Experiencing Panama through the Memories of Others

by Circe Olson Woessner

As our cruise ship entered the Panama Canal earlier this month, my husband and I stood on the deck watching the “mules” guide our massive ship through the locks and listened to some military veterans explain the sights along the way. Over the years, I have learned that members of the military are great resources for information about places far and near, exotic and mundane. But some of the voices I heard came from out of the past, from people recalling their experiences in Panama through stories told to the Museum of the American Military Family, stories in the Museum archives and posted on the Museum website.

The night before we arrived in Panama, Hurricane Otto pushed through the region. While our ship experienced very little disruption, I thought about my friend, Army Brat Hudson, recalling his sea voyage to Panama in the 1940s.

“A steward sounded the call for dinner. 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. 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…”

As our ship neared Panama, I tried to imagine how the Zonian families assimilated the sights and smells of their new home. In the 1940’s, a turbaned dockhand secured the hawser and dockside, a military band greeted passengers with popular tunes and marches. The jungle smelled of the wild lime trees, oleanders and frangipani blossoms, rotting mangoes, mold, and the salt from the sea. There were lots of multicolored birds. Monkeys scampered in the trees along the shore and large spiders strung their webs from one tree to the next. Leaf Cutter ants made wide paths through the grass. Iguanas were everywhere Everything was vibrant and colorful.

When we arrived in Panama, I opened my stateroom door to catch my first glimpse. A burst of humidity steamed up my glasses so that everything was filtered through a soft fog. The light breeze carried whiffs of foliage, boat fuel and wood smoke. The air was so thick I could scarcely breathe. Panama City rose like Oz in the distance : modernity imposed on an ancient land.

As the ship continued down the channel towards the locks, I could hear birds chirping in the trees on shore. Insects dive-bombed our balcony. Nature always manages, somehow, in some form, to survive.

Julienne, an Air Force wife living in Panama City in 1986, remembers, “Being so close to the jungle meant we experienced wildlife frequently and had to learn to co-exist. I learned not to leave my outdoor clothes dryer door open–once I found a very large snake curled up inside. A local zoo keeper was kind enough to come remove him and take him away. It took four men to carry him.”

Many Zonian kids recall that despite the jungle being “off limits” to them, they ventured in anyway. Tropical birds, jaguars, monkeys, sloths and butterflies lured them in; adventure called. Some kids made pets of the monkeys, lizards and horses.

Our ship passed under the towering Bridge of Americas and the Centennial Bridge, both built well after military dependent Ruby lived at Ft. Kobe and Ft. Clayton in the late 1950’s. She says, “I remember crossing the Panama Canal on a school bus each day. We had an armed MP on board. We thought he was there to keep us in line. We often had to wait for the bridge to open over the canal to let ships through. We would spend the time singing ‘99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ or ‘I Don’t Want No More of Army Life.’”

As we slipped into the locks at Miraflores, I marveled at the ingenuity of its builders. The canal uses a series of mechanized locks to raise or lower ships between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They raise ships from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake, 26 meters above sea level, to allow the crossing through the 50-mile waterway and then lower the ship back to sea level on the other side. Since 1914, more than a million ships from all over the world have transited the canal. The canal, itself, has become a tourist destination.

Army veteran Dominic, who was stationed at Fort Clayton in the early 1990s, recalls, “Once, I was coming back to my barracks late at night and I was startled to see what looked like newly-built apartments right by the canal. It was disconcerting because I couldn’t remember having ever seen them before…then I noticed they were moving very, very slowly. It was the biggest cruise ship I’d ever seen!”

Military brat Sharyn remembers, “We saw the royal yacht Britannia with Princess Margaret on board as it went through the locks.”

Life in the Canal Zone was Spartan in the 1940s. Hudson, whose father was an Army chaplain, explains, “Fort Sherman was a Coast Artillery post. 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. There was a tiny PX. 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.

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. Inside, they watched a succession of some of the finest and some of the worst movies that Hollywood ever made.”

Because the eight-hour canal transit cuts off 8,000 miles of travel around the tip of South America, the canal is a key component in the world trade system.

During WWII, it was critical to keep the canal open and secure. German U-boats were active in the Caribbean and the Atlantic threatening cargo ships in the vicinity.

Jack was a boat pilot during the war. He and his family lived on the Atlantic side of the canal. The canal authorities, recognizing that Jack’s knowledge of the zone would be of great interest to the Nazis, decided he and his family would be safer if they were moved inland to Gamboa.

Hudson’s family, however, was evacuated back to the States.

“There were about seven or eight families with children. Our ship had a hastily-painted coat of camouflage and rested at the dock between two smaller navy vessels that bristled with weapons and mines. All the fathers stood in a line at the dock. As we swung out of the harbor, we saw them standing there. They waved until they were small specks. Suddenly, our mothers were in charge and we were homeless, fatherless, and had become civilians.”

In 1999, the United States gave the Panama Canal back to Panama, and the installations closed. Many Zonian families moved on.

Everyone I have spoken to who was stationed in Panama would go back, in a heartbeat, to visit. When Hudson was 70, he did go visit his childhood home.

“I returned to Panama, somewhat fearfully, not wanting to be disappointed. I wanted to stay within the old boundaries of the Canal Zone. I found the old signposts of the military with the word Fort removed from the names, so that it was now just ‘Clayton,’ ‘Davis,’ ‘Amador,’ and ‘Howard.’

“My wife and I went with two men to look at the awakening forest near the former Fort Clayton. It was not yet five in the morning. It was a week after Christmas, and I would not have thought of that at all; but, in passing the empty military base, I was startled to see a string of lights in front of the chapel that were still turned on– yet there was not a soul around. It was a reminder of the former life that had been there, of my life as a child, and I felt my eyes welling up. “

Most military families know they can never truly go “home.”

If you can’t make the trip to Panama—or to any other place you’ve stationed—please stop by our museum in Tijeras. We have hundreds of first hand-stories from military family members—you might find a memory or locate an old friend.




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