Bits & Pieces

July 15, 2011

The White Wave

Panama and Colon have always been ports of call for the U.S. Navy. Prior to World War Two, shore leave in Panama or Colon meant welcome income for certain businesses, but lots of damage to limb and property as the professional sailors of the times got drunk, disorderly and troublesome. The professional sailor of the day was almost illiterate, older and always looking for a drink, a woman and a fight to release pent up emotions. Unlike the sailors on British ships, American sailors did not get their daily dose of "grog" (rum). So, shore leave in Panama gave them the rare opportunity drink and they took full advantage of it. Their rambunctious behavior was not appreciated by the populace, who would not let their women out unescorted when the fleet was in port.

A Change In The Navy (1)

This began to change during the Depression, and the hard times that it brought. Beginning in 1934, the U.S. Navy was able to pick and choose their recruits and by 1939, it was accepting only one out of ten applicants. In 1938, although the starting pay was only $21, the Navy had 172,000 men apply and only 16,300 were enlisted.. By then, no man over 23 was allowed to enlist and, after their 3 to 4 year term was over, they could re-enlist or quit. In those years just before the war, the Navy was able to claim that the average sailor had at least two years of high school and many had completed high school and even attended college. The change in the attitude of the personnel took a significant turn as the old salts retired and their place was taken over by younger and better educated men from various walks of life.

Shore leave begins at the Port Of Balboa, Panama Canal Zone.
Photos: LIFE Magazine.

This point was emphasized in 1939 when the Fleet en route from the Pacific to the Caribbean for its annual war games, paused at Colon after a 36-hour northern passage through the Panama Canal. As reported by LIFE Magazine on that occasion, this pause gave 40,000 sailors a chance to taste shore life in the Fleet's largest debarkation of the year. No serious incidents were reported and “Admiral Claude C. Bloch, Commander-In-Chief of the U.S. Fleet, thanked the Panamanians for their reception of his men whose general behavior while in Colon was practically perfect. While the sailors had a fine time on shore, they behaved better than most tourists.”

Tours of the locks were popular as were the ice cream kiosks set up by the Canal Zone women.  But these
were temporary distractions from the main objective of "The White Wave".
Photos: Bob Karrer.

When the war began, the ranks of the U.S. Navy swelled, as did the ranks of the other services. Young men of 18 filled the ranks and were leaving home for the first time in their lives. And they hit Panama on shore leave as had their predecessors.

Beginning in September of 1943, I was able to see, first hand, the behavior of these young men while on shore leave in Panama city during the day. On that date, I began attending Ancon Elementary School in the Canal Zone. This school was just across the border between Panama and the Canal Zone. The dividing line was the center line of what was then known as Fourth of July Avenue. There were only three routes that I could take to walk from school to the bus stop at Plaza Cinco de Mayo in Panama where I could take the “chiva” , as the little buses where known, to go home. And all three of these routes took me right through the center of the area full of bars, cabarets and bawdy houses for the pleasure of the military on leave. I could hear the loud music and voices coming out of these bars through the swinging doors. There was one particular bar where, from the sidewalk, I could see a large bartender, who was said to be German, play two large spoons on his hand to the beat of the music while being watched in admiration by the young sailors.

Soon,"The White Wave" would head towards Panama city. El Rancho, The Atlas Garden,
The Happyland, Kelly's Ritz and all the "cantinas" on "J" Street and the Coconut Grove area would soon
be overwhelmed is a sea of white uniforms. Light blue is Central Avenue, Blue is "J" Street, green is
the area of the Kelly's Ritz and Happyland, red is the Coconut Grove area and yellow is the location of
El Rancho and the Atlas.

While during the day it was common to see some soldiers and sailors of the local military installations visiting these places, it was during the visits by the Fleet that would bring the "white wave" of sailors flooding the region. It was overwhelming to see the mass of white moving as a serpent though the streets, filling up horse buggies for rides thought the city and taxis to take them to the red light districts outside the city limits.

I walked through this multitude as a youngster of 11, 12 and 13 years of age and was never bothered by anyone. Yet, aside from seeing a few youngsters so drunk they could hardly stand up and soiled with their own vomit, I don't recall ever witnessing a fight or a destruction of property by any of these young men. Oh, yes, the Panamanian Police and the Shoe Patrol were kept busy and we would read in the papers the following mornings about altercations that had taken place during the night, but never anything outrageous as Panama had experienced in the 1920s and early 1930s.

