Union to build petroleum distillation plants for Stalin – intellectual property rights were not recognized in revolutionary Russia. 

When Davis walked into a banquet room to meet the businessmen, he made an unforgettable first impression, raising his arm in the Nazi salute.

Wealth flowed into Koch’s pockets as he built more than a dozen refineries for the Communist state. At the time, however, Stalin was rabidly cleansing the population -- including colleagues of Koch -- with purges, and the Texan developed revulsion for the Soviet Union and communism. He also developed an admiration for the system of the “only sound countries in the world,” fascist Germany, Italy and Japan.

The time was ripe for the two entrepreneurs to join forces. The initiative came from Davis.

In 1933 Davis had sent a company envoy to Berlin check out possibilities of selling oil to the new National Socialist government; the envoy reported back that Standard and Shell had a stranglehold on the German market. Davis decided to take matters into his own hands, travelling to Germany himself. He bought an oil storage company in Hamburg, drew up a plan for the massive Eurotank, and started making personal connections with influential Germans: Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo, diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop, and a group of businessmen brought together by a pair of aristocratic twins, Karl and Werner von Clemm.  When Davis walked into a banquet room to meet the businessmen, he made an unforgettable first impression, raising his arm in the Nazi salute.  The businessmen smoothed his way into government offices, but knowing that such a major project would never fly without the imprimatur of the Fuehrer, Davis sent a copy of the plan directly to Hitler.