The World War II Recollections of Paul W. Fleming
For the first eighteen months I was down there it was still considered a dangerous situation for the canal, but discipline got more lax as the war dragged on, and especially in the last two years of the war we lost that sense of urgency. They started to use Panama as a training base for tropical warfare -- Pacific warfare, in other words -- and so they would send troops down there to train. And we would hold joint maneuvers with them, and that sort of thing, to keep us both on the ball, and then they would ship out for the Far East. We were training pilots all the time for the same reason; most all of the ones we trained ended up in the Pacific area. Pilots came and went, came and went -- they would be down there for six months of training and off they'd go somewhere. I think most of us, after we were down there about a year or two, just thought, Well, let's just ride it out down here if we can. By then the glory had worn off, and discipline started getting kind of weak. . . .
We had a flight out on Rey Island, which is off the coast of Panama. Rey -- that's "king" in Spanish. It was part of the Las Perlas group of islands and was the biggest one there, so that's why they called it Rey Island. We had a flight of four planes out there, and just enough men to keep that going -- about fifty guys. They were supposed to keep the place clean, and they had to do a certain amount of maintenance on those planes that came in. The pilots weren't even out there -- they would just land sometimes. Also, there was a big fancy home that was built on the island by the army engineers for the commanding general of the whole Caribbean operation, but I never saw hide nor hair of him. I don't think he ever used it. It was just there in case he wanted to use it.
Now, a good friend of mine at the time was named Jack Okun, a first lieutenant, the same as I was. So what happened is that this guy got out there, and since he was the only commissioned officer he got to fraternizing real heavy with those enlisted men. First thing you know, why, he was Jack, and they were Joe and Jim, and he'd tell them to do something, and they'd say, "Oh, let's not do it, Jack. Hell, we can do that some other time." Well, he had a jeep, and he let one of the enlisted men take it down to the bay there, and all that tearing along in that salt water destroyed the jeep -- they were mad about that, too.
So they relieved Jack and told me the whole story. They said, "Don't you get to fraternizing with those guys when you get there, you keep a strict military discipline." And so I went out there, and I could see what Jack had been up against. Of course after that trouble with Okun, I was very cold and distant with the men. I knew I had to be, and I wouldn't let any of them call me Paul. I didn't play cards with them or fraternize with them at all. I can see where if the war had lasted a long time, though, I'm sure I would have drifted into the same pattern that the other guy did. But no, they only kept me there about four months and then they rotated me, I suppose for that very reason. But it was a kind of nice break in the war.
For one thing, they did send a doctor out there, a guy from Chicago, so I had someone to visit with. That helped a lot. For a while, anyhow, this doctor and I were buddy-buddy. There were things you could do on Rey. For instance, there was place where the beach was real nice, and tapered gradually. I never saw any sharks in that shallow water, so we felt reasonably safe there. We used to go swimming every day. Nearby, though, there was a cliff, and the water was just full of sharks over in that area. We would get our rifles and live ammunition ready, and then take big pieces of meat, and throw them in there, forty or fifty feet below, and whish! -- a shark would come up and grab it, and then we'd shoot the shark. As soon as we shot him and he started bleeding, the other sharks would eat him. Boy, I tell you, that was our entertainment -- we liked to watch those sharks devour each other. All it took was one big chunk of meat to get it started.
There were some other things, too. Down on the other side of the island, maybe a mile away, there was a native village. Now, this one guy, an old regular army master sergeant, was in charge of the maintenance of the airplanes -- chief airplane mechanic. He got a Dear John letter from his wife saying that she was filing for divorce and she was going to marry some other guy. (That was common during the war; that happened all the time.) So he said, "To hell with everything," and went down to the native village, and he got drunk and shacked up with a native girl. They sent the military police after him, hauled him back, and they busted him to a buck private. But they still needed him to do the work that he had been doing. He wasn't the only one there who knew how to work on the planes, but he knew more about it than anyone else. He was the supervisor. So every month they'd promote him, first to PFC, then the next month to corporal, next month to buck sergeant, next month to staff sergeant, until after about six months he got his rank back.
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It was early in the war, in 1942, when I first got down there. I was still pretty gung-ho, but right off the bat I started to see what the army was really all about. For instance, everyone pointed this captain out to me. He was buddy-buddy with the bird colonel who was the base commander, and for some reason or another he had his wife down there, a nice-looking young lady. The general took a shine to her because she was the only woman around, and so he started making a play for her, and pretty soon he was shacking up with this guy's wife. Shortly after that the captain got promoted to major. And that was the scandal of the month when I got down there, but nobody ever said anything about it to the colonel, or for that matter to the major either -- "the new major." That was one way to get promoted! Well, this was the first big disillusioning experience I had with these higher officers. I had a lot of other ones after that.
