In January and February 1921, the fighting and support ships stationed in the Atlantic and the Pacific met in Panama for a cruise and joint maneuvers in the Pacific south of the equator. As this would be the first major Fleet exercise after World War I, one of the Navy’s goals was to determine if ships stationed in the Atlantic could meet with their counterparts from the Pacific and operate successfully without additional training.
Accordingly, seven battleships—the Pennsylvania (BB-38), Arizona (BB-39), Nevada (BB-36), Oklahoma (BB-37), Utah (BB-31), Delaware (BB-28), and North Dakota (BB-29)—and 18 destroyers, accompanied by a small number of auxiliaries, left New York in early January and headed south. They were to steam to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, conduct various exercises, transit the Panama Canal, and meet the seven active battleships—the Arkansas (BB-33), Wyoming (BB-32), Texas (BB-35), New York (BB-34), New Mexico (BB-40), Mississippi (BB-41), and Idaho (BB-42)—destroyer squadrons, and auxiliaries from the Pacific Fleet that had sailed south from San Pedro and San Diego, California.There was one possible hitch in the plan. In 1921 the United States and the Canal Zone were “dry” as Prohibition was in force. But outside U.S. territory, sailors could legally purchase and consume hard liquor.
Travel Guide . . . and Insurance Plan
To help young sailors navigate their shore leave, the Navy, with the help of the National Geographic Society, produced pamphlets describing the places the ships would visit. The brochure for the Panama Canal Zone began by noting that it had been written to help sailors “make the most of their shore liberty.” The publication also informed them that the zone was “one of the most important and unusual places in the world,” and that “your folks will want to know something about the things you saw here,” suggesting they mail the pamphlets home.1
In essence, however, the Navy’s goal was to keep as many sailors as possible sober and inside the Canal Zone. The guide to the canal covered the restaurants and hotels open to sailors, including establishments in the zone at the Atlantic entrance in the city of Cristobal and at the Pacific entrance in Balboa. There were also restaurants and hotels in the Panamanian cities of Colon (adjacent to Cristobal) and Panama City (near Balboa).
At the Atlantic end, sailors could take in the Army and Navy YMCAs in Cristobal and Coco Solo, the Panama Canal Clubhouse and Canal Zone commissary in Cristobal, the swimming pool, movie theaters, shops, and the Hotel Washington in Colon. The submarine base and new airfield at Coco Solo were also open. To see the sites farther away, sailors could hire cars to visit the Gatun Locks, dam, and spillway; while there they could swim in Gatun Lake, fish for tarpon at the spillway, and maybe even play golf.
At the Pacific end of the canal, there was another Army and Navy YMCA plus a National Catholic Welfare Council Community House, Canal Zone clubhouse with a swimming pool, commissary, and the Tivoli Hotel. The massive canal administration building at Balboa Heights, with a museum and library, was also open. Outside the Canal Zone but within Panama City were the cathedral, numerous public buildings, and the ruins of the old Spanish fortifications. There was also a large outdoor market and even a bull ring. Sailors could hire a car and visit the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks or the Balboa golf club.
Of course the real attraction was the canal itself, with its multiple locks, dams, and Gatun Lake, which was, as the guidebook pointed out, “the largest artificially formed body of water in the world.” The lake was also attractive because it supplied ships with fresh water, which meant that merchant mariners and sailors could get salt out of their clothes and their bedding and take normal showers.
Most spectacular was the Gaillard, or Culebra, Cut, an eight-mile ditch dug through the Continental Divide. It was cheaper to dredge up the debris from the slides than it would have been to try to cut down the high ridges of the Continental Divide. As a result, rock and mud slides from the steep banks of the cut kept Canal Zone dredges busy. The canal locks were extraordinary: 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide in pairs. They lifted the largest ships of their time 85 feet from the Atlantic entrance to Gatun Lake and then lowered them again into the Pacific.
In addition to educating sailors on all there was to see and experience in the region, the guide offered important practical advice any traveler would need. While the currency in the Canal Zone was the U.S. dollar, sailors venturing outside the zone needed to know that a dollar was worth two Panamanian pesos so they could understand prices in local shops, bars, and hotels.
By present-day standards, Navy pay was very low: A first-class boatswain’s mate received $84 a month; a gunner’s mate third-class $60; a seaman second-class $48; and an apprentice seaman $33.2 Performance awards and reenlistment bonuses added to the basic amounts, but the pay of enlisted sailors hardly kept up with inflation—except in places like the Canal Zone and Panama. For example, a bus ride from Balboa to nearby Panama City cost a quarter, and sailors could ride the open and inexpensive street cars in the zone or hire a five-passenger car outside the zone for $2.50 an hour. There was also the Panama Railroad, which ran three passenger trains alongside the canal each way three times a day. As the pamphlet pointed out, “The fare for men in uniform on the regular trains is 3 cents per mile.”
