by Jack McKillop
Physical Description & History
The Galapagos Islands are a group of 15 main islands, three smaller islands and 107 islets in the South Pacific between 1°40'N and 1°36'S latitude and 89°16' and 92°01'W longitude. The islands are a province of Ecuador and are about 650-miles (1,046-kilometers) west of the Ecuadorian coastline. The distance between the northernmost and southernmost islands is about 137-miles (220-kilometers). Total land area is 3,040 square-miles (7,880 square-kilometers) spread over 17,000 square-miles (44,030 square-kilometers) of ocean. The largest island is Isabela and with a land area of 1,790 square-miles (4,640 square-kilometers), is half of the total land area of the islands.
The first European to visit the islands was a Spaniard in 1535 and an English captain in 1593. In the early 19th century, a number of American whaling ships stopped at the island to take on water. Ecuador annexed the islands on 12 February 1832, naming them the Archipelago of Ecuador. In 1920s and 30s, a small wave of European settlers arrived in the islands. Ecuadorian laws provided all colonists with the possibility of receiving 49-acres (20-hectares) each of free land, the right to maintain their citizenship, freedom from taxation for the first ten years in the Galapagos, and the right to hunt and fish freely on all uninhabited islands where they might settle.
One of the biggest concern of the United States regarding Central America was the possibility of an air assault against the Panama Canal. The U.S. had considered the Galapagos Islands as a possible danger spot since the 19th century. As early as 1899, the U.S. unsuccessfully negotiated with the Ecuadoran Government for purchase of a Naval Coaling Station on one of the islands. A Joint Army-Navy Board report in 1937 had specified the joint mission of Army and Navy forces in the Caribbean as “protection of the Panama Canal in order that it may be maintained in continuos operating condition,” obviously for the passage of the fleet. To the east of the Canal, there were many islands and the U.S. Army began reinforcing air and ground units based there in late 1939. This continued into 1941 obviously to counter any attack by the Germans.
Provision for adequate defense of the Canal from the Pacific presented a far more difficult problem. There were no potential sites for air bases, either on American soil or on territory which could be secured by lease or treaty; only Cocos Island and the Galapagos group presented possibilities. Early in 1940 the General Board of the Navy and the Army-Navy Joint Board studied the subject and reached the conclusion that preparations must be made for the operation of constant air patrols over a wide area to the west of Panama. They recommended that patrol squadrons of seaplanes, supported partly by tenders and partly by shore installations, be based near Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian coast, in the Gulf of Fonseca in Nicaragua, and in the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos, it was decided, were to be the key installations, and they were subsequently fortified by both the U.S. Army and Navy, under a program directed by the Army engineers.
On 11 December 1941, it was announced that Ecuador had made available to the U.S. the Galapagos Islands and the Ecuadoran Coast for “the establishment of such military bases as may be necessary.” The following day, the Navy issued orders directing that a temporary advance air base be established at Baltra Island in the Galapagos Islands. On 4 January 1942, the U.S. Army directed that steps be initiated for the construction of auxiliary air bases in the islands.
Baltra Island, was called South Seymour Island by the U.S. military and that name will be used in this article. This small, flat island is one of the smaller of the Galapagos Islands, with an area of 8 square-miles (21 square-kilometers). The island is very arid and vegetation consists of salt bushes, prickly pear cactus and palo santo trees. There is little green, and only some iguanas, goats, sea lions and lizards for company. There is no fresh water on the island and water had to be shipped in from Panama at high cost until they began arranging to get some from San Cristobal Island located about 65-miles (105-kilometers) to the southeast.
South Seymour Island, Naval Air Facility
On 12 December 1941, the Navy considered that the Panama Canal was in imminent danger of an attack and they rushed a token force of 36 men aboard a British tramp steamer to Aeolian Cove (0°26' 19"S, 90°17' 00"W) on the western side of South Seymour Island (0°27' 56"S, 90°16' 34"W) to establish a refueling depot for PBY Catalina patrol planes flying from the Canal Zone. Shortly thereafter, PBYs were being refueled by hand pumps from a motor launch. A timber pier to handle unloading of gas drums and a 70-foot (21-meter) timber seaplane ramp were then planned.
In January 1942, the Navy despatched the seaplane tender (destroyer) USS Clemson (AVD-17, ex DD-186) to Aeolian Cove to tend the PBYs. The Clemson refueled, rearmed and provided the flight crews with berthing to enable the aircraft to extend their range. Also in January, the U.S. Army surveyed the island for an 8,000-foot (2,438-meter) airstrip and let a contract for its construction which began in February.
The first plane landed on the Galapagos air strip in early April 1942, only two months after the beginning of construction. The runway was used constantly from that date until its final completion in July 1943.
On 16 May 1942, it was reported that “The air and seaplane base in the Galapagos Islands is now in operation and its great utility is the protection of the Panama Canal is being demonstrated daily.” Two runways, 38 hardstands for U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) LB-30/B-24 Liberators, necessary parking aprons and taxiways were constructed. Runway No. 1 on the western side of the island was 300- by 8,000-feet (91- by 2,438-meters) and had a crushed rock base, compacted and sealed with hot asphalt and crushed rocks chips. Both ends of this runway were paved with a 200-foot (61-meter) wide and 300-foot (91-meter) long concrete slab. Runway No. 2 on the eastern side of the island was 200- by 6,250-feet (61- by 1,905-meters) and constructed after the completion of Runway No. 1.
The first USAAF unit assigned to the island arrived on 4 May 1942 equipped with LB-30s. They were followed on 5 June by a flight of a fighter squadron with P-40Cs. Detachments of LB-30/B-24 units were based here until February 1945 and flew antisubmarine patrols. In December 1942, a fighter squadron equipped with P-40s was based here and remained until March 1944.
The seaplane base in Aeolian Bay was designed for two squadrons of patrol bombers and could accommodate 125 officers and 1,050 men. This base was put into use while under construction, the first plane landing on the temporary wire-mesh parking area on 14 May 1942. Quarters and dispensary were established and the Navy shared the Army hospital. The site was officially designated Naval Air Facility (NAF) South Seymour Island on 1 August 1942.
A detachment of a patrol squadron equipped with PBM-3C Mariner seaplanes was ordered to NAF South Seymour Island from their base at Salinas, Ecuador in June 1943 to provide support for the seaplane squadrons flying antisubmarine warfare patrols. Another patrol squadron equipped with PBM-3Cs and based at Corinto, Nicaragua, also flew patrol missions between that base and Galapagos. Seaplane operations were conducted from Aeolian Bay; eight to 12 aircraft could be parked on the apron for maintenance or during rough weather. The NAF was redesignated a Naval Auxiliary Air Facility (NAAF) on 14 July 1944 and redesignated an NAF on 13 September 1945. NAF South Seymour Island was disestablished on 16 May 1946.
In 2011, the former Runway No. 2 is now Seymour Airport. The runway has been lengthened to 7,876- by 115-feet (2,401- by 35-meters).