Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wheelus Air Base, Tripoli

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. 

102 comments:

  1. What a lovely bookstore encounter! (I will miss these.) It clearly meant a lot to him to connect to you, and thanks for sharing all you learned here, too!

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  2. I can definitely see how encounters like that keep your job interesting and worthwhile. Thanks for a history lesson I would never have thought to learn about myself.

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  3. Kathleen,

    Yes, it was nice, but I forgot to mention that he was waiting for someone, and that in between hearing his memories of Wheelus, I was running around helping his wife try to find books about interior window treatments. That kind of half distracted state is the real nature of most bookstore encounters, so don't miss it too much.

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  4. Glenna

    Thanks for taking time to read it. What's odd is that very little of it had I taken the time to learn before. It's a bit sad, because there were several things I would have liked to ask my mom, or refresh my memory on, now that it's too late. But my sisters may remember more of this than I do.

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  5. Dear Seana;

    Thanks for a wonderful story and good background history on Lybia.
    In your days in Libya, were you ever able to make an excursion to Leptis Magna to the East of Tripoli, and visit the extensive Roman ruins there? It has been my challenge for years to get a visa to visit there, but the exercise in obtaining a visa has been daunting, with Catch 22 hindrances galore, at least until the present. Hopefully, that will pass soon, and a peacefull future awaits Libya!

    Peter Irlenborn

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    1. I lived on Wheelus as a kid from 1963-1965. I'm a history freak (especially Roman and American) and wonder if my love for history comes from my visit to Leptis Magna when I was a 7 year old kid. It blew me away. I could imagine people and life filling the city as I walked through the ruins.

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    2. Incidentally, the name Tripoli is derived from 3 Roman cities on the Libyan coast - Leptis Magna, Sabratha, (both still have extensive ruins) and I third city (no ruins anymore) that I don't recall the name of. But three (Tri) cities (Poli)

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    3. I'm not sure who I am replying too, but maybe someone will read this. I am retired USAF and served in Libya in 1969-1970. When I first arrived in June 1969, it was the Kingdom of Libya, under King Idris's monarchy. Then a beautiful, peaceful country, laden with oil and American oil companies. A few months later, everything changed - Muammar Kadaffi, of course, He was then a Captain at the time. In September, he promulgated the coup and within a few days closed Wheelus AB and more than 4000 troops were immediately evacuated as well as US Embassy officials. Colonel Chappie James (a nasty man by the way) was CO at the time but left with the rest. The Libyans agreed to allow a small holding force (about 50 men, all enlisted) to stay for a few months to "transition" the base to the Libyans. We left all the aircraft, vehicles, and billions of dollars worth of equipment to Gadaffi's regime. I was one of the 50 Airmen who stayed behind the extra months. On Jun 11, 1970 Captain Gadaffi and about 20 other Libyans came to Wheelus to take official custody of the base. I was in the flag ceremony and looked him right in the eye, then a young man. We lowered the flag and were instructed to not look at the Libyan flag going up. Then we were ordered to scramble to the C130 waiting to take us to Germany. That was the last I saw of Wheelus but will never forget the experience.

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    4. John, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving this very unique and interestiong history about the end of the base. You might want to share it over at the BahrainDC site, which has many more comments from people who well remember their time there--you might find a few familiar names.

      If you're interested, I will also direct you to a more recent post of mine, which is about being led to a video of Tripoli, circa 1964. That one is here.

      As for the writer of this blog, I am simply the daughter of two people who met and married at Wheelus, circa 1955. I was born the next year, but in the U.S.

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    5. Hi there from down under, I live in tripoli from 1960 to 1971. I attended tripoli College at the time. I vividly remember F100 flying very low with thunderous loud exhaust along the most beautiful beaches in the world Georgenpopoli area. It was an enclave of american oil family and school.

      I visited Wheelus airbase a number of times to the movies and the bowling club. I was so into airplanes and always wanted to become a pilot but never did have the opportunity.

