A few months before Pearl Harbor the Caribbean Defense Command was informed by Panamanians that two Germans with a powerful radio transmitter were placer mining for gold in a remote jungle area in Darien, not far from Colombia. The German “miners” were based at a camp called Tatahoe, about 50 miles inland from a point close to the Pacific coast from where, before the United States entered World War I, German agents with a powerful wireless transmitter had passed on descriptions of large British ships headed down the west coast of South America. They had received that information from an agent in the Canal Zone equipped with a low power directional wireless transmitter. Those twice-beamed messages enabled German raiders cruising far off shore to move into the coastal shipping lane to intercept and sink important British vessels.
Since history tends to repeat itself, staff officers of the Caribbean Defense Command concluded that the Panama Mobile Force should be prepared to eliminate the German-operated radio in Darien. Unfortunately, before Pearl Harbor the Panamanian government did not permit even American unarmed reconnaissance units to operate in the remote jungle areas near neighboring Colombia. However, we did have maps and air photos of the suspected area. I was pleased when Major General Walter E. Prosser, C.G. of the Panama Mobile Force, ordered me to prepare his command’s first Jungle Platoon to promptly get to Darien and at least eliminate the German radio as soon as we were at war. Like General Prosser, I believed the Japanese were about to attack.
Before Pearl Harbor that platoon was the only combat unit in the U.S. Army that kept its weapons in its barracks with enough ammunition, ready-to-eat dry rations, and personal gear for a two week mission. Each man was armed with a shortened Springfield Model 1903 rifle, a World War I type hand grenade, and an 18-in. machete. In addition, its officer and sergeants each carried a .45 Colt and a smoke grenade. (Not until a couple of months later were we able to get Thompson submachine guns, two per squad.) All the men in the first Jungle Platoon were picked volunteers, but they had had only about three months of jungle training and had not carried heavy combat loads for many hours through swampy jungle.
Three days after Pearl Harbor the Jungle Platoon was ordered to move out on its planned mission: Capture the two German agents and their long-range radio transmitter in the wild Panamanian jungles near Colombia, and hunt for other possible enemies in those jungles. During this expedition I commanded the platoon; its lieutenant served under me. That evening we boarded U.S.S. PC 456, a Navy offshore patrol boat. Her skipper was Lieutenant Gifford Ewing, a bold reservist, an expert yachtsman, a Yalie, and a scion of an old, wealthy, and patriotic New England family. Blacked out, we made a night crossing of the Gulf of Panama with a 30-foot open Navy launch in tow. On the offshore patrol boat, a fast yacht purchased by the Navy as fear of American involvement in the widening war increased, there were only enough life preservers for the crew. Japanese subs reportedly were close to the Canal, and an imagined enemy fleet had been sighted off the coast of Nicaragua. So I ordered my men, who slept on deck protected from spray by their ponchos, to partially inflate their small meteorological balloons and keep them ready to put under their shirts, as they did when crossing streams. Had the patrol boat collided with another blacked-out craft or been attacked and sunk, a man supported by even a couple of lungfuls of air in one balloon could have stayed afloat until rescued, without having to swim. In those shark-infested waters men who merely float are less likely to be eaten, if not bleeding.
Before dawn we were in the broad mouth of the Rio Chucunaque, by far the largest river in Panama. The launch took me, 16 soldiers, and a local Panamanian policeman named Dario Lopez up that big tidal river to a point near the mouth of the Rio Tuira, a major tributary. (I had dispatched most of the Jungle Platoon to prevent enemy agents from going down or up the Rio Chucunaque and to reconnoiter a suspect uninhabited jungle area.) At a place where there was no landing the launch nosed in near to the east bank. Packing our combat loads, we waded ashore through the mangroves, initially in waist-deep water. If any of us had fallen or accidentally stepped into deep water, our heavy packs, made buoyant by their waterproof packliner bags, and the two partially inflated meteorological balloons that each man had placed under his shirt would have prevented drownings.
