Part I: Rationing During the War

by James M. Flammang

How would you survive on 3 or 4 gallons of
gasoline per week? Millions of American
drivers managed to do so during World War II.

Suggesting the likelihood, or desirability, of gasoline rationing in a crowd of avid motorists has not always been the safest of acts. More often than not, the speaker could expect to be rewarded with glaring faces, harsh words aimed at the oil companies and/or the Federal government – perhaps even a threat of fisticuffs.

Owners of antique and special-interest vehicles, along with other automotive hobbyists, have often been particularly insistent in their refusal to discuss the subject in a rational manner. Like the majority of the motoring public in general, many have preferred to believe that there is no real shortage, either now or in the foreseeable future – thus, no possible need for rationing in any form. And that, even if the supply of gas does one day become sharply limited, for whatever reason, rationing is far from the ideal remedy.

Such attitudes were challenged in the spring of 1979. While still far from popular, support for a standby rationing program – to be enacted only in case of an undeniable shortfall of gas supplies – gained considerable strength in the wake of that year's temporary shortages and long lines at the pumps. At any rate, public acceptance of the possibility of rationing was substantially higher than it had been during the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo.

The big oil companies and the government – along with the OPEC nations – continued to be viewed as the villains, of course. And their contributions to the problems could hardly be denied. Still, more and more experts – and laymen – were accepting the fact that oil is a finite resource, bound to dry up one day. Even if that day was far off, measures to conserve the supply as long as possible were at least being discussed with less hysteria than before.

More important, even those motorists who vehemently rejected the possibility of a true shortage – actual nonexistence of crude oil – were increasingly accepting the likelihood of temporary supply problems. For decades, there had been little doubt that the precarious situation in the Middle East, coupled with a variety of socioeconomic factors, could produce at least a short-term, yet serious, cutback of oil supplies at any time. And that some preliminary planning might be prudent, rather than waiting until a crisis of greater magnitude than had been seen to date suddenly sprung to life.

Hadn't the time come, in the late Seventies, for automotive enthusiasts – whether old-car devotees, street rodders, sports car racers, or anyone else with a love for the gas-powered vehicle – to pull our heads out of the sand, as it were? Shouldn't we have considered what nationwide gas rationing could mean to our motoring pastimes, as well as our daily lives? By joining forces, it was not yet too late to develop proposals – and present them to the appropriate agencies – to attempt to secure an equitable share of future oil supplies for hobby-related vehicles, should the ration book ever become a reality again.

Unfortunately for historical analysis, only one precedent for gas rationing exists in American history: the period from early in World War II to its close in August, 1945. Since that time, there has been a tendency to dismiss the wartime program as irrelevant, insisting that no contemporary situation would in any way be comparable.

Not true. The lessons to be learned from that much criticized, significantly fraud-ridden – yet largely effective – rationing program are by no means as inconsequential as many would have us believe. As George Santanaya said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Not only is World War II the only relevant past we have, but a close analysis of the program's development and operation, failures and successes – and the behavior of the motoring public in those years – can tell us quite a bit about the potential prospects for equitable distribution in a rationed, modern nation.

America dealt with the 1970s crisis without turning to rationing. But even if rationing never becomes necessary in the years ahead, study of the 1942-45 era provides some worthwhile insights into motoring in an age of scarcity. We all can benefit from an understanding of how those old cars and their drivers coped with drastic limitations on annual mileage.

The fact is, even those enthusiasts who know a great deal about prewar autos are typically far less knowledgeable about rationing's history. Even in the late '70s, when a second round of gasoline rationing seemed possible, only about one-third of drivers were old enough to have clear personal memories of the wartime period. At that time, of course, a hefty proportion of the male population, in particular, was in military service, involved in activities a bit more demanding than using a ration book.

We may have heard anecdotes about the rationing program from older relatives (most likely pointing out its abuses and inequities), or read a few words in a history book during our school days. Some senior citizens may even vaguely recall the "A" or "B" sticker in the windshield of the family auto. But about the program's development, effect and problems, our knowledge is likely to be sketchy indeed.

