What Really Happened January 9, 1964 at the Flagpole?

Note from the CZBrats domain: This article was scanned from the Panama Canal Spillway dated January 20, 1964. The following does not reflect personal accounts by participants or by those who were affected as a result. We have merely reported the actual PCC Spillway publication. Furthermore, this article does not reflect our (CZBrats) opinion.

This is a factual summary of the events of Thursday, January 9, plus some supplementary information, prepared and written by an experienced professional newspaperman, and printed in The Spillway as a service to its readers. It is not an official report of either the Panama Canal enterprise or of the U.S. Government.

At about 4:40 p.m. on January 9, 1964, an estimated 200 Panamanian high school students, boys and girls, from the Instituto Nacional in Panama City entered the Canal Zone and proceeded up Gorgas Road carrying small Panamanian flags, the Panama National Institute Student Federation banner and the school flag. They also carried several provocative signs such as "Panama is sovereign in the Canal Zone." They proceeded in a peaceful manner to the Canal Zone Governor's residence, where they paused and sang the Panamanian National Anthem and then went to the Panama Canal Administration Building, down the stairs and past the Goethals Memorial to an area one block from the Balboa High School, shouting "Yankee Go Home" and similar slogans. Here, they were halted by a squad of 10 Canal Zone police officers who had instructions from the Acting Governor, Col. David S. Parker, to stop the students at this point. The Canal Zone police were instructed to use no violence, but to halt the students, so as to avoid an incident. (Governor Fleming had left the Isthmus via Tocumen by air on January 9, 1964, at 5:00 p.m. en route to Washington for an official appointment with Thomas Mann, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, and Stephen Ailes, Under Secretary of the Army. On arrival in Miami, he was informed by Balboa Heights of the situation in the Canal Zone and Panama. After consultation with Washington, Governor Fleming returned to the Canal Zone by the first available flight to Panama. He arrived at Tocumen about 3:20 a.m. January 10, 1964, and reached the Canal Zone shortly thereafter.)

The leaders of the Panama student group informed Captain Gaddis Wall, District Police Commander, Balboa, that they wished to go to the Balboa High School flagpole for the purpose of raising the Panama National Institute flag (a Panama flag with the school emblem and name in the flag's center) on the pole beside the U.S. flag, which was flying at the time, and to sing their national anthem. After some discussion among and with the students, the group was informed that five Panama students would be escorted by police to the Balboa High School flagpole, where they would be able to have their ceremony and display this flag in front of the flagpole, if they wished. Although the leaders of the group agreed to this proposition, there was considerable opposition to the proposal among the group. The opposition was led by an adult Panamanian, reportedly a Panama school teacher.

The five Panamanian students were escorted by the Canal Zone police to the Balboa High School flagpole. A number of Balboa High School students were gathered about the flagpole base. The Balboa High School students and a large group of adult U.S. civilians on the school grounds, who had gathered from nearby residential areas, joined in the singing of the U.S. National Anthem.

The Panama delegation refused to have a ceremony unless they could have it on the spot occupied by the Balboa High School students, who would not move. The Panama delegation then wanted to raise the Panama school flag on the flagpole where the U.S. flag was flying, and Police Captain Wall refused permission. The Panamanian and Balboa students at the flagpole began exchanging insulting remarks.  Recognizing the tense atmosphere, the Canal Zone police endeavored to convince the five Panamanian students to rejoin the remaining members of their group before an incident could occur, but the students resisted violently. It was necessary for the police detail to forcibly push them from the flagpole. The flag was carried by four Panama students holding it at the top edge. Captain Gaddis Wall, an eyewitness, made these two statements based on his own observations. No Canal Zone policeman tore or ripped the flag. No U.S. student tore or ripped the flag. There was a tight cordon of Canal Zone police surrounding the Panama students and separating them from the U.S. students. Since there was scuffling, pushing, and physical struggle between the Canal Zone police and the Panamanian students, the four Panama students holding the flag apparently tore it themselves during the scuffle.

The five students with the flag and a Panama National Institute Student Federation banner joined their waiting group, which was surrounded by a cordon of police to keep them separated from the Canal Zone high school students and adults in front of the Balboa High School. The Panamanian group shouted at the police for several minutes. At no time was there any encounter between the large group of Panama students and the students of the Canal Zone, as O'Connor Place road separated them.

