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 U.S. Military Role in Initial Panama Canal Treaty Implementation (1977-1984)


Initial Treaty Implementation Planning and Execution

While that Treaty provided the general framework for this new relationship and ensuing responsibilities (and the U.S. Public Law passed by the U.S. Congress in September 1979 provided the authority), extensive planning under a compressed time period was required by the U.S. military community (the U.S. Southern Command and its component commands in coordination with the military services and many other agencies within the Department of Defense).

Such planning began immediately after the signing of the two Treaties because the Panama Canal Treaty had stipulated that both Treaties were to enter into force six months after the exchange between the two governments of the instruments of ratification of the Treaties. However, one of the conditions attached to the U.S. Senate's ratification of these Treaties (and agreed to by Panamanian Head of Government General Torrijos) in March and April 1978 established October 1, 1979, as the date of their implementation (commonly referred to as Treaty Day). (To preclude the appearance of prejudging Senate action on ratifying the two Treaties, initial Treaty Implementation planning was classified; much of it was declassified after the Senate ratified them in 1978.)

The Treaties' instruments of ratification were exchanged between President Carter and General Torrijos in Panama City on June 17, 1978, a visit which required considerable support by the U.S. military. (During his two days in Panama, President Carter spoke to the American community in a visit to Fort Clayton the day after having spoken to the Panamanian people gathered at the Fifth of May Plaza.)

Procedures had to be developed to ensure a smooth transfer of designated parts of military installations (part of Fort Amador, Albrook Army Airfield, Albrook airstrip, and some housing units) to the Government of Panama on Treaty Day and for other military properties at different stages during the life of the treaty. The planning for the transfer of part of the Army sector of Fort Amador had to include relocating the Army headquarters from that area (including Building 1) to Fort Clayton. Likewise, the Army's 210th Aviation Battalion was relocated from the hangars at Albrook Army Airfield, with its aircraft going to Howard Air Force Base and its administrative section going to Fort Kobbe adjacent to Howard (both on the other side of the Canal).

The initial planning concept for transferring military properties and facilities to the Panamanian government envisioned that they would be transferred to the Panama Defense Forces to be used for similar purposes -- which turned out to be the rule. Among procedures developed were joint walk-through inspections of each facility to be transferred.

Specific military agencies had to be identified before Treaty Day to assume several civil affairs and community functions to be transferred on Treaty Day to the Department of Defense from the Canal Zone Government and the former Panama Canal Company for continued support to the U.S. community in the Panama Canal Area. (The Treaty, which dissolved the Canal Zone and hence the Canal Zone Government, also prohibited the Panama Canal Commission from carrying out retail and many community support functions.) Thus, procedures and regulations had to be developed, and initial funding and manpower requirements secured to ensure the continued operation of such activities as schools, hospital and medical clinics, postal operations, two commissaries, and certain other activities.

Bi-national Military Bodies

With the treaty mandating to the United States the primary responsibility for the defense of the Panama Canal (with increasing participation by the armed forces of Panama -- modified in 1990), a new military relationship was begun with the establishment on Treaty Day of the Joint Committee and the Combined Board.

These two treaty-mandated bi-national bodies were designed to provide the day-to-day interface for activities and issues concerning the relationship between the U.S. military and Panama and along with the other four bi-national bodies under the Treaty to serve as forums for implementing the Panama Canal Treaty.

Operational procedures for the Joint Committee and Combined Board had to be developed (by the United States and Panama) to amplify on the responsibilities in the basic Treaty documents and as well as positions filled in those bodies. Also, detailed regulations and procedures had to be developed for many activities and issues covered for the first time beginning on Treaty Day under a Status of Forces Agreement for the military community in Panama.

