Excerpts From: “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”
“Bound for Vietnam via the Panama Canal.”
My ship, USS Rich (DD 820) and 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.
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.
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.
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….If you would like to read more of “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of the following links to booksellers: Amazon.com: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and Smashword.com eBooks.
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©2018 George Trowbridge