Memories of Passing Ships
by George Chevalier

One of the best features to growing up in the Canal Zone was our exposure to world shipping. We got to see the little ones, the big ones, the famous and infamous. Let me share memories of a few of them that passed through my young life.

My first was the most frightening for a four year old when my Dad took me aboard the U.S.S.Langley which was the first aircraft carrier in the US Navy. We popped out on to the flight deck and I froze in terror for we were on this huge flat wooden expanse that was totally devoid of anything. No housings,no funnels and no railings and if the wind blew we would be gone over the side and the fall looked like it would be forever. Sheer terror to not have any of the normal appendages that offer security to a little boy. Normalcy only returned when my feet were once more on the pier.

Some years later, in 1937 I believe, the Japanese Navy sent their Naval Academy Cadets through the Canal in two very ancient coal burning cruisers that had been captured from the Russians in 1904. My sister and I eagerly looked forward to being able to go aboard these strange relics at the docks in Balboa. Upon arrival at the ships gangway my Dad paused to read a very prominent sign of instruction for visitors. To one side of the notice was a large portable trough filled with some orange colored liquid and to the other side was a wooden sentry booth at the start of the gangway. The sign ruled that to board each person must either wash their hands or feet in the trough and then bow to the sentry standing in the opening of the sentry booth. That tore it for with a string of colorful adjectives describing the Sons of Nippon our Dad marched us off the pier and all we got to see were some Bonsai Trees visible in the rooms below through the open portholes.

In 1939 we were again all exited with the news that the German Liner "Bremen" was to arrive and transit the Canal as the largest passenger ship to do so as of that date. On the day it docked I went down to the pier and walked down it's huge side gawking at the size of it. I had been told that boarding was by invitation for VIPs only and so was reconciled to only a pier side view. Suddenly a voice called out my name and there standing in the line of VIPs waiting for boarding to begin was my classmate and friend,Kevin Corrigan,the son of the American Ambassador to Panama. I walked over to speak to Kevin and remarked how lucky he was to be going aboard. At that Ambassador Corrigan asked me if I would like to go aboard with Kevin and of course I replied that I sure would like to. Now I must explain the picture that this scene presented for Kevin and family were dressed in their best and I looked like an urchin in comparison with old shorts,faded shirt and dirty sneakers on my feet.

With the Ambassadors comment that I was now his son we boarded the great ship where a ships officer was collecting the VIPs credentials. With an astonished look the officer asked the Ambassador if all of this was his family. The answer was a snapped out,"Yes it is", The Germans eyebrows went up as he accepted that declaration and passed us on. Visitors were grouped together to tour with an officer in charge of each group but Kevin and I ducked down a hall coming to an elevator. The operator was a teenage crewmember who told us we could see the swimming pool by taking the elevator down. He spoke fairly good English and with pride took us below to see the pool. On the way back up we tried to pump him as to what he thought of Hitler. He stammered and blushed but would only say he thought Hitler was OK.

At the top when we exited the elevator a ships officer was waiting with a red face and fire in his eyes as he chewed out the elevator boy in very angry German. We didn't understand the words but did get the meaning and we had seen the Bremen on our own. We did feel remorse for the boy with the elevator and wondered if he did brig time.