For most of us, of course, there weren't any majors' wives, and women were a big deal. It always struck me that most of the young women down there, and the older women too, for that matter, had quite thin, spindly legs, and so the guys used to say, "I can't wait to get back to the land of the thick-legged women." Well, here's something that happened in about '43. There were some government hospitals around there, so they sent a bunch of young nurses down to the Pan-American Air Depot, and they got various jobs in the hospitals, and even if they weren't nurses some of them were technicians and got jobs in the air depot, where they repaired electronic equipment. So about two hundred young white women suddenly arrived -- holy man, were they ever popular! Boy, that was something. And of course right away all the majors and captains, the doctors especially, glommed onto these women, even though many of these officers were married and had families at home. But geez, they glommed onto those women, and they had the money and they had the transportation, and ordinary guys like me had neither. Within a short time none of those women would have anything to do with enlisted men, and not a heck of a lot with lieutenants either!
What the enlisted men did down there, a lot of them anyhow, was to try and find a shack-up girl, a local Panamanian gal. This one guy, Stasiak, did that. He was a tall, thin Polish guy from Chicago, always singing that song, "Both mama and daughta working for the Stasiak dolla. . . ." He had this young prostitute who lived in a little hovel down there in Panama City, and she was available to him whenever he called ahead to let her know that he was coming in. Otherwise she was busy with other guys. She had a statue of the Blessed Virgin, and every time that he was down there to jump in bed with her, she would stop at that statue and light the candle. He'd ask her, "What are you doing that for?" And she'd say, "So I don't get disease."
A lot of the guys were always looking for something to shack up with, and they had to take what was available, of course. One day at Albrook Field, I was standing out there in front of the enlisted men's barracks, and a great big heavyset colored woman came along, obviously very pregnant. She asked me, "You from Albrook?" I said, "Yeah." She said, "You know Sergeant Smith?" I said, "I don't know, but you can go in the barracks there and ask some of those fellows if they know him." She said, "Sergeant Smith, him come from Albrook," and then she tapped herself on her pregnant stomach and said, "Him come from Albrook too."
She proceeded to go into the barracks, and the guys had a ball with that, because in fact there was a guy named Smith in there; you probably could have gone to just about any barracks and found one. The guys inside rounded him out and he denied everything angrily, but they kept saying, "Oh, come on now, admit it." Anyway, she said he wasn't the right Smith, and she wanted to know if he knew the other Sergeant Smith. I think the guy she'd been with probably just picked "Smith" as a name to tell her.
Of course, the bases were isolated and carefully guarded, but you could go into Panama City on one side of the canal and Colón on the other. There were all kinds of nightclubs down there, full of what they called "blue moon" girls, who were very scantily dressed. You'd walk into the bar and sit down at the stool and they'd sit at the stool next to you and start fondling you a little bit and ask you if you wanted company, or if you would buy them a drink. They'd always order a blue moon. You know what that was? A little bit of pop -- ginger ale or colored water or something -- at an exorbitant price. What they wanted to do was sit alongside you for maybe an hour or more and get you all hot and bothered so that you'd buy them a lot of drinks. You'd probably proposition them too, and they would accept that and then they'd make more money -- that's what they were doing.
A lot of the Panamanians were always trying to take us for all they could. In fact, I remember one guy I was with got really mad because the shoeshine boy took him for about four or five times what you'd consider the normal rate, and he was gonna grab the kid and slap him around or something, but some guy stopped him, and said, "Did you ask him how much it was for a shine?" And when the first guy said no, this other guy said, "Well, then you haven't got a leg to stand on, so whatever he tells you, you pay him." I remember that incident real well. Just a shoeshine.
But all those people were out to get all the money they could out of you, always, whether it was in those joints, or anyplace else, for that matter. Of course, they'd had soldiers there for years, even before the war, and they were used to it. Some of them resented us, I suppose, but most of them were just kind of indifferent, and didn't pay much attention to us. To tell the truth, they wouldn't have cared at all if we'd lost the war.
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On our side, most of the guys didn't mix with the Panamanians at all. They referred to them as "gooks" and they didn't fraternize with them if they could help it, but I didn't feel that way; I wanted to get to know the people and learn their language, and so I did mix with them, as much as I could. It was hard to get acquainted with the higher strata of people down there, but because I had studied Spanish and could talk enough to communicate, I got to know some Panamanians. The language was about half and half -- pidgin Spanish and pidgin English. They were friendly toward you if you were friendly toward them, and so I got along pretty well with them. I even had a couple of dates with higher-class Panamanian girls. One day this other guy and I were invited to a Panamanian party; we went out to a kind of a wooded area near the lake there and had barbecue. Sometimes we went to the movies or something like that.
Another way I got acquainted with some of the higher-class people there was through a captain who was married to a Panamanian woman and had kids and everything. He had been there since before the war -- Panama was his home. He was a reserve officer who was called to active duty and they just let him stay down there. I got to know him pretty well. One time he threw a party and invited me. There were some young girls there, about seventeen or eighteen years old, and some of them were very nice attractive girls, all upper-class friends of his wife. I asked the host, "When do these girls usually get married down here?" And he said, "Oh, these young señoritas, they'll all be married within a year or two now." Of course in the tropics it's that way -- you get into life in a hurry.
