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Inter-American Highway 1940 - 1957
In the fall of 1940, while on assignment in Crater Lake Park, I received a telegram from the Portland office that I had been selected as a member of a group from District One (old Region 8) for a 60-90 day assignment to locate and design a trans-isthmian highway across the Isthmus of Panama (Panama Canal).
In those days, you did not question "selection for assignment" and anyway the Isthmus of Panama sounded like the type of assignment that would come once in a lifetime. It turned out that this was just the first of several assignments of a type and character which up to that time at least, would be considered unusual, continuing over the period 1940-1952. Anyway, some twenty-four of us departed San Francisco via boat in mid-October arriving in Balboa, Canal Zone, ten days later. One day and night from Portland to San Francisco, and ten days from San Francisco to Panama - in contrast to what is now an overnight jet flight from Portland to Panama.
Illustrative of the importance that highways had assumed by 1940, there was at that time in existence across the Isthmus of Panama, the Panama Canal and Panama Railroad, both owned and operated by the United States and situated within the Canal Zone. However, with World War II imminent, the U.S. and Panama agreed on the need for a trans-isthmus highway, to be located outside the Canal Zone.
I was assigned to the design office in Panama City along with three or four others in the group. We were quartered in Balboa, Canal Zone, and commuted to Panama City daily via streetcar, some two miles.
Except for the tropical climate, Latin culture and Spanish language (English in the Canal Zone), this assignment was not too much different from a highway design effort at home., However, those assigned to the field survey activity found they hadn't seen anything yet relative to primitive working and living conditions on a survey. I am sure some of those who "were there" can recall experiences both hilarious and tragic.
After about a month in Panama, I was one office in our group offered reassignment to Costa Rica, which is the republic just north of Panama. On Thanksgiving Day, 1940, we flew (my first airplane ride), to San Jose, Costa Rica. The group transferring to San Jose consisted of Marvin Harshberger, John Hewes, Al Neeley, Adrian Lewis and me. The Costa Rican assignment was to the Inter-American Highway activity recently started there. Terms of the assignment were: Increase one grade in rating, per diem of $3.00 per day, in addition our families were to be sent to Costa Rica provided we agreed to stay there at least six months.
It was at this time that I started a working relationship with E. W. James, who was then Chief Engineer of the BPR activity on the Inter-American Highway, with headquarters in Washington, D.C. This association lasted until his retirement in 1952, at which time John Harrison was appointed to take his place. At that time, all foreign activities of BPR were attached to the Commissioner's Office, under the direction of F. C. Turner. Upon the retirement of John Harrison in 1953, I was appointed to replace him as Chief, Inter-American Highway Office (January 1954) and served in that assignment until December 1957.
The Costa Rican assignment was to continue for some five years. These were interesting and exciting years and, of course, included the tragic ones of World War II. IN contrast to the U.S., the Central American countries went from the ox-cart to the airplane transportation-wise, with roads or highways almost non-existent except for those within the principle cities or towns. As an example, in Costa Rica in 1940 there was a narrow-gage railroad from the capitol of San Jose to both the Caribbean port of Limon and Pacific port of Puntarenas. There was a narrow paved highway extending about twenty kilometers (122 miles) southeasterly and 70 kilometers (42 miles) northwesterly from San Jose, but no highway transportation facility between the capitol city and any sea port. There was no land transportation whatever except ox-cart trails, either to Panama to the south or Nicaragua to the north. A local airline flew small single-engine planes from San Jose to several small towns within the country both north and south, between Brownsville, Texas, and Panama City with stops at the capital cities of each Central American Republic.
It may be of interest to note that the lack of land transport between the Central American countries was the apparent cause of what I consider to have been a noticeable absence of cultural exchange, inter-country political rapport, or commerce. While many people of wealth and the professional fields have traveled in the U.S. and Europe, few had ever visited the adjoining republic.