Obviously, the need for rationing during wartime, and the steps taken to implement it, differ from a potential peacetime situation. To begin with, there was never an actual shortage of petroleum products. Plenty of oil was gushing out of the wells in Texas and the Gulf region. Rationing was enacted primarily to limit vehicle usage in an attempt to conserve rubber (tires), which truly were in short supply from the first days of the war. A secondary, but very real purpose, however, was to deal with problems in fuel transportation and distribution – which certainly might ring a bell today.

The possibility of gas rationing in the U.S. was predicted in mid-1941 by Harold L. Ickes, President Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, among others. While entry of America into the war was not yet viewed as a certainty, the fact that tanker ships supplied 95% of the petroleum products to the East Coast was seen as a vulnerable spot in the nation's armor.

Such early warnings went largely unheeded. Calls for a pipeline linking Texas and the East, which could have minimized later problems to a significant degree, were blocked by Congress. Appeals from the government for voluntary conservation of fuel – and an intensive advertising campaign sponsored by the oil industry – were similarly ignored.

Back in April 1941, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) had been created by order of the President. While its primary function was to control inflation, profiteering and the cost of living in the event of war, it later became the instrument by which the comprehensive rationing program would be managed. Leon Henderson was appointed as its director and remained so until January 1943, receiving the lion's share of the blame for the troubles that eventually developed. Secretary Ickes was later to wear a second hat as Petroleum Coordinator, responsible for overseeing policies.

The Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, drawing the U.S. into the war, brought with it an immediate crisis. Shipments of natural rubber from Malaya and Java, which supplied nearly all the rubber used for tires and other products in the U.S., came to an abrupt halt. While synthetic rubber had already been invented, it would not become a practical alternative to the natural substance until the closing days of the war.

Acting swiftly, the government imposed stringent rationing measures on auto tires in January 1942, which remained in effect until some months after the war ended.

New cars came next, with production of civilian autos halted in February 1942, as the automakers geared up for military production. Late in January, the War Production Board, realizing the potential danger of shortages in the East, gave authority to the OPA for rationing in District I (17 states, from Maine down to eastern Florida).

The shortage in the East was hardly imaginary. Beginning early in the war, German submarines had been attacking and sinking American oil tankers right off the Atlantic coast. Thus, the number of ships in operation was sharply reduced, severely restricting the supply of gasoline in coastal states.

By March, tanker deliveries were down to half the 1941 level. While the pipeline flow increased somewhat, as did the use of railway tank cars (which had not been used at all during 1941, due to their high cost), these two sources could not cope with the cutoff of ship supplies to the eastern seaboard.

In March, the War Production Board issued an order cutting retail deliveries of gasoline in the eastern states to 80% of the 1941 amounts. By the time rationing began, two months later, gas stations would be receiving only half their prewar gallonage.

To prevent hoarding of gasoline, it was obvious that minimal advance warning of gas rationing should be given. Nonetheless, rumors became rampant from February 1942 onward.

Most troublesome were the rumors emanating directly from government officials, suggesting drastic curtailment of gas. In April, an unnamed OPA official became the cause of "scare" headlines in newspapers across the country by predicting that the average driver would receive between 2½ and 5 gallons per week, compared with the average prewar consumption of around 12 gallons. Even though Petroleum Coordinator Ickes denied the accuracy of that statement, insisting that allotments would not be so low, it later proved to be quite accurate.

By early April, due to additional sinkings of oil tankers and increased diversion of petroleum products to the military, gas rationing in District I appeared inevitable; thus, the OPA was making final plans for its introduction.

Planners determined that each owner of a passenger car would be entitled to one ration card, to be punched each time gas was purchased. All allotment calculations were – and continued to be – based upon average fuel consumption of 15 miles per gallon. No special consideration was given to cars with higher than average gasoline appetite: each one, from Crosley to Cadillac, would be treated equally.

A car owner with special occupational needs could receive additional rations. Commercial vehicles and tractors would be unaffected, entitled to their customary supplies. Thus, the brunt of the burden was to fall upon the "pleasure" driver. Major changes in motoring lifestyle were inevitable, since some 45% of the driving in prewar years had been recreational in nature.

With various modifications, as will be seen, this was the manner in which the program would be conducted throughout the war. The policy regarding hoarding of one's allotment for vacations and long Sunday drives was unstated at first, but at various times would be either discouraged or prohibited.

Late in April, the announcement was finally made that gas rationing would begin in the 17 eastern states (and the District of Columbia) on Friday, May 15, 1942. Washington and Oregon were added to the list of rationed states as of June 1, Motorists were advised to register for their ration cards at local public schools, during the three-day period prior to the target date.

The initial ration period was to run from May 15 to July 1, at which time a permanent system would become effective. For this 6½-week period, the ordinary motorist received an "A" ration card, containing seven units, each good for 3 gallons of gas: 21 gallons in all, or a bit over 3 gallons per week. Motorcycles were entitled to up to 40% of the auto ration.

Drivers who claimed a need for additional fuel to drive to their jobs (regardless of occupation), or in the course of their work, could get a "B" card with a larger allotment: 33, 45 or 57 gallons, depending upon the distance travelled each day. An "X" card, allowing unlimited gas purchases, could be obtained by those deemed to be in "essential'' occupations: doctors, police officers, most government officials, ambulance and delivery drivers, clergymen, etc. Commercial vehicles needed no card at all to obtain gas.

Problems developed from the start. To begin with, fewer than one-fourth of the applicants requested the basic "A" card. The remainder felt entitled to additional rations.

While many could easily justify their request for an "X" or "B" card, a lengthy list of alibis and excuses began to be heard at the ration boards. These spurious pleadings, ranging from the commonplace to the clever, would persist for the duration of the war, with many thousands of Americans practicing the one-upmanship of trying to get a little more gas than the next fellow.

For this initial period, about 10% of the applicants were actually granted "X" cards. Well over a third got a "B-3" rating (the maximum, good for about 120 miles a week), with about 20% receiving a "B-l" or "B-2" card.

Perhaps most serious from a public relations viewpoint was the distribution of the coveted "X" cards to Congressmen. More than 200 of them lined up for these unique perquisites of office – whether or not their driving needs truly warranted the special consideration – inviting widespread resentment among the constituency back home. An early Gallup poll showed that a whopping 70% of the people opposed Congressional "X" ratings – while 30% said rationing wasn't needed at all, and 40% declared it "unfair."

Within days of the program's inception, the OPA was threatening those making false claims for an "X" card with 10-year jail terms and $10,000 fines, prompting quite a few gas-guzzling folks to turn in their little-used cards. If nothing else, a false statement could mean the loss of one's ration privileges.

The temporary East Coast program worked on the "honor system," with no evidence of each transaction made at the comer gas station, other than a punch mark on the card. In March, the price for regular gas had been "frozen" at 20 cents a gallon (though it would rise by 2½ cents in June). A number of stations, however, were selling old customers all the gas they wanted – without bothering about their cards – sometimes at prices as much as 15 cents a gallon higher than allowed.

The first ration cards were rather crudely designed and printed, relatively easy to counterfeit. Thus, the well-known "black market" in gasoline got under way quickly – though it did not become a serious problem, according to the OPA, until at least six months later.

In an attempt to halt early abuses, OPA inspectors began stopping cars on the street, checking ration cards and asking the motorist where he or she was going – and why. These investigative practices became the norm, with OPA officials and local police joining forces to ascertain that gasoline was being used by "preferred" drivers for legitimate purposes.

The remaining 29 states were, for the moment, unaffected by the eastern program, continuing to receive their normal supplies. But motorists across the nation watched the eastern events with anticipation (or dread), in view of repeated warnings that rationing would become nationwide before too long.

Permanent rationing in the East did not go into effect until July 22, three weeks past the target date, to allow extra time for drivers to arrange car pools. The gallonage value of each remaining "punch" on one's ration card was doubled for the last half of June, to allow extra gas during the extension period.

Still, many motorists who had conserved on fuel at first, in order to have some in July, found that supplies were nonexistent. Drivers were seen "camping out" in gas station driveways in the early morning hours in some cities, awaiting fresh deliveries – or following tanker trucks to their destinations. Besides that, the "emergency" supplies were frequently issued only to defense workers, not to anyone who happened to have a valid ration card. Or to old customers, sometimes by appointment.

Applications for permanent East Coast coupon books had to be filled out by July 11. Each applicant received a 2x4-inch book containing 48 coupons, each good for one "unit" of gasoline (4 gallons at the outset, or 16 gallons per month). The book was valid for one year, but with coupons divided into 60-day periods. Thus, a driver could not accumulate coupons by conserving on gas today in order to have enough for a long trip later on.