To avoid being seen by natives likely to warn the Germans, we began an off-trails struggle of an all day, steaming-hot march, mostly through a swampy mangrove jungle near the Rio Tuira. Some men slipped off the buttressed roots of towering mangrove trees into knee-deep mud. We wore our new Jungle Boots; their calf-high uppers of permeable cotton duck prevented mud and grit from reaching our feet, and permitted water to drain out. I had bought those made-to-order boots from U.S. Rubber Company with funds made available to me by Lieutenant General Frank Andrews, C.G. of the Caribbean Defense Command. Before buying the boots, rigorous jungle testing already had proved a few prototype pairs superior to G.I. shoes and leather boots.
Because I knew the most about selecting a route through jungle and using a machete, I headed the little column all day long. One by one, seven soldiers fell out during the afternoon, exhausted by deep mud and humid heat. This despite each having drunk two or three quarts of chlorinated river or swamp water with salt tablets dissolved in it, in addition to the pure water in his 1-qt. canteen early in the punishing march. Like the rest of us, each of the men who could go no farther carried a bottle of “612” insect repellent and a Jungle Hammock with zipper-closed sandfly netting sides and attached waterproof canopy to protect him from the swarming mosquitoes — and from flies, ants, spiders, scorpions, ticks, chiggers, snakes, and rain. Each of us also had a bottle of Halazone tablets to disinfect the brown swamp water, a bottle of salt tablets, and Atabrine tablets to prevent malaria. Personal items were carried in small waterproof bags, as were ready-to-eat dry rations. A ration supplied about 3,700 calories per day and weighed approximately two pounds. The 7 march casualties were picked up 3 days later.
As night approached the remaining 11 of us began to hear drum music and laughter not far ahead. The happy sounds came from La Marea, a village of half a dozen thatched huts at the farthest downstream ford on the Rio Marea. The villagers were having a lively jungle jam session. They all were descendents of escaped black slaves and therefore even better able than Indians to survive endemic malaria and other debilitating tropical diseases.
I needed to block the only trail leading from La Marea to the German agents’ permanent camp at Tatahoe, to prevent any villager from running ahead to warn our enemies. That trail was on the other side of the Rio Marea. I had divided the remaining nine soldiers into two small squads. One, under my sergeant, covered the other, which I led as we began to wade silently across the wide, knee-deep ford. The drums and laughter continued, and I remember thinking that Arab slave raiders in Africa must have similarly approached happy, unsuspecting villagers. But before we had gotten halfway across, the drumming suddenly stopped. I shouted in Spanish that we were Americans and would hurt no one, then I led my squad in a splashing rush to the far bank, to block the trail before any of the surprised villagers could leave their party, get a flashlight, and start out. (Without a flashlight or lantern, not even a local native can follow a jungle trail for miles in the black of night.) My reassembled small party stopped a short way up the riverside trail. We drank our chlorinated water while eating some of our ready-to-eat dry rations, then refilled our canteens, chlorinated the water with Halazone tablets, and added salt tablets.
While the hot, humid night grew black we began a forced march of several miles up the trail, using our small flashlights. We had taped blue cellophane film over their lenses so they gave only a faint but adequate blue light similar to that emitted by rotting wood in a wet jungle, scarcely noticeable at a distance. (A lightweight blue-lensed blackout flashlight with one “D” cell was produced and issued to jungle troops later in World War II.)
In the pre-dawn darkness of a starlit night the eleven of us finally reached a jungle clearing. There we saw the silhouettes of two small houses on 6-foot stilts, both having “alas”, wide overhanging eaves. This was the German agents’ base at Tatahoe. Our night view of the base camp confirmed the accuracy of our accompanying Panamanian policeman’s description of the Germans’ screen-walled houses and their locations. Before we reached the edge of the jungle clearing I had made detailed plans for capturing the houses’ occupants. Each of my nine soldiers knew where he should go to accomplish our mission. All I had to do was whisper the order to move out.
We did such a good job of stealthily surrounding those houses that not even the two wormy dogs sleeping under them were awakened until I shouted to the houses’ sleeping occupants, first in Spanish and then in English: “You are surrounded! Squad leaders sound off!” Three of my men on the other sides of the two houses, following my prior orders, in turn shouted “Squad 1!” “Squad 2!” “Squad 3!” — simulating a much larger force. Then I commanded, “Come out, hands up!”
