US Army Quartermaster Foundation
Fort Lee, Virginia

Refueling a Tank with a 55-Gallon Drum, 3rd Infantry Division, Korea 1952The Drum 55-Gallon and 5-Gallon as Petroleum Containers for Military Service
17 August 1952
Study conducted by the
Office of the Quartermaster, HQ, Eighth U.S. Army Korea (EUSAK)
Colonel  Hugh Mackintosh

Petroleum supply during the Korean War, 1952


Based on the results of a field survey, there is a definite need for both the drum 55-gallon and the drum 5-gallon (hereafter referred to as the 5-gallon can) as containers of petroleum products in the supply of military units.   The 55-gallon drum has the advantage of savings in manpower and manhours required for handling, is more durable, is more easily stored and inventoried, reduces pilferage of both containers and product, is potentially less wasteful of products, and is cheaper on a volume basis.  The 5-gallon can has the advantage of ease of handling, the ability to be transported under difficult conditions such as enemy fire and hazardous terrain, and enhances the mobility of tactical units under fluid situations.

The 5-gallon can is necessary for units dug-in front-line positions, or front-line units moving rapidly in tactical situations.  As tactical situations become more static, however, the 55-gallon drum can be used advantageously by more-forward units.  Rear echelons can always effect savings by the use of the 55-gallon drum.

To capitalize on the advantages of the 55-gallon drum,units must be supplied with dispensing devices, preferably simple, reliable, hand-operated rotary pumps.


During WWII, in the European Theater, the distribution of motor gasoline in the forward areas was made almost exclusively in 5-gallon cans.  In other theaters of operation, the 55-gallon drum was used to a somewhat greater extent.

In Korea, the distribution of motor gasoline is made almost exclusively in 55-gallon drums.  This is due to the fact that drums were readily and commercially available in the early stages of the Korean action and the 5-gallon cans were not.  Periodically, it has been suggested that the 55-gallon drum be abandoned and a return made to the WWII system of using the 5-gallon can exclusively.  These suggestions have been met with vigorous opposition from the field. To determine the relative merits of the two containers, as to their efficiency in regard to utilization of manpower, time, product carried and tactical advantages, and also to determine the reason for this opposition, the Eighth Army Quartermaster directed that a field survey be conducted.



The basic data of this report have been obtained in a field survey of three infantry divisions under tactical conditions prevailing in Korea in April 1952.  Military armistice conferences had been in progress for approximately nine months, and there had been no major tactical operations observed, personnel interviewed, and where ever possible factual data obtained relative to the study.


Most of the automotive gasoline used in Korea is delivered to ocean terminal storage tanks in bulk.  Drum-fill plants, located in the vicinity of the terminals or along pipe lines extending from the terminals, package the gasoline in 55-gallon drums and, to a limited extent, 5-gallon cans.  These containers are shipped by rail to forward supply points and division railheads.

Distribution within the division follows regular supply channels, i.e. division to regiment to battalion to company or battery. Both types of containers are available to the divisions, however, over 90 per cent of all gasoline issued to divisions is in 55-gallon drums.  Distribution to regiments and battalions is also made in drums except in a few cases where the 5-gallon can is specifically requested.

From regiments and battalions, the gasoline is issued to consumers in a variety of ways.

a.  Where the tactical position permits, unit vehicles return to the battalion motor pool and refuel directly from drums using pumps to dispense the product.  As the same time, deliveries of drum stock are made to the companies, where it is decanted into 5-gallon cans for use in field ranges. Usually the flexible nozzle is employed in decanting at company level.  This system of distribution was the most prominent in units surveyed.

b.  The next most common method was distribution in drums to the consumer where the product was decanted in 5-gallon cans and thence into vehicles and field ranges.

c.  The method employed least was decanting by regimental and battalion service companies and issue to the user in 5-gallon cans.


A wide variety of equipment and methods are being used in the field to decant 55-gallon drums into cans, or to fill vehicle fuel tanks directly from 55-gallon drums.  In most cases, the transfer of fuel from the drums is by hand pump, and the hand pump most commonly used is the reciprocating plunger type lift pump which is an integral part of the water trailer.

The water trailer pumps are too slow (insufficient capacity) for refueling vehicles, are not spark proof, do not have the proper gaskets for gasoline, and their use destroys or detracts from the utility of the water trailer.

