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Espionage in the Canal Zone

In our collections, there are photographs of the seemingly unassuming U.S. passenger ship called the SS America. However, this ship was implicated in the largest espionage case in U.S. history while it was in the Panama Canal.

Two Nazi spies who were part of the Duquesne Spy Ring, Erwin Wilhelm Siegler and Franz Joseph Stigler, disguised themselves as the chief butcher and chief baker, while they obtained information about the movement of ships and military defense preparations in the Canal Zone. Stigler also sought to recruit amateur radio operators in the U.S. as channels of communication to German radio stations, and he met with other German Agents to advise them in their espionage pursuits.

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The S.S. America, before being converted into a troop transport by the U.S. Navy. The side of the ship reads “AMERICA” “UNITED STATES LINER.” This was in order to protect the ship, as the U.S. was still neutral at the time of this photo.

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The spies remained on the SS America until the U.S. Navy converted that ship into a troop transport and commissioned her in the U.S. Navy as the USS West Point in 1941. Both Siegler and Stigler were sentenced to imprisonment for espionage.

If you want to learn more about the Duquesne Spy Ring, visit the FBI website.

What’s the most interesting story you have heard about the Canal Zone and World War II?

8 Comments

  • Lew Stabler

    Early in the morning of August 19, 1942, the tug ALHAJUELA was struck by a U. S. Navy seaplane and burst into flames. Six Panama Canal employees were killed in that accident. Eight of the ten crew members of the seaplane also perished. The tug was towed to Mt. Hope dry dock and rebuilt. She returned to service nine months later. This accident received much more publicity than the Tug CHAGRES accident. One reason could be that there were a lot more witnesses. However, public record of both accidents was restricted, and in my opinion, probably due to the World War II and the direct involvement of the US Navy. The transcript of the Board of Local Inspectors’ investigation shows that one of the recommendations of the Board was for the Governor of the Panama Canal to “extend a special letter of commendation to William E. Lee, cook of the ALHAJUELA.” Mr. Lee “exhibited an unusual presence of mind and good judgment at a time of great crisis and high excitement” by restraining three coworkers from jumping overboard into water covered with burning fuel. They and two servicemen pulled from the tail section of the seaplane were rescued by US Navy coxswain Ham in a small motorboat.

    According to the Panama Canal Spillway of November 5, 1993, during 1943, the tug CHAGRES struck a submerged mine in the Pacific entrance and sank. The captain and seven crewmen perished. The chief engineer and six other crewmen were rescued. On page 38 of the 1944 Annual Report of the Governor of the Panama Canal, the following sentences are the only available official record of this accident.

    “The only investigation involving the loss of life was that of the dredging division’s tug CHAGRES which was destroyed by a mine on August 3, 1943, in the Pacific entrance. The master and seven of the crew were lost.”

    On August 4, 1943, the New York Times had a small five-sentence mention of the accident in the bottom left corner of page 19, titled Tug Blows Up at Panama Canal. They said the cause of the explosion was not known, that the captain was Robert C. Christner, age 39, and the ‘the other seven were Panamanian and West Indian seafarers. On the same day, the Washington Post gave the same story a mere three sentences on page 12. The Post added that the chief engineer and five crewmen were “picked up suffering from shock and bruises.” The Panama Canal Spillway and the Washington Post give two different figures for the number of survivors.

    If anyone reading this has access to the BLI investigation transcript, or photos of the tug CHAGRES, please contact me. Thanks. Lew

    • d. nulik

      Nice, A very few people knew of this, in the 1970’s there was a guy that lived in Coco Solo, his job was to drink with sailors off of ships awaiting to transit the canal , . He would drink in the seedy bars in colon the sailors used, ,
      . There he tried to find out what freight, or if anything was being smuggled on the ships going to american ports. Nice job. I can describe him, but will not tell you his name. How’s that for a related story.

  • CarolMeyer

    In the 1970’s I was at the original Bambito Hotel chatting and having a few drinks with Kurt, the German owner of the property and he said he was interned in a cell in Panama City that overlooked the Pacific Canal entrance. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have had any interest in the War on either side but since he was imprisoned he kept track of Canal traffic and reported in to a German spy once a week when he was let out to get a haircut. True? Who knows?

  • Evans

    Is anyone aware of a photograph of the incident involving ALHAJUELA? A shot of her in her regular canal duties would be equally helpful.

  • Lew Stabler

    Evans, In October, 2016, I wrote an article on the ALHAJUELA commemorating her 80th birthday. She is still sailing today as the EVANS McKEIL out of Ontario. If you send me your email, I’ll forward you a copy. It includes photos of her, then and now. Lewstabler@hotmail.com. I am happy to send it to anyone interested.

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