Dozens of people walk up and down the steps of the Canal Administration Building every day. They exercise, take pictures and walk their pets.
Near the top of the steps is a small plaza that serves as a rest area for joggers where a bronze plaque stands that may go unnoticed. It reads: “To the memory of the compatriots of the Panama Canal Zone who gave their lives in the service of their country in the World War“.
What did the Great World War, later known as World War I, have to do with the history of the Panama Canal?
The war became an obstacle that prevented the spotlight of glory that the Canal was expected to receive when it was inaugurated from being diverted to the war that began two weeks before its inauguration.
This global conflict not only overshadowed the inauguration, but also had an impact on the initial use of the long-awaited waterway, as there were far fewer commercial ships on the high seas due to blockades, submarine attacks and trade assaults. This situation, where on average only four ships a day crossed the Canal, continued until the end of the war in 1918.
The Canal Zone enters the war
Before entering the war, the United States had established itself as a behind-the-scenes supplier, but ended its neutrality and declared war on the German Empire on April 6, 1917, almost three years after World War I began. The following day, Panama also declared war on Germany.
It was then decreed that the army officer in command of the troops stationed on the isthmus would assume authority and jurisdiction over the operation of the Canal and the government of the Canal Zone. A number of German citizens in the Zone suspected of espionage were arrested, and the Aspinwall Hotel on Taboga Island was used as a concentration camp for these persons.
The war raised alarm bells in the population and the danger that spies could carry out attacks against the security of the Canal became a latent fear. By January 1918, the Canal Record magazine carried texts such as “Do not trust anyone you do not know”, “Do not forget that enemy agents or friends of enemy agents are trying to obtain in one way or another information for direct or indirect use by the German government”, among others.
The civilian population of the Zone, meanwhile, turned to support their troops fighting in the old world.
For example, women participated in the purchase of “Freedom Bonds” and “War Savings Stamps” to help finance military campaigns.
The war ended on November 11, 1918, and on that same date five years later, the Canal Zone erected, with elaborate ceremonies and more than 2,000 people in attendance, the plaque in memory of the war dead.
On a balmy winter night, President Belisario Porras, Governor Jay Morrow, Army and Navy officers, Spanish war veterans, the American Legion, the Panama Police and Fire Department, and even students from the National Institute gathered on the steps of the Administration Building to commemorate the memory of the heroes who gave their lives in the bloodiest war ever known.
Albert C. Hindman, district attorney, gave the keynote address. He held the crowd spellbound and, according to newspapers of the time, brought many in the audience to tears as he described the horrors of war and the sufferings of the mothers whose children were taken from them so that the progress of civilization would not be stopped.
Hindman noted that “Four years ago today, at eleven o’clock in the morning, the power of the German empire collapsed before the forces of law and justice, and a war-torn, sick and weary world laid down its arms. For more than four long and weary years, the civilized nations of the earth had devoted their material resources, their energies and their manpower to killing their fellow men and, in return, being killed by them. For such is war. We may be blinded by its apparent magnificence and grandeur; we may try to delude ourselves with the idea that it tends to bring to the fore the elements of strength and red-blooded manhood in a nation; we may even believe that it is conducive to solidarity and patriotic feeling and love of country; but ultimately war is destructive, war is brutal, war is barbarous.”
Canal workers who fought in the war
There are no names inscribed on the plaque. It commemorates all those who went to war, military or civilian, from the Canal Zone who never returned. It is known, however, that eleven were on the lists of Panama Canal employees at the time they met their deaths.
Canalmen such as: George Pendleton, from Cristobal and employed as secretary of the Civil Affairs Division, who died from injuries received when he jumped from a moving train; Louis Pearson, employed as restaurant manager in the subsistence division and who died of illness in a training camp; Nathaniel J. Owen, operator of the Miraflores locks control house, killed in action; and Walter Barnebey, employed in the electrical division and who perished by a fall from an airplane while on duty with the U.S. Expeditionary Force in France.
They are an example of Canal workers who gave their lives to the ideal of peace in the old continent. The plaque has been on the steps for 100 years and has witnessed events that have marked our destiny. In front of it passed the students of the National Institute with their banners requesting sovereignty on January 9, 1964; it was present in countless photographs taken on December 31, 1999, the day of the reversion, and has also been witness to the Canal’s cultural summers.