The next most commonly used pump is the Quartermaster pump, barrel, rotary, hand operated, which is specifically designed as a gasoline dispenser.   This pump weighs approximately 25 pounds with a 6-foot hose and nozzle and a suction line consisting of a pipe which extends to the bottom of the drum and acts as a support for the pump.  It has a rated delivery of 10 gallons per minute, can be easily operated by one man, and is well adapted for this use.  In some services, the rotary pumps are authorized down to company level; in other services they are not authorized at either company or battalion level.

Also in use were a variety of miscellaneous hand pumps from various and sundry sources.  The most practical and efficient of these pumps appeared to be one o Australian make weighing about 75 pounds with an estimated output of 25 gallons per minute.  This pump rested on the ground, had flexible inlet and outlet hoses, and was a reciprocating type with a long handle that could be operated by one or two men from a standing position.

At the division quartermaster company, the 30 gallon-per-minute motor driven dispenser (Federal Standard Stock No. 11-P-470) was available for decanting operations or for dispensing fuel at division "service stations".  Of the five 30-gallon dispensers observed, 3 were inoperative due to engine failures.  There were no 100-gallon-per-minute dispensers (motor driven) found within divisions.

Considering the high maintenance factor on the motor driven dispensers, and the exceptionally reliable and efficient performance of the rotary hand pump, it is believed that the latter should be considered for all units below division level.

More elaborate systems are occasionally used of a service station type of refueling point, usually in rear areas.  Pressure for these systems may be supplied either by force feed or gravity.

Refueling of vehicles directly from containers invariably results in some leakage.  In the case of tank type vehicles this produces an extremely hazardous condition as sparks result from the steel container striking the body of the vehicle and fuel drips through the grille to the hot exhaust maifold of the engine.


The initial cost of the container per gallon of fuel is greater when using a 5-gallon can.  Current container prices are $7.35 per 55-gallon drum and $2.20 per 5-gallon can.  An investment of $24.20 in cans is thus required to equal the volume of an $7.35 drum.  Statistics reveal that of the 4,674, 818 drums shipped to Korea, 27.2 per cent of the total have been lost.  Of 941,645 5-gallon cans shipped to Korea, 53.6 per cent have been removed from the supply channels.   This actual experience in substantiated by published Quartermaster monthly replacement factors of .093 for 55-gallon drums and .150 for 5-gallon cans.  It is evident that in addition to requiring a larger initial investment, the 5-gallon container is more expensive as a result of the greater percentage lost.

This high rate of loss of 5-gallon cans appears to be in line with previous experience in Europe, during WW II, where the mortality was 70 per cent in the first 9 months on the Continent.  During the period 6 June 1944 to 28 February 1945, a total of 32 million cans, exclusive of T/O & E (Table of Organization and Equipment) allowances, were shipped to the continent.  However, not all of those cans were in the possession of the Army as the native population found them very useful, even for handling water.  In an all out inventory on 28 February 1945, only 9 million cans could be accounted for.


The waste of petroleum products in the field is primarily dependent on the care exercised by personnel regardless of type of container. The inherent waste in the drum appears to be less than that associated with the 5-gallon can, but the actual waste with the drums is somewhat greater as result of improper handling and dispensing techniques.  A comparison of the waste associated with the various stages of distribution substantiates this statement.

The 55-gallon drum requires more care in emptying if proper dispensing equipment, such as a pump, is not available.  Approximately one quart remains in a drum properly drained with a pump, and about the same quantity is left in eleven 5-gallon cans.

The spillage in the initial filling of the containers is less with the 55-gallon drum.  The nozzle has to be placed in the container opening once and there is only one opportunity to run the 55-gallon drum over as compared to eleven with the 5-gallon can.

Losses in storage are difficult to determine, but an analysis of the potential storage waste indicates that the loss would be larger from the 55-gallon drum.  Losses from defective containers can reasonably be expected to be equal.  A greater loss would be suffered from a drum with weak seams, but the larger number of cans would result in corresponding larger quantities of defective cans.  Evaporation losses are greater from the 5-gallon can because it is necessary to store them on end and the closure is not sealed by liquid as in the horizontally stored 55-gallon drum.  The greatest loss of product in storage occurs from leakage around the drum closure during to daily fluctuation in temperature.  This loss can be practically eliminated by diligent inspection of storage areas.

