The USS Tutuila departed Norfolk, Virginia for the last time and steamed the now familiar route to the Caribbean, and when we got there we sailed right on through. We crossed the Caribbean Sea — North to South – and arrived at Limon Bay, the “eastern” terminus of the Panama Canal. We were scheduled to spend two days waiting for our reserved time to transverse the waterway to the Pacific Ocean. This meant liberty in the Panamanian city of Colon, which we later discovered was not a place we really wanted to visit. And fortunately we did not.
Shortly after we arrived and dropped anchor amidst the many commercial freighters awaiting their turn, a slot opened up for us. So that afternoon we weighted anchor and began our journey through the canal to the Pacific end which, owing to the orientation of the continent joining Isthmus, and the angle of the canal itself, lay some 50 miles to the South and East of where we now were. Getting underway, we entered a narrow passage which took us to the Gatun Locks, where the ship was raised about 85 feet to the level of the inland waterway.
Moving through the Panama Canal’s famous locks was a tedious and time-consuming, but also very interesting, process. Repair Division personnel had no part to play in the actual movement of the ship so we were all free to watch as the ship carefully positioned itself into the lock and tied up. When the water level was properly adjusted, and the great doors opened, docking lines were untied and we were pulled forward by two very large locomotives and debauched into Gatun Lake. Crossing this jungle bound lake would take us about halfway across the isthmus.
As we waited for the water — and with it of course the ship — to rise (or to lower on the Pacific side) Panamanians, mostly children and adolescents, would come up to the walls of the lock, just a couple of feet from the port side of the ship. They came to sell trinkets and souvenirs to the otherwise idle sailors. I bought, for fifty cents I think, a brightly colored satin doily, with fringe on the ends, and embroidered canal scenes, which I sent home to my mother.
As we left the locks behind and steamed into Gatun Lake it was almost dark, and when Lights-Out and Taps were later sounded, they marked an end to our last day on the eastern side of the continent. When Reveille was sounded the next morning, we were up and off to the mess decks for breakfast. It was then that I got my to my first look at a “steaming jungle”. As the sun rose above the mountainous rain forests surrounding the lake, steam quite literally rose from within the bright green canopy.
As the lower part of the lake narrowed to become the Rio Chagres we came increasingly closer to the primeval shoreline. As we stared in wonder, I recalled being told of the quantity and variety of animal life within that dense jungle; most of which we didn’t actually see, but which we knew was there, and not so very far away. Among these were about a billion insects, crocodiles and other reptiles, including frightening panoply of serpents. Also monkeys large and small, as well as a variety of large cats and other mammals, many of whom the cats routinely ate. This was all a bit disconcerting, but fascinating when discussed from the safety of the ship.
After a long crossing of Gatun Lake and passage down the Rio Chagres we bent south at the town of Gamboa and entered a series of cuts (the small canals famously carved through the jungle in the 1900’s) which took us to the Miraflores Lake and Locks, and eventually under the Bridge Of The Americas — the Pan-American Highway — and soon at the Port of Balboa, the docks of Panama City, for our delayed two days of liberty. After the brief, and dubious entertainments of Panama City, we departed for the next leg of our journey; to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.