The usual method of transportation were horse-drawn carriages and old touring car Taxis
which normally operated with their tops down. The right photo is at the Coconut Grove area.
Photos: ipernity

TIME Reports Two Incidents

The May 28, 1934 issue of TIME carried the following reply by the Editor to a letter written by F.M. WINCKEL of San Francisco, California. It pertained to the reaction of former Admiral Hugh Rodman to a painting by Paul Cadmus depicting poor behavior by some sailors while on shore leave in Panama. The TIME editor referred to "The clippings, from the same issue of the Panama American, reported: 1) The arrest of one U.S. sailor for setting fire to a prostitute's bed after she rejected what she regarded as an ‘immoral proposition’ 2) The detention of another sailor for entering a room with a registered prostitute outside the restricted area".

How's that for disorderly conduct!

The Talk Of The Fleet

The block on Central Avenue across from the Train Station and Plaza Cinco de Mayo was the location of the two most famous cabarets in Panama city. These were The Happyland and Kelly's Ritz. Fred Sill told me the following story which I found so interesting I wanted to share it with you:

Hi Louie:

The same day my mother and sister left for New York, my dad took me to Kelley's Ritz to meet his old pal Mamie Lee Kelly, the owner of the club. I was 11 or 12 at the time. My dad and Mamie Lee went back a long time. He told me she had arrived on the isthmus from New Orleans in the early days of the Canal. As time passed, and she began to put on a bit of weight, she joined with three other hefty gals to form a singing group called 'A Thousand Pounds Of Harmony'. About that time, she met Mr. Kelly, an Irishman who had taken residence in Panama, and married him. Together, they opened Kelly's Ritz. It was located at Plaza Cinco de Mayo across from the train station and soon became the center of Panama nightlife. One of their customers was Cole Porter, the music composer and Broadway musical shows producer, who was taken there when he passed through Panama. He later immortalized Mamie Lee in his theater musical 'Panama Hattie', with Ethel Merman as Hattie, which was also made into an MGM movie in 1942 featuring Red Skelton and Ann Sothern.

LEFT: Fred Sill under arrow.  RIGHT: Poster promoting the movie "Panama Hattie".
Photos: Fred Sill and Google.

"The night my dad took me to Kelly's Ritz, Mamie Lee joined us at our table and, soon, I found myself as part of the floorshow. I did my dance with the girl next to me holding my arm in the group photo while the orchestra played the 'Mexican Hat Dance'. After the floor show, they took the group photo with the other performers and some customers. The photo was later posted outside the club along with photos of other acts with the invitation to passer-bys to 'Come and Join the Fun!'. A Canal executive at the Administration Building spotted it and told my father who, of course, registered surprise and shock. He told me to go down to the club during my school lunch hour and get the photo. I went into the club around noon, at a time when Mamie Lee and the girl performers where sitting around in their kimonos (but that is another story) and asked her for the photo. She gave me a big bear hug and told me to go ahead and take it. I have sent it along should you care to use it.
Fred Sill

Portrait of Jade Rhodora and performing at Kelly's Ritz
Photos: Left - Research Topics;  Right - LIFE Magazine

As mentioned above, the star performer at Kelly's Ritz Club during the war years of 1939-1945 was a stripper named Jade Rhodora. Born Lou Elma Smith, she was an exotic dancer during the years of 1931 and 1960 performing in Latin America and the U.S.A. While starring at Kelly's she developed an exotic dance she called "The Beauty and the Beast". She would appeared scantly clad on the right side of her body while her left side would be covered with a gorilla outfit. During the dance, the "Gorilla" would lustily disrobe Jade as "they" performed around the stage. Jade also developed other exotic dance routines which were later copied by others. She was a very pretty woman and the talk of the Fleet.

The Coconut Grove

The Coconut Grove club or bar in Colon was located on Balboa Avenue that ran parallel to Front Street and it had shows as at the Happyland and Kelly's Ritzin Panama. However, when we hear the Coconut Grove mentioned in the same breath as Panama city, we seem to be talking about something totally different. It seems that in Panama, it refers to a whole area, as shown in the included map.. In the words of Edward (Ray) Mitchell, SM1/c, YMS-180:

"Going through the Canal we reached Balboa around 1400 hours on June 15, 1944. We docked there for the night and had shore leave with several of my buddies. We found a popular bar, had several drinks of Tequilla, which made me sick and then headed to the Coconut Grove of which we had heard about. It turned out to be nothing but a street on which all the whores lived. About every door opened onto the sidewalk and the whores would step out the front door, pull up their dresses, dance a little jig, and holler out ‘Hey, sailor'. We didn’t dare stop. Good thing I was sober. We had a good time anyway”.

More Coconut Grove area photos.
Photos: LIFE Magazine

Canal Capabilities Tested

On Monday May 7, 1934, TIME Magazine carried a story about a test on the ability of the Fleet and Canal authorities to respond to a wartime emergency.