This amount would give the "nonessential" motorist about 2,880 miles of driving (at 15 miles per gallon) per year – far below the 9,000-mile national average before the war. And this mileage would be available only if the coupons remained at their initial value – which they did not, eventually dropping to as little as 1.5 gallons in the East.

Of the 240 miles per month that the "A" driver had available, 150 miles were deemed for occupational purposes, the remainder for miscellaneous family necessities. Those who did not need, or use, their cars for driving to work thus received a bonus of pleasure driving.

Not that frivolous joyriding was encouraged, of course. Throughout the war, it was expected that the non-occupational portion would be used for worthy purposes: necessary shopping, church attendance, medical treatment and the like.

No one was denied a basic "A" ration, though. It was felt that such a denial would amount to confiscation of one's car, a step the government did not wish to take – though it had been proposed (literally) early on. As a matter of fact, households with two cars could receive an "A" book for each one, without demonstrating special need.

A "B" book would again be issued for occupational driving of more than 150 miles per month, but with more stringent requirements. The driver had to affirm that alternate transportation was unavailable – and that he would join a "carsharing club" with at least four other workers, or show very good reasons why that was not possible. Every "preferred" motorist was first given the basic "A" book, receiving the supplementary "B" book in the mail later – with a number of coupons corresponding to the actual mileage needed, up to a maximum of 470 total occupational miles a month.

The "C" ration, good for an even greater number of gallons, was available to motorists in 14 "vital" occupations, including salesmen dealing in essential commodities. An "S" book was issued for commercial vehicles, allowing almost unlimited purchases. From this point on, all motorists had to demonstrate actual need; the scandal-ridden "X" (unlimited) ration was no more.

The new permanent plan also provided a windshield sticker for every car, clearly showing the ration allowed. This would make it much easier for officials to check up on autos suspected of using "preferred" rations for nonessential driving.

During the summer of 1942, President Roosevelt appointed a committee, headed by Bernard Baruch, to study the need for nationwide gas rationing and related matters. Its report came out in September, with recommendations guaranteed not to please the non-eastern states.

In addition to continued stringent restrictions on tires, the committee insisted on the introduction of "nationwide gasoline rationing to hold the average annual mileage to 5,000 miles." Moreover, it recommended "a nation-wide speed limit not exceeding thirty-five miles an hour," plus "compulsory periodic tire inspection."

The report stressed that gas rationing was "not due to shortage of that commodity – it is wholly a measure of rubber saving. That is why the restriction is to be Nation-wide, Any localized measure would be unfair and futile."

Looking back now, the recommendation that the burden of reducing annual auto mileage be shared among all Americans – rather than borne only by easterners – does not seem unreasonable, at least in a time of war. Yet many citizens, along with their representatives in Congress, did not agree. A committee appointed by 137 House members in July argued that "gas rationing, where there is an adequate supply of gasoline, carries a stigma of unwarranted use of power."

Into the autumn, some 100 anti-rationing Congressmen argued vainly against the spread of the program into western and midwestern states. A furious OPA chief Henderson called them "men who would gamble America's future, not for a mess of pottage but for a gallon of gasoline," but their feelings mirrored those of many Americans, A director of one local auto club managed to distribute close to 5 million protest cards, and countless individuals sent their own letters and messages to government officials.

The protesters did not prevail, even though average annual auto mileage was already down by one-fourth (to about 6,700 miles per year). A nationwide speed limit of 35 miles per hour was announced by Office of Defense Transportation (ODT) Director Joseph B. Eastman, to become effective on October 1. The only exceptions would be military, police and fire vehicles, ambulances, and doctors "on call." Penalties would range from loss of one's ration privileges to a $10,000 fine and two years in prison.

Rubber Administrator William M. Jeffers announced the plan for nationwide gas rationing late in September. After a two-month delay, President Roosevelt advised the officials to proceed. Thus, gas rationing for all of the nation's nearly 30 million motorists began as of December 1, 1942, and would continue until the end of the war.

The nationwide plan was essentially the same as that used in the East. The first "A" ration book was good for eight months, until July 1, 1943. Its 32 coupons were in numbered groups, each group effective for two months, giving the driver four "units" of gas per month. The value of each unit would be variable, subject to change at any time.

