Literally hundreds of books have been written about the “fighting, killing” commands–the numbered air forces of World War II in Europe, the Far East and Alaska. And they’re still being turned out as aging survivors tell their individual stories, and younger historians try to put a new spin on the big picture or repeat what has been done before.

C-79 Airliner
C-79 Airliner
But now comes a story of one of the numbered air forces that has received no previous attention, yet has long deserved to have its story told in full. It also engaged the enemy but never received any recognition for it. That is the U.S. Sixth Air Force, which was charged with the defense of Panama, along with a corollary organization, the Antilles Air Command, responsible for the defense of the shipping lanes throughout the Caribbean.

Dan Hagedorn, who usually can be found at the research and reference desk at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has filled this very large gap in the history of the U.S. Air Force with Alae Supra Canalem: Wings Over the Canal (Turner Publishing Co., Paducah, Ky., 1995, $34.95). It is a thoroughly researched history of the air defense of the Panama Canal and its approaches through the bare budget days of the 1920s and 1930s, the panic days after Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent days of military build-up to prevent possible loss of the canal to air or sea attack. There is a general belief that not much really happened “down there” during WWII because the canal was not attacked. However, as Hagedorn points out, “The canal and the equally valuable natural resources of the Caribbean region were defended in a little known but intense series of combats.”

The author carefully chronicles the scramble to establish air bases in the Canal Zone after World War I, the difficulties encountered with the mix of ancient aircraft assigned there and the rapid downsizing during the Depression years. However, the protection of the canal–as well as Hawaii and the Philippines–remained a concern, and a major focus was placed on Panama because its loss would have severely hampered commercial and military ship movement between the two oceans. Pursuit, bombardment and observation units were assigned through the 1920s and 1930s to the two major bases–France Field on the Atlantic side and Albrook Field on the Pacific coast–with smaller auxiliary fields throughout the isthmus. Hagedorn’s book has numerous aerial and aircraft photos taken during the entire period.

The book begins with the early years of aviation in Panama before the canal was completed. The first flight was made by Clarence deGiers, flying an American-built Bleriot XI on April 21, 1912. He recalled that he saw “a lot of steam engines busy excavating the waterway.” His incentive for making the flight was a $3,000 prize for being first to become airborne on the isthmus. The following year, Robert G. Fowler, with a cameraman aboard, flew a seaplane from Balboa Beach on the Pacific side to the shore near Cristobal on the Atlantic side in 57 minutes.

Fowler later wrote several articles pointing out that the canal would be vulnerable “unless the military heads at once establish a large number of aeroplanes and capable men on the Canal Zone to thoroughly study and familiarize themselves with the peculiar conditions they will have to cope with.” Reacting to Fowler’s warning and his alleged breach of security of this expensive national project, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order prohibiting aircraft and balloons from flying over the canal without permission and also prohibited taking aerial photographs of any of the military bases in the Canal Zone. The vulnerability of the “big ditch” remained a concern before and during World War I. Strangely, the executive order was never revoked while the canal was under U.S. jurisdiction. As a pilot stationed in Panama, this reviewer flew over it many times, took many photographs and was totally unaware that such an order was still in effect.

The rationale for sending units to the Canal Zone in the late 1930s included the spread of German influence in South America and the realization that the canal’s loss would seriously cripple our Latin American allies as well as the United States. A secret Army War College study in 1939 recommended a Hemisphere Defense Force of 112,000 men. Just before the war began, the Army Air Corps units were increased and placed at many auxiliary fields throughout Panama and the Caribbean.

An article titled “Panama is Defenseless” by Colonel Billy Mitchell that appeared in a popular aviation magazine in 1929 and was widely reprinted in 1940 helped to spur the assignment of additional air units. The vulnerability of the Canal Zone to enemy attack was unquestioned. The canal was a critical national asset that had to be protected.

The chain of islands from Cuba southeast to the northern coast of Venezuela offered natural sites for six air bases that were negotiated with Great Britain. They were placed under the Antilles Command, with headquarters in Puerto Rico for anti-submarine patrol duty. Patrol units flying Boeing B-17s, Douglas B-18s and Consolidated B-24s were also assigned to bases in the Galapagos Islands, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. Navy units flying Consolidated PBY-5 Catalinas shared the patrol responsibilities. Other types of combat aircraft assigned to U.S. Army Air Forces units included Northrop A-17s, Douglas A-20s, Bell P-39s, Curtiss P-40s and, later in the war, Lockheed P-38s.

Military aircraft buffs should enjoy reading about the “oddball” birds assigned to the Sixth Air Force during World War II that received official designations when they were added to the military inventory–a Junkers C-79 trimotor; a Boeing XC-105; an Akron-Funk UC-92; a Hamilton UC-89; two Luscombe UC-90s; and a Stinson Model A trimotor that became the Air Force’s solitary UC-91.

As Hagedorn points out, the living conditions at some of the outlying bases were less than comfortable. However, the hardships were nothing compared to the discomforts of the combat zones. The number of aircraft and personnel losses seem relatively high for a noncombat area. He attributes the accidents to “a combination of operating conditions at the remote fields and equipment problems.” The photos throughout the book include a number of crash shots that attest to the operational difficulties involved.

One of the fascinating bits of information the author reveals is the secret mission flown by 12 “Gooney Birds”–Douglas DC-3/C-47s–from La Paz, Bolivia, to Panama in May 1944. They transported 220 German, Japanese and Italian prisoners who were thought to be the remaining agents of the Nazi Abwehr intelligence network in South America. The prisoners had been apprehended by the FBI with the help of the Bolivian and Chilean governments. It is thought some were imprisoned for the duration in Panama while others were sent to POW camps in the United States.
C.V. Glines