My order resulted only in an inoffensive German laborer, Walter Ragoszki, and an old Norwegian, Kurt Indergard, coming out of one of the houses. Then to our astonishment a gas mantle lamp suddenly illuminated an end of the other screen-walled house, revealing a woman with long, golden hair, clad in a pink and blue flowered negligee! I ran up the outside stairs of her little 4-room house, .45 Colt in hand. She rushed to the screen door and, unarmed, screamed in my face, “I’ll shoot you with my revolver!” She turned to run down the short hall toward a room at the other end of the house. I hit the flimsy screen door with my shoulder, breaking it open, and ran after her. Just as she dashed into her bedroom I grabbed her by the shoulders and slammed her into a chair.
While I was chasing the blonde down the hall, my sergeant, who was outside near the other end of the house, had one of his men give him a hand up so he could reach the screen wall at that end of the hall. With one slash of his machete he cut the screen, then followed with a skillful shoulder roll through the hole and onto the floor. To add to the comic confusion, a pet monkey was leaping about and chattering in the bare rafters overhead, a Persian cat dashed for shelter under the bed, and the dogs outside kept up their frenzied barking. There was no gun in her bedroom.
The golden haired blonde, very much a woman of the world accustomed to sudden adversities, soon calmed down. She promp-tly identified herself as Princess Ada de Bogaslowa, a White Russian ballet dancer, by showing me some old ballet programs with photos of her in better days in Buenos Aires and other South American cities.
A bit later in the very small office we found a .45 revolver, four shotguns, a .22 rifle, and ammunition. There were no Panamanian permits for the weapons. Our most puzzling finding was Ada de Bogaslowa’s bank book at Chase National Bank, Panama. It showed a balance of $750.00 on April 15, 1941, whereas on August 30 her balance was $11,070.00. That was a lot of money in 1941, when a Panamanian laborer made only about 50 cents U.S. a day.
Of course each of my men wanted to be the one to guard our “Princess” in her house. I ordered my two most dependable men to take turns guarding her and the two passive white men, keeping all of them in her house. The rest of us withdrew into the sheltering jungle to hang our Jungle Hammocks and get a few hours of mosquito-free, comfortable sleep, with only one man at a time on guard.
That afternoon I sent our two male captives under guard to a point down the Rio Marea, a landing where a Navy launch picked them up. Later they and Princess Ada de Bogaslowa were taken to a detention camp in the Canal Zone. There she was detained for the duration, reportedly an entertaining, disruptive problem. Months afterward I heard rumors that she had seduced a detention camp commander, resulting in a scandal and his being courtmartialed.
The two German agents who operated the radio transmitter at Tatahoe had abandoned their “Princess” on hearing of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They had walked to the Rio Tuira and gone by dugout canoe up it toward a safe haven in Colombia, as I learned much later. The only material evidence of their intelligence mission that we found at Tatahoe was the base on which they had mounted the small gasoline engine and generator that powered their long range radio transmitter. All incriminating evidence probably had been buried or dropped in a deep pool in the Rio Marea.
Capturing a blonde Russian “Princess” deep in the wilds of Darien improved the already high morale and unity of the first Jungle Platoon. For, although its members got away with telling tall tales in the beerhalls about their encounters with huge snakes and dangerous Indians, when they told the true story about capturing a golden haired ballet dancer in the jungle they all were derided as liars.
No consequential snafu plagued the first Jungle Platoon’s radio-eliminating, “Princess”-capturing mission. Its experiences in Darien were further proof that the health, mobility, and effectiveness of American infantrymen in the humid tropics could be greatly improved by adopting much of the specialized equipment and know-how that jungle natives and civilian explorers had found practical —and also by using innovative jungle gear and better materials. Unfortunately, the victories won by our specially equipped and trained jungle troops in World War II did not prevent the Pentagon from committing the monumental snafu of eliminating most jungle equipment shortly after Japan’s defeat.