ORDERS TO PANAMA MOVING FROM SELFRIDGE FIELD (Michigan) TO FORT SHERMAN (Panama Canal Zone): March, 1939

by Hudson Phillips

While we searched through Atlases and encyclopedias to find Panama, my mother asked plaintively if they had a PX at Fort Sherman. Her newly purchased piano would not make the trip. Movers arrived with large wooden barrels filled with wood shavings and they packed my lead Finnish ski soldier, along with a toy auto gyro, Electric Flyer train set and remnants of games and playthings that I had already outgrown. It always seemed, in our moves, that things would be broken or misplaced.

When the barrels were filled and the house was empty, we gave our Cocker Spaniel, “Judy Wings,” to Major George (a family friend who would later serve with distinction in the defense of the Philippines and be killed in a training accident in Australia.)

THE VOYAGE

We drove through long stretches of farmland and small villages and towns, from Selfridge Field, Michigan, to New York: with three fidgeting children, mom smoking Pall Mall cigarettes, and dad lighting up an occasional White Owl cigar.  To while away the hours, we sang popular songs and listed to the car radio.  Politics was gearing up for the 1940 Presidential Election. Indiana Senator Wendell Wilkie’s high pitch, nasal, accent struck us funny. When he used the phrase “Razor blade of good will,” it sounded like he said “rahzer blad.”  We took turns imitating the expression, and used it, not only for miles, but for many years to come.  At journey’s end, dad swapped the Nash for an old Hudson. There was little use for a new car in the Canal Zone.

After two nights, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, dividing up two small government mattresses between five people, we boarded the brightly marked liner, American Legion, I had, already been on ocean ships before. [Born at Schofield Barracks, Territory of Hawaii, I sailed back and forth on the military transport, Republic, three times.] The smells were familiar: tar, oil, hemp, food preparation and the ocean. The great moan of the ship’s horn signaled the beginning. Down a stairwell I saw the face of a girl my age looking up. We waved, smiled, and never saw one another again – typical of military Brat life experience. From the ship’s rail I watched tug boats nudge and push our ship into the harbor. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty, where my family had lived just two years before..  The great lady stood near my playground and the small two-story row of gray cement apartments.   It was then known as Bedloes Island. We had been part of the overflow of dependent families assigned to Governor’s Island.  We had a front row seat for  the dramatic arrivals of the Normandy and Queen Mary liners. My father often reflected on how Liberty’s torch had caused the bedroom windows to have to be blackened because the light was so bright we couldn’t sleep. I remember, very clearly, the time that older boys had left me at the base of the seawall after they climbed to escape the rising tide. Water had climbed to my shoes, and it was clear that I faced serious trouble.  I saw onlookers, on their way to Ellis Island, and a seagull that flew close by; but, I could not see above the wall. I had no promise rescue.  Fortunately, the Ferry had arrived from Governor’s Island.  My dad was notified by one of the boys and pulled me to safety.  He may have forgotten about the incident, now, but I could not look at the Statue without thinking of it.

A steward sounded the call for dinner, playing a xylophone type instrument as he flitted quickly past our cabin. Faces were washed. New clothes were put out. Father wore his white uniform. We were seated at a table set with starched napkins that had been rolled into cones and placed so that tips pointed upward. The first ocean swells reminded us of our dependence upon the ship and the need to transition to its routine. A sudden roll of the ship sent glasses and silverware sliding across the table. The rising and falling sensation clashed with the odor of onion soup and some of the passengers slipped out to stand by the ship’s rail..

In the bay, at Havana, Cuba, small boats carrying teen age boys pulled near the ship. They dove into the water and looked to the passengers at the rail. People threw coins into the water and the boys swam after them, caught them under water and brought to the surface in their mouths. My father and I went ashore. Women vendors were selling finger rings carved out of nuts. The rings were strung on ropes and held high above their head from poles. I wished so much that my father would buy me one. Spanish was spoken around me and I felt shut out. Leaving the harbor, Flying Fish whizzed across the bow. The climate became oppressively hot.