The routing of the Inter-American Highway (IAH) in Costa Rica involved the Pacific coastal plain in the north, mountainous terrain with elevations of up to 10,000 feet including the Continental Divide in the central area, and some 100 miles within the tropical General Valley in the south. There were several small towns and villages on the Pacific coastal plain to the north of San Jose and a narrow paved highway extending some 42 miles (70 kilometers). Beyond this, nothing but ox-cart roads with no bridges extending to the Nicaragua border. Southerly from San Jose a paved road extended some 12 miles (20 kilometers) to the town of Cartago, then nothing but ox-cart roads and horse trails to the Panama border. The small isolated village of San Isidro del General (Pop. 700) was some 70 miles south, with no transportation facilities whatever, except a short cow-pasture-type airplane landing field.
The almost total lack of land transport was a whole new situation to those of us from the U.S. The logistics problem was a major factor in both preliminary survey and construction activities on the IAH.
Upon our arrival in Costa Rica in November 1940, construction had started southerly from Cartago. This work consisted simply of widening an existing dirt road which extended some six kilometers (3.6 miles) across a valley floor, at which point the route was to pass through mountainous terrain for the next 110 kilometers (70 miles) to the village of San Isidro.
In my estimation, this 110 kilometers involved one of the most difficult survey and construction efforts on the entire Central American portion of the IAH. There was land access at the Cartago (north) end, and a small air field at San Isidro, without even an ox-card road in the central area where elevations varied from 2,000 to 3,000 meters (6,500 to 10,000 feet).
It is well to mention here that one of the first (perhaps one of the most important) problems we found was that all engineering data and measurements were to be in the metric system, except bridge design. In the beginning, the metric system was strange but we soon realized that this method (decimal) had many advantages over the English foot, yard, and mile for lineal, square and cubic measurements, which is what highway engineering is all about. I am amazed that the U.S. is so slow in changing to this system. As mentioned, bridge surveys and design were accomplished in the English system because all structural steel design formula and fabrication are in this system in the U.S. I suspect the steel and machine tool people are at least part of the obstacle to change to the metric system in the U.S.
In contrast to the design assignment in Panama, I was assigned to construction activities on the project and continued in that activity for some five years, advancing from Project Engineer at GS-9 to Division Construction Engineer at GS-12 during that time.
Pearl Harbor and World War II and the consequent submarine menace in the Atlantic and Caribbean prompted an accelerated effort for a land access route to the Panama Canal. Illustrative of how real the submarine problem was, I will always remember July 4, 1943. Even during the war years, it was customary to invite all U.S. citizens and local government officials to the U.S. Embassy for a reception on July 4 each year. At that time, the Embassy residence was close to the business district but was rather isolated by a high brick wall around the residence and grounds. Costa Rica was the first Central American Republic to declare war upon Axis powers but this was a formal action with no Costa Rican forces involved. At this time, Costa Rica had no army as such except the National Police. A concentration camp was built on the outskirts of San Jose and all Japanese and some German and Italian nationals were interred there. Up to this time, the war was an inconvenience but little else. It was a real shock, therefore, when word was passed around at the Embassy reception that a German submarine had slipped into the principle port of Lenion after dark and torpedoed and sand a United Fruit Company ship while it was unloading cargo at the dock. Some fifty Costa Rican stevedores working the ship were killed. In view of what happened next, I should mention that many of the business firms in San Jose were owned and operated by second generation German and Italian and Spanish people born in Costa Rica. However, the laboring class, of which the dead dockworkers and the local police were a part, ignored this fact and precipitated a riot which just about destroyed all the business establishments in San Jose owned by this group of European descendants.
In the press that night, many cantinas (bars) which had closed because of the riot, were broken into and looted, with much of the "loot" consumed on the spot. This, of course, added to the chaos and with the local police joining the party, no effort to quell the thing was possible. Needless to say, we who were at the Embassy reception stayed there until things had quieted down. We then walked down the main street to view the wreckage, and it was something I had never seen before, or since. The main street in San Jose is quite narrow and the debris was curb-to-curb including broken plate glass from store front windows up to three inches deep. Kitchen utensils, broken dishes, light hardware, canned foods and dry goods added to the wreckage. A high percentage of the debris was of imported items from the U.S. or Europe, the source of which was about cut off by the war. Even the large plate glass windows were imported and some store fronts were boarded up for two years before replacement was possible.
