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Panama Canal Third Locks 1939-1942

A third set of locks was first contemplated under a project started by the U.S. in 1939 and suspended in 1942 when the U.S. entered World War II. Since the 1930's all of the Canal's widening studies agreed that the most effective and efficient alternative to enhance Canal capacity was the construction of a third set of locks of bigger dimensions than those of the locks built in 1914. Thus, in 1939, the United States initiated the construction of locks designed to allow the transit of commercial and war ships whose dimensions exceeded the size of the existing locks.

The Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States of America and the Republic of Panama, effective on 27 July 1939, was a definitive step in the clarification of the US Government's relations with the Republic of Panama. The Panamanian Government demonstrated its "willingness to assume promptly and wholeheartedly" the burdens imposed upon it as partner in the defense of the Panama Canal, a responsibility which was accepted by the Panamanian Government under the provisions of the new treaty.

Concern over the possibility that the Canal might be put out of operation by sabotage or aerial attack against the lock system had on various occasions given rise to proposals to construct another canal either in Nicaragua or across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to convert the Panama Canal into a sea-level waterway, or to build an additional set of locks. Of these several proposals, the War Department favored the third on grounds that it would be the quickest and least expensive, and that in any case it would be a prerequisite for building a sea-level canal.

Endorsed by the Governor of the Panama Canal, by the Secretary of War, and by the President, the project received Congressional approval on 11 August 1939; but funds to begin the work were not forthcoming until the following spring. Congress, seeing that at least six years would be required for the project, was not to be hurried, and there were those in the House of Representatives who believed that the $277,000,000 which the project would cost could be spent to better advantage for munitions and materiel. Finally on 30 May 1940 the House voted to accept a Senate amendment to the War Department Civil Functions Bill (approved 24 June 1940) which provided for an initial appropriation of $15,000,000 and authorized the letting of construction contracts to an amount not exceeding $99,000,000.

Work was begun on 01 July 1940, when the dredge Cascades started excavating at the Pacific end of the channel leading to the New Miraflores lock site. Construction and planning were placed in the hands of the Canal administration, not of the Army, although the War Department controlled the purse strings. The plans called for a series of single locks paralleling, but at some distance from, the existing double chambers.

In order to accommodate the 58,000-ton Montana-class battleships that the Navy placed on order in September 1940, the new locks were to be two hundred feet longer and thirty feet wider than the old. This feature soon began to override the security consideration as the principal reason for the project.

On 05 March 1941, the President of the Republic of Panama issued a manifesto making available for use by the United States certain defense sites in the territory of that Republic. Pending the conclusions of final arrangements regarding the terms on which these sites are to be used, the Panamanian Government permitted US armed forces to occupy and develop them.

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and other American facilities on December 7th, 1941. Immediately following the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, Panama declared war on the three major Axis powers, and subsequently took numerous protective steps to cooperate with the other American republics in the interest and security of the Panama Canal and the defense of the hemisphere.

The entry of the United States into the war brought into question the future of the third locks project; the Navy's interest in it gave it high priority. On 23 December 1941 the Governor of the Panama Canal reported by letter to the Secretary of War that the schedule, which called for completing the project by 30 June 1946, could be met only by assigning high priority to, and by vigorously prosecuting, the construction. Dredging works in the channel that is close to Miraflores locks initiated on 01 July 1940. Dry excavation of the third set of locks began in Gatun sector on 19 February 1941.

With the first of the new super-battleships was scheduled to be completed late in 1945, it would appear essential that the locks program be completed as soon as possible. Discussing the question at a War Council meeting on 5 January 1942, Maj. Gen. Richard C. Moore, Deputy Chief of Staff, took a somewhat different view. "The only necessity for this lock [sic]," the minutes read, "is to permit larger battleships, now under construction, to pass through the canal. General Moore felt that there was some question as to whether or not, with shipping and material so short at this time, the construction of this lock should have such a high priority."

Since the matter was of primary interest to the Navy, the War Department accepted the opinion of the Chief of Naval Operations, who recommended "that every effort be made" to complete the project "at the earliest date practicable, and not later than Jan 1, 1946." The Army and Navy Munitions Board agreed to assign the priorities necessary for completing the work on the schedule the Navy desired, and the governor of the Canal was instructed to push construction as rapidly as he could.

As far as the defense of the canal was concerned, Lt. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, Commanding General, Caribbean Defense Command, considered the third locks project a hindrance rather than a help. "The greatest danger to the Canal today," he wrote in May 1942, "is an air raid which would damage the lake level gates to the extent that would result in the loss of water in Gatun Lake .... The construction of a third set of lake level locks would present to the enemy an additional means of accomplishing its objective and would consequently render the local defense problem more complex."

The issue of where the United Nations proposed to concentrate forces for its first major offensive was decided in early 1942. With very little recorded discussion the US Joint Chief of Staffs [JCS] agreed on 16 March 1942 that "of the courses of action available," it was "preferable" for the United States to restrict Pacific forces to the number allotted in current commitments and to "begin to build up forces in the United Kingdom." An attack on Germany through western Europe would afford the maximum possible support for the Soviet Union, whose continued participation in the war was essential to the defeat of Germany.

In the spring of 1942 the Navy indefinitely postponed the battleship construction program, which had become the principal reason for the additional locks. World War II's urgent requirements for more aircraft carriers, cruisers, amphibious and anti-submarine vessels resulted in suspension of the Montanas in May 1942, before any of their keels had been laid [in July 1943, when it was clear that the battleship was no longer the dominant element of sea power, their construction was cancelled].

General Andrews, Commanding General, Caribbean Defense Command, recommended that the locks project be deferred also. Both the War Department and the Navy concurred in General Andrews' recommendation, and, having received the approval of the President, Secretary Stimson on 23 May 1942 [other accounts report 25 May 1942] directed the Governor of the Canal to modify the program drastically. Except for some of the dredging and excavating work that had already been started and the Miraflores bridge construction, all construction work was halted. During the following months, contracts were renegotiated and canceled, and a large amount of equipment and material was diverted to more immediate war needs. As a result of this directive, blueprints were completed, U.S. personnel were freed to join the army, and the construction equipment was assigned to other military tasks.

On 13 August 1942, US President Franklin Roosevelt proposed a number of "concessions which have been desired by the Republic of Panama over a period of years". The US conveyed to Panama the water and sewerage systems in the cities of Panama and Colon; relinquished its extensive real estate holdings in the cities of Colon and Panama, so far as these holdings were not essential to the operation and protection of the Canal; and liquidated the credit of two and a half million dollars made available to the Republic of Panama by the Export-Import Bank for the construction of Panama's share of the Chorrera-Rio Hato Highway.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:55:04 ZULU