Canal Zone officials had requested the Motor Transportation Division to send buses to the vicinity of Balboa High School, to stand by and provide shuttle transportation to the Republic for the Panamanian student demonstrators. At 5:45 p.m. three large buses were dispatched from the Ancon garage. The buses were parked on Gorgona Road alongside the Balboa High School Activities Building. The Panamanian students were offered this transportation but refused it.

The Panama students, after shouting insults, turned and started up the steep bank and 129 stone steps to the Panama Canal Administration Building. They halted near the dual flagpoles from which the U.S. flag flies beside the flag of the Republic of Panama. At 6:25 p.m., a group of the Panama students made an effort to lower the U.S. flag but were prevented from doing so by several U S. civilians. With considerable shouting, the Panama students left the area and headed back to Panama city.

As the Panama students passed the Panama Canal Administration Building, they began damaging property. The group proceeded back over Gorgas Road, and en route threw stones. Five windowpanes of glass were broken on the east wing of the Panama Canal Administration Building. Twenty street lights were broken, a sign was torn off the pole in front of the Gorgas Laboratory Building, and approximately 40 louvers were broken in the Panama Canal Treasurer's Office. All the trash cans along the road were overturned. Many automobiles were stoned and car windows were broken.

The Canal Zone police refrained from making any arrests of the students in order to get the group out of the Canal Zone as quickly as possible.

While this Panama student group was en route to Fourth of July Avenue, the Canal Zone police contacted the Panama National Guard headquarters, and informed them of the situation.

From 6:45 until about 7:15 P.M., the Panama students milled around on Fourth of July Avenue, opposite the Panama National Institute, and large crowds started forming and increased rapidly.

By 7:30 p.m., the Panama mob, now grown to an estimated 2,000, moved north on Fourth of July Avenue and Kennedy Avenue to a point between the Tivoli Guest House and Shaler Triangle. Many of the demonstrators attempted to climb the fence between Kennedy Avenue and the Tivoli Guest House. A Canal Zone police detail at that location repelled them by laying a screen of tear gas along the fence. Three automobiles were turned over and burned by the demonstrators in their march from the Panama National Institute.

Only 19 Canal Zone police were on duty on the whole Pacific Side when the Panamanian students entered the Canal Zone. By 7:30 p.m. practically the entire Canal Zone police force, totaling about 85 men, was deployed along the Canal Zone border and by 7:30 p.m. it was apparent the police could not hold the crowds. The police were authorized to use tear gas, and firearms if necessary to protect life.

At about 8:00 p.m., the Panama mob across from the Tivoli Guest House started to move along President Kennedy Avenue, heading for the Ancon Railroad Station and the freight house. Two Canal Zone police sergeants and eight Canal Zone policemen on duty in this vicinity fell back from the intersection of Frangipani Street and Roosevelt Avenue before the onslaught of at least 3,000. They took up position between the Panama Canal Sanitation Office and the civilian homes on Frangipani Street.

The mob upset and burned an unoccupied automobile at the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and Frangipani Street and some of the Canal Zone police advanced and threw all the tear gas they had. The mob was stopped temporarily at this point from advancing further into the Canal Zone and the homes were saved from being overrun.

About 2 or 3 minutes later, part of the mob started to burn and sack the Ancon freight house. Railroad passenger cars were set on fire and windows in the passenger railroad cars were broken. Other elements of the mob started breaking windows as they forced their way into the Ancon Laundry across the street from the railroad station. Several hundred of the mob started toward the Ancon Little Theater, where a rehearsal was in progress, and toward the Ancon housing area. One policeman with a shotgun and three other policemen were sent to protect life and property in that area.

As the mob headed for the residential area on Manzanillo Street in Ancon, the police were authorized to open fire with shotguns and revolvers, shooting over the heads of the mob and on the ground in front of them.

This action, at 8:20 p.m. as nearly as can be determined, was necessary to save lives. It was the first actual firing by Canal Zone police, although by that time seven Canal Zone policemen at that location had been injured in the hail of stones and flying objects directed against them.

