This post is dedicated to the Libyan people.
Sometimes, to be perfectly honest, I wonder how I've ended up working in an indie bookstore for a fairly large chunk of my life. It's not glamorous, adds increasingly little to my prestige, and certainly not a lot to my pocketbook. Yet, as someone reminded me recently, it is honorable work, and you're around books and people who like books, which isn't such a bad life.
It's funny that last Saturday, I was just saying to a coworker, it really only takes one interesting exchange a day to make it worthwhile. I had already had one such, and then this happened.
I was working at the information desk, and saw this guy standing nearby. He looked like he was maybe waiting for someone and yet his expression was kind of strange. Abstracted, or, I thought, maybe he was just a weird guy. I tend to keep a discreet eye on the more fringey, but he noticed this and snapped out of it, and smiled a bit and said, "How ya doing?" I said I was fine, and he stood there for a moment, and then said, "I see you got this display on Egypt and all. Yeah, I was born at Wheelus Air Base in Libya." And then I got it--he wasn't fringey at all, he was just moved.
I said, "Actually, my parents met at Wheelus."
Of course, we bonded then. He had been born in about 1958, which was a few years after my parents were there, and his had left when he was only about three, so he had no real memory of the place, but it had obviously lived on in family lore, as it had in mine. My parents were both working there, while his mother was an air force wife, so the situation was somewhat different. Still, I think there was some larger similarity. They both knew Arabs but mainly as employees--in this man's case, they were household workers, while in my mom and dad's they were more employees of the base. I don't have the sense that there were many what you might call "peer relationships", however.
I was struck by how much more he knew about the base than I did. He had kept up, I suppose, partly because it was part of his family's life, while for me, it was more the precondition of our family. For instance, he knew about the tranfer last summer of the remains of 72 Americans to a U.S. cemetery, mostly stillborn and premature infants, who had been buried in the Italian El Hammangi Cemetery in Tri that was currently being 'downsized' in the process of being renovated. At the time of their deaths, back in the fifties and sixties, service personnel did not receive compensation to have their next of kin shipped back to the U.S. for burial, and so they had been left behind. This doesn't make them chintzy--I know my own parents married over there so that my mother, who had broken her contract early with Special Services, could fly home early as a military wife. Getting back was expensive.
He had also run into a bit of a shock a couple of years back when the company he worked for was bought by another and he was required to come up with a social security number, which he had never had to get. He had needed a birth certificate, and though he was born on that base, he was told that he had been born in an "unrecognized country", and besides all the records there had been destroyed. He was a man without a country indeed.
What's perhaps even more interesting to me, though, are the winds of fortune that have swept over this particular place in the last century. As a matter of fact, it was exactly 100 years ago that the Italians invaded North Africa, seizing on the opportunity of a power vacuum of the declining Ottoman Empire to weld two North African provinces into the state that we currently think of as Libya. In 1923 the Italian Air Force built the Mellaha Air Base where Wheelus was later. When Germany and Italy joined destinies in World War II, it was used for various types of recon by the Luftwaffe in the North African Campaign, until it was captured by the famed Desert Rats of the British Eighth Army in January, 1943. It was then the turn of the U.S. Army Air Force to use it for bombing runs over Italy and southern Germany.
When the war ended, the American military stayed on. The base was renamed Wheelus Army Air Field in 1945 after a pilot named Lt. Richard Wheelus, who had died in an accident in Iran. (Yes, I'd like to tell you more about what made his death significant, but as is the case with internet research sometimes, everyone repeats the same scant facts.) The Army Airforce was inactivated in 1947 and the base was reactivated as Wheelus Air Base and became the home of the Military Air Transport Service or MATS, which is the group under which my dad ended up there. MATS sounds to me a bit like the Merchant Marine is for the Navy, in that it provided supplies, refueling and logistics for other military aircraft. It was also a training base, and a strategic position to have should the Cold War with the Soviets ever turn Hot.
When an army coup had deposed the UN backed King Idris, who had been backed because of his support of the Allies, and Colonel Muammar Ghaddifi took his place at the helm, an already growing Libyan dissatisfaction with a foreign military presence quickly led to Ghaddafi's insisting on U.S. departure. It is somewhat incredible to me looking back to realize that the coup was in September of 1969 and the flag was lowered on a base that had at one point been home to 4600 people on June 11th, 1970, just seven or eight months later.
It's a fair enough point to not want a U.S. base in your country, I think, especially when it's not even wartime. But apparently Ghaddafi did not want to be without all foreign military presence, because he then invited the Soviets to use the base, renamed Okba ibn Nafi Airport after a famous early Arab general, which basically became a place where the Soviets trained the Libyan air force to fly their MiGs. (Do you ever wonder how we all survived the Cold War? I do.)
You would think that might be the end of it, but fate had yet another twist or two. After the Berlin discotheque bombing of 1986, for which Ghaddafi claimed responsibility, and a few other provocative acts of violence, the U.S. decided to try and take him out with Operation El Dorado Canyon. Forewarned by the Italians, Ghaddafi and his family managed to escape, though they claimed that an adopted daughter had been killed. What the U.S. did manage to bomb though, was Okba ibn Nafi airport. According to Wikipedia, there were 6 aircraft sent, with 5 arriving to deliver 61 hits. Ironically, it seems that eighteen of the aircraft were 48 TFW F-111F "Aardvark" fighter-bombers, precisely the planes that the air force had been practicing with for years at Wheelus.
Not that I think the U.S. action was right in this case, but maybe things would have ended better for all if Ghaddafi had just let the U.S. base be.
Today, the site which has had so many previous incarnations is currently the Mitaga International Airport. I'm sure it's a lovely place and personally I'm more an airport than an airbase kind of gal. But in researching this post, I came upon a post from a site called Bahrain DC, where the video below, from one Tarek Alwan, was posted. It currently has 168 comments from former Wheelus folks, almost all of whom, despite the appalling heat, dust storms and, as my mother remembered it, flies, seem to have had some pretty good memories of the place.
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