Wesley Calhoun and the Panama Canal


                                                     by Milli Dersch Girard   ©2000


This past January 2000 my husband Don and I spent twelve hours traveling through  the Panama Canal on board the cruise ship  Sun Princess.  This piqued my interest in  the details of my cousin Wes Calhoun.


Orville Calhoun was one of my mother’s older brothers (she was one of thirteen).  He and his wife   – Lilly Corsby Calhoun – had three children.  The eldest was George Wesley, born October 9, l912.  Two sisters followed: Mildred in l914 and Elberta in l927. Their only son was always known as “Wes.”

Orville died in l930.  Wes enlisted in the U.S. Navy sometime before l932. He became a crew member on the BB Colorado (Battleship) in which he sailed in l932 or ’33 from San Diego CA around Cape Horn. He was privileged to go on liberty in many South American ports, and considered the best to be Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Earlier he sailed to China and southeast Asia. He was extremely proud of his permanent rank as Chief Boatswain’s Mate granted to him by an Act of Congress, which means it takes an Act of Congress to demote or “bust” him.  There were not too many of those appointments around.

In l934 Wes met and married Ruth Lebbin in Chicago. They subsequently had  two children, Patsy and Russell.

The Navy sent Wes to New Jersey  in ’37 or ’38 for “The Lighter than Air Service” in Lakehurst. Around l940 the USN was testing dirigibles to experiment with sea rescue. Wes was in that experimental sea rescue off the coast of New Jersey shown in newsreels at the local movie theaters. Radio and newspapers and the movie theaters were our only sources for the news in l940. We do not believe he was in Lakehurst for the Hindenburg disaster in May l937.

(My source for most of this detailed  information comes from Wesley’s brother-in-law Lavell Ferris, who was in Africa and Arabia serving in the U.S. Army  Air Force in l944. Earlier in Feb. l944 Lavell was on his way overseas when he met Wesley in Miami.  Wes was a Chief Warrant Officer at that time. Communication was difficult between the two therefore we’re a little fuzzy on some details of Wes’ whereabouts at all times.  Millie Calhoun Ferris, Wes’ sister and Lavell’s wife, passed on in l996.)

The U.S. Navy had provided well for this young little family – including during the Great Depression –and as WWII wound down Wesley decided to make the Navy his career. “He didn’t know what else to do.”

Sometime after serving in Miami in ’42 and ’43 Wes was sent to Panama, to the Canal Zone. Dirigibles were used all along the U.S coasts and near the canal for defense against submarine sabotage schemes.

US Coastal airships used to patrol during WWII

US Coastal airships used to patrol during WWII

As an officer Wesley’s duty did not entail checking the “bag” — the buoyant envelope filled with helium gas; however, he felt obligated to share the duties of his men periodically.  To do this safely you picked up a mask and then attached an oxygen bottle from the stack allowing you 30 minutes of safety inside the bag.  Although there was always supposed to be two in the danger area, Wesley went in alone; in any case, there was always an observer watching through a window.

Unfortunately the bottle he chose from the stock of oxygen bottles was nearly completely empty — poor Wes was asphyxiated! Evidently the last person to use it didn’t place it in the appropriate “Used” pile. Wesley was gone by the time the observers reached him! The date was December 2, l944.

Meanwhile at the same time that Wesley died in December of l944 other tragedies were taking place; the l06th Infantry was “nailed” down in Belgium. The Battle of the Bulge in Europe had the 101st Airborne hammered down at Bastogne where Patton had to go to their  rescue.  On Oct 12, l944 the Allies invaded the Philippines…so very many U.S. Servicemen were dying!

The Graves Registration Department — the people who take care of the name tags of the deceased — were overloaded and not able to notify Wesley’s wife Ruth promptly.  Compounding the tragedy were some of Wesley’s officers who, unaware of the overload at the Graves Department, began sending sympathy cards to Ruth.  It was some time before his Mom — my Aunt Lilly — and his sisters Millie and Elberta, and Wesley’s wife Ruth and their two children Patsy and Russell, were able to discover just what exactly had happened.

As Millie Calhoun Ferris’s husband Lavell, tells it,  “Somebody tossed the damn empty bottle down into the WRONG pile!” Someone’s fatal carelessness!

Not only was his immediate family proud of Wesley, so were his aunts, uncles and  cousins.

George Wesley Calhoun is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Washington D.C.


Joe’s Notes:

Milli Girard, Joe’s mum, passed away in her sleep, in October, 2006. She is buried at Ft Logan, National Cemetery, alongside her husband of 51 years, Don Girard, Joe’s pop, who passed on in March, 2014.
Millie Ferris, my mum’s cousin, is also buried at Ft Logan, alongside Lavell, who passed away on Pearl Harbor Day, 2011.

In 1937, the USS Colorado (BB-45) assisted in the search for Amelia Earhart, in the Pacific.  We don’t have any tales of that either, so presumably Wes had left the deck before July, 1937 for his assignment in New Jersey.


Wes rests here, in Arlington, VA, in peace

Wes can be found in military records as Wesley G Calhoun.  http://www.mocavo.com/Wesley-G-Calhoun-Dec-02-44-Us-National-Archives-Gorgas-Hospital-Mortuary-Records-Index-1906-1991/17877024242333342095
Best I can tell, Wes was initially interred at the Corazal US Military Cemetery and Monument, near Panama City, Panama, on Dec 5, 1944.  Row 15, Grave 1. Records show an astonishing number of deaths there, at Gorgas Hospital in the CZ, during that time.  My guess is that many wounded from the Pacific theater were sent here and succumbed during treatment.
His final resting place is indeed at Arlington National Cemetery, Plot: Sec: 12, Site: 3845.

One thought on “Wesley Calhoun and the Panama Canal”

  1. Mark Murray

    Thank you for sharing this story, Joe. I enjoyed reading about some of your family’s history. Mark

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