Product wasted, due to containers destroyed in transportation and handling is directly related to supervision and training of personnel.   The size and weight of the 55-gallon drum makes handling difficult if proper facilities are not available.  Consequently, the drum, when full, is more often handled roughly, damaging the container and wasting product.  The 5-gallon can may be easily carried by one man and does not pose the off-loading problems as does the drum.   Undoubtedly, the 5-gallon can gets rougher treatment when empty, since it can be thrown around easily, resulting in punctures.

Where petroleum products are in short supply, pilferage from military supply lines becomes a serious problem.  In this situation, the 55-gallon drum is a more desirable container because its size and weight are sufficient to discourage pilferage under most circumstances.  The 5-gallon can is readily carried by one man, consequently a large loss may be suffered by pilferage from stocks of petroleum stored in cans.

The amount of product wasted with either type container during dispensing operations may be nil or excessive depending upon the degree of care exercised.  A permanently assigned, well-trained man in charge of a fuel dump results in virtually no loss of product.  A "self service" fuel dump is not conductive to produce economy.  If dispensing must be performed, without pumps, the size of the drum makes it awkward to handle and often results in spillage.  When the product must be decanted from drum into cans, the waste, associated with each container, becomes additive.


Accurate time studies were not attempted during the course of this survey; however, observations were made of various operations and manpower estimates were obtained from personnel who were experienced in the handling and use of both the 55-gallon drum and the 5-gallon can.

In general, any operation performed with 5-gallon cans required more man-hours than the same operation performed with 55-gallon drums.   Also, it is apparent that most operations involving 5-gallon cans require a longer period of time to complete than when the 55-gallon drum is used, regardless of the manpower available.  This is due to the nature of such operations where there are usually space or equipment limitations that prevent the use of unlimited manpower.   This relationship is illustrate by the following table:

Comparison of Transfer Operations

From RR Car to 2 1/2 Ton Truck

Optimum No of Men


Gallons per Average Truck

5-gallon can 3 25 minutes 1200
55-gallon drum 2 10 minutes 954

From Field Stack to RR Car

Optimum No of Men Time Gallons per Average Railcar
5-gallon can 9 1 hr 30 min 9000
55-gallon drum 7 45 minutes 79500

Another significant comparison between the can and the drum was obtained in connection with the refueling of tank-type vehicles.  In one tank company, where the average vehicle required 100 gallons to refuel, it was observed that two men could accomplish this operation from drums using a water trailer pump in 15 minutes.  The same two men required 40 minutes to 60 minutes (depending upon number of rest periods taken) when refueling with 5-gallon cans already filled and stacked adjacent to vehicle.

In another tank company, where 5-gallon can was preferred and had been in use for some time, it required 4 men 15 minutes to refuel under the same conditions.

Although manpower and manhours figures are based to a large extent on personal opinions, all evidence strongly points to savings of up to 50 per cent when the 55-gallon drum is used in place of the 5-gallon can.


Based on experience in Korea, more fuel can be cared in 5-gallon cans than in 55-gallon drums to the extent of 13 per cent in railroad cars and 26 per cent in trucks.  However, expereince has shown that the 13 per cent is frequently reduced by pilferage from railroad cars, and the 26 percent is more frequently and drastically reduced by failure of personnel to load trucks to the maximum possible.


The extensive use of the 55-gallon drum in petroleum distribution is justified by savings in manpower, time, product, and containers.   Distribution of the quantities of product required in Korea could not be carried out using 5-gallon cans without large increases in service troops.  The tactical situation during the last year has permitted the utilization of 55-gallon drums to a larger extent than would normally be anticipated under combat conditions.  It is evident that certain tactical situations dictate the use of the 5-gallon can, and, if a universal container were to be selected it would by necessity have to be the 5-gallon can.   However, under all conceivable conditions, there will be a large percentage of troops located in relatively permanent positions where the 55-gallon drum can be used to advantage.

The most efficient means of distribution is to provide the product to end users in both types of containers.  In this way, the optimum use of each type of container can be effected.  Under most circumstances, if the product is ultimately going to be dispensed from a 5-gallon can, it should be drawn from supply points or depots in that container.

The efficient use of the 55-gallon drum is dependent on a satisfactory method of dispensing the product from the drum.  This fact must be recognized and it is recommend that pumps, barrel, rotary, hand operated, be made available in excess of T/O & E allowance for this purpose.


Return To: 50th Anniversary Korean War Page   Petroleum & Water History

Hit Counter

Return To:  Quartermaster History Page

Quartermaster Foundation Page

Quartermaster Museum Page Quartermaster Homepage