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Naval defense of the Panama Canal, the focal point of our communications between the two oceans and South America, is, on the Atlantic side, primarily a matter of controlling the approaches to the Gulf of Mexico through the Florida Straits and the approaches to the Caribbean through the Yucatan Channel and the navigable passes of the greater and lesser Antilles.
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Provision for adequate defense of the Canal from the Pacific presented a far more difficult problem. There were no potential sites for air bases, either on American soil or on territory which could be secured by lease or treaty. Only Cocos Island and the Galapagos group, the former controlled by Costa Rica and the latter by Ecuador, presented possibilities.
Early in 1940 the General Board of the Navy and the Army-Navy Joint Board studied the subject and reached the conclusion that preparations must be made for the operation of constant air patrols over a wide area to the west of Panama. They recommended that patrol squadrons of seaplanes, supported partly by tenders and partly by shore installations, be based near Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian coast, in the Gulf of Fonseca in Nicaragua, and in the Galapagos. The Galapagos, it was decided, were to be the key installations, and they were subsequently fortified by both the Army and the Navy, under a program directed by the Army engineers.
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Advance bases were established during 1942 and 1943 on Taboga Island at the Pacific entrance to the Canal, on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, at Corinto in Nicaragua, Salinas in Ecuador, Chorrera and Mandinga in Panama, Puerto Castillo in Honduras, and Barranquilla in Colombia.
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Galapagos Islands. Galapagos was the focal point for a wide arc of aerial patrols protecting the western approaches of the Panama Canal.† From these island, 800 miles [sic, islands, about 675 miles] from the Pacific Coast, naval seaplanes flew northeast to Corinto, Nicaragua, and southeast [sic, E by S] to Salinas, Ecuador. Army landplanes assisted in covering the southern route.
† Following a cruise in the Panama area by President Roosevelt in 1940, preparations were made to provide a wide are [sic, arc] of constant air patrols west of the Canal. Aviation equipment for a seaplane base in the Galapagos Islands was procured and stored at Balboa. This base was the pioneer of a long succession of mobile units assembled for shipment to locations outside the United States. The list used served as a guide for procurement of aviation materials for seven air bases, thus creating the term “Galapagos units.” Depots were established November 1940, at Charleston, S.C., near San Francisco, and at Balboa, where warehouses were constructed by the Bureau of Yards and Docks to house these huge stockpiles.
South Seymour (or Battra [sic, Baltra]) Island was selected as a base. The island is low, dry, barren, and volcanic, covered with from two to four feet of rocky soil, from which grows only sparse vegetation. It was necessary to import all materials, water, and provisions, as well as Ecuadorian labor.
Seaplane Base at Aeolian Cove, Galapagos
The naval seaplane base, at Aeolian Cove, on the western side of the island, contained anchorage space in which refueling ships could be hidden.
Five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Panama Canal was considered in imminent danger of a similar attack, the Navy rushed a token force of 36 men aboard a British tramp steamer, to the Galapagos Islands to establish a refueling depot for patrol planes; a few days later, seaplanes were being refueled by hand pumps from a motor launch. A timber pier to handle unloading of gas drums and a 70-foot timber seaplane ramp were then planned. In January 1942 the Army surveyed for an 8000-foot air strip and let a contract for its construction.
On January 24, 1942, Ecuador granted permission to proceed with essential construction in Ecuador (Salinas and Galapagos), specific agreements to be signed after Lend-Lease details had been settled.
Our immediate occupation of the Galapagos Islands served to provide a key point for aerial patrols, and to prevent the enemy from securing a nearby foothold, as was accomplished in the Aleutians.
The seaplane base, designed for two squadrons of patrol bombers, could accommodate 125 officers and 1,050 men. Construction by Army contract, which was combined with the contract for the base at Salinas on the Ecuadorian mainland, was fully under way by April 1942, and completed by mid-1943. The base at Galapagos was put into use while under construction, the first plane landing on the temporary wire-mesh parking area May 14. Quarters and dispensary were established; Navy shared the Army hospital.
Two units of Seabee Detachment 1012 were sent to Galapagos and Salinas, respectively, on September 27, 1942, to complete a varied program of construction work begun by civilian contractors, and to install equipment. They built two tank farms for diesel oil, fuel oil, and aviation gasoline, complete with concrete pump houses and submerged pipe lines, a radio building, and a pontoon pier, repaired the concrete seaplane ramp, and assisted with the Army pier, which was later used to land all supplies. The Seabees also installed a water-supply system, distillation units, and storage tanks for 75,000 gallons of fresh water and 75,000 gallons of salt water. After attempting unsuccessfully to drill wells, the Army imported water by barge.§
§ The water was transported from Isla San Cristóbal.
The units of CBD 1012 were relieved January 1944, by a section of CBMU 555,§ who continued overhaul and maintenance work through the period of hostilities.
§ CBMU: Construction Battalion [Seabee] Maintenance Unit.