The Legend of Wild Willie
The Boy Scout lore in Panama includes a chilling tale referred to as The Legend of Wild Willie. It is a tale, which when told around an evening campfire, is likely to inspire basic fear in the young scouts listening.
The story concerns a Scoutmaster by the name of Willard Krump. Willard was born and raised in the Canal Zone and after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Air Force where he was trained as an airline mechanic. After serving two enlistments, he returned to Panama and was hired by the Panama Canal Company as a machinist for the Locks Division. He married a local girl and they had three children, two girls and a boy. The mother had wanted to name the boy Enrique, after her father, but she was overruled by her domineering husband who preferred William because it sounded a lot like his own name.
Willie, as his friends called him, belonged to various fraternal orders in the Canal Zone, including the Elks, the Odd Fellows and the Knights of Columbus. He also got involved with the Boy Scouts and became Scoutmaster of Troop 14 with nearly 30 Boy Scouts. Willie had one of the best Canal Zone troops and he had visions of his son becoming an Eagle Scout one day.
Naturally, William, who had gone through the Cub Scout ranks and earned his Arrow of Light, was encouraged to join his father’s Boy Scout Troop. William gladly did so because he had heard so much about the fun the Scouts had at the campouts.
As Scoutmaster, Willie tried to schedule a campout at least once a month. Gamboa was a favorite area of the Scouts for camping because there was good swimming and fishing in the Charges river and lots of jungle to explore.
One January weekend, well into the dry season in Panama when very little rain falls and the days are sunny and breezy, Willie’s troop hiked the 20 miles to Gamboa with all their gear and set up camp on one of the greens of the abandoned golf course near the banks of the Charges River. The troop had a lot of new scouts and Willie intended to teach them some of the basics of camping, including cooking and fire building.
With this training in mind, Willie asked the troop’s Senior Patrol Leader to set up a wood cutting area. This consisted of a designated area cordoned off with rope to keep other scouts clear of whoever was swinging an axe to cut wood. Most of the Scouts were busy setting up their tents when the Senior Patrol Leader finished setting up the wood cutting area. He decided to test it out and selected a thick branch from the deadwood he had gathered.
William, one of the new scouts, was unaware that no one was to enter the wood cutting area if someone was cutting wood. He had a question he wanted to ask the Senior Patrol Leader. As he walked into the wood cutting area, the Senior Patrol Leader swung the long-handled double-bladed axe back to begin his cutting stroke. The back end of the blade struck William in the head and split his skull. He died instantly.
Just then Willie came strolling by and witnessed the accident. However, Willie did not view it as an accident, but rather as the murder of his son. Willie went berserk. He rushed into the wood carrying area, grabbed the axe from the Senior Patrol Leader, and chopped off his head with a single blow. He then sought out the other scouts in his troop and began hacking away at any of them he could catch. After two or three more scouts had been killed, the rest ran off with Willie in chase.
Several of the older scouts had the good sense to run into town and headed straight for the police station. Gasping to catch their breaths, the scouts blurted out what had happened to the desk sergeant. The sergeant quickly summoned two patrolmen and they drove over to the Scout’s campsite.
They found Willie hacking away at one of the younger Scouts who was obviously dead from the multiple axe wounds. The two patrolmen wrestled Willie to the ground but he seemed to have superhuman strength. The sergeant had to lend a hand to subdue and handcuff Willie. Willie’s eyes were wild and he uttered growls and gnashed his teeth as he was dragged and stuffed into the patrol car.
The sergeant decided they should take Willie to the main police station in Balboa because of the seriousness of Willie’s offense. He radioed the Balboa Station and told them briefly what had happened and that they were bringing Willie in. He also called for an ambulance to pick up the bodies of the slain Scouts. The patrol car with Willie handcuffed in the back seat started out for Balboa. After crossing the combination railroad/vehicle bridge over the Charges River, the sergeant, who was driving, began negotiating the numerous curves in the winding road.
The sergeant noticed several cars stopped up ahead and as they neared them, it was obvious that there had been an accident. The sergeant stopped the patrol car and whistled in amazement at the tangled wreck of two passenger cars that had collided head on. He and the patrolmen got out of their car to see what they could do to help.
