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Galápagos 1946—Last Flight Out:
A Brief History of the U. S. A. F. Shutdown
of the Island's Military Complex

Paul Harris

With the exception of a few minor minor edits for clarity, this report is presented as it appeared in the April 1996 edition of the 51st Fighter Squadron newsletter, and in the 1996 edition of The Caribbean Breeze II.

51st Emblem

51st Fighter Squadron Newsletter

Volume III, Number 1 — April 1996

The information herein was passed along to me by Mr. Paul Harris of Nashville, Tennessee. He was directly involved in the clean-up operation, and coincidence played a major role in getting this information. Harris and I both worked for the same corporation during the 1960s and 1970s, where he was a staff C. P. A. in the Finance Department, and I was Advertising Director. From time-to-time we would meet at company business meetings, or find ourselves discussing company business over lunch. On one occasion our casual conversation turned to our military experiences, and it was a shock to discover that we were both veterans of that great Darwinian bastion, Galápagos, a/k/a “The Rock.” §

§ The term applied solely to Baltra Island, not to the entire archipelago.

Mr. Harris arrived in Panama in early 1946. His first assignment was with a special detachment that was to be sent to Galápagos for the final shutdown and formal return of the islands to Ecuador. His specific duties, for the most part, related to supply; clothing, bedding and soft goods, generally. This duty allowed Corporal Harris to meet and talk with a cross-section of the personnel involved with day-to-day operations. As regards names, numbers and minute details, those have long since faded over memory's horizon, and I certainly did not insist he try to dredge up unimportant detail. The following, therefore, is an overview, or highlight report, on an interesting and important historical event.

Al Knott,
51st Fighter Squadron

On or about the middle of March 1946, a special detachment of officers and enlisted men departed Panama bound for the Galápagos Islands for the final clean-up and relinquishment of U. S. Military control. Upon completion of this duty, the Ecuadorian Government would resume control over the islands, all 2,868 square miles of them.§

§ The U. S. Military had control over just Baltra Island and a few radar outposts elsewhere. The rest of the archipelago remained under Ecuadorian jurisdiction.

The U. S. Military team was broken down as follows:

8 Officers and 42 Enlisted Men.

The Officer contingent, by rank, included:

1 Lieutenant Colonel,
1 Major,
2 Captains,
4 Lieutenants.

In addition to the above complement, the Ecuadorian Government furnished a sizable work force comprised of political prisoners who had the honor of doing much of the really “dirt-and-grime” labor. An amusing irony occurred when one of the highest-ranking political prisoners, a judge by profession, was assigned to head up the laundry detail.

Basic equipment included:

12 trucks,
  6 jeeps,
  1 B-17 (for various shuttle trips to the isthmus and back), and
  1 crash boat

Attention to meticulous detail was to be employed in this final clean-up operation—no “rock” was to be left unturned, every cactus plant must be inspected for the smallest discernible piece of trash infecting its needles, every square foot of ground area was policed to eliminate any trace of paper, metal or cloth shards or cigarette butts. Any domesticated animals (dogs, cats, or any other animal that had been brought to the island) were rounded up, transported to a central location, and killed—this, to prevent them from reverting to a wild state.

All buildings on the island—barracks, administrative, utility, operational, recreational—were left in their original form or state-of-use when the last military contingent had left. This included the proper placement of furniture, chairs, file cabinets, tables and other equipment the departing military had not taken with them. The old “Rock-Si” Theatre building was still intact as well as the rather large warehouse building that stood in close proximity. Not far from this complex, and back toward the main runway, many will remember the “Volunteer” work that went into the construction of the solid rock recreational facility. Eventually, officers and enlisted personnel availed themselves of the amenities this building offered. There were pool tables, badminton sets, dart boards and complete mess hall and dining rooms. Mr. Harris' files contain photographs of this building. The architectural features of this building are truly astounding when one considers its “world” location and the land mass on which it was built.§

§ See photos of the Galápagos Service Club; La Casa Piedra (“The Stone House”) from “Galapagos Oasis” in Caribbean Breeze, February, Vol. V., No. 2, pp.14-15. In February, 2006, La Casa Piedra was destroyed by a fire started by Ecuadorian military personnel. Today, all that remain are the walls.

There are two large wings with a concrete courtyard between them that runs from the central entrance down to well-designed steps that fall away from the building. The very attractive inside walls are, of course, rock. The photographs seem to indicate overlapped tile roofing. The contrast between this special structure and the surrounding hastily constructed wood edifices presents, at best, an anomaly. The clean-up of this facility included white cloths on every table and each chair positioned in its proper place. Spit and polish was applied to the floors. The remaining furniture and recreational equipment was placed in the proper areas. The mess halls were left in their original configuration.

One of the least desirable assignments of the operation had to be the disinterment of the four or five soldiers' remains who had died while serving on the island. Their identification, rank and cause of death were not available to Mr. Harris. Each of the men was buried in a laundry-type bag with drawstring closures at one end. Also, they were buried without embalmment. Following exhumation, it was noted that the remains were exceedingly well preserved; “mummification” was one of the descriptive words applied. The desert-like environment and lack of soil moisture were, of course, the primary contributing factors. The bodies were transported back to Panama for reburial. §

§ The Gorgas Hospital Mortuary Death Records show the 1946/05/15 reburial of many remains, perhaps including the four or five mentioned here.

Personnel problems between the American clean-up crews and the political prisoners from Ecuador were minimal, with one exception—missing beer inventory was finally scotched with the posting of guards around the PX building.

Attention was also given to the small out-islands, some of them almost inaccessible, where one-man radar stations had been located. The total number of these stations was not available.§

§ The outlying stations were in fact staffed by several officers and enlisted men, and there were four such stations—three on Isla Isabela and one (briefly) on Isla Española.

One final item of interest: More than 500 large water jugs were removed from outside storage, placed on a boat, and shipped back to Panama. Because water was of critical importance, it is assumed that at one time these jugs contained emergency water in case one of the transport boats was sunk.

Toward the latter part of October, 1946, the work was completed. Total work time covered seven months. Following proper inspection and ceremony, lease rights were relinquished. The Air Force closed the books on one important area of the many that made a unique contribution to the victory of World War II.