Joint Committee

The Joint Committee, established by Article III of the Agreement in Implementation of Article IV of the Panama Canal Treaty, is responsible for agreements on all treaty matters that pertained to the U.S. military community in Panama. Its basic mission is to perform the functions specifically indicated by the provisions of the Agreement in Implementation of Article IV of the Panama Canal Treaty (considered to be a Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA) and other functions entrusted to it by both governments. It was jointly chaired by the Director of U.S. Southern Command's Center for Treaty Affairs--in 1991 renamed the Center for Treaty Implementation (which reported to the Southern Command's Commander in Chief through the Deputy Commander in Chief) and, since 1990, the Director of the Panamanian Executive Directorate for Treaty Affairs (DEPAT) under the Minister of Foreign Relations. Until December 20, 1989, the Panamanian co-chairman was the Chief of the Joint Committee element of the Panama Defense Forces' Defense and Security Commission, which was abolished with the dismantling of the Panama Defense Forces after December 20, 1989.

The Joint Committee had a number of functional subcommittees which discussed and reached agreements on a variety of military-related issues. Representatives from the U.S. Southern Command, its service components, and civilian officials of various Panamanian agencies served on them. These various subcommittees (15 of them) were grouped into four major functional areas: Public Security Subcommittee Group; Public Services Subcommittee Group; Legal Services Subcommittee Group; and Lands and Waters Subcommittee Group.

The U.S. co-chairmen of the Joint Committee (1979-1999) were the following (Air Force unless noted otherwise): Colonel Robert E. Waller, Colonel Charles B. Simmons, Colonel Jose F. Gomez, Colonel Patrick H. Corbett, Army Lieutenant Colonel Darrell L. Sponberg, Army Lieutenant Robert Perry, Army Lieutenant Colonel John T. Browne, Colonel Jacobowitz, Colonel Richard M. O'Connor (1992-1996), and Colonel David J. Hunt (1996-1999).

Combined Board

The Combined Board, established by Article IV of the Panama Canal Treaty and composed of representatives from the Southern Command and the Panama Defense Forces, was concerned with canal protection and defense issues and activities.from 1979 through 1989, the U.S. side of the Combined Board was attached to Southern Command's Directorate of Operations.  Following the dismantling of the Panama Defense Forces (and conversion of the military into a Public Force/National Police by the Panamanian government) after Operation Just Cause (the December 20, 1989 invasion of Panama), the missions and functions of the Combined Board were assumed by the Joint Committee.

Initial treaty implementation Events

On October 1, 1979 (Treaty Day):

The following military properties were transferred to the Government of Panama on the date of implementation of the treaty as stipulated by the treaty:

Part of the Army sector of Fort Amador and the islands of Naos, Culebra, Perico, and Flamenco (previously known as Fort Grant through World War II);
Army Albrook Airfield and the adjacent airstrip of the Albrook Air Force Station;
Twenty-four Army housing units (20 at Curundu Heights, two at Fort Amador, and two at Quarry Heights); and
Parts of the former Coco Solo Naval Base, France Field, and the remaining area of the former Army post of Fort Randolph, all on the Atlantic side of the isthmus.


Part of the Army sector of Fort Amador transferred to Panama October 1, 1979. Naos, Perico, and Flamenco Islands and Amador causeway in background. [U.S. Army photo, 1978] Albrook Army Airfield (hangars in center right and airfield (right side) transferred to Panama Oct 1, 1979. The adjacent PAD (Panama Air Depot) Area was transferred  1979-1982. [Army photo, 1978] 

The United States was represented in Treaty Day activities by a delegation headed by Vice President Walter Mondale, including participating that morning in the first raising of the huge Panamanian flag on top of Ancon Hill. Another major ceremony that day was held at Fort Amador (in front of Bryan Hall) for the signing by the new co-chairmen of the Joint Committee and Combined Board of the protocols formalizing the establishment of those two bodies.

Before and on Treaty Day, the U.S. military forces stationed in Panama numbered about 10,000, a level that was not to change significantly until 1998 (for reasons explained in later sections).

