Sunday, January 23, 2011

Inter-American Geodetic Survey

NOTE: This is an older version of my posting on the IAGS. All the material for this blog, to include an updated version of this post, is now available on my new WordPress blog site at

You can access the new version of this post at


- Brian


The Inter-American Geodetic Survey (IAGS) was one of those extremely successful, yet little known, US Army (and later, Dept. of Defense) programs established after WWII.

The IAGS was created specifically to assist Latin American countries in surveying and mapping their vast internal regions that were either poorly mapped or entirely unmapped. The IAGS was established in 1946 as part of the Army Map Service and was headquartered at Fort Clayton in the Panama Canal Zone. The Army Map Service set up a complete survey, cartographic and map reproduction school at Fort Clayton and over the next 30 years trained thousands of military and civilian personnel from most Latin American and Caribbean countries. Attendance at the IAGS school at Fort Clayton was seen as right of passage for many up and coming officers in Latin American militaries, and it was common to run across senior officers - colonels and generals - from South American countries who talked fondly of their time spent at Fort Clayton, taking surveying or cartographic classes (one infamous graduate of the IAGS schools just happens to be Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who attended the cartographic school in the 1960s).

The IAGS didn't just provide training.  It also provided the equipment and personnel to assist the participating countries in establishing their own self-sufficient mapping and surveying programs.  The goal was to provide the training, equipment and technical support but have the individual countries take over their own mapping efforts.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that the IAGS was all altruistic good-will on America's part.  We learned the hard way during WWII that many Latin American countries were at best reluctant allies, at worst active sympathizers with the Nazi regime.  At the end of WWII the political systems in these countries ranged from shaky democracies to hard line dictatorships.  The US Government became concerned about the effects of political unrest and Communist influence in the region, and instituted a number of programs designed to bring Latin America firmly under American influence and to foster democratic principles and improve economic conditions.  The IAGS was just one of many programs created as part of this effort.  One extremely important benefit the IAGS provided back to the US was that we were able to get American personnel on the ground in these countries to make detailed evaluations of local conditions (after all, that's what surveyors and cartographers do, right?) and we got maps that were created to US standards for vast areas of Central and South America.

According to all the accounts I've read and my own direct experience with the IAGS in Central and South America, the program was a great success. The goals of the IAGS were warmly embraced by most countries, who realized they utterly lacked the resources and training needed to map their own territories. IAGS liasion personnel were permanently assigned to each country, working out of the US embassies, and developed deep and lasting ties with government, military and business leaders.  IAGS personnel were very highly regarded in most countries, and I've heard more than one old-timer talk about how whenever they flew into a country to work and the local customs agents saw the distinctive IAGS logo on their luggage they were swiftly and courteously passed through customs without inspection or interrogation.

My introduction to the IAGS came when I attended the Defense Mapping School's Mapping, Charting & Geodesy Officer's Course at Fort Belvior, Virginia back in 1982.  By then the IAGS had been, or was in the process of transforming into, the Defense Mapping Agency International Division (I'm running on memory here, so please forgive any errors). However, the IAGS logo was visible throughout the building, and we received a short orientation brief on IAGS operations.  My next contact came in 1990 while working in Honduras as part of an airfield construction task force.  My team's job was to conduct route reconnaissance and terrain evaluation of large sections of southern Honduras.  We made contact with the Honduran IAGS liaison officer, Emory Phlegar.  Emory was a long time IAGS hand who had 'gone native' - he married into Honduran society and seemed to know everyone and everything that was going on in that small, poor country.  He provided us a wealth of information and with a simple phone call opened a number of doors for us with the Honduran Instituto Goegrafico Nacional (National Geographic Institute).

Three years later I was stationed at Fort Clayton, Panama, and headed up the geographic analysis team supporting US Army South and US Southern Command.  This job put me in close and frequent contact with the last remnant of the IAGS in the old Canal Zone. Southern Command and the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA) ran a joint map warehouse on Albrook Air Force Station.  The Air Force took care of ordering, stocking and issuing standard US maps to all US military operating in Central and South America.  In the same building the Defense Mapping Agency ran a small but very interesting and critical 'local products' warehouse that received and stocked maps printed by the different countries who had been part of the IAGS.  By agreement, DMA received 100 copies of every map printed by the participating countries. Quite often these maps were the only representation of Central and South American land areas available to the US military, and we relied heavily on this map supply. In fact my unit acquired an early large format Xerox copier specifically to make copies of these maps for Army use so as not to draw down the limited stock kept by DMA.