As a part of the "war effort" the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated a project to open a "Military Road" along the general route of the IAH on a war emergency basis. The Corps moved into each Central American republic with U.S. cost-plus-fee contractors with what was apparently limitless funds, and a war priority classification, which classification was also granted to the BPR effort. However, in the competition for those of our needs available locally we always came out second because of our limited funds. In any case, the demands of both efforts soon exhausted local supplies of imported items of all types and the local merchants had no priority for either Stateside purchase or shipping. This situation created some rather strong feelings on the part of the local people and understandably so; however, local government officials stressed the war effort and loyalty approach with their people. We Americans involved in the project were tolerated, but some local people expressed their lack of support for what we were attempting.
Fortunately, the U.S. Navy was able to reduce the Germans submarine menace to acceptable conditions and the Corps of Engineers abandoned their Military Road effort. This caused another short period of local resentment because of the negative effect on the local economy, so the Corps was "damned if you do and damned if you don't."
With the Corps of Engineers close-down and withdrawal of Army and contractor personnel, the cooperative BPR-Republic program took over most Corps of Engineers camps, supplies and equipment. The Corps effort in Costa Rica had been principally in the Province (State) of Guanacaste and extended from the Pacific port of Puntarenas to the village of Liberia. This area is northwest of San Jose and is not nearly as isolated as the mountainous area south of San Jose. At the time we took over the Corps project they had accomplished a dry-weather jeep road as far as Liberia. From Liberia to the Nicaragua border, some 75 kilometers (45 miles) to the north, there was an ox-cart road which was passable by jeep during dry weather.
It was in this area that I had my first experience with malaria. At this time the second man in charge of Costa Rica was Tom Roach, a solid engineer and one of the finest men to work with I have known. He assigned me to "flag" a preliminary line for the highway between Liberia and the Nicaragua border. In this effort, I had one bi-lingual European, who was a naturalized Costa Rican, as an assistant. After an air flight from San Jose to Liberia and a two-day horseback ride to the border, we set up headquarters at the Costa Rican customs area. We ate with Colonel Vargas, Chief of Customs, and his family, and slept in the Customs Guards quarters.
Malaria is not a problem in the San Jose area or the mountainous area to the south. The Guanecaste area, however, is about 300-500 feet above sea level and quite hot. Anyway, after being in the area about a week, I woke up one night with a high fever and a severe headache. Communication between the Customs Station and San Jose was by the government-owned telegraph system and after two days and nights, Colonel Vargas sent a telegram giving my symptoms and asking for medical advice. The reply was that I appeared to have malaria and instructed me to "take quinine." This I did and was able to bet back on the job for two days at which time the quinine ran out and I was back where I started. Through courtesy of Colonel Vargas, I notified our San Jose office of the situation and they replied they were sending a charter plane to bring me to San Jose. The airstrip for the Customs Station was some ten kilometers (6 miles) south of the Station. The pain in the head and back of the neck with malaria is a wonder to experience - add to this the jar-effect of a six-mile horseback ride and an hour flight in a noisy old tri-motor Ford airplane and you have a "happening." There is such a thing as recurrent malaria, and I had some periodically until I took the full cure at Gorgas Hospital in the Canal Zone in 1945.
As many know during the war years the Bureau was known as Public Roads Administration and was the principle subordinate agency under the Federal Works Agency, headed by General Fleming.
After withdrawal of the Corps of Engineers from their Military Road project and the step-up of activity by PRA (BPR) on the Inter-American projects, General Fleming, Commissioner MacDonald and E. W. James, Chief of IAH, made an overland inspection trip between Tapachula, Mexico, and San Jose, Costa Rica. The party was accompanied by Ralph Mills, of the R. E. Mills Construction Company, which company held a $12 million contract with PRA on the mountainous section of the IAH south of Cartago, Costa Rica.
