Friday, February 3, 2012

Maj. Gillham's final letter, Boston bound

Today we read the last letter from Maj.  Gillham.  He speaks of a previous letter, which, unfortunately, has been lost to time.  In it he evidently described his trip from San Diego to the entrance of the Panama Canal, and in this, his final letter, he describes the voyage through the canal.  At the end he acknowledges that this will be his last letter, since he will probably see Frances in Boston before any new letter can reach her.  And so ends this correspondence, as Maj. Gillham says so poignantly.  I will post two more letters as an epilogue in the coming days. 

U.S.S. Alcor
Cristobal C.Z.

15 June 46

Dearest Lovely Darling,

I was certainly delighted to get all the sweet mail from you here. It caught me up with events from several weeks before I left Japan until I called you from San Diego. The most recent ones were postmarked 4 June.

But let me go back now and bring you up to date. I mailed my last letter aboard the ship just before we picked up our pilot off Balboa. Right after I mailed it we got orders to proceed immediately through the canal and so we never stopped and scarcely slowed down until we were in the first lock. We got in this lock about 1500.

The captain's sister managed to get aboard while we were in this lock and rode to the next set of locks with us. She has lived here about ten years, and is going back to the U.S. with us. She says there are several other women and some couples on our passenger list. The captain is delighted that she can go with us.

The canal was most interesting and came up to my expectations in every respect, except that Culebra Cut was not as deep as I had expected. I guess it had had too great a build up. It took us six or seven hours to make the passage, so it got dark when we were about halfway through. But there was a beautiful full moon, and the moonlight trip through Gatung Lake was beautiful and something long to be remembered. Also, it was interesting to see part of the operation at night for they have a very elaborate system of navigation lights, etc. We finally got into a dock at the repair docks in Cristobal about 2300. I had been on my feet practically constantly since early that morning and was dead tired.

The insects have been so thoroughly controlled in this area that there were absolutely no candle flies around any of the canal lights, some of which are very bright. I haven't heard a mosquito and have seen only a couple of flies, even around garbage cans and rotten bananas in town.

It cooled off at night and there was a good breeze so I got a fine night's rest.

Went ashore yesterday morning with Myers and Col. Wilder. We got a taxi and went to Ft. Gulick to the finance office to get some money and then to Ft. Davis to the PX. It was a wonderful PX and they had most everything there. I got you an alligator bag which I like very much and hope you do too. We bought several other items and then came back into Colon and ate lunch and did some more shopping. Then at 1400 we caught a little bus to Panama City, on the other side. The trip was very interesting, as it gave us a chance to see some of the hinterland. The people seem to live in abject poverty in very flimsy thatched huts, but in this climate they don't seem to need much.

Panama City is quite a place. In many respects it is now like what I imagine the French Quarter in New Orleans was a hundred or more years ago. The protruding balconies almost form a roof over some of the narrow streets. It is a very colorful and romantic place to visit, but I wouldn't want to have to stay around too long,

There is more merchandise of all sorts in this area than I have ever seen anywhere, and at very reasonable prices. It nearly runs you crazy, you see so many things you want to buy. I remarked yesterday that I would like to give you about $500 and turn you loose down here. Everything from nylons to white shirts and plentiful. I am now well stocked on shirts, so don't bother about that any more. I also got a beautiful piece of English woolen material for a suit. It is a blue-grey with a small blue strip. I think you will like it. Also got a lovely Panama hat. It will have to be blocked and fixed, but is a dandy.

We took in a few spots and joints and then caught the train back, so I have crossed the isthmus by three means of transportation. We are due to get under this afternoon and will probably make Boston on the 23rd!

When I got back last night I found all the pile of mail from you. I stayed up another hour or more reading it, and then I had so much to think about I couldn't go to sleep. I think you have been a wonderful mother to the children this spring and I am glad they have had the opportunities they have.

Yours of 11 June just handed to me. That makes us getting closer together, doesn't it? Your letter verified what I had just written in the above paragraph.

I guess this will be my last letter, as I will be coming faster than I could get mail to you from now on. It has been quite a correspondence we have had these past eight or nine moths, hasn't it? You have been very faithful about writing, and wrote very interesting letters. Every one was worth a lot to me.

I can't wait to get you in my arms now, my darling.

All my love,


P.S. Estimated time of arrival in Boston is 1200 on 23rd. Will call at the first opportunity.


The first attempts to build the canal, by the French in the 1870s, were disastrous, resulting in the death of 20,000 workers, mainly due to malaria and yellow fever.  After President Theodore Roosevelt acquired the Canal Zone for the U.S. at the turn of the century, he sent down a team, eventually led by George Washington Goethals, to finish the canal, and it was opened in 1913, under budget and two years ahead of schedule.

Below is a map of the Panama Canal region, showing  Panama City, Balboa (where his ship entered the canal), the Gaillard Cut (which Maj. Gillham calls the Culebra Cut), Colon and Cristobal (where the ship exited the canal).  Fort Gulick was located on the banks of the large Gatun Lake, southeast of Cristobal.  The fort is now closed and many of the buildings have been incorporated into a new luxury hotel.  Fort Davis was adjacent to the east side of the Gatun Locks, where the town of Gatun is today.

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