Additionally, DMA continued to operate a topographic and survey instrument repair shop out of the building.  This was a one man show, employing an instrument repairman who fixed or calibrated any equipment that had been loaned to countries participating in the IAGS.  Much of the loaned equipment was simply too big to pack up and send back to Albrook to be worked on, so this lone repairman spent a lot of time on the road traveling from country to country repairing equipment.  Most of what he worked on was obsolete by US standards, but was still perfectly serviceable and suitable to the Latin American countries that couldn't afford anything more modern. As such, his workshop at Albrook was a fascinating mix of spare parts bins and machine tools.  Since he dealt with a lot of obsolete equipment I'm sure he had the skills and equipment needed to fabricate any broken or worn part.

Unfortunately there is very little information about the IAGS on the web.  Not even Wikipedia has a dedicated page, and only catalogs indirect references to the agency. This is a shame, because the IAGS was a landmark cooperative effort that yielded enormous benefit for all countries involved, and its story needs to be out there for everyone to read. Somebody at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (the successor to the Defense Mapping Agency) or the Corps of Engineers needs to write up a short history of the IAGS and its accomplishments while the participants are still around to tell their stories.

But for now it is You Tube to the rescue!  I found this film, part of the Army's 'Big Picture' series, covering IAGS operations:




mlassar said...




Marc Laporte said...


A question about IAGS markers.
I found a mark on the top of one montain, and i would like to know informations related to this (position, altidude...).
Is there a database on web that would anable to get it?

Indication on mark is "IAGS 1953 - PELEE NO 2


Brian said...


Thanks for the question. If any information existed in the US for that control point or station it would most likely be in the archives for the IAGS, and I'm sure they are not available anywhere I can access them.

However that control point, or mark, is probably still in the survey control database for the country in which you found it. I recommend you contact the national survey agency for that country. They probably still maintain the information for that particular control point or station.


gdrakeatnasdotcom said...


In December of 1948 I left New Jersey with my bicycle and $180 and headed for South America. By the time I got to Panama I had no bicycle (sold in Guatemala due to lack of parts and roads fit for oxen only) and only about 35 dollars left. Somehow (that's another story) I got a job with the IAGS. I worked in the field in Panama in 1949 and in Guatemala in 1950. I have my diary of those months with the IAGS all written up and ready to post to my autobiographical web site ( and also have scores of photographs ready to post. Now, at age 81, I have lots to do to catch up on my memoirs but the trouble is I am still very active in projects in four countries and stuffing stuff into the web site has not been my top priority of late.

Now that I have found this site I will pursue the goal of getting the diary and the photos as well as some stories of my days with the IAGS in 1949 and 1950 posted.

Meanwhile here is a copy of a letter sent to me by Robert R. McIlwaine, one of the great men of the organization back in those early days.


George F. Drake

Carlos said...

Dear Brian,

My father, a Guatemalan surveyor, worked for Cartografia, a dependency of the Guatemalan government that in turn worked directly with IAGS. He was there for 16 years from the early 50s to the late 60s after which he moved the family to the U.S.

During his time as a surveyor my father became a very close friend of his American liaison, Mr. Thomas Gadberry, a civil engineer from Little Rock, Arkansas working in Guatemala for IAGS. Now in his late 70s my father would like nothing more than to find his old friend Thomas. I'm wondering if there are any records somewhere that could help me find Mr. Gadberry. Any help wold be appreciated.

By the way, my father's name is Carlos Ovalle-Samayoa.

Thanks in advance,

Carlos Ovalle, AIA, LEED AP
Long Beach, California, USA
(310) 989-0917

Ittlecas said...

True to your words, there isn't much out there on the internet about the IAGS program. I currently live in Guatemala and bought on of the maps that the Guatemala mapping services provides (IGN - Instituto Geografico Nacional) which still bears the credits to IAGS. I was curious about the history of IAGS and your article is the only thing out there. Encyclopedia Britannica has a small blurb about it but its nothing really. I'd almost be willing to write up an article for wikipedia just to have the documentation for a project that was successful and needed a record for history but I'm not what you might call an authorative source, just a curious newcomer. But at the very least, I wanted to thank you for posting your memoirs here and for calling attention to a project now mostly forgotten!

Carlos said...


This past November (2011) while waiting for my plane in Managua, Nicaragua, I happened to glance at some of the books in a little kiosk in the waiting area. To my great surprise there was a book about the IAGS, a paperback with lots of grainy photos and wonderful stories that match, word for word, the stories my father told me about his time mapping the jungles of northern Guatemala and Belize (then British Honduras).