M. L. Harshberger was in charge of Costa Rica activities at that time and he, Thomas Guardia and a mechanic met the group at Tapachula, with military type jeeps. They traveled over all types of roads, ox-cart trails, etc., inspecting work in progress in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. There was no IAH activity in Panama at this time.
Rodolfo Zuniga, our bridge engineer in Costa Rica, and I went overland by jeep from San Jose and met the party at Managua, Nicaragua. Prior to this trip, I has spent many hours in the Army type jeep - was then and still is (now called CJ-5) a versatile vehicle - and I don't know what we would have done on IAH activities without the jeep. However, on the trip to Nicaragua I found they were not designed for comfortable use on graveled or paved highways. The short wheel base and stiff springing is not for "washboard gravel" or any road which is rough, including concrete pavement with expansion joints. The IAH was up to gravel surface condition from the southern Nicaraguan border to Managua, some 100 kilometers (62 miles). While progress is slower, I would much rather drive a Jeep over unimproved roads than gravel or pavement. That final 100 kilometers was a "back breaker" and we had to turn around that next morning and accompany the inspection party over this section. The only suitable facility for overnight stop for the party between Managua and San Jose was at our construction camp at Las Canas, Costa Rica, some 250 kilometers (150 miles) for Managua. This, of course, wasn't a long trip even in those days. However, travel in Costa Rica was all on ox-cart road with fords only at river crossings. Anyway, we left Managua at 5:00 a.m., in the morning, nine of us in four jeeps. One jeep was a "service unit" driven by the mechanic who had extra gas, tires, oil, water and tools for emergency repairs. Gas and water were in five-gallon GI cans which had been replenished in Managua.
Apparently during the refilling process at the IAH plantel (equipment depot) in Managua, the water and gas cans somehow got mixed and at the midday service stop, the jeep driven by Marv Harshberger and carrying General Fleming and Commissioner MacDonald had its gas tank filled with water. Of course, this unit didn't get far down the trail when it quit cold. It didn't take the mechanic long to discover what had happened and I suspect it was one of his more embarrassing experiences. Rather than delay the entire group while the gas tanked drained and other things necessary to get all the water out of its system, the disabled jeep and the mechanic were left behind and the party proceeded, arriving at the Las Canas camp about 5:00 p.m. The mechanic made it about three hours later. We noted that the next morning the gas and water cans were identified in large red paint letters, in both English and Spanish.
The long jeep trip from Managua was a rough, hot and dusty one. The Las Canas camp had a bath house with hot-cold water shower facility made up of a series of shower heads along the wall, with no partitions. This resulted in a rather informal social gathering when two or more had the shower urge at the same time. The inspection party group was no exception and I will always remember some of the comments made, the most interesting of which was a long dissertation by Mr. MacDonald to the effect that we humans no longer appreciated the real values in life. It was his point that up to that time in his life, he could not recall a happening which he appreciated more than the hot shower he was then enjoying, and the inconveniences, such as water in the jeep gas tank, were minor events in life. I think this was a side of Mr. MacDonald which few in BPR had the privilege to observe.
The year 1945 was an eventful one for me, as well as the United States. As previously mentioned, I had left old District One at Portland in October 1940, for what was said to be a 60 to 90 day assignment in Panama. This in turn was changed to a six-month assignment in Costa Rica. However, due to many events, not the least of which was World War II, I did not again see the U.S. until April 12, 1945, after some 4-1/2 years residence with my family in Costa Rica. The date is fixed in my mind because I arrived in Washington, D.C., for the first time and this also happened to be the date of death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
I had been due for what is now called "home leave" for some time. My family had returned to our home State of Idaho in December 1944. In April 1945, I was ordered to the Washington Office for "Reassignment and Leave."
After a short temporary assignment to the BPR Dispatch Office in Los Angeles and about a month of leave, I was assigned to the IAH program in Panama as Resident District Engineer, with headquarters in Panama City. Enroute, I was to stop off in Costa Rica for temporary assignment as Acting Resident Engineer while Marv Harshberger took "home leave." After all these actions, my family and I arrived in Panama in September 1945.
