Transit to Vietnam via the Panama Canal

Excerpts From: “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”

“Bound for Vietnam.”

The week after our ship USS Rich (DD 820) returned to Norfolk from six weeks of Refresher Training (REFTRA) in Guantanamo Bay (GITMO) preparations began for the deployment to the Western Pacific (WESPAC) and Vietnam, with a departure date of October 17, 1972. The initial passage plan was laid to take the ship from Norfolk to the Panama Canal with a planned one-day transit of the canal from Cristobal on the Atlantic side to Balboa on the Pacific side, with the ship docking at the Rodman Naval Station overnight. The next morning the ship would depart from the Panama Canal Zone bound to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, then to Midway Atoll, and after that to Guam in the Mariana Islands. From Guam the ship would proceed to the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. During the passage from Midway Atoll to Guam the ship would be crossing the International Date Line. From Subic Bay, it would be on to Vietnam.

The transit from Norfolk to Subic Bay in the Philippines represented a total passage distance of 11,200 nautical miles. After a port visit in Subic Bay, the passage would continue to our final destination, the Gulf of Tonkin and the infamous “gun line” along the coastline of Vietnam.

P_NORVA_VN
Approximation of USS Rich’s passage from Norfolk to Vietnam.

On the morning of October 17, shortly after all crew members were mustered as being on board, and at 1125, the ship got underway from Pier 23. The ship navigated through Chesapeake Bay then on out to sea, bound for the Panama Canal Zone. The passage of 1,860 nautical miles to the canal-zone would take the ship about four days. That afternoon and evening, the weather off Cape Hatteras gave us a break. The weather was clear; the seas were good, with waves only about 4 to 6 feet in height. We were now bound for the Western Pacific and ultimately the near coastal waters of Vietnam.

USS_RICH_DD_820
USS Rich (DD 820), a Gearing (FRAM I) destroyer. U.S. Navy photo, Public domain. 

Our ship, in company with USS Bordelon (DD 881) arrived at the Panama Canal Zone early morning on October 21, 1972. As our ship approached the Cristobal breakwater and entered into Limon Bay, the Panama Canal Pilot boarded the ship from the pilot boat. Within a short period of time, the pilot ordered the ship to begin maneuvering to the first lock, the Gatun Lock. Seeing Gatun Lock for the first time makes for an impressive picture. The three successive lock chambers look like a huge staircase. The lock area itself is a lot of concrete and buildings located on either side of the lock. Beyond the grass areas on either side of the lock began the tropical jungle of dark trees and dense foliage.

For many on board, this would be their first trip through the Panama Canal. The canal should be considered one of the man-made wonders of the world. Its length is about 44 nautical miles (about 50 statute miles) from the Atlantic/Caribbean coast to the Pacific coast. While going through the Panama Canal, a ship will be raised and lowered 85 feet. After going through Gatun Lake and Gaillard Cut, the ship enters Pedro Miguel Locks and is lowered 31 feet. After Pedro Miguel Locks, one mile downstream the ship next enters the Miraflores Locks to be lowered about another 54 feet to the level of the Pacific Ocean.

Rich_PC_04
USS Rich (DD 820) and USS Bordelon (DD 881) starting our transit of the Panama Canal.[1]

The Gatun Locks consisted of three successive lock chambers. When a ship left the Gatun Locks and entered Gatun Lake, it had been raised 85 feet to the level of the lake. Gatun Lake was a man-made lake and covered an area of about 164 square miles. The shipping channel through the lake was about 15 nautical miles in length. Upon leaving Gatun Lake, you arrived at the more historical section of the canal, the Gaillard Cut, also known as the Culebra Cut, which traversed about eight miles through the Continental Divide of Panama, the highest point on the isthmus.

Panama Canal Map
The Panama Canal. From the Caribbean Sea at point “A”‘ via Limon Bay to point “B” the Pacific Ocean.*

After the ship passed through the Gaillard Cut, the first of two more locks were reached. The first lock, Pedro Miguel, had one chamber, and lowered the ship 31 feet. From Pedro Miguel, the ship moved into Lake Miraflores and proceeded about one mile to the Miraflores Locks. The Miraflores Locks had two chambers, which lowered the ship the remaining distance, depending upon the height of the Pacific Ocean tides, back to sea level. Being a military vessel, the ship proceeded from the Miraflores Locks about eight more miles to the docks at the Rodman Naval Station across from Balboa. The canal transit had taken over eight hours, so the ship moored at the Rodman Naval Station docks at about 1600 that afternoon.

Rich_Bordelon_Panama_Canal
USS Rich (DD 820) and USS Bordelon (DD 881) entering the Gatun Locks. Photo by shipmate Ron Ciervo.