For the next 10 minutes, the mob surged back and forth and made several efforts to penetrate the Frangipani Street residential area, but were turned back by tear gas and shots fired over their heads. Small arms fire was heard coming from Panama during this time. Considerable damage was done to the Shaler bus terminal.

The Canal Zone police received numerous reports that Molotov cocktails were being thrown against the U.S. District Courthouse in Ancon. A wire fence within the Zone was torn down in front of the U.S. District Court and along Fourth of July Avenue.

Acting Canal Zone Governor David S. Parker made a personal inspection of the Canal Zone-Panama border in the vicinity of the Tivoli Guest House shortly before 8:00 p.m. His car was stoned twice in the vicinity of the Tivoli Guest House. By that time a crowd estimated between 5,000 and 6,000 was gathering along Fourth of July Avenue. Molotov cocktails were being thrown against buildings in the Canal Zone and a number of cars had been set on fire. The Canal Zone police were having difficulty in holding back the crowds which had penetrated several hundred yards into the Canal Zone and it was apparent that life and property were in serious jeopardy.

At 7:59 p.m., Acting Governor Parker reported to Gen. Andrew P. O'Meara, Commander-in-Chief, United States Southern Command, that he was unable to maintain law and order in the Canal Zone with only the police and other civilian authorities. Acting Governor Parker requested General O'Meara to assume command of the Canal Zone.

Within 40 minutes from the time the first shots fired by the Canal Zone Police, U.S. Army personnel arrived at Portobello street in Ancon. Complete Army, control in that area was assumed about 20 minutes later.  Brig. Gen. George L. Mabry, Jr., Director- J-3, Plans and Operations, United States Southern Command, had completed in assessment of the situation. He directed that no further firing be done unless an attack was made, as the Army was ready to move into that position and take over. Sporadic small arms fire was heard coming from Panama City.

A small group of policemen, sent to the Ancon freight house after the Army arrived, dispersed a mob armed with Molotov cocktails, which were being thrown at the freight house. A Canal Zone fire rig arrived in time to put out the fire at the freight house, caused by the fire bombs.

A Molotov cocktail was thrown through the windshield of an automobile that came out of Panama into the Canal Zone at Frangipani Street, Ancon. The car burst into flames, but the two passengers escaped.

At 9:15 p.m., upward of 1,000 Panama demonstrators proceeded from the Canal Zone-Panama Limits into the Canal Zone toward Balboa on Balboa Road. They were stopped initially by an eight-man detail of policemen. The mob threw stones at the police and gunshots were heard. The Canal Zone police fired over the heads of the mob and onto the roadway in front of them in an attempt to stop them. The demonstration continued and was still in progress when the Canal Zone police detail (which had been increased to 30 men) was relieved by a U.S. Army platoon about 10:30 p.m., after the mob had penetrated about 400 yards into the Canal Zone.

The large crowd on Fourth of July Avenue in the area of the "H" Street intersection in Panama City commenced coming across Fourth of July Avenue at about 9:35 p.m., throwing stones at the home of U.S. District Court Judge Guthrie F. Crowe, The stones broke through the screens and entered the house and were followed by three Molotov cocktails. One fire bomb landed underneath the house, against the wooden latticework, another landed on the front porch, and the third, upstairs inside the house. Despite the continuous hail of rocks thrown by the mob, Judge Crowe and Canal Zone police personnel at the scene succeeded in throwing the Molotov cocktails out of the house and extinguished one burning underneath the house.

Shortly afterward, several more Molotov cocktails were thrown and landed about in the same places as the first. The hail of rocks now was so thick it was extremely dangerous to go anywhere near the fire. Canal Zone firefighters appeared on the scene, but were unable to approach the house due to the continuous shower of rocks. A small Canal Zone police detail, reinforced by a squad of policemen who fired a number of shots into the air and into the ground, dispersed the rioters, who took cover in buildings across Fourth of July Avenue and down "H" Street in Panama City. Canal Zone Fire Division personnel went into action and extinguished the blaze at Judge Crowe's home, where only minor damage was done.

