Sometimes in the stillness of the morning, I awaken to hear familiar sounds of revile in the distance and troops yelling cadence. If I’m sleeping very soundly, I sometimes forget where I am and am instantly snapped back to a life I held before cruising. Sometimes the troops run by uniformly in PT gear accompanied by 5 dogs gleefully galloping alongside, which just makes me smile. Not many marinas are right next to an active military base, much less located on the historic grounds of a decommissioned one. Shelter Bay Marina and the surrounding grounds of Fort Sherman have a rich military history of service in defending the Panama Canal and providing jungle warfare training to the U.S. military and allied troops.
Fort Sherman’s history goes hand in hand with that of the Panama Canal. The U.S. officially began construction of the canal in 1904 and by 1910, a Joint Army-Navy Fortification Board surveyed the canal area to devise plans for defense of the anticipated passageway. The plans resulted in fortifications at both the Atlantic and Pacific entrances to the canal armed with the most advanced artillery for the time. Fort Sherman was established in 1911 in honor of renowned US Civil War Commander, General William Tecumseh Sherman. Construction began in 1912 and the first Post Commander and troops were assigned in 1914, the same year the Panama Canal opened. Between 1912 and 1923 seven defense batteries were constructed, most of which are still able to be accessed by foot despite succumbing to thick jungle foliage. The two pictured below* (Batteries Mower and Stanley) featured 14-inch rifles with disappearing carriages, allowing the massive weapons to avoid detection from the sea after firing. The firepower of these colossal guns carried a range of over 13 miles, great enough to deter battleships from approaching the coastline. The guns from these batteries were last fired in December of 1943 and by 1948 they were completely removed. At its peak, Fort Sherman was a fully operating base, complete with family housing, enlisted barracks, a chapel, and all the support services needed to support the regiment. After World War II, the coastal defense guns were dismantled, but the base would have a whole new mission soon enough.
In 1951, the Army was ordered to take on a jungle warfare mission and what better training grounds than Panama. The variety of thick jungle foliage combined with harsh weather conditions and exotic wildlife made Panama excellent training grounds for acclimating military troops to what would soon be an all too familiar area of operations. In 1957, the Jungle Operations Training Center was officially opened at Fort Sherman. They evolved from training individuals to entire battalions as the military mission changed. The rugged terrain challenged their normal reliance upon technology for communication and military operations, and in turn tested their mental capacities and physical abilities to survive the harsh environment. From threat of vector borne diseases, dangerous plants, excessive rainfall and heat, this place became known as “Green Hell”. In 1989 the base and its troops had critical contributions towards Operation Just Cause, overthrowing de facto leader, General Manuel Noriega. Fun fact: When General Noriega took refuge at an embassy in Panama City, the U.S. military resorted to a sound barrier of large speakers playing the likes of “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Danger Zone” and of course, Van Halen’s “Panama” at deafening levels for several days until he surrendered. The Jungle Operations Training Center continued training troops until April of 1999 when the base closed and was turned over to Panama.
Today, the remains of the artillery batteries have been all but enshrined by the dense jungle. Instead of troops, the bats have now taken up residence deep within the structures. They make for some great exploration, but do proceed with caution. The jungle covers up sharp remnants of the structures and rusted fences from long ago. The rainfall this time of year makes for some very muddy treks and the jungle roots do seem to jump out at your ankles (as do the mosquitos). We were privileged to explore these areas with our guide, Mr. Carlos Chiari, who warned us of the impending structural integrity of the battery roofs and possibility of unwanted jungle wildlife lurking in dark corners of the buildings. The rainforest is ruthless, even for these fortifications. No stretch of the imagination is required to understand why this environment was deemed perfect grounds for jungle warfare training.
There is a paved loop that remains mostly clear of jungle overgrowth where officer housing once existed. This is where you’ll find Quincy and I first thing in the morning sloshing through a puddle or two or climbing over fallen palm fronds. It also serves as tranquil surroundings for morning workouts. Lurking amongst the towering trees, we’ve spotted toucans, coatis, agoutis, and both howler and capuchin monkeys here. The morning soundscape out here is pure bliss!
Mr. Chiari, a former high school Science instructor and Smithsonian Guide provided us with not only the history of this area, but also the intricacies of our natural surroundings. Did you know that to qualify as a true rainforest, you would need to have 200 inches of rainfall/year? Technically, we are residing in a tropical forest or deciduous forest in the tropics, NOT a rainforest…although lately I wonder!
Part of the reason we travel is to explore different landscapes from home and to experience history up close. For us, this place has it all within a short walking distance of the marina! If your travels find you at Shelter Bay Marina, take the time to learn a bit about the historic grounds you walk upon. You won’t regret it.
Sincerest thanks to Mr. Carlos Chiari for imparting his knowledge of the fascinating landscape and important history of Fort Sherman and Shelter Bay. Thank you also to the following websites: “The Early Days of Fort Sherman” http://www.czimages.com/CZMemories/VAP/Sherman/fort_sherman_index.htm
“Fortifications of the Panama Canal” https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/44e0b1e30a71455987b4f179d709b5d4
These websites include historic photos, maps, and much more detail on the canal fortifications.
Every Wednesday we put out an article (post) written by the HelmsMistress from her perspective. So you get writing from a women’s point of view as she travels the world by sailboat (slowly) with her family and pets. These posts are entirely photographed, written and edited on a cruising sailboat from wherever we are and wherever we find wifi.
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