      I did visit leptis mahna, and Sabratha also in Benghazi there was a greek ruin which I can not recall the name.

      We left tripoli and headed to Australia in March 1971. Some of the best years of my youth were spent there especially at the Golf Beach Club, AHHH Memories. I was intending to go for a short visit before the events but alas it will not happen for a long time.

      Tony Tooma

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    6. Tony, thanks so much for taking time to jot down your memories here. I too wish that I had managed to get to Libya before things went south, but perhaps there will yet be an opportunity.

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    7. do you happen to have any memories about a possible role for the base in the six-day war in 1967. Rumours spread that fighters in the base were used in the battle against the Arab countries.

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    8. I have no actual memories of the base at all, but maybe someone who checks in here will know more about that time.

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  6. Peter, thanks so much for your comment. No, I've never actually been to Libya, much as I'd like to go. It was my parents who were there.

    I'd love to hear of your trip to the Roman ruins if you manage to get there.

    Yes, let us all hope for a peaceful and happy future for Libya!

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  7. I was stationed at Wheelus from July 65 to December 67. My wife and I really toured the countryside, visiting Sabratha and Leptus Magna. We even went inland and saw how the trogladites lived.
    I still have hundreds of slides from our stay there. One of my employees, Tony the Greek, lived in Tripoli. His father was the Orthodox priest of the small church. We shopped in downtown Tripoli many times. My tour was cut short because of the 3 day war.

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  8. Thanks so much for stopping in and sharing your reminisces, commenter. I applaud you and your wife for getting out and seeing some of this ancient land.

    REcently, my sisters and I were going through my parents effects and found their marriage license from Tripoli. It was in Italian, which made sense after my recent explorations.

    Did you click on the link to BahrainDC? I hope so because it seems quite possible that you will find some people you know or at least who might have shared the same experience posting in there.

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  9. I too was born in Libya in 1958 on the air base. My mother was sent there to deliver as she lived in Greece at the time and delivering there was not an option. She was placed in a facility with five other pregnant women all waiting to deliver and she has great stories about the fun they shared.
    A few weeks ago, via my brother, I received an invitation to return there from one of the new government officials. He encouraged me to return and see my birthplace but I think I'll wait! I was only there for five days so there's not much to remember!!Great story you wrote.....great encounter. I wonder if he was one of five born the same time as me!

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    1. The hospital where we were born at the former Wheelus AFB has been converted to other uses, but is one of the few remaining structures remaining from that era. Using google earth, you will be able to find it via the numerous wings of the building --on the ground, be aware that many streets in the area have been completely realigned, so the historic WAFB map will serve as an aide, but won't be useful for navigation.

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  10. Thank you so much for taking the time to write in p lago, on this historic day, especially!

    I've run into this man since but didn't mention the blog, but next time he comes into the store I will and maybe you can figure the days out.

    I was just saying on another blog how I would like to go there, as I now think I was actually conceived there. You should go! Of course, only when things feel right and safe for you, but what an opportunity!

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  11. I was also born at Wheelus (in 1956). While I've met but a handful of Libyan Americans in California, I've yet to find other USAF dependents born there (google can be so fickle with their search engine).

    I've been wondering what others with a Libyan connection have been experiencing during the past few months.

    I hope to be able to communicate with others that have been affected by the historic turn of events.

    For added serendipity, I once worked as an employee of an indie book store for over 10 years(and had similar problems when I first applied for a passport as brought up previously)!


    Mark Haile

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  12. Mark, thanks for posting. As another 56er, although born in Santa Monica, I'm feeling a bit frustrated at the moment that I don't seem to be able to get all the people who've posted in here connected. Have you checked out Bahrain DC?

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  13. Very interesting and nice. I was born on Wheelus AFB in June 1967. Thank you.

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    1. You were born at Wheelus June what of 1967?? Cause we were lving there and got evacuated because of the 6 day war in June of 1967.
      We went back stateside for 6 mos then went back for another year and a half.