Except for the duty section, the crew was granted overnight liberty. My section had the duty that night, so no liberty in Panama City for us. The ship was scheduled to get underway the next morning at 1000 to begin our passage to Pearl Harbor. QM1 Janson asked that Jeff, one of the other quartermasters, and I double-check the time, speed, and distance calculations in the passage plan from Panama to Hawaii. We initially got a bit distracted from the task when something caught our eye on the first navigation chart leaving the Canal Zone out to the Gulf of Panama.

On the chart was a location just down the coast labeled “Leper Colony.” The Leper Colony was located just west on the coast from the Pan-American bridge. We looked in the Sailing Directions publication and sure enough, it discussed the community of Palo Seco. Palo Seco was a leprosarium, or hospital, operated in the canal-zone since the disease-ridden days of canal construction, and was actually funded by the U.S. Congress. Both of us were surprised about the existence of the colony. I associated leprosy with biblical stories, not modern times. The rest of our night in Panama was spent checking latitude and longitude coordinates, re-measuring distances, and calculating time, speed, and distance to double-check the estimated time of arrivals (ETAs) at each route leg waypoint.

The next morning, down in the berthing compartment, returning crew were talking about their night in Panama City. One place mentioned by many was a spot called the Blue Goose. The Blue Goose in Panama City was a brothel that was supposedly sponsored by the Panamanian government. One guy aptly described the place as probably being much like a Prohibition era roadhouse, where anything went. Those of us who had duty quickly grew tired of hearing how we had missed out on all the fine women and what a great place the Blue Goose was.

At 1000, the ship got underway from the Rodman Naval Station dock. Once the ship was fair in the outbound channel, it proceeded to pass under the Pan-American bridge (The Bridge of the Americas) and headed outbound to the Gulf of Panama, and then on to the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The other thing the crew was happy about was that it was Sunday. Once the ship was out to sea and secured from the sea and anchor detail, for those not going on watch, “holiday routine” would be set. The holiday routine meant that those nursing their hangovers and/or suffering from exhaustion because they had been up all night while on liberty would be able to hit their racks and get some sleep.…If you would like to read “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of the following links to booksellers: Amazon.com: Books, Barnes and Noble, BAM –Books A Million and Smashword.com eBooks.

Striking_Eight_Bells_F_Cover
©2018 George Trowbridge

If you would like to purchase a copy signed by the author, George Trowbridge, with a “Striking Eight Bells” bookmark use this link: “Get a signed copy.”

The stories in these posts and the book; “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir,” reflect the author’s recollection of events. Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Dialogue has been recreated from memory. Dates, times, and locations were recreated from declassified U.S. Navy records and others. Photographs used are either public domain or owned by the author. Illustrations and maps used were either created by the author or in the public domain. The stories in these posts and the book are solely the opinion of the author and not the publisher, Richter Publishing, LLC.

*Image was found in public domain or it could not be established after reasonable search, that any claim existed to the image. Image used for illustrative purposes only and is not the property of the author. Where ever possible, credit for the image is indicated in the caption.

  1. USS Rich (DD 820) cruise book; 1972-1973 Wespac Cruise.

2 thoughts on “Transit to Vietnam via the Panama Canal

  1. I have been writing down different points in my life and keeping track for posterity and just to give me something to do. I find my life very interesting and it is now a sort of entertainment to keep myself occupied. I have around 30 full type written pages but they wonder to different points of my life as I remember them. You have accomplished something I have been experimenting with for years with the only big difference that you have fulfilled yours and I doubt that I will ever see mine finished. The things many of us did while growing up are our history and a bit fiction to some who might think it is garbage and not worthy of a second glance. My autobiography is probabnly garbage to many but very dear to me. Congratulations to you for completing your dream. Mine goes unfulfilled and at 79 years of age I doubt I shall ever see mine completed. So kudos to you my friend for your book is a worthy accomplishment and bringing it to life by book is the fulfillment of a life long dream for many of us. Many of my short stories of my life are inscribed in many of the pages of my Facebook account which is listed in my identifying information below. Fair winds and smooth sailing to you. Melvin E. Holliday RM1 (SS) USN Ret.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melvin, thanks for your kind comments. “Striking Eight Bells,” started as an draft outline over 40 years ago, then got set aside until I retired in late 2017. Your right we experienced many thing in the course of our Navy lives that would sound like fiction to those who have never served. I count myself lucky that back in high school a teacher inspired me to start keeping a daily journal, a habit that I carried into the Navy and still keep to this day. I’ve made my living in part since retiring from the Navy writing technical textbooks for various maritime training curriculums, which gave me a lot of book and technical document writing experience. Writing the book was my first crossover from technical writing to writing to tell a story. Gratefully since publishing, the book has made the crossover from primarily a Navy veteran reader audience to many civilians, including quite a few younger people. I felt strongly that people needed to know our stories from when we were young, since those time were just as divisive if not more so than today.

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