Panama Canal Still Vital to Navy’s Mission Today

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

About a month before the grand opening, and christening, of the Panama Canal, the first American battleships transited the canal. It took nine hours between July 15-16, 1915, for the three dreadnoughts — Missouri (BB 11), Ohio (BB 12) and Wisconsin (BB 9) – to complete the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

USS Ohio (BB 12) passing the Cucaracha Slide, while transiting the Panama Canal on 16 July 1915. She appears to be under tow.

USS Ohio (BB 12) passing the Cucaracha Slide, while transiting the Panama Canal on 16 July 1915. She appears to be under tow.

Although they were first battleships, they were by no means the first Navy ships to navigate the canal. USS Jupiter made the first trip in Oct. 12, 1914, a two-day journey that included a long soak in the fresh water canal lake to kill saltwater barnacles before slipping into the Atlantic. In February 1915, a “small fleet” of American submarines passed through the locks.

“It is now demonstrated that the nation has attained one of the main purposes in constructing the canal – pass its fleet through this waterway and thus protect another coast in case of an emergency,” touted a front page article in the July 21, 1915 edition of The Canal Record, a weekly newspaper published in the Canal Zone, Balboa, Panama.

One hundred years later, the Panama Canal is no less important to America’s Navy as it was the day it opened.

“The Panama Canal is of vital importance during military and humanitarian operations for safe and efficient movement of personnel, goods and equipment to accomplish the mission,” said Capt. John Zuzich, director of future operations at U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet. “The expansion of the Panama Canal will double the canal’s capacity to allow more traffic and the passage of longer and wider ships, allowing greater maneuverability for future missions.”

USS Missouri (BB-11), at left, and USS Ohio (BB-12) In the lower chambers of the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, 31 August 1915. View looks north, with USS Wisconsin (BB-9) in the distance.

USS Missouri (BB-11), at left, and USS Ohio (BB-12) In the lower chambers of the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, 31 August 1915. View looks north, with USS Wisconsin (BB-9) in the distance.

In April of 2016, the Panama Canal is expected to open its $5.25 billion expansion, new lanes along the 50-mile canal that can accommodate supercarriers and supertankers with 50-foot drafts, up from 39.5; vessels 1,200-feet long compared to 965-feet, and 160-feet wide, compared to 106.

At 90 percent complete, in June it took five days to fill the new Atlantic-side locks before filling the 11-story Pacific locks. All that’s left are a few months of testing and operational training.

Besides the new lanes, the Panama Canal Authority, which sees around 14,000 ships going through their locks annually, will continue to operate the 100-year-old canal with its smaller locks for smaller ships.

“The Panama Canal is a significant feature of world shipping and will continue to be for the foreseeable future as the demand for efficient shipment of goods rises globally,” Capt. Zuzich noted.

BATTLESHIPS TIED TO CANAL HISTORY

USS Missouri (BB 11), Ohio (BB 12) and Wisconsin (BB 9) while transiting the Panama Canal on July 16, 1915. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

USS Missouri (BB 11), Ohio (BB 12) and Wisconsin (BB 9) while transiting the Panama Canal on July 16, 1915. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Back to 100 years ago, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin had traveled from Annapolis, Md., to the Canal Zone port city of Cristobal, after giving midshipmen a practice cruise to Guantanamo, Cuba.

According to the article in The Canal Record, the warships traveled from Colon to Balboa in a single file, no more than a quarter-mile apart, under the command of Rear Adm. William F. Fullam. They paid approximately $45,000 in tolls.

“The squadron did not stay in Canal waters as long as originally intended; in fact the passage was made almost without stopping, which led many of the officers aboard the ships to express admiration for the smoothness of the Canal operations,” that July 21 article stated in The Canal Record.

Two of the ships were handled simultaneously in the double-barreled locks at Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, and the third ship was directly behind “so the vessels of the squadron were at all times in close touch and put to sea in fleet formation.”

It was probably a good thing the warships were in a hurry. The following day, the central part of the canal was hammered with nearly four inches of rain on July 17.

Why Was the Panama Canal Critical?

The battleships’ speedy and smooth transit through the canal was a vastly different trip than a coast-to—coast sprint taken 17 years earlier by a sister battleship, USS Oregon (BB 3). It was that battleship’s voyage from San Francisco to Florida that incited a nation and made clear to all the importance of putting a canal in at the Isthmus of Panama.

At that time, Cubans were seeking independence from Spain, a cause the Americans supported. Then in February 1898, American battleship USS Maine exploded while anchored in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. The Spanish were immediately suspected in the tragic event that killed 260 crewmembers.

 

USS Oregon (BB-3) in New York Harbor just after the end of the Spanish-American War, 1898. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

USS Oregon (BB-3) in New York Harbor just after the end of the Spanish-American War, 1898. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

USS Oregon (BB 3), based in Bremerton, Wash., was immediately ordered to Florida. After a month of preparations, such as taking on ammunition and coal, Oregon sailed through the Golden Gate March 19. After 16 days, Oregon made a brief stop at Peru to take on coal before going through the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America. Navigating the treacherous waters of the strait is hard enough on a good day, but the battleship’s Sailors had to fight a gale before sailing into the Atlantic.

By the time the battleship arrived at Rio de Janeiro on April 30, the Spanish-American War had already begun. The battleship docked at Jupiter Inlet, Fla., on May 24, completing the 14,000-mile journey in 66 days, averaging 11.5 knots. On June 1, it took part in the Battle of Santiago Bay, Cuba.

With the newspapers touting “Remember the Maine,” tales of Oregon’s journey – and whether the battleship would survive the weather and lurking Spanish torpedo boats — captivated the reading public. Naval theorist Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan had noted eight years earlier that a canal in Central America was vital to the defense of the United States, and Oregon’s 66-day journey cemented its importance.

So while Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin took nine hours to cross from Atlantic to the Pacific, their sister battleships – Oregon and Maine – had also played their part in making that journey possible.

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