By Ernie Garrido
Before he joined the Army in World War II, Angel Antonio Velázquez taught English at a junior high school in his hometown of Yabucoa, in the southeastern part of Puerto Rico. During the war, in the Panama Canal, his students were soldiers and his lessons revolved around the safety of handling tear gas.
Whether as a military instructor or as a private in the 346th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, 345th Search Light Battalion, Battery B, the war experience for Velázquez was about protecting American infrastructure -- both human and territorial.
"Life was good at Fort Clayton, for being in the jungle. It was a great fort with very good facilities," said Velázquez about the three years he spent in Panama as a private in the U.S. Army-South.
Fort Clayton's 2,180 acres were the headquarters of the U.S. Army-South from WWII until December of 1999, when the facility was closed and handed over to the Panamanian government as part of the Panama Canal Treaty and Neutrality Treaty of 1977. The fort opened in 1920 and encompassed 1,392 homes, dormitories for 1,754, several recreational facilities and schools for dependents.
Located near the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, only 30 minutes from Panama City, Fort Clayton was established to protect and defend American lives, property and the canal.
After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, American troops were deployed to the fort to protect the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone.
After being drafted in 1942, Velázquez trained at Campo Tortuguero in Puerto Rico, but after only half a year, the training was cut short.
"It was a very short training," Velázquez said. "They needed more people to cover at Fort Clayton."
In that short time, Velázquez managed to learn chemical warfare protection techniques, and those skills would prove their value later in his military service.
Velázquez says he clearly remembers two aspects of the hasty manner in which his training ended: his immediate assignment to the Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion at Fort Clayton, and his trip to Panama aboard a U.S. Navy ship, the Virginia.
En route to Panama, Velázquez was thrilled to learn the ship was making a stop at Guantanamo U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.
"They told us that we were going to Guantanamo, to Cuba, for the big parties," said Velázquez, describing the excitement of the crew. "The truth was that we were trying to avoid submarine attacks."
During the spring of 1942, German U-boats torpedoed American tankers and freighters, sometimes in plain view of vacationers. U-boat attacks occurred on the unprotected shipping lanes in the western Atlantic, eventually extending to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean area.
Velázquez spent one week in Cuba waiting for the submarine threat to pass, but to his disappointment, wasn’t allowed to leave the ship.
"We wanted to try the food and see Cuba," said Velázquez, recalling the crew's frustration about being ship-bound for a week. "Luckily, Cuban merchants would go near the ship to sell things like candy."
Velázquez recalls arriving at Fort Clayton during the Christmas season. His first assignment was to stand guard at the fort's entrance, and he did this during New Year's Eve.
"We got alarmed by the shooting we heard near the fort, but it was only the locals celebrating the New Year," Velázquez said.
After a few weeks as a guard, Velázquez's duties were changed when officials at the fort became aware of his chemical-warfare training and his teaching background. The private was soon assigned to prepare soldiers for a potential gas attack.
"I had a small chamber where I would prepare [to discharge] the [tear] gas," Velázquez said. "I would then bring in the soldiers and release the gas."
He taught soldiers how to react in the event of a gas attack and how to properly use gas masks.
Not only would Velázquez teach "gas classes," he’d also teach English to other Puerto Rican soldiers. Velázquez explained that a colonel who assigned him to teach English would attend his classes and participate in the language exercises.
"He was a good man," said Velázquez of the officer he knows only as Col. Desmond.
And being a teacher -- especially on good terms with Col. Desmond -- came with its perks, Velázquez said.
"The colonel would give me special passes to go to Panama City because I was teaching classes," said Velázquez, explaining that privates had limited opportunities to leave the fort because they were often so rowdy. "Plus, I behaved well in the city."
When not teaching, Velázquez was assigned the normal Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion duties. During World War II, the mission of such battalions, which were first activated into federal service in 1941, was the air defense of field forces and ground installations against all forms of enemy air attacks. Velázquez says his unit used reflectors to spot enemy planes and then would send messages alerting U.S. forces.
Velázquez would climb into an observation tower at Fort Clayton and guard the nearby jungle and beach.
"That was a terrible experience," said Velázquez jokingly. "It was a very tall tower. When I would climb the stairs, I would grab on to the climbing tubes so tight that I thought I would break them and fall. When I was up there, I didn't want to get down."
He also would go to nearby Howard Air Force Base and monitor radars for approaching airplanes.
"I would notify the observation tower when airplanes were passing so they could flash the lights and identify the airplane," Velázquez said. "If it was an enemy airplane, we would open fire on it."
Although the Panama Canal Zone was never under siege, Velázquez says the fort and airbase were always vigilant and prepared for potential attacks.
"I had a good experience at Fort Clayton," Velázquez said. "I worked with good people and good supervisors while in Panama."
When Velázquez returned from Panama, he continued teaching, but also took weekend classes in education at the University of Puerto Rico, eventually receiving his bachelor's degree in 1946. He worked for the Puerto Rican government for 33 years in various departments, including the Department of Housing, as a teacher and school principal.
Velázquez had two children by a marriage that ended in a separation; both children have died. Velázquez now lives in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico.
Mr. Velázquez was interviewed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on December 5, 2002, by Doralis Perez-Soto.