The IAH Panama District was the first to use what was approximately Federal-aid procedures to accomplish the IAH program there. Survey and design was accomplished by Cooperator forces, with technical assistance by the Cooperator. Coop funds basis was the IAH standard 2/3 U.S. and 1/3 Cooperator, whereby the Cooperator was reimbursed by the U.S. 2/3 after BPR audit and approval of work accomplished. While we were involved more closely in Cooperator operations than Stateside Federal-aid programs, our basic procedures were quite similar and worked reasonably well.
The highlight of my Panama assignment was an inspection trip by the House Roads Subcommittee of the Congress - - accompanied by Commissioner MacDonald and E. W. James or BPR, and Hal Hale, then the Secretary of AASHO.
There were about twelve in the group. Their plan was Washington to Panama via train to New Orleans and boat, and to accomplish the IAH inspection on the northbound land and air trip through Central America and Mexico.
My instructions from Washington were to work out a four-day inspection program for the group in Panama in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Military forces in the Canal Zone. A plan was worked out whereby the group would spend two days in and around Panama City and Balboa; fly to David, Panama, (300 miles north where IAH construction work was underway) over night stop-over in David; then fly to San Isidro, Costa Rica; then overland by jeep to San Jose.
General Crittenberger was the Commanding Officer at Balboa Heights, Canal Zone, and through his assistance and cooperation, we were able to arrange for land and air transportation using Army facilities.
The group left New Orleans on schedule via Army transport for a scheduled four-day sea voyage to Cristobal, Panama, the port on the Caribbean (east) side of the Panama Canal. For reasons of their own, two of the party did not accompany the group on the sea voyage and instead flew directly to Panama. I was advised by cable of this fact, the day before their arrival, with instruction to assist them in any appropriate way possible. This was an interesting two days, spent with Congressman Beall of Maryland and Congressman Randolph of West Virginia, who is now a Senator and Chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee.
The U.S. (Panama Canal Co.) operated a large old wood frame hotel in Ancon, Canal Zone, (adjacent to Panama City) and arrangements had been made for the Congressional group to stay here. This hotel was called "The Tivoli" and was "the" place for Americans to stay while in the Canal Zone. The Tivoli was built originally to accommodate the President Theodore Roosevelt inspection party which came to Panama for the inauguration and opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The time was February 1946, and military and civilian travel through the Panama "cross-roads" was still heavy. Space at the Tivoli was tight and required reservations well in advance. So, when we were suddenly advised by radio from the Army transport that the ship would arrive in Cristobal a day early, there was just no room at the Tivoli on the day of arrival. The Panama Canal Company also operated a hotel at Ancon, where the transport was to land. There was nothing to do but to put the group up at this facility for the first night and then take them to the Tivoli the next day. So that there would be no hurt feelings on the part of any Congressional members of the group, upon their being told the Tivoli (government - owned) could not accommodate them, we simply changed the schedule and itinerary for the group to include an overnight stay in Ancon. I did inform Messrs. MacDonald and James of the change, as well as the two Congressmen who were there in advance of the main party. They all thought it was a hell of a joke and I don't think it was a secret very long.
Certainly the prize snafu I ever had experience with happened three days later. As previously mentioned, the trip plans called for air travel fro David, Panama, to San Isidro, Costa Rica. The Air Force was still a part of the Army then and under General Crittenberger's command. They were using two DC-3 type aircraft to fly the group. Some ten days before I had made the Panama City-David-San Isidro flight with the pilot and crew of one on the planes to be used. The air field at San Isidro was simply a pasture and it was usually necessary to "buzz" the field to clear it of grazing cattle. The Army pilot wasn't too happy with this facility, but we landed OK on this reconnaissance flight and he decided the party could be landed there.
After getting this assurance, we arranged with Marv Harshberger in Costa Rica for he and the Costa Rican officials to meet the Congressional group in San Isidro. The President of Costa Rica decided to join the welcoming group in San Isidro and the Jefe Politico of San Isidro went all out to decorate the town and arranged to greet their President and the visiting U.S. Congressmen.
