By Sgt. Robert Ryan

YANK Staff Correspondent

QUARRY HEIGHTS, PANAMA CANAL ZONE—“Smoke gets in your eyes” is more than a lovely tune in these parts; it’s a description of the work of some of the Coast Artillery soldiers who help protect the Panama Canal from enemy aerial attack.

Their job is to tend smoke pots on barges in the Canal. As soon as they ignite the Diesel oil in the pots with a lighted torch, a billowing curtain of dense smoke is produced. The barges are moored in patterns adjusted to the wind currents, so that a complete blanket is laid over the Canal when all the pots are lit.

panama canal smoke pots ww2 GI

Pvt. Albert O. Bogan ignites oil in a smoke pot.

To make sure that the barges are always in the right place, they are never moved. The GI sentries who tend the smoke pots commute from shore stations by motorboat. There’s only one soldier to a barge, and he was to spend 10 or 12 hours on it at a stretch. The long hours in a confined space, 30 feet by 20 feet, with nobody to talk to, make this a monotonous job.

Only break in the loneliness is chow call, when a ration boat’s bell clangs on the port or starboard side of the barge bringing food that has been cooked at shore kitchens. The men sleep at the shore stations; on the barges there are no living facilities except a little shack.

“We shuttle between barracks and barges so much that sometimes we wonder whether we’re dogfaces or gobs,” says Pvt. Joe Byran of Zanesville, Ohio.

When a practice alert is ordered and the smoke pots are lit, the GIs know there is extra work ahead of them. After the alert, they have to clean the inside of the smokestacks with wire brushes and put a protective coat of grease on the outside to prevent rust. They also have to give the once-over to the barges, the torches and the screens on the shacks.

At the end of the day’s stretch, the soldiers look like a bunch of black-face comedians. Pfc. Fred Ferrell of Freeburn, KY., who spent five years in the coal mines, says: “In all my time in the pits, I never saw as much dirt as I’ve picked up in this outfit. After a day’s work in the mines, it only took an hour to get the dirt off. This is something else again. Good, strong GI soap and gasoline are the best things to wash with, but even they don’t get rid of all the grease and dirt. Some of it always sticks with you. Give me a good, clean mine any day.”

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