"Neither the hoariest monkey nor the most venerable boa constrictor on the jungle shores of Gatun Lake had seen such a sight as took place on that cobalt body of water last week. For 48 hours, a file of warships in pairs, by the dozen, by the score streamed steadily westward (actually northward to the Atlantic, LRC) through the Panama Canal", The Fleet had finished two years of vigil on the Pacific and West Coast of the U.S. and were now steaming to the Atlantic and bases on the Eastern Coast of the U.S. It was calculated that it would take about two weeks to leisurely put the ships through. With thousands of officers and men getting ready to go on shore leave, Admiral David Foote Sellers, Fleet Commander, suddenly decided that this would be a great opportunity to test the abilities of the fleet and the operators of the Canal to get the fleet across under emergency conditions.

Admiral Sellers got in touch with the Canal Zone Governor Julian L. Scheley and put forth his plan. All shore leaves were immediately cancelled as were an officer's ball and other activities planned in honor of the Fleet. All military personnel in the Canal Zone was mobilized and wartime regulations went into effect. No unauthorized civilian personnel was allowed near the locks and all Canal facilities were readied for the unprecedented mass movement of the Fleet.

The first ship in the Miraflores Locks was the light cruiser USS Milwaukee. The last one was the training ship USS Melville. Prior to this exercise, it was estimated that the Canal Operations could put through a maximum of 48 ships during a 24-hour period. On this occasion, they rose above the challenge and put through 110 ships during a 48-hour period. TIME reported that “While 15,000 bluejackets swarmed ashore at Colon on the Atlantic side to celebrate their delayed leave, the Tokyo Press, aware that all U.S. naval strategy centers around Panama Canal operations, sneered at 'the American Fleet's failure in the operation' declaring that 'passage through the canal in 24 hours has been proved impossible' ”.

The Last White Wave? (2)

One of the last "white waves" to hit Panama was Task Force 38. This Task Force had left Tokyo Bay shortly after the cessation of hostilities and was returning home with 38,000 men, a couple of thousand of which were wounded or liberated prisoners of war. About 13,000 of the total would be discharged almost as soon as they arrived stateside. It was hard to realize that this task force represented a section of the Navy which was almost as large as the entire prewar Navy.

Fun at the local bars.
Photos: LIFE Magazine, Bob Karrer

Plaza Santa Ana: French Bazaar on left photo, Cantina Panazone on right photo.
Photos: 1942, unknown

Shopping and sight-seeing.
Photos: LIFE Magazine and unknown

Task Force 38 was sailing to the Eastern coast of the United States and, thus, had to pass through the Panama Canal. Stopping at the Pacific side, sailors, who had been away from America for years, were given shore leave. Disembarking at the Balboa terminal, they headed towards the city of Panama in what turned out to be one of the most orderly mass-scale visitation in the history of the Canal. The Canal Zone points of interest were briefly thronged by the curious sailors, but they soon turned their attention to the city of Panama where they could get "real liquor" and watch spectacular shows, such as the Beauty and the Beast act by dancer Jade Rhodora at the Kelly's Ritz Club at Plaza Cinco de Mayo. Another well-frequented club on the same block was The Happyland As always, the horse drawn coaches and old touring car Taxis provided the necessary transportation to places of interest which, inevitable included the red-light district of Rio Abajo. But many also spent time shopping for gifts for their girls back home and were seen carrying the same types of shopping bags house wives would tote on a normal shopping spree.

Have Things Changed?

Will Panama ever see the white wave of sailors hit the town on shore leave
as seen here in this 1920's photo?  Boat loads of sailors would disembark on Pier 17
to the waiting Taxis and coaches and head for the town.  Notice Abou Saad Temple on Ancon Hill.
Photo: Bob Karrer

I left Panama on September 1951, returning only for brief moments and longer and longer intervals. I don't know if, after WW II, the Fleet ever called on Panama in the frequency and numbers as it did before and during the World War. I was not there during most of the Korean War nor during the Vietnam era so I have no knowledge. But the “White Wave” of young men serving in the United States Navy flowing through the streets of Panama will forever be a part of my life and recollections.

Contributor to story: Fred Sill, BHS '53;
Contributor of photos, Bob Karrer, ICC;
Sources of information and photos:
(1) LIFE Magazine, Feb. 6, 1939;
(2) LIFE Magazine, Oct. 29, 1945;
TIME Magazine as noted;
City map, Panama Canal Company Telephone Directory, 1978;
The Wartime Diary of Edward (Ray) Mitchell, SM1/c, YMS-180;
Research Topics - Jade Rhodora, 1913-1987,;
Exotic Dancer Jade Rhodora, ;

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas