Test you memories:
War Changes Canal Zone
By PATSY C. DETAMORE
Special to The Tampa Tribune
PLANT CITY When the United States entered World War II, I was a teenager living in the Panama Canal Zone. I remember the exact moment I heard the news that our country was at war: I was headed for a movie with my date on that Sunday afternoon. At that moment, life changed for Americans everywhere, but the changes were different in many ways for Canal Zone residents than for Statesiders.
The entire Canal Zone went immediately to nighttime blackouts. That meant that no light could show on the streets from our windows no mean feat in those days before air conditioning, in homes that were cooled by breezes blowing through window openings covered with mosquito screens. Choices were to cover those openings with sheets or blankets and suffocate in the heat, or to bumble about in the dark with only flashlights or candles to light the way. Volunteer air raid wardens patrolled the streets to make sure no light showed. Nightfall arrives around 7 p.m. at that latitude, and there is no prolonged twilight. When the sun goes down, it's dark within a very few minutes. Our baby boom generation was partly the result of those blackout rules.
Of course, no streetlights illuminated our streets. In addition, car headlights had to be
modified as well. A 2-inch-by- 4-inch strip was left clear in the center of each painted-over lamp. Needless to say, driving after dark could be hazardous. But there were also other reasons to limit driving, in daylight as well as after dark. Gasoline and tires were severely rationed for civilians; they were needed by our military.
Ships In Short Supply
While many food items were rationed in the United States, such rationing did not take place in the Canal Zone. That does not mean there were unlimited supplies, however, as our commissaries were dependent on ships from the U.S. to bring us foodstuffs not produced in the Zone or in the Republic of Panama. Many of those ships had been diverted to military use, and for those that remained, some routes were considered too hazardous to be used without a military escort.
Instead of formal rationing, we just had to wait for the next ship to arrive sometimes
weeks after the stores had run out. Why couldn't one just go into the Republic of Panama to pick up those items not to be found in the Canal Zone stores? After all, there was no border fence between the Zone and the Republic. (In many places, the border was invisible. For example, while driving in one direction on Fourth of July Avenue, a car was in the Canal Zone; in the other direction, it was in Panama.) Theoretically, such international shopping was possible. But you could bet that any item not to be found in the Canal Zone commissaries was also absent in Panama City, as Panama also depended upon imports for those same items.
Other signs of preparations for attack were more visible during daylight hours. Barrage balloons floated on tethers over the locks of the canal. They were unmanned blimps that were intended to prevent aircraft from flying low and causing crippling damage to those locks, which were so crucial to the canaTs operation. The blimps seemed like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight, I cannot see that they would have prevented bombs from being dropped from a height. However, a multitude of anti-aircraft stations throughout the Canal Zone (and in a number of places in the Republic, as well) would have made attack by air extremely hazardous.
Such precautions were considered crucial because the Panama Canal was so important to us during a war on and across two oceans. Supplies, equipment and personnel went through the canal, from one ocean to the other, day and night. Perhaps it was because of those precautions that the canal was never attacked, although there were several little-publicized attempts. One involved the use of a tiny two- or three-man submarine to reach the shore of Panama and infiltrate into the multinational population. Since the border with Panama was so porous, it would have been easy for an enemy agent to move about in the Zone; getting close enough to sabotage the canal would be much more difficult.
There was no military draft in the Canal Zone, nor facilities for accepting new recruits. If young Zonians wanted to join any of the military forces, they had to go to the States to do so. Many of my classmates joined the Army, Navy or Marine Corps as soon as they had graduated high school.
A Navy Life Calls
As time passed, Canal Zone fife moved into a more or less "normal" routine. I graduated from high school and took a job with the Navy as a clerk- typist. In 1942, 1 married a young fellow who had lived in the Zone most of his fife and was employed by the Panama Canal government. Then, on our first wedding anniversary, he greeted me with, "Hello, honey. I just joined the Navy." The Navy had finally opened a local station for basic training, and he was in their first class. It was necessary for us to give up our government housing, so I moved in with my parents in Diablo Heights, just a few blocks away. Their apartment overlooked a section of the canal. And just on the other side, I could watch a sea of white hats marching back and forth as the new recruits went about their trairung. That was the only communication I had with my Jerry for the next six weeks.
When their basic training was finished, many of the recruits were assigned to ships or to stations in the U.S. But I felt extremely lucky to find that Jerry was given duty at Coco Solo, a Naval Station on the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone. We moved into off-base housing in the little town of Coco Solito. That was one strange little town! Twelve families lived in each barrackslike building, civilian employees mixed together with enlisted men and their families.
Across the alley from our building was one occupied by transient sailors who had been taken off their ships for any of a number of reasons and were awaiting transportation to new assignments. Some of those faces were familiar to Jerry, who worked in an office that processed the paperwork for them. Since the buildings were so close together and so open (no real
windows, remember), we could often hear their conversations. On more than one occasion, Jerry would recognize one of the fellows busy regaling his new acquaintances with tales of the horrors of war and of having his ship shot out from under him as a kid who was just out of boot camp and had never been to sea before.
Four years was a long time to be at war. During that time, Jerry and I were separated again when he was reassigned to a naval base in the U.S. I was eventually able to join him at Great Lakes Naval Station in 1945, where he was one of the last to be released at the end of the war because he was involved with the paperwork required in the discharges of nearly everyone else. But he finally was given his own discharge, and we resumed life in the Canal Zone; a job had been held open for him. We stayed in the Zone for many years after that, until his retirement in 1979.
We saw many, many changes take place there over the years, the most drastic of which came about on December 31, 1999, when the Canal and the Zone were taken over by the government of the Republic of Panama.
Patsy Detamore moved to Plant City in 2000. In recent years. she has earned a black belt in judo and has enjoyed skydiving and scuba diving. Another hobby is citing, and she has self-published two books.
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