The book is not centered about Guatemala, rather it addresses all of Latin America. If someone knows the title of the book it'd be great to know. Otherwise I will look for that kiosk again in April.
By the way, an update to my comment in December: My father is now in touch with Mr. Gadberry and a reunion between the two is in the works.

Also, my next search is for another friend of my father, Mr. Jack Rasholt, who later went on to work, possibly in a high level position, for US AID in Guatemala and later in Bolivia I'm told.

Last but not least, I received an email from a gentleman looking for anyone that knew Mr. Owen Nickels, "chief of the cartographic section of the operations division in the Canal Zone" in the late 50s through the early 60s.

Carlos Ovalle, AIA, LEED AP
Long Beach, California, USA
(310) 989-0917

David said...

What an unbelievable and wonderful surprise! I found this film Mapping Adventures sort of by chance today, in which I unexpectedly saw my father David S. Phillips in several scenes in Peru. He appears at the beginning, in the great little poker scene where he is laughing heartily, and in Machu Picchu where he is surveying. The film also shows several other engineers my parents knew well. I watched it with my mother today on her birthday, and needless to say she is absolutely in bliss seeing my dad almost 30 years after Dave passed away. I think of the IAGS crew as some of the last of the explorers in Latin America, and I hope some are left to tell the wonderful stories of their important and difficult work. I'd appreciate any other source or contact with the men who mapped the earth with IAGS.

David R. Phillips

Tom Gadberry said...

I stumbled onto this site this morning after not being able to sleep. I am Tom Gadberry an was vert glad Carlos Jr. located me. I remember when he was a small boy when my friend Carlos Sr. invited me th his home for a very fine meal that his beautiful wife had prepared.
In the film I saw a few people I knew in Peru David Philips, Larry Goldstein and Ye Yip.
Iwas in the Geodimeter team from 1962 to 1965. I worked with Billy G Cox and we measured first order base lines in the colaborating countries. Therefore; I traveled to many latin American coountries.

Carlos said...

I'm sorry to inform this group that my father, Carlos Ovalle-Samayoa, passed away two months ago. His bucket list included meeting with Tom Gadberry but that never came to be, although they did speak on the phone a few times.

In my possession are quite a few photographs of my father's adventures in the jungles of northern Guatemala and Belize while mapping with his crew. When I have some time I'll upload them to my Flickr album and will post a link.

Tom, I haven't located your phone number among my dad's things, he was very proud of his nearly photographic memory when it came to names and phone numbers so I'm sure he took it with him. If you happen to see this post, please email me at or call me at 310-989-0917



Brian said...

Carlos, our deepest sympathy at the passing of your father. It sounds like he was a wonderful and honorable man, and I am sure he is missed. If you do make his photos available via an on-line web album I'd love to provide a link to them from this blog. Thanks for being an important part of the discussion on the IAGS!


Gail Reckendorf Radzik Beavers said...

I am the daughter of an IAGS DOD employee.....Herbert W Reckendorf. I am Gail Reckendorf Beavers. I spent many years in the Canal Zone....1954-1987. I graduated from Balboa High in 1972. My Dad and Mom were in Colombia in 1954 and I was adopted in Bogota. I now live in Seattle Wa. My 1st husband was a machinist at Miraflores Locks. I'll always remember Panama, Honduras, and Nicaragua....altho most years were in the Zone. M y Dad passed in 2003 at 88 in Cape Cod, Mass. To this day, I'm in touch with a few of the IAGS "children"....such as Lupe Ponce. Please feel free to communicate thru my email or cell phone...

John Furrer said...

It was a pleasure to find and read your article about IAGS, and to watch again the “Big Picture” film. Three assignments with IAGS were the high points of my military career (Peru 1964-1966, Venezuela 1968-69 and Bolivia 1972-1975). Service with that organization was a source of pride at the time and remains so. IAGS was an excellent example of a cooperative effort which benefited both the US and the host country, and provided excellent return for limited investment.

It is good to see familiar names in the film and in the blogs. There are hundreds of adventures and human interest stories which are being lost as the participants leave us. Dave Phillips, Sr., for example, at one time won a crossword contest in Peru – in Spanish.
There are a few of the old cadre still around, and I hope they will share some stories in this platform

A related story is that of the 937th Engr. Co. (Avn.), which supported IAGS activities.

Anonymous said...

I was employed by IAGS in the Canal Zone as a young US Army Lt . I was the assistant adjutant working for Maj Vivian Young at IAGS HQ at Ft Clayton from 1970- 1972.