Willie watched the patrolmen approach the wrecked vehicles and realized no one was watching him. Turning his back toward the door handle, he opened the door and slid out of the car. He struggled to his feet and began a lurching trot toward the dense jungle.
One of the patrolmen spotted Willie and hollered at him to stop. When Willie failed to comply, the patrolman pulled out his revolver and fired at Willie. He was certain that his first shot had hit Willie in the back, but Willie didn’t even flinch and kept moving. The patrolman fired again and again until he had fired all six shells. He swore later that all six shots had hit Willie. The bullets didn’t seem to faze Willie and he quickly disappeared into the dense jungle growth.
By this time, the sergeant had heard the first shot and came running. He also observed Willie being hit by the shots and was amazed that Willie kept plodding toward the jungle. When Willie was out of sight, the sergeant talked to his men. It was nearing sunset and the light was rapidly fading in the dense jungle. None of them wanted to pursue Willie in the dim light and they reasoned that Willie was probably fatally wounded. The accident victims needed their full attention and the patrolmen decided to wait until morning to form a search party for Willie’s body.
The next morning, a team of 12 patrolmen assembled at the Balboa Station. They were briefed about what had happened at the Scout campsite the previous day. The men were told that even though Willie had probably died from the multiple gunshots, there was a chance that he was still alive in which case he would be a dangerous adversary.
The men climbed into the back of two patrol pickups and were driven to the site where Willie had disappeared into the jungle. After checking their weapons to make sure they were loaded, the patrolmen began a systematic sweep of the jungle area. Despite a thorough search, they found nothing until they reached the bank of the Charges River. One of the men yelled to the others that he had found something. Several of the search team came running and found the man who had yelled holding a shirt. More precisely it was a Scoutmaster’s shirt. The man holding the shirt spread it out and there were what appeared to be six bullet holes in the back. Strangely, there was no blood around the holes.
The men searched the immediate area for more clues and a few minutes later, they found a pair of handcuffs. The men talked it over and they speculated that somehow Willie had shed the handcuffs, then removed his shirt and jumped into the river.
A special team of policemen was set up to patrol the river banks and keep an eye out for Willie. After two days of searching the river banks, the team was disbanded. Days, weeks and then months went by but there was no sign of Willie. An official report was filed, which assumed that Willie was dead, either from the gunshots or from drowning in the river. His body had probably been consumed by wild animals. The investigation was officially closed.
Willie’s family had difficulty collecting insurance money because the body had never been found. But after several months, they received the insurance funds. The mother decided to move back to the States, having tired of the accusing stares of neighbors and the cruel taunts her remaining children encountered from classmates.
The Scouting movement had been dealt a serious blow by the Gamboa tragedy. All troops were forbidden from camping out in Gamboa and even the approved campsites had to be carefully checked before approval was granted from the District Office. Also, the background of every Scoutmaster was thoroughly scrutinized to make sure none of them were potential madman.
After a year of limited and restricted camping, Scoutmasters and parents brought pressure to bear on the Scout Office. No incidents had occurred during this time so it was decided that it was once again safe for troops to campout in the Canal Zone including the Gamboa area. At first the troops were reluctant to camp in Gamboa and Scoutmasters were actually afraid to camp anywhere near the fatal site. But gradually they began using Gamboa for their outings.
As might be expected, campsites were chosen far distant from where the tragedy had occurred. The Scoutmasters were very careful to avoid any accidents in their camp sites, especially when wood cutting tools were being used. At the campouts, the topic around the evening campfires sooner or later turned to Willie, Wild Willie as he was now referred to. At each retelling of the story, the incident became embellished with more bizarre refinements. The Legend of Wild Willie had become firmly implanted in Panama’s Scouting lore.
About two years following the Gamboa incident, strange things began to happen. Troops camped in the Gamboa area could hear the sound of wood being chopped far off in the distance. Sometimes, a strange glowing light could be seen that seemed to dance rapidly over the ground. The eeriest of all was a howling cry that drifted on the breeze, something like a coyote but more human than animal. None of these sounds or sights could be explained and on more than one occasion a Scoutmaster, leaving his Assistant Scoutmaster in charge of the campsite, would take a couple of the older scouts to check out the phenomena.