The rioters reappeared at 9:55 p.m. and demonstrated for about 2 hours. They burned automobiles they brought out of Panama, as well as cars that had been parked on the side of the road and in garages of the apartment houses in the vicinity. All these cars were pushed onto Fourth of July Avenue after they had been set on fire.

Sporadic shots were heard, apparently coming from buildings in Panama City near the Canal Zone border. From 12:45 a.m. to 3:00 a.m., January 10, the Canal Zone police furnished supports to the military. After 3:00 a.m., the Canal Zone police were removed from the border and resumed Zonal police patrols. At no time during the above events did Canal Zone police enter, the Republic of Panama.

During the period of attempting to control the Panama mob at various locations, many Canal Zone police officers received injuries, but none were serious.

The Atlantic Side of the Isthmus was fairly quiet until 9:05 p.m., Thursday, January 9. When information was received by the Cristobal District Canal Zone police that rioting had broken out in the Balboa District, available personnel were called out and placed at strategic points along the boundary.

At 9:05 p.m. information was received that about 20 Panamanians were proceeding toward the Canal Zone-Panama border at Colon, carrying a Panamanian flay and shouting anti-United States insults. In little more than 15 minutes, the group grew to about 1,500 men, women, and children. They marched down Roosevelt Avenue to the Cristobal Administration Building, where, during the day, the Panama flag flies alongside the U.S. flag on dual flag staffs. Some of the mob went to the second floor of the building and raised the Panama flag, under the surveillance of a riot squad of police.

During the flag raising, Daniel Delgado Duarte, Mayor of Colon, accompanied by several members of the Colon Municipal Council, talked to the crowd and aided in averting violence at that time. Several agitators in the mob tried to incite the crowd, but were restrained.

At 9:30 p.m., the mob removed the Panama flag they had previously placed on the Cristobal Administration Building and started dispersing, many shouting insulting remarks as they passed the Cristobal Police Station. The crowd went back to Roosevelt Avenue and, on the way back to Colon, broke windows in two cars parked on the street and the lower windows of buildings along Steamship Row, The mob broke windows on the 11th Street side of the former Cristobal Commissary building and windows in the Masonic Temple. National Guard headquarters in Colon was advised that elements of the mob were heading for the U.S. Consulate in Colon, and National Guardsmen were dispatched to that location.

The Colon mob grew in size but was contained by the Colon National Guard until about 10:00 p.m., when some of the mob broke past and moved up to Balboa Avenue.

Part of the mob moved south on Balboa Avenue into the Canal Zone, breaking windows in the Canal Central Employment Office, License Office, and in the Cristobal Railroad Station. Police held them at that location until troops arrived.

It was reported that windows were being broken at the Cristobal Y.M.C.A. and that it was being looted. A riot squad of about 10 Canal Zone policemen routed some 50 looters. Four Panamanians arrested inside the building were brought to Cristobal Police Station and charged with participating in a riot. Several policemen were injured by brickbats.

Some Atlantic-side Canal Zone police officers had been injured during the rioting prior to the time the military assumed control.

After the U.S. military assumed command in the Canal Zone, most of the action on the Pacific side of the Isthmus was contained along the Panama-Canal Zone border. On the Atlantic side, the Colon mobs did intense damage. Canal Zone police and U.S. troops were subjected to rock throwing and other attacks. Persistent sniper fire killed three American soldiers and wounded many others, including civilians.

No Americans were involved, except as victims, in the burning, looting, and other violence in Panama. No Canal Zone police or U.S. troops entered the Republic of Panama. Canal Zone residents remained at their residences and did not participate in nor provoke any violence.

Major damage on the Pacific side of the Canal Zone, as of Saturday night, included the following: Tivoli Guest House extensively damaged (persistent sniper fire forced evacuation of Tivoli Guest House Friday night); Ancon School damaged; one flagpole razed at Shaler Triangle, the first Canal Zone site where the Panama flag was raised to fly alongside the U.S. flag; Ancon Laundry damaged; and Canal Zone police booths at Balboa Road, the Limits, and the Ancon Gymnasium destroyed. The fence on Fourth of July Avenue was torn down at numerous places. The Shaler Bus Terminal was wrecked and street light standards on Fourth of July Avenue and Thatcher Ferry Bridge approach were damaged.

