The Marines At Panama

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Marines on board USS Pennsylvania  headed for Panama

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Marines from the landing party in Nov.1903 guarding the Panama Railroad Freight House in Colon.

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Camp Elliott 1910-11 U.S.Marines
Panama Battalion
C.O. Major Smedley D.Butler from Nov.1909 to Jan.1914.
Butler was a Marines Marine! He is of course standing tall in front of HIS Marines.

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President Theodore Roosevelt reviewing the Marines in 1906 during his visit to view construction on the Panama Canal.

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Marine Drum and Bugle Corp at Camp Elliott around 1911. "Damn Sgt., how come the old man makes us go out in the bush to practice".

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Camp Elliott -  1913
Catch the classic flinty eyed authority figure on the far right side.

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Smedley's Marines standing on the "Bridge of Sighs" that they built and so named. In the 1970's the bridge was gone, but the foundation pilings were still there. This pic was taken in July 1911.

Thanks to Louis Barbier and George Chevalier for contributing the photographs.

In 1908 the Marines at Camp Elliott provided security for the construction crews digging the canal. A Marine recently arrived to this overseas assignment said, "... it was a grand chance to see the world and make a bit more money than stateside ..." as he enjoyed a 5-cent giant pitcher of beer. This Marine recently arrived at Coal-on harbor would travel by train to Cuelbra Cut, where the Marines had established Camp Elliott. One Marine described the trip as, ...."We traveled on that dinky railroad ... went through ... where the canal is now ... Gatun Lake.  We saw very primitive country ..." So, we had  Marines in Panama at the turn of the century, just in case something were to happen.  A private back then in 1908 earned $12.80 per month and a horse blanket. One Marine who spent two years at Camp Elliott remembers that in those two years -- he only saw two movies. And one of those movies was made in Spain. The movie theater was outdoors and they used a carbon arc light for light. He also said salt  beef was served too much, but the Marines felt lucky when canned salmon was served. This Marine stated that the cooks went heavy on the beans ... but he never complained.

These swaggering, suntanned professionals -- the leathernecks -- pride themselves on their mastery of gunnery at sea and ashore.  The Marines became such a vital part of the navy's fleet that Admiral Porter back in 1908 remarked, "A ship without Marines is like a garment without buttons."

Major Smedley Butler is one of only two people to receive two Congressional Medals of Honor.  He earned his at Vera Cruz (1914) and in Haiti (1915).  The other recipient of two Congressional Medals of Honor was also a Marine -- Daniel Joseph Daly. As a private during action in the China Relief Expedition (Boxer Rebellion) he received his first award. Then Gunnery Sergeant Daly was awarded his second Medal of Honor at Haiti.

Marine strength never exceeded the one battalion that probubly ran between 800 to 1,000 men.  Led by Smedley Butler the Panama Battalion sailed off in 1914 for the landing and fracas in Vera Cruz, Mexico and never returned to Panama . The 10th US Infantry had assumed the role of Canal Guardian from Camp Otis. Of course some years later smaller amounts of Marines returned as we remember but the primary defense role was not theirs.

Two other illustrious figures who served in the Panama Battalion were LeJuene (Camp LeJuene, NC is named after him) and  Archie Vandergrift. Many remember Gen. Archie Vandergrift leading the Marines in the hell of Guadalcanal in WW11.


November 19, 1999

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