Late in November 1942, the "A" ration in the East had been cut from 4 to 3 gallons per week. But it was decided that the coupon value for the rest of the country would, at least for the time being, be 4 gallons (16 gallons a month).

Applicants for a "B" ration were subject to the same requirements as in the East: showing that the car was needed to drive to work, and that it would be used for ride-sharing. Each book contained the same number of coupons, but was "time-tailored" to the individual motorist by shortening, or lengthening, its expiration date – anywhere from 3 months to a full year. This practice was soon dropped, though, with subsequent "B" books issued for a fixed 4-month validity period.

"C" books were again issued only to those in specified occupations "most essential to the war effort." Seventeen basic groups were covered this time, including government officers and employees on official business, mail and wholesale newspaper delivery workers, medical people, clergymen, essential scrap dealers – and embalmers. Salesmen, regardless of their wares, were no longer entitled to a "C" ration. The new "C" windshield sticker had a space to check off the actual occupation of the driver. In addition, each book was "coupon tailored," valid for three months. Those requiring additional mileage would receive one or more extra books, or fractions of a book.

The earlier "S" ration had been issued for whatever need a commercial user could demonstrate. Its successor, the "T" (Transport) category, would be issued quarterly by the Office of Defense Transportation, only after the applicant filed a Certificate of War Necessity. Even with this added formality, it was later claimed that an excessive number of commercial books were issued, and a large number of their coupons wound up diverted into non-commercial uses.

Other categories included the "D" for motorcycles, and "E" (coupons worth 1 gallon of fuel) or "R" (5 gallons) for farmers and other non-highway users. In addition, special rations were available for various purposes, at the discretion of one's local Board (some 5,500 of which were operating around the country, manned largely by unpaid volunteers). Extra coupons might be given for attending a funeral, visiting a sick relative, moving your car to a new residence, and other temporary situations. Every motorist was issued a Mileage Rationing Record, on which would be noted any special issuances.

Before any applicant for a passenger-car ration book was given coupons, he or she had to make a statement as to the number of tires owned. Only five per car were permitted. Extras had to be disposed of, either by selling or giving them to the government. A Tire Inspection Record accompanied the ration book, to be used for the inspections that were to come every four months for "A" motorists, every two months for others.

The main purpose of the inspection was to ascertain the condition of each tire on the car, and determine the need for wheel alignment or other repairs that might increase tire life. The inspector also was expected to check the car's odometer, to see that it hadn't been driven farther than its ration category allowed since the last previous evaluation. Drivers were also advised to check tire pressures regularly and rotate tires as needed.

As the western part of the nation began its experience with rationing, a sudden critical shortage of gasoline (and heating oil) developed on the East Coast. During the weekend before Christmas in 1942, all gas sales in District T (except for "T" vehicles) were halted. A cut in coupon values for "B" and "C" books, from 4 to 3 gallons, was enacted. The "preferred" books also were made more difficult to obtain.

Although the restriction on sales lasted only a few days, the shortage in the East persisted – still due to transportation problems as well as bad weather and military needs – prompting the government to enact a ban on all pleasure driving as of January 7, 1943. Only "essential" driving – occupational and for certain necessary family activities – would be permitted in 12 northeastern states until the ban was lifted on March 22. Violators could lose their ration books.

The "pleasure" ban was mandatory at first. But when Prentiss M. Brown – the new OPA Administrator who had succeeded Leon Henderson in that thankless job – declared on March 3 that the ban would become voluntary, a sharp increase in driving ensued. Therefore, when the ban was reenacted in May – due to rising civilian gas consumption as well as increased military needs – it was again compulsory, and would remain so until lifted for good on September 1, 1943. Enforcement of the ban – determining what constituted "pleasure" – was, as one might expect, not always an easy matter.

An additional cut in eastern driving was accomplished as of March 22, 1943, by keeping the value of "A" coupons at 3 gallons, but extending their validity period from two to four months. This move halved the "A" ration to just 90 miles (6 gallons) per month. The rest of the nation, though, still retained its original 4-gallon coupon value, allowing 240 miles per month with the basic "A" book.