THE ARRIVAL

Harbor smells in Panama were different then in New York. There was less of an industrial odor and more a mix of vegetation and people. A turbaned dock hand secured the hawser. Popular tunes and marches were played at dockside by a military band. A chaplain escorted my family to a small packet ship and we sailed with a new group of passengers across Limon Bay to Fort Sherman. I was delighted to see howler monkeys scampering in the trees along the shore where we docked.

We were driven past immense Royal Palm trees that stood as if they were at attention. They were painted white along the base of their trunks to keep the insects from harming them.Officer’s quarters were on a terraced hill along different levels that rose in accordance with military rank. This provided what little breeze that was available, a fact that we came to deeply appreciate.

Our home appeared to be composed entirely of porch screens, but this did not prevent sand flies from feasting on us at night. I was up at the first bugle call. Everywhere I saw moving things: lizards of all sizes, shapes and colors both inside and outside the house. The jungle began fifty feet behind our back porch. I had encounters with many of its inhabitants almost instantly. One day my father had to summon an MP to dispatch a boa constrictor that had wrapped around my swing. At another time, I saw a large sloth hanging on a high tree limb. I learned to run between trees due to the ability of large spiders to string their webs from one to the next. Leaf Cutter ants made paths through the grass as large as sidewalks. Trees hosted parakeets and many species of multicolored birds. Iguanas were as plentiful as Michigan’s squirrels. Some were three feet long. Rotting mangoes added their fragrance to the odor of dead land crabs. Soldiers often used the latter for target practice, littering the roadside with their oozing bodies. A Japanese gardener cultivated sugar cane, guava, breadfruit and papaya plants at the post nursery. Fragrant Frangipani trees, Oleanders and wild limes were scattered at random, sometimes even within the jungle itself. In the forest curtain one could find chains of orchids and bright red and orange Callas. Almost all of our leather goods turned to mold overnight: shoes, suitcases, wallets, belts, purses and the ice skates from Michigan winters. Add the smell of mold to my list of unforgettable memories.

ADJUSTING

It was customary for a new officer to call on his commanding officer shortly after the arrival. I decided to make my own visit to Colonel French’s home. Carefully, I climbed the hill that led to his back yard. From the edge of the jungle I saw a large building with wide screened porches. It was set from other buildings on the Post by a spacious lawn surrounded by many flowering trees. I was fascinated by this site of authority and the process by which my behavior was connected to how my parents would be judged.

Fort Sherman was a Coast Artillery post. It was a branch of service that would very shortly become obsolete. Presently, its purpose was to guard the Atlantic approach to the Canal with its large, stationary weapons and with ammunition pulled through jungle trails by mules and horses. There were few luxuries. Attempts to ameliorate the discomforts of the soldiers and families were less than effective.

Sherman had a tiny PX, but hardly what my mother had in mind.  It sold toiletries and cigarettes: Blitz cloths to shine brass, Shinola to shine shoes, Vitalis to comb hair. Chewing gum was often too brittle to chew and chocolate bars melted in the wrapper. Esquire magazine had the popular Vargas girl pinups.  There was also, also, Life, Time, and Colliers.

A fringe benefit for the officer’s families was the weekly delivery of fresh bananas delivered to each porch.  Prisoners were detailed from the stockade to facilitate this.  At Selfridge Field, it had been free bread from the prison bakery. These services to the military community exemplified the close connection that all parts of the post had to one another.

The Post Theater and Post Chapel were the foci of social life. The theater was a tiny tar paper building. On Friday and Saturday nights the officer’s wives would emerge from the olive drab “Command Cars” that had wound down the jungle trail from their houses.. They wore their latest fashions and were escorted by husbands in snappy class A uniforms. They walked past MP guards, who were wearing mosquito netting pulled across their pith helmets. The cost of a ticket was 15 cents, on week nights. Inside, they watched a succession of some of the finest and some of the worst movies that Hollywood ever made.

Author notes

A Military brat’s life in the Panama Canal Zone
1939-1942 (Part 1)

 

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