Balboa, Canal Zone, June 1946. USS DIODON (SS 349) left the Submarine Base at Groton, Connecticut in May 1946 under the command of Lieutenant Commander J.M. (Jim) Hingson, USN. Ship’s orders were to conduct a shakedown cruise to include visits to several ports along the eastern coast of South America and then proceed, via the Panama Canal, to San Diego, California and report for duty to COMSUBPAC in Squadron 7.
After visiting the naval facilities at Port of Spain in Trinidad, the cities of Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Palo in Brazil, DIODON entered the Panama Canal at the Colon side.
During its traverse of Gatun Lake, DIODON made a highspeed surface run attaining a surface speed of 20.5 knots. Going through the locks those of us in the deck force (I was a Seaman First Class, Radio Striker) marveled at the manner in which the Panamanian stevedores tossed their heaving lines in a figure-eight motion. My attempt to emulate their technique left us with one less heaving line. Sometime during daylight hours, we reached the Pacific side and berthed at the Rodman Naval Station across the canal from the docks at Balboa. We remained in Panama for three or four days, before proceeding into the Pacific Ocean and north to San Diego. The following describes one of the memorable occurrences while we were in the Canal Zone.
On the first day of liberty, several of the crew took a launch over to Balboa. A shipmate and I walked into Panama City, took a taxi to a small airport nearby and rented a Piper J3 Cub. We flew around the area just looking at the scenery around Panama City. On our way back to Balboa that afternoon to return to the boat, we observed that a large passenger transport had docked at Balboa. When we approached the pier where the transport was berthed we saw that the entrance onto the pier was blocked and military guards (U.S. Marines as I recall) were preventing any sailors from going onto the pier. When we inquired, we were told that the ship was British and that it was enroute to Australia with a cargo of English wives of Australian service men whom they had married in England. We could see a great many of the women on deck and they were joyously touting or teasing the sailors on the dock to try and board the ship, which they were prevented from doing by the Marine guards. The idea of getting onto that ship with its cargo of young women was enticing to several of us from DIODON.
When we returned to the boat it was getting dark and we could see the lights of the British transport across the canal. While we had been away on liberty, work crews had been making paint repairs to the hull and one or more black rubber rafts were in the water tied to the boat. Three of us concocted a scheme of getting onto the British transport by rowing one of the rubber rafts across the canal and approaching the ship from the seaward side. Someone had managed to return from liberty with a bottle of bourbon and we were not entirely sober at the time. We gathered up three oars and set off as planned, not realizing how wide the canal really was at that location.
Before we had reached mid canal we were approached by what appeared to be a Captain’s gig or an Admiral’s barge-we were certain the vessel was coming to corral us and we were quite scared. It turned out to be a gig with only the crew aboard. Instead of being taken into custody for being where we were, we were offered a tow over to the public pier at Balboa.
The next thing we knew we were bow-high and planing across the water in that raft at a speed it was never designed to travel. As we entered the dockside area and while we were still fairly close to that outboard side of that transport, we shouted thanks to the gig crew and let go of the towline. The raft came to a stop so suddenly that it almost upended. Thereafter we slowly paddled the raft over towards the transport.
We made a first attempt to get aboard via a loading hatch that was open in the side of the hull. We were thwarted by over anxious ladies who had spotted us in the water and were beckoning us to go this way or that to get aboard. Fearing detection and probable incarceration, we slipped the raft behind the stern of the transport and into the shadows of the pier pilings. We waiting for close to a half hour, and certain that we had been forgotten, slowly rowed the raft back around the stern and alongside the transport again. This time we managed to reach the open hatch undetected.
Once beneath the hatch one of my shipmates stood and was able to get a hand on a line that was hanging from a davit above hatch. He hauled himself up and climbed aboard. We had not remained completely unseen, however. Before either of us who were still in the raft could manage a second ingress ion some of the women were leaning over the railings and encouraging our efforts. This second detection was accompanied this time by what was apparently ship’s crew members turning flood lights on us from above. One light caught and then another. We were so surprised and frightened we yelled at our shipmate standing in the hatchway to jump back aboard. The trip was four or five feet and when he hit the raft it nearly closed like a flowered petal at sunset. That scared us off permanently and we headed back toward the other side of the canal as rapidly as we could row the raft with two oars and one steering.
In our escape toward home we failed to see a tugboat bearing down upon us from the directions of the locks. Suddenly we heard the bow wake and everything went dark. We narrowly escaped being run over by that tug. We finally managed to get back to the other side, albeit some distance down canal as the tide was going out. After paddling several hundred yards up canal we got safely back to the boat-very sober, a little scared and hopefully wiser for the experience. We decided later we must have been the first U.S. sailors to ever cross the Panama Canal in a rubber raft.