Nothing was ever found until one night after a Scout troop had settled down in their tents. A scout left his tent to answer a call of nature and as he walked a few steps toward the end of the campsite, he spotted a troop flag planted in the ground. There was enough moonlight so that the scout could see that the troop number on the flag. The number was 14. This was not the troop number of the scout’s troop and he quickly ran to the Scoutmaster’s tent. The scout blurted out what he had seen. The Scoutmaster followed the scout back to where the flag was planted to make sure the troop number was 14. He knew that 14 was the number of Wild Willie’s troop.
In late January, Troop 20 decided to hold a campout in Gamboa and to hike there with all their gear. The campout was quite an undertaking for the troop because of all the newer members. The boys needed the experience of hiking and camping to satisfy merit badge requirements. The Scoutmaster, Wayne Brandenburg, has recently taken over the troop after his predecessor had retired from the Panama Canal Commission and returned to the States.
Brandy, as his family and friends called him, had grown up in the Canal Zone and was the only son of an American couple who were second generation Zonians. Having been a Cub Scout and Boy Scout, Brandy had camped extensively throughout the Canal Area. He had heard the Legend of Wild Willie from fellow Scoutmasters, but he was skeptical and his scientific training as a zoologist for the Smithsonian Institute, made him an agnostic in terms of the unnatural aspects of the legend.
He had no doubt that Willie had been shot while trying to escape and had lived long enough to shed his shirt and handcuffs, but there was no way he could have survived. He knew that dead bodies do not survive for long in the jungle. And all the reported sightings of ghostly apparitions and supernatural sounds were figments of frightened imaginations.
Brandy, undaunted by the Legend of Wild Willie, cheerfully led his troop on the trek to Gamboa. The weather was perfect and the 20-mile hike to the Gamboa campsite was completed without incident except for a few blisters. The campsite which Brandy had selected was located on a knoll overlooking the river. After the Scouts arrived, Brandy gave them a half hour to rest. He told them that after they set up their tents, they could go for a swim in the river. The Scouts hooted with approval and quickly set up the campsite.
A beach area had been set up by the Panama Canal Commission after the golf course had been closed. The chosen beach area had been bulldozed flat and heavy duty tarps had been stretched and secured over the area and extended several yards offshore. The tarps were designed to prevent grass from sprouting up on the beach. Then truck after truck had arrived to dump loads of sand onto the tarps. The entire troop hiked the short distance to the beach area. Before allowing the boys to enter the water, they were told to choose a buddy so that each Scout had someone looking out for him. Two of the older Scouts who had earned their Lifesaving Merit Badge, were posted as lifeguards. Brandy allowed the boys to frolic in the water for an hour and then blew his whistle, the signal for everyone to come ashore. With their energy spent, the boys toweled off and marched back to the campsite.
The Scouts who needed to work on their cooking merit badge were instructed to begin the task of cooking the evening meal. A beef stew was the main course with an apple cobbler for dessert and Kool-Aid to wash it all down. Wood had been gathered and a campfire was soon blazing. As the fire died down, a large pot filled with cut up vegetables and chunks of lean beef was set over the hot coals. For the dessert, Bisquick was mixed with water into a dough, two large cans of sliced apples plus two cups of sugar and a generous dose of cinnamon were all added to a Dutch oven, which was also placed on the coals. Coals were also scooped from the fire bed and spread over the lid of the Dutch over. An hour or so later, the delicious aroma of simmering stew and baking cobbler drifted through the campsite. Finally, the food was ready and the cooks ladled out generous portions of the stew to the ravenous Scouts. There was plenty of cobbler to go around, even for seconds.
There was a half hour of daylight left as the Scouts chosen for cleanup carried the cooking utensils to the beach area. Using sand, they scoured the utensils until the metal gleamed. The cleaning crew had to use flashlights to light their way back to the campsite.
