We jump now to chapter 6. Roy Mancini has been hired and trained to be an undercover intelligence officer. He will soon depart to Southeast Asia. But first the Institute sends him to Panama so he’ll gain foreign merchant shipping experience. Fun and games in the Canal Zone. Want to read more? China Sea is available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Google Play Books. Read the 5 Star reviews on Amazon.
I travelled to Panama using a pseudonym, Louis Francisco, and a freshly minted passport in that name.
At the airport I grabbed a taxi that took me to the squalid Panama City train station, just in time to hop aboard an eastbound train. The two-hour trip along the length of the Canal was uneventful.
The train chugged in to the Cristobal station in the late afternoon. The American zone. At that time, in the mid-1970s, the Panama Canal was a United States territory administered by the Panama Canal Company. That company employed scores of Americans to run the Canal and various and sundry activities inside the Zone.
Major Jonathan Sommers was under cover as the military liaison officer to the Panama Canal Company. Which meant he had little or nothing to do except gaze out of his window at the ships lining up in the anchorage waiting to transit the Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Institute provided him and his wife, Julie, with a comfortable villa in Coco Solo, a country club membership, household staff and a secretary. Typical for the pampered expatriates who lived and worked in the Zone.
I don’t know what task he otherwise performed for the Institute. I suspect he’d been passed over and this was his last hurrah prior to being sent out to pasture. Nevertheless, as a civilian case officer, I required military supervision, and Sommers was the man. I was told I would recognize him at the train station because he’d be wearing his Army uniform with a major’s insignia. And there he was.
“Do you always dress like a bum, Mancini?” he asked me as I walked up to him, preparing to shake his hand. He was not speaking in jest. And he should have known better than to refer to me by my true name.
I glanced down at my aged cowboy boots, faded Levi’s and casual Hawaiian shirt. I was about to make a smart rejoinder when I remembered Pomeroy’s advice, to ‘go along and get along’.
“You must be Major Sommers. Nice to meet you, sir,” I exclaimed, ignoring his initial greeting. There was no hand shake.
Gus Pomeroy had accurately described Jonathan Sommers as a prissy s.o.b.
Fortunately I did not have to deal with him often because I was kept busy boarding foreign ships as they entered the Canal, under my cover as Louis Francisco, U.S. Customs officer trainee.
I boarded six or seven vessels every single day, including Sundays, for one month. There were the well maintained, immaculate and freshly painted Scandinavian freighters – Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. There were the seedier cargo ships flying the flags of convenience: Cyprus, Panama, Liberia and Somalia. And every nationality in between – the Russians, Japanese, South Korean, German, British, Dutch, and Brazilian freighters and oil tankers. I didn’t waste my time boarding any American ships. We rode in a speed boat out to each ship as it arrived at the anchorage.
I boarded the ships with a posture of authority. I was, after all, a U.S. Customs officer and the Canal was American territory. The first thing I did after arriving on board was seek out the captain of the ship. I would introduce myself and pass the time of day with him. I’d ask him where his ship was coming from and where it was headed after it passed through the Canal. I’d peruse the crew list and make a mental note of the crew’s nationalities. Sometimes, the captain would offer me a gift, which I gratefully accepted – a bottle of Chilean wine or a box of forbidden Cuban cigars. More often than not I established a friendly rapport with the ships’ officers.
The higher-ups at the Institute had sent me to the Canal Zone in their belief that I needed to gain experience dealing with foreign ships and officers. In truth, the trip to Panama turned out to be a pleasant one month tropical holiday. By day I would board ships and shoot the breeze with the officers about their experiences at sea. And by night I would carouse in the bars and restaurants in Colon.
Colon was the somewhat raunchy, multi-racial city in the Republic of Panama, and not part of the American Zone. Throughout that month I struck up a few friendships and practiced speaking Spanish with Panamanians on that side of the tracks. And that did not sit well with Major Sommers. He reported to Pete Wright that I was ‘fraternizing’ with locals, and he thought that was a risky thing for me to do.
What the managers at Springfield may not have realized was that I could also use my cover in the Canal for spotting potential clandestine agents.
I realized soon, after less than a week of boarding, that Filipinos dominated the crewing industry. Seventy percent of the ships that I boarded in the Canal had Filipinos in the crew – as officers and as seamen. I asked a captain on a Liberian-flagged freighter why this was so. “Three reasons,” he explained. “We Filipinos all speak English, sort of. We work hard and are considered competent. And we are cheap to the ship owners.” I expected that I’d spend some time in Manila in the not too distant future.
Soon after breakfast, and three weeks after I had arrived in Cristobal, our U.S. Customs team boarded the speed boat and headed out to the anchorage. Two of us climbed the ladder of the m.v. Pacific Star as she was slowing and preparing to drop anchor.
The vessel was a ten year old tramp general cargo ship sailing under the flag of Cyprus. She was about 20,000 deadweight tons. The Cypriot flag did not denote the nationality of the vessel’s owner.
Flags of convenience are used to disguise the identity of the ship’s owner, so that he can avoid paying taxes. This owner also gets away with paying low wages to a polyglot multinational crew. And he limits his liability by registering each of his ships under a separate shell company. These ships masquerade around the world as being home ported in countries like Cyprus, Liberia, and Panama. The Pacific Star was owned by a rich Swiss businessman who owned four other cargo ships, each of them registered under a separate company at a lawyer’s office in Limassol, Cyprus.
The captain of the Pacific Star was a stout, saturnine Greek. He was unshaven and had bloodshot eyes at half-mast that morning. He wore a soiled, untucked short-sleeved shirt and greasy black trousers. His lopsided captain’s cap had a company insignia. He seemed unwell and not in a mood to chew the fat. I suspect he wanted to get the customs and immigration formalities over with so he could go back to bed.
He handed me a copy of his crew list, and I scanned through the nationalities of the crewmen. The three other ship’s officers were from Egypt, Syria and Turkey. I noticed that the radio operator was an Indonesian.
I handed the crew list back to the captain. “By the way, where did you load your last cargo?” I asked.
“We load it in Cuba,” he replied with his thick accent. I figured his final night out in Havana might explain his bloodshot eyes.
“And your next port of call?”
“We discharge the sugar in North Korea,” he said without looking me in the eye.
We learned later that the freighter’s Swiss owner had fixed a two-year charter with the North Korean government through the Baltic Exchange in London.
I saluted the captain and left him on the bridge.
I now had one destination aboard that ship, the radio room, which was tucked behind the wheel house. I realized that having an Indonesian agent on a ship that sailed to North Korea could be my golden opportunity. As luck would have it, the young man was alone in the radio room, smoking an aromatic clove cigarette and listening to a local music station on a portable radio. I intended to do whatever it took to strike up a friendly rapport with the man.
“Selamat pagi,” I greeted him good morning in Indonesian. And I asked him how he was. “Apa kabar?”
He was astonished by my speaking his language. The first step in gaining one’s confidence.
“Baik, baik,” he replied that he was fine. He stood up and broke into a big smile as we shook hands. He invited me to sit down. I introduced myself as Louis Francisco and told him my friends call me Cisco. I pulled up a chair.
He laughed. “Like Cisco Kid!”
And this gave me a good laugh too. I asked him how he knew about the Cisco Kid. He explained that his school teacher in Bali used to have her students read old American comic books as a way to learn a little English. Our conversation continued in Indonesian.
He turned down the music on the radio and asked me why it was that I spoke Indonesian. I explained that my mother was from Indonesia. He was evidently delighted to be able to speak his language with someone. I glanced at the clock in the radio room. It showed that I had twenty minutes before I would have to leave the ship with the other customs officer.
He told me his name was Komang. He was twenty-three years old and he had been to sea for over a year on the Pacific Star. He had studied to be a radio operator in Surabaya, and had joined this ship in that busy East Java port when the previous radio operator had gone AWOL.
He had a wife back in Bali, living in the small fishing village of Amed on the east coast of the island. Komang had been born in Amed. But rather than fish for a living, like all of his friends and relatives did, he had decided to further his education in Surabaya, and go to sea. I remarked that I was interested in astrology as a hobby, and asked him when he was born. It so happened we were both born in the same month, December. So I now had his name, his occupation and I had elicited his date and place of birth. Enough information for the Institute to start a background trace.
I had to make a decision. And it was an obvious choice. I would ride this ship through the Canal to Panama City, and assess the possibility of recruiting Komang as my first clandestine agent. I had to inform Sommers of my plan. And I knew he’d be livid when he found that I had stayed on the Pacific Star through the Canal without clearing it with him first. He’d made it pretty clear all month that he disliked me in principle. This latest stunt, I knew, would drive the major nuts.
I excused myself from Komang so that I could step outside and write a note to Sommers. I passed the sealed note to the real customs officer. And I asked him to hand-deliver the envelope to Major Sommers. By now the American customs officers were familiar with my strange training regimen.
My note to Sommers explained that there had been a development that caused me to ride the Pacific Star through the Canal, and that I would return to Cristobal within two days. At the bottom of my note I wrote: Urgently require background trace for Komang Surya, D.O.B. 12/02/1950 P.O.B. Amed, Bali, Indonesia. Radio operator m.v. Pacific Star.
My next move was to tell the captain that I planned to stay on the Pacific Star until the ship reached Panama City, on the Pacific Ocean side of the canal. He shrugged and told me to follow him below. He led me to the owner’s stateroom. This was the relatively posh cabin reserved for the owner of the vessel in the unlikely event he ever visited the tramp ship. Meanwhile, it can be made available to selected guests. And since I was a U.S. Customs officer, as far as this captain knew, he made the room available to me for the period that it would take to transit the Canal.
I returned to the radio room.
Komang was still there – puffing on an Indonesian clove cigarette and listening to music on his radio. I had noticed a framed photograph on a shelf beside the radio equipment. It portrayed a very beautiful young Balinese woman dressed in full ceremonial regalia. I mentioned the photograph to Komang.
“That’s my wife, Putu,” he said with a certain sadness. “This photo was taken at our wedding ceremony in Amed. I miss her so much.”
Komang stared out the porthole for several moments. He seemed to be in another world.
He looked again at the photograph of Putu.
“I want to return to Bali. I want to make babies with Putu. And I miss my family. I’m not sure I can continue this life at sea much longer. It’s a lonely job. Sometimes I think my life is passing me by, in the wake of this ship.”
He continued, “There are Indonesians who have no problem leaving our country. They see it as an opportunity. But for a Balinese, it is difficult to stay away from Bali for long. We have our unique culture. It is profoundly a part of us. And it’s hard for me to be separated from that.”
I needed to change the subject. His desire to leave the ship and return to Bali did not conform to my plan of recruiting him as an agent with access to seaports in the denied area. I would have to make it worth his while to remain on board the freighter for the long-term. And I began to think for the first time of the risks that I would ask him to take for me.
I told Komang that I had some work to do in Panama City, and that I would ride Pacific Star through the Canal. He was pleased to hear that. It was clear that he enjoyed the opportunity to speak Indonesian again. He hadn’t spoken that language with anyone in over a year – not to mention his distinct Balinese dialect.
The Pacific Star would wait at anchor until the late afternoon before she could begin the westbound transit because the eastbound ships heading to the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea had priority in the morning. I knew that the fifty mile trip to Panama City would take about ten hours. So there was no need for me to rush the recruitment of Komang. What’s more, I would have to wait a couple of weeks while the Institute conducted the background trace. This was the time to become Komang’s friend. As luck would have it, I discovered that he liked to play chess. We adjourned to the crew’s mess hall where there was a chess set.
It was apparent from the beginning of our first game that I was a more experienced player than he was. So I made a point of playing subtle blunders to keep our games even. Other crew members gathered around the table to watch us play and keep a running commentary on our moves. Two of them chuckled at my blunders. The crew were a motley assortment of nationalities. There were Filipinos, Arabs, Indians and Burmese in the mix. Each spoke his own uniquely accented brand of English. The mess hall smelled like an unsavory blend of Indian curry, fried fish, fuel oil, cigarette smoke, and body odor.
At five o’clock in the afternoon, the ship got underway. I suggested to Komang that we climb to the bridge for some fresh air and to view the sights along the Canal. The American pilot had arrived. He took command of the ship as it passed through the Canal.
I have never been a cigarette smoker. But during that month in the Canal I had smoked one or two of those Cuban cigars that had been given to me as gifts. And now standing outside on the bridge of the underway freighter with the breeze blowing around us and the sun about to set over Gatun Lake, it seemed the perfect time to light up one of those pungent cigars. I offered one to Komang, but he preferred his own spicy clove cigarettes.
The passage across the massive Gatun Lake at sunset was an adventure. We passed ships in the lake that were heading in the opposite direction, toward the Atlantic Ocean. Veritable ships passing in the night. Never to meet again. Another cargo ship followed us through the Canal, 300 yards astern. As the sun set, all of the ships switched on their navigation lights together.
Throughout much of the ten hour journey I befriended Komang. He took me into his confidence – his courting of Putu from their early teens, his original desire to escape the confines of the small fishing village in east Bali, and now his intense yearning to return home. The money he made sailing on Pacific Star could not compensate for the loneliness he endured when he thought of his wife, his family and his friends in the village. I listened with rapt attention to his dilemma, and spoke only to cue him.
Toward midnight, and before he retired to his stateroom for the night, I upped the ante. I explained to Komang that there was a chance we would meet again. I told him I had accepted a job offer that would take me to Asia. I said I had not revealed this to the U.S. Customs Department, and that he was the first person that I had confided in. I requested that he keep it a secret. He pledged that he would. It is never too early to get a potential agent conditioned for the secret world.
I told him I would like to stay in touch by ship’s radio. I listed down his ship’s call sign and we selected a radio frequency that we would use together. I gave him the hour of day, Greenwich Meant Time, when I would attempt to make contact. We now had in place the germ of a clandestine communications scheme.
“And by the way, Komang, my new job involves maritime research and the collection of port and shipping information. I pay the people who help me collect the information. I can arrange to send money to Putu, five hundred dollars a month, if you’ll be my representative. But we have to keep this secret.”
Komang was elated, not only for the confidential sideline job, and welcome financial bonus, but also for our friendship that would continue into the future. He wrote down the name of the bank in Denpasar where he kept his account. I told him to expect my call on his radio in a few weeks, after I arrived in Asia.
I spent the remaining hours, from midnight until three in the morning, on the bridge and in the wheelhouse with the American pilot and the ship’s Turkish chief mate, drinking coffee, smoking a Cuban Cohiba and experiencing a feeling of accomplishment as the Pacific Star plowed slowly through the dark Canal.
The pilot had arranged for a motor boat to pick us up as the vessel sailed beyond the Miraflores locks. The pilot and I climbed down the ladder of the moving ship and hopped aboard the launch as it glided alongside. The boat made a sharp turn away from the freighter and raced through the black water back to nearby Panama City. The Pacific Star sailed into the Pacific Ocean, and on to North Korea.
I checked in to a hotel in downtown Panama City in the small hours of the morning, slept until noon, and then took the familiar train back to Cristobal in the afternoon. I had phoned Sommers earlier. He ordered me to meet him at his home so that he could debrief me as soon as I arrived.
I’d anticipated his anger. I listened to him rant about my lack of discipline, my impertinence and the unlikelihood that I would succeed as an intelligence officer. I was embarrassed for his wife, Julie, who was in the next room and within earshot of his diatribe. After listening in silence for ten minutes, I asked him if he had forwarded the information about Komang Surya to Springfield. With a sigh, he acknowledged that he had.
There is a lasting memory of Panama that I do carry with me through life. Sommers and Julie had invited me to dinner at their tony country club to celebrate Julie’s thirty-second birthday on my last night in the Canal Zone.
Julie was a very pretty woman. A petite, dark-eyed brunette. She had a very fit, well-proportioned figure. And she dressed with cool, tropical good taste. Julie had impressed me as being pleasant enough and cordial in a rather formal sense during the few times that we had met at their home. She was a regular tennis player at the club, and we had discussed the sport together on occasion.
We sat at a table for three in the clubhouse dining room. After the main course, before the birthday cake was delivered to the table, and as Jonathan Sommers pontificated about one thing and another, Julie began rubbing her bare foot up and down my leg beneath the tablecloth. I stretched my leg to make it easier for her toes to meander high up the inside of my thigh. It took an effort for me to contain my breathing when the tips of her toes struck home. Indeed we struggled to keep our eyes off of each other as the sensual foreplay continued over the champagne toast and singing of Happy Birthday. It was timely, I suppose, that I departed the Panama Canal Zone the very next day.