In addition, windows were broken in railroad coaches at Panama Railroad Station in Ancon and one coach set afire; all light fixtures on Panama Railroad Station platform were broken, station office records were scattered in the station and on the tracks, shipments in baggage rooms were pilfered, drug shipments were strewn along the tracks, office furniture and files in station office were overturned and scattered, lockers were broken open and vandalized; houses in Gavilan Area were stoned; street signs were torn down on President Kennedy Avenue; some outside lights were broken at Gorgas Hospital and ambulances at Gorgas were dented by rocks; and windows were broken in the Sanitation Division's Ancon office.

The major damage in the Cristobal area included: the Cristobal Y.M.C.A., which was gutted by fire; the Masonic Temple, which was abandoned to fire; the Sanitation Office, which was destroyed by fire, and the Cristobal Warehouse which was burned. The Panama Canal Personnel Bureau offices, the Driver License Examiner's Office, and the nurse's office in the former Cristobal Commissary building were left a shambles with all glass broken, furniture and typewriters thrown in the street, and papers strewn about the baggage room, ticket seller's office, dispatcher's office, yard master's office, car inspector's office, shop area, facilities were destroyed by fire and a shelter in the Dock Yard 9 outside fenced area was destroyed by fire. A dozen or more times in the main line track in Colon and an equivalent number of ties on the ladder track also were burned out. As a result of this damage, railroad trains were unable to operate into the Cristobal pier area.

In Panama, within sight of the Canal Zone boundary, rioting mobs, partly students but with many adults, overturned and burned cars, and burned and damaged a number of buildings in Panama, especially those occupied by U.S. firms.

By taking emergency measures the transit operations of the Panama Canal continued uninterrupted, Thirty-one ships transited on Friday; 26 transited on Saturday, and 34 were scheduled to transit Sunday.

Canal Zone Gov. Robert J. Fleming, Jr., commended the outstanding performance of duty by the police officers, and the personnel of the Fire Division, who loyally and courageously served long hours without relief. He spoke of the maturity displayed by nearly all Panama Canal employees, both United States and Panamanian, who stayed with their jobs and kept ships transiting and other essential supporting operations on schedule. Governor Fleming mentioned what a welcome sight the morning train was when it arrived at Balboa Heights Friday morning, as evidence of the organization's determination to continue on.

Background information on the Panamanian student march to Balboa High School on January 9 is given below:

On December 30, 1963, Governor Fleming issued a press release stating that commencing January 2, 1964, the Panamanian flag would be flown alongside the U.S. flag on civilian land areas in the Canal Zone wherever the latter flag was flown by civilian authorities.

This plan was described as implementing an agreement reached earlier in 1963 between the Government of the United States and the Republic of Panama.

The press release of the Governor was printed both in English and Spanish in local newspapers. It stated that both flags were flying at 11 different sites, including Shaler Plaza (near the Panamanian boundary at Ancon, Canal Zone) and at the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, and that six additional sites had been selected. It was also indicated that the U.S. flag would not be officially flown alone at certain other sites in civilian communities.

Among the places where the flag would no longer fly was outside Balboa High School. Some students, encouraged by their parents, resented the removal of the U.S. flag from their school.

On the morning of Tuesday, January 7, students ignored the Governor's directive and raised the U.S. flag at the flagpole on the lawn of Balboa High School. An hour later, Civil Affairs Director, Bernhard I. Everson, and High School Principal, David A. Speir took down the flag and removed it.

A short time later, Balboa High School students gathered outside the school and massed for a demonstration. Some students raised a smaller flag on the flagpole and it was not removed the second time by school officials.

Students who feared the Panama Canal officials might remove the flagpole stood vigil during the night. The next day, students at several other schools also raised American flags.

The student activity with its controversial aspects was printed in detail. The majority of the Spanish language news media twisted the story to make it appear that the Balboa High School Students objected to the flying of the Panama flag.

This was the situation which led to the visit to Balboa of the students from Panama's Inistituo Nacional on the afternoon of Thursday, January 9, which, as it later, turned out, was the catalyst for the violence which started that night.

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Last update: October 3, 1998

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