With exception of the previously mentioned snafu on hotel accommodations at the Tivoli, the group itinerary had gone off rather well for two days in the Panama City-Balboa area.
The third day was set up as an airplane trip from Panama City to David, Panama, (some 300 miles) inspection of IAH activity in the David area with overnight stay at the Panama government-owned Hotel David. The airplane flight to San Isidro, Costa Rica, was scheduled for the next morning. However, just as we were ready to board the plane in Panama City for the flight to David, the pilot called me aside and advised me he had been overruled on his acceptance of the suitability of the San Isidro airfield and he could therefore not land the group at San Isidro as planned for the next day and his orders were to fly the group from David to San Jose that day instead.
Well, that gave us twenty-four hours to et word to Harshberger in Costa Rica and allow for this change in plans. The military still had radio communications with the military attaché stationed in San Jose and we got the word to Marv Harshberger by this facility. I was not able to talk with Harshberger directly and perhaps that was a good thing for me under the circumstances.
On the flight enroute to David, I explained to the Congressman the change in plan and reason therefore. That evening in David, through the radio on the airplane we received word from San Jose that they had received our notice of change in plan and would act accordingly.
While this late change, involving Congressmen, diplomats and one President, shook me that morning, there was really nothing I could do about it except get the word to Harshberger. After four and one-half years in Costa Rica I knew how things were there and I knew Harshberger would have a busy day, which he did.
Anyway. The party arrived in San Jose as per the changed schedule. The local welcoming party seemed to be complete with one notable exception, namely the President of Costa Rica, who the Congressmen had been informed would meet them.
Marv Harshberger had the U.S. Ambassador with him and they explained that the President was in San Isidro, having flown there early that morning. They explained that the President felt that if he could be landed at the San Isidro field surely U.S. Congressmen could be and he could not disappoint eh San Isidro people by such a last minute change. Of course, no one in the group had authority to change our pilot's orders so there was a confrontation and I never have figured out whether it was of military of diplomatic nature.
Bureau facilities on the Costa Rica activities included radio communications between the San Jose office headquarters and construction camps, including the camp at San Isidro. The U.S. Ambassador suggested that he and the Chairman of the Congressional party talk with the President on our radio and "invite" him to return to San Jose and advise him the visiting group would remain at the San Jose airport to greet him upon his return there. This was successful, and the President returned to San Jose after letting the Congressional party cool their heels for two hours. It really wasn't a hardship, for most of the group, as the San Jose airport facilities included a fine restaurant and bar. Upon his arrival, the President, while cordial, left but little question that he was unhappy with the whole affair.
Upon our arrival in Costa Rica my responsibility for the group ceased; however, Mr. McDonald asked that I remain with the group during the Costa Rica phase, as I had spent some 4-1/2 years on the Costa Rica program prior to going to Panama. The next day I think I found why he did this.
As the time of the Congressional inspection it was possible to over the project by car from San Jose to a large construction camp called "Millsville." The camp was located some sixty miles south of San Jose at an altitude of about 8,000 feet. From here to the village of San Isidro there was about eighteen miles of pioneer road passable by jeep only. The original plan for the group was the cancelled airplane landing at San Isidro, jeeps from San Isidro to Millsville and car from there to San Jose. The revised schedule called for the party to by car to Millsville, have lunch at the camp, and return to San Jose and skip the Millsville-San Isidro portion. This they did, all but Mr. McDonald. As soon as lunch was over at Millsville, he called me aside and asked that I get a jeep and take him and Hal Hale to San Isidro, as he wanted to see that section of the highway route as well as the airfield which caused all the snafu.
Of course, I did as requested and while they were impressed by the rugged terrain through which the highway was being constructed, they were fascinated by the "cow pasture" airfield upon which they had been denied the opportunity of landing. I recall that Hal Hale remarked "well, that's one military decision with which I fully agree."
Some years later, while serving as Chief, Inter-American Office, with headquarters in Washington, I had my only first-hand experience with a Central American mini-revolution.