Col Hans Ruthe was the Director .

I helped organize the IAGS 25th anniversary event in 1971.

I was on touch with George Depoy the IAGS Sergeant Major for many years after we both left the Canal Zone, until he passed away a couple of years ago.

I have a wealth of information on IAGS, including staffing charts that I kept to eventually write a complete history of the organization, but have never gotten around to it.

Former ALJ said...

My father, Charles Licha, was assigned to IAGS in Lima from late 1956 through 1958. He was an Army aviator, and flew cartographers around the Andes, to map such sites as Machu Pichu and Lake Titicaca. He died at the age of 48 in 1976. I remember of Peru only as I experienced it as a young child. Thanks for helping me learn as an adult what my dad was no longer able to tell me.

Wendy Ankunding-Castillo said...

My father, John Ankunding, worked for IAGS in the late 60's. He was a civilian engineer working for the Chilean government to survey sites like Easter Island, and they were based in the Panama Canal Zone...I appreciate this information on the IAGS, as I knew nothing of this organization until my mother told me about my dad's adventures! Thank you for writing on the IAGS, since there are no other informational sites online regarding these surveyors.

Anonymous said...

There is a great story about IAGS in the March 1956 edition of the National Geographic. It can be found under the name of Men Who Measure the Earth and the website of

It is a big file so be careful.
Martin Lassar

Anonymous said...

I am sorry but my E_MAIL is

Martin Lassar

Please change it on my post.

Anonymous said...

My father was stationed in the Canal Zone in the mid-1950's. A huge number of his photographs were in the form of 'slides', which were lost for all time many years ago.
He's no longer living, so your blog plus the video are helpful in explaining to my adult children what their grandfather did in the Army, back in the day. Thank-you!
--Dorothy in WA state.

Anonymous said...

I worked in the field surveying for IAGS in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico in 1968 and 1969 along with Roald Bendixen (IAGS) and Steve Sullivan (U.S, Army). Together we are in the process of writing a book with photographs and maps entitled, "Memories of Surveying in Central and South America with the Inter American Geodetic Survey. The book will be published in early 2015.
Paul Hauser

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to a US Army War College essay on the significance of IAGS. It's in PDF Format

Title - The Inter American Geodetic Survey Twenty-Five Years of Cooperation
Author - Col. John W Granicher, Corps of Engineers
1973, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA.

My father worked for IAGS from the mid sixties to the mid nineties. I think he enjoyed his time with that organization.

Unknown said...

I'M ALWAYS GOING SOMEWHERE is a true story written by men and women who worked for IAGS and was published in July of 2015.
You can check out the book web site at:
It is also available at and Barnes and Noble
Paul Hauser

Unknown said...

I am the son of Edwin Owen Nickels, "chief of the cartographic section of the operations division in the Canal Zone" in the late 50s through the early 60s. Does anyone have a recollection of him...? He passed away in 1964 when i was ^. Thank You, Bill

Unknown said...

My name is Rudolph Adam. I was assigned as an assistant to Major General Robert Fleming, Jr., Governor of the Canal Zone from October 1963 to May 1965. I was attached to IAGS Fort Clayton, CZ for housing and rations and duties included the responsibility for Latin American students while attending the Cartographic School. During the riots January 1964, I performed diplomatic duties in talks with Republic of Panama government officials in restoring peaceful negotiations.

Cesar Palomino said...

My father Benigno Palomino(Peruvian Student)attended the IAGS Fort Clayton (1966), he remembers Dr.Frank Brandon, geodetic Professor, Frank Gionni, anyone remembers? He wants to know about his old school mates: Sa (Brazil), Jaime Veliz(Colombia), Barrera(Colombia), Concha(Venezuela) Morinigo(Paraguay) Becker(paraguay) or any other person who knew him, My father is currently 82 and healthy, very active.
He always talks about his experiences at the IAGS, and he had a successful career in Topography and Geodetics in Peru.

my EMAIL (Cesar Palomino)

John W. Sheffield, Ph.D. said...

My father, James "Jim" G. Sheffield work for the IAGS from 1955-1960. We lived in Carundu Heights. I have vivid memories of my father picking up IAGS students and taking them to the Army Navy Officer's Club and beach on the weekends. Those were golden years for many of us of all ages. Even though I was five years old when we arrive in 1955, I caught the "bug" and went on to become an engineer, university engineering professor and intrepid international citizen. My 96-year old mother lives with my family in West Lafayette, Indiana and will love reading and seeing this. John W. Sheffield -