With everyone fed, Brandy called the troop together and outlined the activities for the next day. There would be swimming in the river, a nature hike and training sessions for some of the outdoor merit badges. The Scouts were encouraged to bed down and get a good night’s rest because the planned activities would begin at sunrise. Before dismissing the troop, Brandy warned them not to wander away from camp during the night. Although Brandy did not mention that his warning was a normal precaution and not because of the Wild Willie tales, he could tell by the loud whispers of the Scouts that they had also heard the stories.
The Scouts proceeded to their tents and crawled into their sleeping bags. Brandy called a brief counsel for the Patrol Leaders. He told them he wanted to post a watch through the night with each patrol leader standing a two-hour shift. If anything unusual happened, even a strange noise, he and other patrol leaders were to be alerted immediately. Brandy added that this was a normal precaution and not because of he was worried about the Legend of Wild Willie.
After dismissing the patrol leaders, Brandy chuckled to himself, remembering how impressionable he had been at that young age. Gradually the murmurs of the Scouts died down and the campsite became quiet as the boys drifted off to sleep. The Senior Patrol Leader standing the first watch added more wood to the campfire and walked around the periphery of the campsite, peering into the darkness and listening for any new sounds. It was a moonless night and the stars shone brightly in the clear sky. A cool gentle breeze was blowing and the sounds of frogs and crickets drifted through the night air.
The Senior Patrol Leader paused to concentrate on a new sound coming from the river. At first it was faint, and then it gradually became louder. It was a rhythmic chopping sound, the sound of someone chopping wood. The Senior Patrol Leader shivered and the hair on the back of his neck bristled. He quickly ran to the Scoutmaster’s tent to wake him, but when he looked into his tent, there was no one there. Thinking the Scoutmaster had heard the chopping sound and had gotten up to investigate, the Senior Patrol Leader proceeded to wake the other leaders.
By this time, the other scouts were awake and gathered around the campfire. There was no sign of the Scoutmaster. Suddenly, there was the sound of some one running and moments later the Scoutmaster raced into camp out of breath, his face pale with fear. Brandy, panting from his frantic run, headed for his tent and returned with a machete and a cell phone. He frantically pushed the buttons on the cell phone and waited while the number rang. There was no answer. He tried another number, and then another, but there were no answers. Frustrated, but realizing it was very late and that no one was going to answer the phone at this hour, Brandy called the Patrol Leaders over.
He quickly explained what he had seen and why he had raced back to the campsite. He had heard the chopping sound and cautiously moved towards its source. As he neared the river, he saw a ghostly luminous figure brandishing a long-handled ax. The apparition was laughing as it swung the ax into a log. It paused and looked up at the approaching Scoutmaster. Its glowing eyes shown like those of a madman. Brandy could see that the apparition was wearing a BSA shirt and instantly knew it was Wild Willie. He turned heel and raced for the campsite, praying that Willie would not catch him.
Brandy remembered the one thing that other Scouters had all agreed upon when they were discussing the Legend of Wild Willie. As long as everyone stayed within the confines of the campsite, Wild Willie would not, could not, enter the area. Brandy related this information to the Patrol Leaders. Glancing at his wristwatch, he saw that dawn was only a couple of hours away.
He called all the Scouts together and explained that he and the other leaders would stay awake and stand guard until daybreak. Everyone was safe as long as they did not stray outside the campsite. Once it became light there was nothing to worry about.
Dawn broke and Brandy told the Senior Patrol Leader to do a quick head count. All the scouts were present and accounted for. With a sigh of relief, Brandy called the troop together and explained that they would proceed with some of the planned activities during the morning hours, but after lunch they were packing up and hiking back into town. After breakfast the Patrol Leaders began the activities they had planned.
Brandy, with a second cup of coffee in his hand, slowly strolled down to the river to see if there were any signs of what he had seen the night before. As he reached the river bank, he noticed a large log that had been recently chopped in two. He shivered at the sight of the log. He then noticed that some of the tall reeds growing along the river’s edge were trampled forming a path to the river. Brandy became a believer in the Legend of Wild Willie.