Views of Panama

Military Fortifications of the Isthmus of Panamá

The first military fortifications in Panama were built by the Spanish Crown during the Colonial era to safeguard Spanish economic interests, and the second set was constructed by the United States to defend the Panama Canal and maintain control of this very valuable geostrategic position.

Text and Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez

The military fortifications built in Panama over the centuries bear mute witness to how the great powers of successive eras attempted to protect their various interests by defending the strategic connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The first fortifications were the work of the Spanish Crown 420 years ago, representing Spain’s efforts to safeguard the transport of outgoing treasure and incoming merchandise in their colonies. The second set was constructed by the United States 105 years ago to defend the recently-opened Panama Canal and control its valuable geostrategic position.

The easy-to-access Spanish fortifications have been extensively analyzed and inventoried and some of them have earned UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Finding the little-known and little-studied second set of fortifications requires delving into the jungle, I am told by Luis Alfonso Puleio, veteran explorer, conservationist, and lover of history, who accompanies me on this trek in search of the story of the fortifications. They were built in secret between 1911 and 1917 by direct order of the War Department in Washington, D.C. in an effort to neutralize or prevent possible attacks during World War I. Finished in 1914, Fort Amador was meant to defend the Pacific entrance to the Canal. It is now a popular tourist attraction in Panama City.

More mysterious is its twin, Fort Sherman, constructed to defend the Canal’s Atlantic entrance. We depart early along the sleek highway that now connects the Canal’s end points, and in ninety minutes we catch sight of the aged remnants of what used to be the most important and modern coastal defense fort built by the United States in the Caribbean. The fortress —consisting of seven batteries armed with cannons and mortars, a landing strip, command centers, barracks, and recreation areas, all set on about 22,200 acres of land— is now blanketed by tropical jungle in the San Lorenzo Nature Park.

Shortly beyond the entry to the protected area, Paolo Sanfilippo Corleone —who is also studying the defense system used by the United States to protect the Canal— activates his GPS to identify where we should strike out on foot on a steep, narrow trail. After spending some time looking for military structures camouflaged by the jungle, we come upon three large concrete towers that served as observation and control stations. Their entrances are still marked with the numbers 10, 11, and 12. A crude iron staircase leads to the top of one of the towers —standing 46 feet high— that features an observation point. From here, U.S. Navy personnel used high-resolution telescopes to carefully scan the waters near the Canal and issue warnings of suspicious activity via a complex, coded system of radiotelephone coordinates. Paolo explains that the coordinates were sent from here to command and firing posts to determine where to aim artillery fire from the batteries on the low-lying coastline.

We end up on another, slightly wider trail, where Sanfilippo tests me: if I cannot see anything, it is simply that my eyes are not well trained. He takes out his GPS and notes that there is another large structure up ahead, and indeed, we climb the hill to a well-camouflaged three-story concrete building. He says that this could be a command post or a mine station, complete with spacious situation rooms and energy plants. It was common practice to bury mines at the Canal entrance during the two World Wars. These structures received information from the observation and firing control posts and then coordinated with crews to fire artillery or detonate mines, both highly effective methods of coastal defense.

We continue along the same trail in search of the Mower Battery, one of the seven that constituted Fort Sherman. The jungle has reclaimed it and the path becomes difficult to follow. Finally, a structure hidden in the middle of the forest comes into view; it has a striking design with terraces connected by stairs, strongly reminiscent of Maya pyramids. These are true fortresses with massive walls of reinforced concrete, designed to take advantage of the site’s geography. Inside is a complete world equipped with troop housing, potable water, latrines, situation rooms, officers’ workstations, gunpowder stores for making projectiles, munitions stores big enough to house 142 bulky grenades, shell assembly sites, communications posts, and by-wire firing control, not to mention robust electric plants for powering the lights, turning on the fans, and running radio stations and the motors needed to move heavy loads, particularly munitions for the 14-inch cannons used here. This gigantic concrete hulk was finished in 1916, in the middle of World War I.