I got to know Panama pretty well, since I lived there for three years, and in fact I really wound up admiring the Panamanians a lot more than most of the Americans did. For one thing, I was very interested in their music, and so I was always trying to learn these songs from them. And I loved that tropical fruit! When we were out at Madden, one of those old fields in the jungle, these natives used to come through and they would sell us stalks of bananas. Oh, man, were they good! So sweet, they just tasted like pure sugar. Golly, they were good. . . . We always used to have a stalk hanging there.
There were other ways to get good food, too. Sometimes the pilots would spin in over the water, so they had these crash boats that were there to go out and get a pilot if he had to dunk into the drink. Later in the war, although these boats were still needed, the danger was past, and we used them for fishing, and we'd catch mackerel. We did that a couple of times. And then, somewhere off the coast of Panama, this guy took about a dozen of us out and showed us how to get lobsters on these coral atolls. You had to wade out at night with a sack on your shoulder, and you had a powerful flashlight in your left hand. You shined it around, and when they saw it the lobsters would be attracted and they would poke their heads out of their holes and come toward the light a little bit, and then you'd sneak up behind them with your right hand, and tchooo! -- grab them and stuff them in the sack. They were clawing away but they couldn't do anything because you had them by the tail. Boy, they were good eating, I'll tell you. . . .
Here's something else I remember happened out there at Madden, in about '43. One of the colonels had managed to get his wife down there, and his daughter too. Now, an American white woman was a real scarce item down there, and the daughter was a good-looking young gal, about twenty-two or twenty-three years old. Pretty soon, this pilot named Eddie Gourd started dating her. Eddie was a good-looking guy, a captain. He wanted to marry her, but he had to do it on her terms, which meant joining her church, because Eddie was a Catholic boy, and she was a Protestant. The women held all the cards down there. He did, of course -- he converted.
They were married a couple months before he took this dive into the bay. Eddie was checking out on one of the navy amphibious planes, and he had the same thing happen to him that happened to those other two: he was landing that plane, and fshhht, he nose-dived into the bay, and he died.
Anyhow, we had a chaplain assigned to us out there, of all things. Father Benson, a Catholic. It turned out that Father Benson had the job of telling his family, because he had gotten a letter from his parents, wanting to know what had happened to Eddie, and now, as chaplain, he had to answer it. "You know," he said to me, "that fellow has never been near me or gone to Mass, or anything like that, and now I've got the job of having to write to his parents and tell them something nice." I said, "Well, you know, Eddie was kind of a happy-go-lucky guy. I guess he just didn't think too much about religion or anything like that. Just tell them something nice, that he was such a happy-go-lucky guy." Father Benson said, "Well, I hope he's happy-go-lucky now." But I think he did write as nice a letter as he could. What they wanted to know, of course, was that he was going to church all the time and all that sort of thing. I don't think he told them that, but just that Eddie was a very fine young man, and that he had enjoyed knowing him and so on, and was very sorry this happened.
The reason I thought about this Father Benson is this: now, here were about four hundred of us guys out there at Madden, and here was this chaplain. He would try to find makeshift places where he could say Mass and hold confessions and all, so he got the bright idea, I suppose because he had time on his hands, that he should build a little chapel where we could worship. And I was just aghast when he said that. I said, "Father, this is very temporary, we won't be here for very long." He said, "Who knows how long we'll be here?"
So we all pitched in and helped him all we could to build the thing. We got some lumber and stuff from the engineers, and we even got a carpet for it, and stations of the cross. Pretty soon we had a real nice little church there, not much bigger than a double garage. My goodness, only about six weeks after it was completed we were moved out of there and sent to France Field. I often wondered what happened to that thing. I suppose those natives, when they approached it and saw it, were just as surprised as anything to see something like that that the gringos had left behind. The whole base was abandoned. But here was this nice little chapel in the middle of the jungle.
Actually, those Panamanians were quite pious in their own way. I'd see mothers bring kids into those churches, and they would touch the eyes of the statue, and then touch the eyes of their little child, and then they'd go down the line of the nose, and the mouth, the ears -- touch the statue's ears, and then touch their child's ears, and so on. It's almost like idolatry, but they were pious in their own way too, these people.
In fact, I got to see a lot of that part of Latin America. We got to go on rest and relaxation to places like Guatemala and Costa Rica. I went to all those places. After you had about two years in down there, you could put in for those things -- you could go up and spend about a month up there. And that was extremely enjoyable, relative to Panama, because Guatemala City and also San Jose are highly elevated, and so the climate is very crisp and the evenings are cool. They weren't tropical like Panama, so that was very pleasant. One thing, though, was that you could see the poverty of Latin America -- it wasn't just in Panama, it was that way in Nicaragua and it was that way in Guatemala. (Life was a lot better in Costa Rica where they had a much more well-educated strata of people.) In Guatemala they had all those Indians, and they were living in terrible poverty. There's the rich and the poor, and all of those countries even yet are run by what they call oligarchies -- maybe fifty or a hundred wealthy families that control the army and therefore the country. They are not democracies in any sense of the word, because in order to start up any business you have to get a license from the government agency, and guess who has all the licenses. . . .
© Michael Fleming