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March 8, 2005


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IN RETROSPECT -- Documenting the past for posterity

     U.S. presence in Panama spanning the 20th Century, beginning with construction of the Panama Canal  (the greatest engineering feat of the 20th Century) and several military installations and fortifications to protect and defend the Canal leading to the Panama Canal Zone being the most heavily fortified and defended area in the world by the eve of World War I.  For more than six decades since opening for world commerce on August 14, 1914,  the Panama Canal -- operating under American administration through 1999 as a world public utility -- played a pivotal role in U.S. strategic and commercial undertakings.  However, in the age of more rapid innovations in far-reaching airplanes,  intercontinental missiles, and changing naval force structures designed around modern aircraft carriers which cannot transit the Canal locks, the importance of the Canal to the United States itself  has somewhat diminished, though it is still important economically to many of its allies in the region. 

Construction of Culebra Cut of the Panama CanalConstruction of Miraflores Locks, one of three sets of locks of the Panama Canal and the first locks entering the Canal from the Pacific side of Panama.Coast Artillery defense  at Flamenco Island (part of former Fort Grant) -- 14-inch mortars, part of World War I fortifications of the Panama Canal through World War II. (Source: World War I Fortifications of the Panama Canal, US Army, Fort Amador, Canal Zone, Nov 1977)Coast Artillery 14-inch railway gun on Culebra Island near Fort Amador as part of the defense fortifications of the Panama Canal through World War II. Source: Fort Amador Flag-Lowering Ceremony brochure, prepared by William H Ormsbee, 30 September 1979 Low-altitude barrage balloons hovered over Panama Canal locks as part of Canal defense measures during World War II -- USARSO 59th Annniversary pamphlet 1967U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in Miraflores Locks 1930Battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) under the Bridge of the Americas at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal -- U.S. Army photoC-130 Hercules aircraft of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units on rotational duty at Howard Air Force in Panama for airlift mobility in support of U.S. Southern Command missions and requirements in Latin America -- U.S. Air Force photo


  Changing and expanding military missions -- including training Latin American and Caribbean military personnel at the U.S. military schools in Panama and via military mobile training  teams in country; promoting security and stability in the region, regional cooperative security, professionalism in the militaries in the region, and national assistance, humanitarian and civic assistance, and disaster relief operations; counterdrug assistance to U.S. Government agencies and host nations -- primarily through detecting and monitoring drug trafficking operations throughout the region; and assisting in the development of modern militaries within friendly nations in the region -- all in keeping with U.S. national interests vis-a-vis Latin America and the Caribbean.  One of the last major missions assigned to the U.S. military in Panama was initiating on October 1, 1979 (coinciding with the entry into force of the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977) and carrying out the unique 20-year Panama Canal Implementation Plan for phased drawdown of U.S. Forces, transfer of all U.S. military property to the Panamanian government, and withdrawal of the U.S. military presence from Panama by December 31, 1999.  During the same period, the Panama Canal Commission worked closely with its Panamanian counterparts and Canal workforce for the transfer operation and ownership of the Panama Canal to Panama on the same date.  

U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Gulick from 1949 until September 1984 -- U.S. Army photoInter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA) (headquarters bulidng 812) at Albrook Air Force Base/Station from 1943 through September 1989 -- U.S. Air Force photoU.S. Navy Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School (NAVSCIATTS) at Rodman Naval Station through 1999 -- U.S. Navy photoRoad and bridge building exercises by U.S. National Guard and Reserve units and Active duty Army units in Panama and throughout Central and South America -- Army National Guard photo 1985Engineering vertical construction exercises conducted by National Guard and Reserve units to construct school buildings and medical clinics in remote areas in Panama and elsewhere in Latin America since 1990 -- U.S. military photoNational Guard and Reserve units have been conducting medical readiness training exercises in Panama and elsewhere in Latin America since 1984 -- U.S. military photo U.S. Air Force E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft operating from Howard Air Force Base (until 1999) and from elsewhere since 1999 support U.S. Southern Command's mission of counterdrug assistance to U.S. Government and host-nations agencies in Central and South America and the Caribbean


    History of the military bases the United States maintained in Panama and the new uses of those bases since their transfer to Panama.  While much has been written about the Panama Canal itself, very little has been written about the U.S. military installations and properties constructed to support the U.S. military mission of defending the Canal and U.S. national interests.  Therefore, part of this site is devoted to documenting those installations (before history here is rewritten or forgotten).  The majority of those bases are of historical and architectural significance and represent a unique era in the social history of both the United States and Panama.






Unified Command HQ



Army HQ















  How the 95-year presence ended through fulfillment of the 20-year phase-out of U.S. military forces and transfer of all the military bases and the Panama Canal to Panama by December 31 1999, as mandated by the Panama Canal of 1977.  