Remaining property transfers in the first five years of the treaty period

1979-1982: Several buildings previously occupied by Department of Defense, Army, and Army and Air Force Exchange Service activities and located in the PAD (former Panama Air Depot) Area adjacent to the former Albrook Army Airfield and near Albrook Air Force Station. The remaining family housing in the nearby Curundu Heights housing area (88 units) were transferred to Panama.

On October 1, 1984: The following facilities and bases were transferred to the Panamanian government on the fifth anniversary of the entry into force of the treaty:

Part of Fort Gulick, including all ten buildings belonging to the U.S. Army School of the Americas, which terminated operations there in September 1984 and was immediately relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia.
Family housing units at the former France Field.


(Left Photo) Fort Gulick (backside) -- Army  School of the Americas Headquarters Building 400 (in foreground) and school's barracks buildings in far  background were transferred to Panama October 1, 1984.

(Right Photo) Fort Gulick (frontside) -- 3d Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) buildings (in foreground) and Army School of the Americas' barracks buildings (center background) were transferred to Panama October 1, 1984.  [Both photos -- U.S. Army 1978]


Those transfers represented the last military facilities that were mandated by the treaty to be transferred by specific dates. (All remaining military property transfers were governed by the later Panama Canal Treaty Implementation Plan developed by the Southern Command and the Department of Defense.)

In summary, transferred to the government of Panama by the end of 1984 were about 12 percent (about 600) of the total buildings (about 5,200) and about 18 percent (about 17,000 acres) of the total land (95,300 acres) controlled by the U.S. military before Treaty Day. Those property transfers are summarized in more detail (including use by Panama) in a separate section, U.S. Military Property Transfers (1979-1999) Under Panama Canal Treaty Implementation .


Sources used: The Panama Canal Treaty of 1977 and its Agreement in Implementation of Article IV; fact sheets on the Treaty Implementation Plan prepared by William Ormsbee and updated periodically since 1992 and disseminated to local, U.S., regional, and international news media visiting Panama; documents of the Southern Command's Treaty Implementation Directorate; and Installation Condition Reports for several of the installations (for acreage and adjusted book value of installations).

NOTE: The term "transfer" regarding transferring military properties to Panama under the Treaty is used throughout this and other sections of my website rather than "reversion" or "reverting property" as used in the Treaty because reversion implies returning what was ceded. My point is that more than just land has been transferred back to the Republic of Panama.. Some of the land controlled by the military in Panama included improvements made by the U.S. Government (bases with buildings, streets, housing areas, schools and other community facilities, etc.), hence, more than just the land as originally ceded by Panama was transferred back to Panama. My arguing this point since 1977 periodically was to no avail. But this is my Web site.

-- William H. Ormsbee, Jr., 1999, published originally on WHO's In Retrospect website



This page last updated:  July 4, 2008
Site developed, owned and maintained by  
William H. Ormsbee, Jr.  1999-2001 /  2005-2008

(Including WHO's IN RETROSPECT website 1999-2001)




Treaty Impact on Canal Operations

Treaty Impact on Military

- Military Forces Drawdown

- Military Property Transfers to Panama


Summary of Treaty Transition Milestones - Panama Canal Related


Text of the Panama Canal Treaty 

Text of the Neutrality Treaty




Total of 95,293 acres (with 5,237 buildings and other facilities mostly on 12 major active military bases)

All together  worth over $4 billion dollars (conservative estimate)

Transferred to Panama at no cost as  stipulated by the Panama Canal Treaty




Part of the Army sector of Fort Amador

Albrook Army Airfield with airstrip at Albrook


Part of Fort Gulick (Army School of Americas buildings, barracks, etc.)


Fort Davis and remainder of Fort Gulick


Fort Amador (Navy sector and remainder of Army sector)


Albrook Air Force Station


Quarry Heights


Marine Barracks

Rodman Naval Station

Fort Sherman

Galeta Island

Fort Kobbe

Fort Clayton

Howard Air Force Base

East and West  Corozal