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    2. I hope Witchita Catholic checks back here, Anonymous. Meanwhile, you might check out BahrainDC, where you might find some people who share your time there.

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  14. Thanks for taking a moment to stop in and comment here, WichitaCatholic. The base is proving meaningful to a lot of people, I think.

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  15. As a follow up note, someone much more traveled than I had told me how bland and spartan the Mitaga terminal was until just the last few years, when the now deposed regime finally invested in the tourist infrastructure. I don't know how well it fared handling the mobs of expats attempting to flee in the last days of the dictatorship, but the press corps held virtually prisoner until the liberation of Tripoli a few months back spoke highly of the change from just a few years ago, when the the hardiest of tourists would go to visit Sabratha and Leptis Magna.

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  16. Yes, Mark, it will certainly be interesting to see what happens now with tourism and all the rest of it. Cairo right now shows how uncertain these paths to liberation all are right now, but the U.S. and Libya do have a shared past at this point, and at least from my point of view one that could be positive in the future.

    Maybe I can do a follow up piece here on Libya, depending on what I can scrounge up, though it will not be immediate, as I'm pretty busy until the first of December.

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  17. Hi, I was stationed at Wheelus AFB, from 1956 to 1958 in the 7272nd Air Police Squadron. My best friend at the time and his wife had a son born during our assignment there. He is an author now, writing books of true adventure, visiting ghost towns of the west. His name is Bruce Raisch, "The Ghost Town Hunter". He has published four books so far and also writes a blog for Patch.com. When I read your story I nearly fell off my chair, because I thought he must have been the person you met. I posted your wonderful blog on to his. I think you may enjoy the memories that he and his mother JoAnn share.

    http://affton.patch.com/blog_posts/sands-of-the-sahara-4d8e7285

    My own blog on Libya, is at:

    http://aloha_journal.blogspot.com/




    http://affton.patch.com/blog_posts/sands-of-the-sahara-4d8e7285

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  18. Wow--this is great, Don. I'll definitely be checking out these blogs. I have been thinking of doing a follow up blog post about Libya for awhile now, and if I do I'll incorporate these links into it.

    I really need to talk to the man who was the impetus for this again--I feel a bit bad that he's been left out of the excitement.

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  19. My brother was born at Wheelus, in 1956. I was in the 3rd grade, Mrs. Reed at the dependents's school. I have many memories of our three years in Libya.

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  20. Ron, I'm sorry that your comment got lost in the holiday madness. It's nice to hear from someone who remembers a part of childhood there.

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  21. Thanks for the article. My dad was stationed at Wheelus AFB in 1966-1969. I was 9 y.o. My sister was born there in '67. In '67 we were evacuated out because of the 6 day war. Four months later, we were allowed to return to live on base. Until now I had no idea it was so well known. Honest, I really thought nothing of it. It is so cool to hear about the base and other people who remember living there. I actually loved it!

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  22. Sound like pretty exciting times there, Carouselwriter!

    One thing that has struck a friend of mine in talking about this is that there was this whole place and life and culture which meant a lot to a lot of people that now is utterly gone.

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  23. Hi, I'm so excited to find these posts about life at Wheelus AFB. My father was stationed there 57-69, both of my brothers were born and I attended 1st/2nd grade on the base. We were able to visit Leptis Magna, Sabratha and other local sights. I would love to connect with others and share memories about these early years of life in Tripoli.
    Carol

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    1. Carol, let's see if we can connect outside of this blog. Even if we can't remember each other from grade school, I would enjoy comparing our experiences.

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    2. Sorry for the delay Cathy. I noticed a typo in my comment - we were only there from 57-59 (not 69). If you still want to connect I can be reached at c.wilson7000@gmail.com.

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  24. Carol, sorry for the delay in replying. I had comment moderation on and didn't see your comment till a day or so ago.

    I'm planning to do another post on Wheelus soon, but I hope you will check out the links people have left, as you may find some old friends or people who share some of your memories.