U.S. military units marching out of one of several closing bases in Panama depicting phased withdrawal of U.S. military presence from Panama


CHANGES AND LOOKING AHEAD -- since U.S. presence in Panama ended December 31, 1999

    The former military bases have been converted to civilian uses -- some completely, other partially so far (as of December 2006), and not without some controversies and problems along the way.  Organizing, planning, managing, and disposing of all U.S. military properties transferred to Panama from October 1979 through 1999  -- about 5,200 buildings and other facilities on about 95,300 acres within the former Canal Zone (known since 1979 as the Panama Canal Area), including 12 major military installations or bases -- has been a major challenge for the Panamanian Government.  The undertaking was tremendous, unprecedented, and challenging for the Interoceanic Region Authority (Autoridad de la Region Interoceanica or ARI),  the agency created by Panamanian law in 1993 charged with that mission.  The principal challenge for Panama -- with an $8 billion economy -- has been to absorb and maintain over $4 billion dollars worth of military properties, promote them to potential local and foreign investors, and convert them to other uses in a timely and efficient manner to maximize their value for the benefit of the people of Panama.  Much to tell in this area of what might be described as probably one of the largest real-estate transfers in history and a unique experience for both Panama and the United States.





Flamenco Island
City of Knowledge

Airport, Albrook Mall, Transport Center

Melia Hotel Pan Canal Tourism Complex

Flamenco Mall

    The Panama Canal continues to be run quite well by Panama's Autoridad del Canal de Panama (ACP) (Panama Canal Authority, an autonomous agency of the Panamanian Government), which is continuing with Canal modernization and improvement projects (many started shortly before the Canal's transfer to Panama December 31, 1999) and has recently conducted studies on possible canal widening and canal expansion projects, principally the ambitious Third Set of Locks construction project which was unveiled April 24, 2006, to accommodate post-Panamax ships through the canal. (The Panamanian public approved that proposal in a referendum October 22, 2006, about 78 percent for and 22 percent against it. ACP projected the construction project to cost $5.25 billion and to be completed in 2014.)  Start of work on that canal expansion project was inaugurated September 3, 2007. 

In the first year since the Canal's transfer, ACP shifted successfully the Canal from being a public utility a process (that began in 1997 while the Canal was still under U.S. control) to a full business enterprise committed to market-oriented, demand-driven business principles. In the first five years (ending 2004) under Panamanian ownership, the Panama Canal organization achieved several significant accomplishments including notable increases in tonnage (particularly container ships) transiting the Canal, decrease in the total time for ships to transit the Canal, decrease in ship accidents while in transit, among others. In the Canal's first six years under Panamanian control (beginning January 1, 2000 to the end of September 2005), the Panama Canal Authority's operations generated a total of $2 billion 277 million in revenues to the Panamanian government treasury -- more than the total $1 billion 877.9 million the Panamanian government had received in annual payments from the United States government during the 86 years the Canal was under American control. 

The two Pacific side locks of the Panama Canal -- Miraflores Locks (foreground) and Pedro Miguel Locks (background) -- Panama Canal Commission/Panama Canal Authority websitesContainer ship transiting Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal -- Panama Canal Authority's EL FARO newsletterState of the art martime training simulators in the Ascanio Arosemena Panama Canal Maritime Training Center complex (in the former Balboa High School) established by the Panama Canal Authority (Panamanian successor to the Panama Canal Commission at the end of December 1999) -- Panama Canal Authority's websiteNew Miraflores Visitors Center at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal constructed by the Panama Canal Authority -- Panama Canal Authority's websiteShip transiting Culebra (Gaillard) Cut of the Panama Canal shown here under the Centennial Bridge (construction completed in 2003) located near the Pedro Miguel Locks and Paraiso townsite -- Panama Canal Authority's EL FARO newsletter 

  A totally overhauled Panama Railroad (48 miles long originally constructed in 1850-1955 by a U.S. consortium as the world’s first transcontinental railway ) has become -- since having been completely rebuilt in 2000-2001 by a United States joint-venture enterprise 21 years after the United States transferred it to Panamanian ownership -- the other prime mover of containers between Panama's Pacific and Atlantic ports.  

  Tourism since 2000 also has taken on a new meaning, impetus and resources in Panama, including on some of the former military properties, most notably Amador and the nearby islands (Flamenco, Perico, Naos, and Culebra) and Kobbe on the Pacific side of the isthmus and eco-tourist facilities at Sherman on the Atlantic side and, in between, Canopy Tower near Gamboa. 

  Panama has become a main center of container transportation in Latin America since the 1996 privatization and modernization of the Balboa and Cristobal ports (at both ends of the Canal and originally part of the Panama Canal organization until late 1979), the complete overhaul of the interoceanic Panama Railroad for moving containers across the isthmus, and creation of two other new and modern container ports on the Atlantic side.  Today more than two million containers annually pass through the Panama Canal and these ports, up from some 150,000 containers per year in the decade of the 1990s. 

  A new relationship is emerging between the two countries (after termination of the special relationship Panama enjoyed with the United States during the 20th Century principally by virtue of the Panama Canal and the U.S. military presence).  

AND BEYOND: Other subject areas to be developed at Other Topics.



This page last updated: January 30, 2009 
Site developed, owned and maintained by 
William H. Ormsbee, Jr. 
1999 - 2009
(Including WHO's IN RETROSPECT site 1999 - 2001)



This site replaces WHO's first website, launched Dec.31, 1999, being incorporated into this site.  

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