By the summer of 1943, amidst growing resentment in some quarters regarding the inequity between the East and the other states, plans were being made to equalize coupon values nationwide. In addition to the desire for national uniformity, the shortage in the East was becoming a bit less acute. In July, the new "Big Inch" pipeline – running 1,475 miles from Texas to Pennsylvania – was finally in operation, carrying 300,000 barrels a day directly to the East. A "Little Big Inch," running parallel, was well underway.

To achieve partial equity, motorists in 21 midwestern, Gulf and southwestern states had their coupon values cut from 4 to 3 gallons in August 1943. Eastern "A" drivers got a small increase, from 1½ to 2 gallons a week.

In March 1944, a final equalization took place for "A" rations, reducing each motorist to 2 gallons of gas (30 miles) per week. The program continued without major change until the day after V-J Day – August 15, l945 – when gas rationing ended.

As one might expect, gas rationing was hardly popular. Even those who agreed that a diversion of oil supplies to the military – and a reduction in auto mileage to conserve tires – were essential did not necessarily go along with the manner in which the program was conducted.

Unpleasant as it may have been for motorists, the situation could have been a lot worse. In mid-1942, Senator Reynolds of North Carolina presented a bill that would have allowed the government to confiscate cars, redistributing them to more "necessary" workers, paying the original owner in cash or War Bonds. He was not alone. Several federal officials were said to favor requisitioning cars, parts and tires from private owners – and to seize any auto going more than 40 miles an hour.

Even before rationing, there were proposals to install governors on cars. Had the devices not been made of aluminum – a scarce commodity – such mechanical speed controls could have become compulsory.

Those who bemoaned the scarcities could at least take heart from the experiences of other countries. In Britain, pleasure driving became a thing of the past on July 1, 1942, with all but essential vehicles put away for the duration.

Still, gas rationing did its job – as did the rationing of many other commodities, from shoes to sugar to canned goods. While those who argue that the war could not have been won without gasoline rationing might be stretching the facts a trifle, one cannot deny that the reduced civilian consumption freed many millions of gallons of petroleum products for the armed forces. Even though ordinary gasoline was not always needed by the military, the rationing program allowed storage and transportation facilities to be converted to non-civilian applications.

In modern times, it's been popular to look back upon those years and concentrate on the many violations – in spirit, as well as in the letter of the law – and declare gas rationing to have been ineffective. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even with all the counterfeiting and "black market" operations that arose, fuel consumption was curtailed sharply.

Statistics derived by the Public Roads Administration reveal that overall civilian consumption in 1942, with rationing effective only in the East, was 85 percent of that in 1941. In the next two years, under nationwide allocation, the figure dropped to 71 and 73 percent, respectively.

The reduction for passenger cars (including taxis) is even more impressive. In 1942, consumption dropped to 82 percent of the 1941 total; then way down to 60 percent in 1943, and 62 percent for the following year.

A similar drop was reported in total auto miles travelled. Wide differences were found in various parts of the country, though, with drivers in the midwest and west showing considerably higher mileage than those in eastern states.

While rationing did not seriously attempt to curtail gasoline use by commercial vehicles, it too went down – by 12 percent in 1942 and 17 percent in 1943. Non-highway fuel use did not follow suit, however, actually rising by 22 percent from 1941 to 1944.

Naturally, rationing cannot account for the entire reduction in fuel usage, and the average annual mileage per car did not drop as much as some officials had hoped. For one thing, the number of cars in operation went down by at least 13 percent in the course of the war, from 29.6 million in 1941 to 25.6 million in 1944. Even with the herculean efforts by repair people to keep cars running, many still wound up in the junkyard, while others were stored through the war years.

Part II looks more closely at the illicit traffic in gasoline and ration coupons during the war, and at public attitudes and behavior. Then, we consider some of the tentative proposals for rationing that evolved during the 1973-74 embargo, and again later in that decade, to see whether the lessons of World War II can predict whether a similar rationing program could work in contemporary America, should the need ever become unavoidable.

Note: A version of this article, written only a few years after the 1973-74 oil crisis, appeared in the November 1979 issue of Car Exchange magazine, a publication aimed at old-car enthusiasts. Some references to car hobbyists in that period have been retained.

Click here for Part II: Public Reaction to Rationing

© All contents copyright 1979 and 2022-23 by James M. Flammang
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