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    1. Seana, the story of your parents' meeting is delightful. And your life as an indie bookseller is laudable indeed, especially when you are able to connect personal experiences with those of others -- and then share them with the world at large: like the ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond. I will try replying to some of the others who have posted here. My father was stationed at Wheelus in late '50s; I was in 4th and 5th grade at the base school. Our favorite activity was day-camping on a beach visited by only a few Italians (hundreds of yards away) and the stray goat-herder. I didn't think it could get any better, but Dad's unit was pulled out due to geopolitical issues and we were transferred to Iraklion Air Station on Crete. It was near idyllic. I enjoy your posts very much.

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  25. Great to have you aboard here, Cathy, and I do hope you will connect with some of these folks. I will probably do a blog post about it soon, but I did talk to the man who started this whole blog post in motion, and he happened to be there with his mother, whose name is Ginger Dixon. She was thrilled to talk about Wheelus, even with someone like me who had never really been there.

    Libya and Crete--waht a childhood!

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  26. Thanks for adding your piece of this here, Anonymous. How great that you were able to have that life expanding experience of visiting Leptis Magna at such an impressionable age!

    And even though this blog is usually about words and such that I'm puzzling over in some way, it didn't even occur to me to wonder about the origin of Tripoli. I assumed it was impenetrable. So thank you!

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  27. This may be old news to you, but I recently discovered a great read (if a bit on the academic side), "The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up among Worlds" by David Pollock & Ruth Van Reken.

    They did an excellent job of breaking down the commonalities of experiences, as well as how it affected our lives both as children and adults. Quite a reference section included as well. And no, it doesn't regard us in any pathological sense or in need of a therapist's couch. If you haven't read it, I'd recommend it for the 'A ha!' factor likely to happen.

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    1. Mark, thanks for the rec. While technically it doesn't really apply to me, which is one of the weird things about hosting this discussion, it sounds very interesting. I hope some others here who actually spent some formative years in Tripoli will check it out too.

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  28. One of the charts in the book measures the relative affect of overseas life on kids by age and length of time abroad. More than just military brats alone, it gives us some substantiation that those with even the most tenuous of foreign connections are far more in number than mainstream media would suggest --especially in this day and age when world isolationism seems to have as much political traction as the flat earth people and anti-global warming folks.

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    1. Mark, this has led me to think about the fact that I to was born in a sort of bicultural household, and this is because my parents met on an airforce base in another country. Although on the face of it, they were just part of white America, they were actually from very different places,in about as many ways as you could think--metropolis vs. rural, Democrat vs. Republican--different religions, places in the economic structure,in social class-without a crucible like Wheelus, they never would have met. Good think they enjoyed arguing about these differences, or they probably wouldn't have met even there!

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  29. I don't know know what the current curriculum for "American Studies" comprises, but the recent completion of the encylopedia of American slang makes me think of all the regional idiosyncracies or localisms that are falling by the wayside... one back-burner project of mine was the cataloging and examination of California coastal vernacular architecture (circa approx.l918 - 1968). The replacement of regional architecture by bland, vaguely international/post-post modern faux Tuscan strip malls drives me crazy... and yet is a metaphor for so much else that is being lost across the country.

    I think my espresso just hit.

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  30. Well, espresso or no, it would be a good project.

    It's a funny thing about the homogenization of America. On the one hand, the way that commercial enterprises have erased idiosyncracies can't be good, but on the other, I'm realizing that my Illinois cousins speak the same language in the way that my parents wouldn't have.

    And then again, America is still very much not a united country, if you watch the political news channels at all.

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  31. I don't apologize for being a boomer of a certain age that had his idea of standardized American English formed by David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley --yet for all the ways our country has come together over the past half-century, it has pulled apart in others (or those differences that were there all along have been revealed).

    Not everything from those "good old days" was all that good; and progress, is, well, still progressing sometimes one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. Thank goodness there are some civilized places from which to observe the change.