Accompanying the ships of the Atlantic Fleet on their journey through the canal was journalist Herbert Corey, who observed that “It is doubtful if Young America . . . fully appreciated the marvel of the Panama Canal as the warships passed through its great locks. They were immensely interested, of course. . . . Most of them had been fed for the better part of their lives with stories and pictures of the canal. They took great achievements as a matter of course.”3 What did impress and surprise the sailors was what Corey called the “flylessness” of the Canal Zone—the relative absence of mosquitoes and flies.
Testing the Fleet
In the Canal Zone, Navy forces and installations were under the command of the 15th Naval District. After passing through the canal, the ships from the Atlantic and Pacific got down to business, conducting exercises together before breaking again into two forces and steaming south. Atlantic-based ships headed for Peru while the Pacific-based ones took off for Chile. U.S. naval policy was to divide the whole Fleet into two basically equal parts, relying on the Panama Canal as a means of concentrating them in the event of a crisis or war. The 1921 exercises tested this concept, but the exercises also gauged the value of staging such major maneuvers. Did having almost 60 ships steam thousands of miles produce a more efficient and effective fighting force? The answer was yes, and the 1921 deployment showed how valuable such major maneuvers could be—not only for training, but also as a means of mastering the logistics of a long voyage and as a method of testing tactical concepts.
The 1921 exercises also tested the Navy’s new air arm. F5L flying boats based in Norfolk and San Diego traveled in stages to the Caribbean and to the Pacific coast of Panama, demonstrating their range and ability to support the Fleet’s surface ships as well as the Navy’s commitment to aviation. Naval aviators and more innovative Navy officers were pressing Congress to authorize the Navy to create a special bureau for aviation. These officers argued that the long flights of the F5L flying boats were evidence of the Navy’s commitment to aviation and served therefore as a defense against the arguments of those advocating for an air force distinct from the Army and Navy.4
A second reason for sending flying boats to Panama was to find out if they could be employed as a mobile defense of the canal and the Navy base at Coco Solo. Both the Army and Navy developed defenses for the canal, with the Army building airfields, stationing troops, and installing coastal defense guns, while the Navy used Coco Solo as a base for submarines and submarine chasers. The subs based at Coco Solo were R-class boats—186 feet long, displacing less than 700 tons submerged, and armed with one 3-inch gun and four 21-inch torpedoes in bow tubes.
Plans to boost the naval defenses of the Canal Zone were soon curtailed by the Washington Naval Treaty, signed on 6 February 1922. The treaty pledged the five signatories—the United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan—to scrap a number of new battleships and battle cruisers then being built as well as older ships that were no longer first-line units. One consequence of the agreement was that the United States could not maintain two effective ocean-going fleets. The smaller but more modern force that remained after implementing the treaty was concentrated on the California coast. The Panama Canal, however, remained vital to American naval policy. It allowed the Navy to shift the bulk of its forces from the Pacific to the Atlantic and then back again, but the reduction in military spending that followed the ratification of the treaty prevented the Navy from turning the facilities at Balboa into a major naval base.
To be sure, combining the Atlantic and Pacific fleets in early 1921 was worthwhile. The experience gained from the maneuvers and exercises provided useful information to the Naval War College as its classes of officers conducted simulations and war games in order to learn how to best employ the Fleet in major campaigns. Starting in 1923, the Navy initiated a process of working out concepts at the college and then testing them at sea in the extensive and rigorous “fleet problems.”5 The Panama Canal and its Army and Navy defenses would remain a focus of periodic exercises right through the 1920s and 1930s.
Despite the Navy’s best efforts, thirsty sailors still managed to find the Strangers’ Club at Colon, where they could escape Prohibition. Later, as they came back through the canal after their Pacific exercises and excursions, they roamed the streets of Panama City. There was time for that, just as there was time for officially sponsored boxing matches and a major Fleet baseball tournament—and for picking up a number of pets to take back to the States.6 As one sailor put it in a postcard sent to his parents, “It was some thrill.”7
1. “The Panama Canal,” Visit of Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, United States Navy, January and February 1921, pamphlet in the author’s collection, 1.
2. Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, 1 January 1922 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1922), “Navy Pay Tables,” 314–318.
3. Herbert Corey, “Across the Equator with the American Navy,” National Geographic¸ vol. 39, no. 6 (June 1921), 603.
4. CAPT Richard C. Knott, USN, The American Flying Boat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979), 76; See also Thomas C. Hone, Norman Friedman, and Mark D. Mandeles, American & British Aircraft Carrier Development, 1919–1941 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 27–30.
5. Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923–1940 (Newport, RI, and Washington, D.C.: Naval War College and Government Printing Office, 2010).
6. Corey, “Across the Equator with the American Navy,” 624.
7. For more photographs of a battleship sailor’s life, see Paul Stillwell, Battleship Arizona: An Illustrated History, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991).