We head for the Stanley Battery, built in a similar style during the same era. Puleio explains that, in order to defend the waterway from possible attacks, the most sophisticated artillery of the time was set up here: 12-, 14-, and 16-inch cannons capable of firing half-ton shells that could travel nearly fourteen miles; the same weapons were used at other locations to defend the coasts and face down large battleships during the Great War.

Rather than stopping to rest, we head out on a path blocked by the trunks of trees felled by the high winds of a violent rainstorm. Our destination is the Baird and Howard Batteries, which is larger than the Stanley Battery and protected by a concrete wall marked by gun ports. Infantry soldiers were on full-time watch to prevent surprise land attacks. The old railroad tracks that were used to transport ammunitions to four mortars are still visible. Sanfilippo explains that mortar rounds trace a parabolic curve, while canon shells travel in a straight line.

The road to the Mackenzie Battery is longer. The mortars and 12-inch cannons can rotate 360 degrees. After World War II ended in 1948, the special forces used it as a jungle military training post and a training center for allied forces in Latin America. The list of fortifications includes the Kilpatrick and Pratt Batteries. The former is located on land belonging to the National Border Service and the latter, still in very good condition, was concessioned to a telecommunications company.

We end our tour five miles from San Lorenzo Castle, a cliff top military fortress built during the Colonial era (in 1575) to defend the Atlantic entrance to the trans-Isthmic route. Attacked by pirates in 1671 and 1740 and reconstructed several times, this castle was included in the first registry of historic monuments of Panama in 1908. However, when the boundaries of Fort Sherman were established in 1911, the Castle was “repurposed” by the U.S. Army for the installation of a 3-inch anti-aircraft cannon. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

Fort Sherman was one of four forts built by the U.S. government to guard the waterway on the Caribbean side. There was another defense complex on the Pacific side. Fort Grant, for example, had batteries on Naos, Culebra, Perico, and Flamenco, a series of islands linked to the mainland by a causeway built with material extracted during construction of the Canal.

Today, lovely Flamenco Island features a yacht pier, restaurants, and duty-free shopping, making it hard to believe that this was once the most heavily fortified of the islands. The military assumed that, in case of war, its cannons would be the first called into service. Four batteries (Prince, Carr, Warren, and Merrit) were constructed here to take advantage of the local topography. We enter via a 307-foot long, dimly-lit tunnel that is part of an entire network of tunnels reinforced with steel and concrete. At one end stands what used to be an elevator that made it possible to rapidly provide supplies, particularly gunpowder and cannon balls, to the Warren Battery. The mortar batteries are located at the foot of the hill.

With the knowledge of a retired military man, Puleio tells me that an artillery company (cannon or mortar) consisted of 150 soldiers, including officers, with all the attendant provisions for logistics, communications, maintenance, gun crews, artillerymen, and health and safety. The underground facilities were equipped with lights, water, dormitories, medical services, electric plants, munitions stores, observation posts with huge spotlights for night combat, communications lines, rails for moving cannons, and trains for carrying supplies.

The process of constructing the defenses began soon after the sumptuous inauguration of the Canal; World War I, which had broken out just eighteen days earlier on July 28, 1914, was used as the pretext. The U.S. presence made Panama a possible war target, and the Canal came to symbolize the United States’ technical, industrial, political, and military might.

We cannot know whether this would have been the case if the works had been constructed by civil engineers, but the fact is that engineer John Stevens resigned, leading President Roosevelt to name Lieutenant Colonel George Goethals as the new engineer in chief. In the final analysis, he claimed, the military does not need pretexts. It was that decision that began the militarization of the Isthmus, which continued until December 31, 1999, when the Canal fully reverted to Panamanian sovereignty. Cloaked by the jungle, the ruins of this system of fortifications are a monument to futility, since the winds of war never blew this way and Panama became a nation that reflected the motto on its coat of arms: “Pro Mundi Beneficio” (For the benefit of the world).

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