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  32. I can't find anything to disagree with here, Mark. Ah, Huntley and Brinkley. I think David Brinkley was my first TV crush.

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  33. They were the real-life embodiment of our generation's "Mad Men." Even though my great-grandfather (that passed away before I was born) ran a newspaper, it was Cronkite I think that planted the journalism seed in me --or at least, held it up as the most noble of professions (fortunately for America's youth I discerned in my first quarter that I didn't get the family teaching gene).

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    1. Isn't it funny how ancestors of a generation or two before us often seem to have been on the same path or leading the way somehow?

      Well, and Walter Cronkite couldn't have hurt...

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  34. For anyone who might happen along on this thread, I have put up a second post HERE.

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  35. The book on "Third Culture Kids" was very insightful --and useful to anyone who is or will be a parent (or a TCK themselves) because of international business, State Dept or other government jobs overseas, or anyone who has a spouse of a different culture. My younger brother, although born stateside, met his wife overseas, and they have worked diligently to ensure their children would have a connection with their overseas grandparents and their culture.

    NPR this morning reported that the composition of the United States will include many more families and communities of multiple cultures. It isn't difficult to see how this process extends all the way back to the Pilgrims. In much of Latin America nowadays, what Americans call "Columbus Day" is celebrated as the joining together of peoples from the two hemispheres.

    I've recently moved to the Little Bangladesh neighborhood of the polyglot megapolis of Los Angeles; following the tragedy in Wisconsin I have had numerous opportunities to exercise my responsibility as an American citizen to do my part in weaving together the disparate threads of "Americans."

    ...and the food is terrific, too. As was pointed out on a NPR story last night, the planet isn't getting any bigger, but through social media, travel and other interactions, we are all living in closer proximity with peoples we would never could have predicted or have imagined.

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  36. I wonder what percentage of people do actually grow up and live their whole childhoods in one place anymore.

    I only was conscious of one "military brat" in my high school and that was because he told everyone he was. I'm not sure if this is true for everyone, but I got the sense that he had learned to make his mark fast.

    What part of LA is Little Bengladesh? Sounds great.

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  37. I am libyan 65 years old I remember wheelus air base I spent beautifull time specialy the soccer tournement betewen American-Italian and Libyan teams & shopping it was wonderfull time-
    welcome to Tripoli if any American want to visit
    or want informations contact me-
    kabunuwara@yahoo.com
    Khalifa Abunuwara

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  38. Thank you so much for taking time to post here, Mr. Abunuwara. I think you are the first Libyan to comment!

    I hope all is going well for you there--you are living through some very interesting times!

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  39. Hi - My twin brother were born at Wheelus in 1956. We left in 1960 or so. I once saw a picture of my father standing at the Wheelus front gate on line but can't find it anymore. Its funny how the internet shows something then swallows it up. My father was an SP and my mother was absorbed by her 4 boys all with in 3 years of each other. Thanks for memories. We moved to florida, michigan, england, maine and colorado before I was 13. Air Force brat life I suppose. Frank

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    1. Frank, I found a picture of a man standing at the main gate of the base. Could this be your father? http://wheelus-ex-students.com/?page_id=346 I can't attach the photo but if you go to the ex-students page it is under PICS A F Base. My brothers were both born at Wheelus in 57-58, I attended 1st and 2nd grade during our assignment. Then it was on to South Carolina, Azores and Ohio when Dad retired.

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    2. Hi I am Libyan living in Scotland ,my father was employed by Wheelus air base in the 1954-1969, as a mechanic ,we lived next door to the base I remember playing with the American kids, playing base ball and other gams and how we were trying to communicate as kids ,I remember how kind some of the men were ,it was good memory, I hope Libya will become peaceful soon ,And welcome to any American wants to visit Tripoli for any help
      Nuri Lagha

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    3. So great to hear your voice as part of the memories here, Nuri. My dad was stationed there during that first part of your dad's era. Maybe they met. My dad wasn't a mechanic but he was working with transport, so he may well have met some Libyan mechanics.