In July 1957, I was to make an inspection trip over the IAH projects from Guatemala to Panama. By this time, it was relatively easy to drive from Guatemala City to San Jose, Costa Rica. I asked for and received permission for my wife to accompany me, at my expense of course.
We drove by personal car from Washington to Miami, then on to Guatemala City by air, then by project transportation units overland to San Jose, then by air San Jose to Panama. We both knew many BPR and cooperator national's employees along the way and while I had made the trip several times from 1953 to 1957, my wife enjoyed seeing again old friends and the cities where we had lived while stationed in the field, such as San Salvador, San Jose, and Panama City.
But back to the revolution - Perry Leaming and Don Shepard had picked us up at the El Salvadore-Honduras border in the afternoon and we drove on to the capitol city of Tegucigalpa that day. Perry Leaming was in the process of taking over responsibility for the Honduras program from Don Shepard, who was transferring to Nicaragua.
It was customary on an inspection trip to call upon the Cooperator Republic's Minister of Public Works. An appointment had been made for the three of us for the next morning at ten o'clock.
Don Shepard was a widower and he still had an apartment in downtown Tegucigalpa at which he and Mable and I stayed the first night. Early the next morning we heard what sounded like gun fire. The apartment was on the second floor of a corner building and had a small balcony which overhung the sidewalk and overlooked the street intersection. The National Cathedral was nearby. As there were often fireworks at the churches, we first assumed the noise was in celebration of a church holiday.
Soon, however, the proximity and volume of the noise prompted us to go out on the balcony. There below us were three uniformed men lying prone along the curb and firing rifles in the direction of the military headquarters two blocks away. While they appeared to be receiving no return fire, we knew we were in for some problems, not the least of which would be continuation of our trip schedule to Comali, Honduras, that afternoon.
We three stayed in the apartment and the firing ceased in about an hour and much to our surprise, we were able to contact Perry Leaming by telephone at his home. We also contacted our local office. Our local office man was a Honduran of German descent and spoke both English and Spanish with a thick German accent. By noon things appeared calm with no gunfire and we put in a telephone call to the office of the Minister of Public Works and were somewhat surprised when he answered his own phone immediately. He advised us he was the only one in his office, but that he thought the revolution, which was a revolt by Army personnel stationed at the downtown military headquarters, was over. He said there were guards stationed at the entrance of the Public Works Building but that he would instruct the officer in charge to pass us through and we should come to his office.
What happened next was proof that the U.S. military are not alone in their problems with snafus. Messrs. Leaming, Shepard and Wood, accompanied by our local office man drove up in front of the Public Works Building and were immediately placed under military arrest by the sergeant in command of the building guards. Our local man tried to explain to him that we had an appointment with the Minister who was upstairs. The sergeant was unimpressed by this information and proceeded to march us two blocks to the military jail.
I was getting pretty scared by this time as I knew that once you got into a jail in Latin America, you were incommunicado and quite helpless. Upon arrival at the jail we were searched and our briefcases taken, (mine contained my passport) when the Capitan of the Guard appeared to question us. He took one look at we three "gringos" and our local friend and began to laugh, saying it looked like his guards had the good fortune to apprehend the revolutionary leaders. Well, to make the story short, he was a personal friend of our local office man and we soon had our belongings back (all of them) and had a military escort to the office of the Minister of Public Works. While the explanation was that the Ministry Building guard had been changed and were not the people the Minister had instructed to let us through, I often wonder whether it was really a snafu or just a little Latin joke. If it was for real, it could have been serious. In any case, we asked for and got a "salvo conducto" (safe conduct) pass and left Tegucigalpa that afternoon, going to our large construction camp at Comali near the Nicaragua border, for the overnight stop as originally planned.
During my term as Chief of the IAH program, we went through a very difficult situation with a serious revolution in Costa Rica. The IAH was passable then between San Jose and San Isidro and this fact played a part in the battle strategy of the revolutionary group. The previously mentioned camp of "Millsville" also played an important role. It is suggested that Percy Bleakman, who "was there" can perhaps give an interesting account of this incident in IAH history. Bleakman is retired and lives in Portland.
This page last modified on 04/07/11