1941: Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor, declaring war in the Pacific. The United States of America has stayed out of World War Two as long as it could, but now must meet this threat to the west. Japan's military leaders are smart, aggressive and possess a mighty fleet. Where will they hit next? It is decided that the strategically critical Panama Canal must be protected from the Japanese at all costs. The USA needs an air base in a place where their planes can defend this crucial shipping lane. Right in the best spot imaginable is…the Galapagos Islands.
Construction of the Base
The US moved quickly. They reached a hasty agreement with the government of Ecuador – which had its own problems with Peru at the moment – and the first troops arrived on Baltra only days after Pearl Harbor. US Army engineers hastily constructed runways, hangars, barracks, an officer's club and recreational areas. Within a couple of months, US military personnel were arriving and operations were under way.
Baltra is inhospitable: it is flat, hot and rocky. There is little green, and only some iguanas, goats, sea lions and lizards for company. The Americans soon named the base "The Rock." Life was hard: since Baltra has no fresh water, the Americans had to ship it in from Panama at high cost until they began arranging to get some from San Cristóbal. There was no air conditioning, of course, even for the officers, and the days on Baltra can get stiflingly hot. Fortunately, work on the airplanes could be done in the hangars in the shade. Often, when the servicemen returned from missions in stuffy planes, they would jump in the water at a small beach right after landing!
Baltra was part of a triangle of reconnaissance and interdiction. The US also had a base in Central America and another on mainland Ecuador. Planes from all three would fly in an overlapping pattern, looking for Japanese warships. The US would fly several missions daily. On the ground, maintenance crews kept the planes in good shape. The planes were armed and capable of action against a hostile enemy if it were needed.
Life on the Rock
Baltra is a tiny island, home now to an Ecuadorian airport and small military base: fewer than 100 people actually sleep there every night. It is surprising, therefore, to hear of the size of the US base. There were anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000 US servicemen stationed there on a regular basis when the base was at its most active (1942-1945). There was a movie theater, a beer garden and a bowling alley. There were volleyball courts and an area to play (American) football. They received and sent mail on a regular basis. Mostly, they waited for an attack that never came.
End of the Base
The Japanese were soon put on the defensive in the south Pacific and never came anywhere near the Panama Canal or even Galapagos. The airmen stationed at the Rock never saw any action at all, and after the war they went home.
In 1946, the Ecuadorian government abruptly kicked the USA out of Galapagos, ordering them to return the island the way they had found it. The US responded by evacuating, taking what they could and bulldozing the rest, dumping much of it offshore, where divers still find broken coffee mugs and scraps of metal.
Certain buildings were given to the people of San Cristóbal Island, with whom the soldiers had always enjoyed a very positive relationship – some of these buildings still stand in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Another building, an officer's club built of stone, was left behind and today is part of the Ecuadorian military base. Also, the US allegedly left behind a ghost! "The Headless Gringa" still terrorizes Ecuadorian servicemen on the base.
It was only there for a brief time, but the US air base is the stuff of legend in Galapagos, a treasured part of local history still remembered by a handful of locals.