U.S. NAVY Always Has Played
Important Part With Canal

From the Panama American, August 15, 1939

In December, 1913, the monitor Tallahassee, the oldsloop of War Severn in tow of the tug Potomac, and five submarines, the C-1, C-2, C-3, C-4 and C-5 stood into Limon Bay and tied up at the Cristobal piers. This force, under the command of Lt. W. L. Friedell, U.S.N., constituted the first naval defense of the yet unopened Panama Canal.

Officers and men were quartered aboard the old Severn, and minor submarine repairs were made on board this old hulk. For major repairs, the Cristobal Shops were used. This force, known as Submarine Division One, operated from Cristobal. Torpedo practices were fired in Almirante Bay and Chiriqui Lagoon, and short cruises were made to Caribbean ports.

The earliest official step toward a permanent shore base may be found in a letter to both port captains from Captain Hugh Rodman, then marine Superintendent. In this letter, dated March 10, 1915, Capt. Rodman, recommended that the ground in the vicinity of the Union Oil Company's old dock on the Pacific Side be reserved for a submarine base.


On August 6, 1915, the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, in a letter to the Governor of the Canal Zone, stated that the Department was of the opinion that the Cristobal Mole was the most desirable situation for a shore base. The Secretary stressed the point that he considered it quite unnecessary to have quarters for the families of the officers or enlisted men on the base.

Finally, in December, 1915, a board of high-ranking officials, which included Admiral Grant, General Goethals, Colonel Harding and six others, recommended a main submarine base on the Atlantic Side with an auxiliary base at Pier 18 in Balboa. Admiral Grant made a thorough inspection of the various sites and recommended that a permanent base be built at Coco Solo. He also stated that due to the peculiar economic and social conditions existing on the Canal Zone, quarters for the families and officers and men should be built on the base.

Secretary Daniels approved the choice of site but repeated his objection to quarters. Some argument as to the strategic location of the base was raised in navy circles, and it was not until the latter part of June, 1917, that $750,000 was appropriated for the submarine base at Coco Solo.

Three months prior to the appropriation, however, Lt. John Rodgers, who had relieved Lt. Friedell as commander Submarine Division One, had started his men cleaning the ground around the site for the base. He brought his submarines over to Coco Solo and took over a group of temporary buildings - one of which was a former bunk house for Chinese coolies - and used a group of temporary office buildings as the office, supply office and dispensary.

The submarine base was officially completed late in 1918 at a cost of more than a million and a half dollars.


In the meantime, naval officials began to consider the establishment of a naval district on the Canal Zone. this district was established Nov. 28, 1917, by order of the Secretary of the Navy. Its first commander was the then Commander L.R. Sargent. Succeeding commandants have all held the rank of rear admiral.

The Fifteenth Naval district consists of the Submarine Base at Coco Solo, the Naval Air Station at Coco Solo, the radio stations on the Zone consisting of establishments at Balboa, Summit and Colon, and three outlying stations located at Cape Mala, La Palma and Puerto Obaldia. A sea going tug, the U.S.S. Woodcock is the district's sea vessel.

On February 3, 1917, the date on which diplomatic relations between Germany and the United States were severed, wartime activities were started on the Canal Zone.

Four German merchant ships were lying in Limon Bay and, because of their proximity to Gatun locks, great apprehension was entertained regarding a hostile attack on the construction at Gatun. On February 3, acting Governor Morrow gave verbal orders requesting the navy to take over the three ships.

No opposition was encountered and the men, numbering 112, and their masters were taken aboard the U.S.S. Charleston and given supper. The masters were then quartered at the Hotel Washington and the crews were sent to Fort Randolph. This was not considered a seizure, for the United States was not at that time at war with Germany, but the ships were simply taken in charge, their property inventoried and retained, with the view of a later return.

This incident, though of little apparent significance, marked the beginning of naval operations in the Canal Zone. Later Atlantic and pacific patrols were established for the duration of hostilities. The Army tug, Major Albert Force, was taken over by the navy for the purpose of closing the submarine nets at the main and east entrance to the harbor of Cristobal. These nets were closed at sunset and opened at sunrise throughout the war.

In addition to the Fifteenth Naval District, the Navy's Special Service Squadron has made its headquarters at Balboa for many years. At the present time this detachment includes the gunboats Erie and Charleston, and the destroyers, Tattnall and J. Fred Talbott. The squadron is in command of Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox, Jr.

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Last Update: October 3, 1998

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