S.S. Panama: from cruise to transporter of famous art in World War II

On June 13, 1941, before the bombing at Pearl Harbor, the S.S. PANAMA was turned over to the Army Transport Service to carry troops. The ship was renamed the JAMES PARKER in honor of Brigadier General James Parker.

It must have been a sight to see the ship, which was formerly used for transportation and scenic cruises, outfitted for war.

panama 2
ancon war
The S.S. ANCON, outfitted for the war. The JAMES PARKER may have looked like this during its tour.

The JAMES PARKER made many dangerous and exciting excursions during her service for the U.S. Army, including transporting the Rockettes and other performers to Europe to entertain soldiers and evading enemy submarines several times with troops on board.

We recently discovered while sorting through the collection that the JAMES PARKER brought to New York $80 million worth of artwork that the Germans had stolen from various European countries. Tables were removed in the air conditioned main dining room to store the works. The artworks were taken to the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.

After the ship’s final trip in Army Transport Service was made in 1946, the ship was returned to the Panama Railroad Company and resumed the name “PANAMA.”

Did you or anyone you knew serve on this ship during the war? Were you or anyone you knew involved in protecting cultural heritage during the war?


  • George B Vieto

    I remember the transportation ship that traveled from Colon Panama to New Orleans since my relatives were on that ship when we moved from Panama to New Orleans in January 1978. Otherwise none of my relatives were on the Panama ship that I am aware of.

    • Alisa Harrison

      Interesting Diane. My Grandpa took the same trip via the Panama from Cristobal to NY in 1919. I’ve been searching for a photo of the ship to add to the book I’m writing.

  • Diane Sparks French

    I remember my parents and I took a trip on the PANAMA SHIP from Cristobal to New York. My uncle was a photographer for a newspaper in Philly and took pictures of us on the ship and the ship leaving the dock in New York. It was a grand ship!!!! I took more then eleven trips on the sister ships during my days in the Canal Zone.

  • George B Vieto

    I remember the name of the ship that went from Colon to New Orleans. It was the Cristobal. What I remember of riding that ship was that there was a movie on the third evening of the trip, a dining room and a swimming pool as well as a shuffle board on the deck.

  • Lew Stabler

    Waldo Gilley is correct. The Panama Railroad Company had the three ships Panama, Ancon and Cristobal during the construction period and early years of the Panama Canal. The Cristobal (formerly SS Tremont) was the third one they received in 1910. The three Panama Railroad Company ships were replaced by the three modern sister ships, the Ancon, Panama and Cristobal, in 1939. The Ancon served as the flag ship of the 5th Fleet (I believe- check this) in WWII and was decorated for her wartime service. All three of the sister ships were returned to the Panama Canal after the war. The Panama was sold off first and sailed in Hawaii. The Ancon was the second one sold in the early 1960s and became the school ship at the Maine Maritime Academy. The Cristobal continued to work for the Panama Canal until the early 1980s when she was sold for scrap and dismantled at Consolidated Andy in Brownsville, Texas.

    • Lew Stabler

      It’s fact George. My wife, Sue Stabler was a writer/photographer for the Spillway at the time. We were on vacation in South Texas, on our way to South Padre Island when our host pulled a u-turn on the highway, saying that he forgot to show us something. He drove us straight to Consolidated Andy’s where the Cristobal was moored alongside the pier and was being dismantled. We were blown away!! And everything being brought ashore was for sale as is, on the spot. Luckily we were in pickup truck, because we bought four of the two inch thick wooden weather deck doors with portholes, door handles, hinges and automatic door closers still attached. We bought two of the cane wrapped table lamps from the lounge and assorted other items. Today, three of those doors are at our beach house in Punta Raton. On the day the Cristobal left Cristobal Harbor for the last time, heading for the scrapyard, Sue and the harbor pilot were the last two employees to deboard as she slipped through the Breakwater entrance. I could go on. And on. But then I’d be rambling. Have a good night, George

  • Walter

    There is confusion about the names of the ships, since more than one had the same name. The Panama Railroad Company (Predecessor of the Panama Canal Company) ran a steamship line with ships bearing the names of Panama, Cristobal, etc. One of the originals was the official first full size ship to transit the canal in 1914. In the 1930s 3 new ships were built named the Panama, the Cristobel, and the Ancon. They were all clones of each other. So they are hard to tell apart. These carried freight and passengers. Originally they ran from Panama to New York City for a number of years. Sometime in the late 1950s or 1960s the route was changed to go from Panama to New Orleans. The ships faced competition as air travel became more convenient and they were phased out. The ship shown in the second picture was temporarily requisitioned for the WW II and served as a command and communications ship including D-Day.

    • George B Vieto

      Thank you Walter for the information since I do remember being on the Cristobal when it was packed with passengers as well as when it had a limit of around a dozen passenger allowed which was shocking to be different with only a handful of persons aboard a ship around the 1970s era. Sometimes I have dreams that I am at the Port Of New Orleans or at Cristobal. Those days in Panama are priceless.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *