National Geographic : 1939 Dec
VOL. LXXVI, No. 6 WASHINGTON DECEMBER, 1939 THE NATU0LIOAL MAGAZIIEN COPYRIGHT, 1939, BY NATIONALGEOGRAPHICSOCIETY,WASHINGTON,D. C. INTERNATIONALCOPYRIGHT SECURED PUERTO RICO: WATCHDOG OF THE CARIBBEAN Venerable Domain Under American Flag Has New Role as West Indian Stronghold and Sentinel of the Panama Canal BY E. JOHN LONG FAR below the Clipper plane, swiftly winging me from Miami to San Juan, the broad expanse of Mona Passage was streaked with the white wakes of lumbering freighters. I was crossing one of the world's busiest trade tracks-the ocean highway from northern Europe to the Panama Canal. It was difficult to believe that in these luminous blue waters Spaniard and Eng lishman, Dutchman and Frenchman, buc caneer and merchantman, galleon and cara vel, frigate and brigantine for centuries struggled and maneuvered for mastery. It seemed even more incredible that the peace ful parade of commerce was threatened again. Co-pilot George King came back to my seat and pointed out the window. "Look ahead," he said. "Do you see that high rocky cliff, rimmed with white break ers? "We're approaching Point Borinquen, northwest corner of Puerto Rico. As we fly over it, notice the wide, nearly level tableland back from the cliffs. That's the site of the new Army Air Base, the 'big gun' in the scheme of national defense along the Atlantic seaboard." I could see nothing but palms, a few patches of sugar cane and a winding coun try road. It did not look like a promising place for an airport and I said so. Co-pilot King went forward and returned in a minute with a large map of the West Indies and Central America, which he spread in my lap. He drew lines from Point Borinquen to Miami, the Panama Canal, Trinidad, Caracas, and ran one off the map in the direction of Bermuda. THE ISLAND'S STRATEGIC LOCATION "Now do you see? About 1,000 miles to the Panama Canal, 1,000 miles to Miami, 700 to Bermuda, 550 to Caracas on the mainland of South America, 650 to Trinidad. This is the hub of a wheel.* Put enough planes here, and enough land forces to guard your bases, and Puerto Rico becomes the 'Gibraltar of the West Indies,' or the 'Hawaii of the Atlantic.' " Less than a month later, I saw the first U. S. Army plane land on an improvised field swiftly cleared from the cane fields atop that mesa, and the harbor of San Juan fill with Navy planes, tenders, and gray ships of war taking up their duties as part of the President's neutrality patrol. After four centuries the land whence Ponce de Leon sailed to discover Florida is again an outpost-this time facing east! Ancient sentry boxes on its huge Spanish fortifications (Color Plate II) are symbols of the new watch on the Caribbean. Sym bols but not models. Today man digs * See map supplement "Mexico, Central Amer ica, and the West Indies," with this issue.