      And yes, I hope that Libya will return to peace, not just for those of us who would like to visit, but for the Libyans as well.

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    4. Carol. Yes, thats it. Thanks very much. I was wondering what happened to the site. Funny how you stumble on something then seem to lose it forever. Thats him at the gate. Retired as a Msgt. Some calledh him Sonny. Harland J. Brittain. Jim to others. Thanks very much.

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  40. Frank, this is very cool. I was born stateside in the same year, after my parents returned to civilian life. I wonder if our paths overlapped in Colorado at all, because, though we didn't move with the military, we roamed a lot in our family life, and were in Lakewood, Colorado in the mid-sixties.

    There seem to be a lot of remembered but lost images of this era. I hope you check out Bahrain DC, linked to in the post above, as they seem to keep adding images constantly. You might also want to check out that book that Circuitmouse mentions, Third Culture Kids. You might recognize a lot of experiences in it...

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  41. We ended up @ Warren AFB in Cheyenne about a year or so later; we left for Travis in Northern California early in '64.

    I fondly remember visiting the spanking-brand-new Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in '62 ...when there wasn't a thing but jackrabbits around. Haven't spent any appreciable time in Denver since '89 (but I still have the tablewares I bought at Printemps --they were still enjoying the boom years then).

    If Santa gets me that new scanner for Christmas, I'll try to send the few pics that have survived 23 moves, two earthquakes and a flood and a fire over the ensuing [gulp] fifty years.

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  42. I remember that chapel. We used to go down and visit an old friend of my dad's, Harry Blout, who was still in the Air Force at the time. We took various visitors there over the time we lived in Denver--whihc would have been the late sixties. I remember people wanted to see it, but I don't think I ever knew that it was so new.

    I'll keep my fingers crossed for Santa. My sisters were the ones who went through more of my mom's stuff recently. I don't recall a Tripoli photo album, but I'll ask.

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  43. Unlike West Point or Annapolis, it seems as though the USAF Academy prides itself on newness instead of developing the patina of age. It's our good fortune that mid-century modern has been rediscovered by architects and designers and the Academy --though Colorado Springs has grown up to the very perimeter-- would seem to gleam as though it was just built (there is a slight bias there, I'll admit).

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  44. Maybe it's the altitude. I went back there for a wedding once, and there was a square dance. I have never seen (or been one of) so many young people who looked like if they had to do another reel they might out and out collapse.

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  45. hundreds of comments from Wheelus AFB servicemen here http://bahraindc.com/blog/wheelus-air-base-tripoli-libya/

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  46. Thanks, Wheelus. I mentioned this in the main post, but it's pretty far down the post, and it certainly doesn't hurt to mention it here again. Plus, there are many more comments and links there than there were when I originally put this up...

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  47. Thanks to my Tripoli friend, I learned of a YouTube of Tripoli in 1964. You can find my link to it here.

    If you've been over to BahrainDC, it may be one you are already familiar with.

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  48. Wow, this is amazing! I lived in Tripoli from 1966-68 and went to school (4th and 5th grade) on the base. My dad had a job with UNESCO. I too have fantastic memories of that time--even of getting evacuated to Germany during the war. Thanks for this.

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  49. Patricia, I'm very glad if the post brought back good memories for you. I hope you'll click on the link in my comment above yours to get to the YouTube, because I bet it will bring back even more of them.

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    1. I just got finished watching it. That's just how I remember Tripoli. It's so clear in my memory.

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    2. It's somewhat ironic that I have never actually seen Libya, but I am happy that this post has brought many people back to their memory of their time there. I do think you should check out Bahrain DC, which I linked to in the original post, because there are many, many people who have now posted there and who knows? You might even know some of them.

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    3. I looked at the site, but what is entered here speaks more powerfully to me. Most of the posts on the Bahrain DC site are from people who served at Wheelus. My family wasn't military and I really only went on base to go to school or for special occasions. I remember going to the movies on base from time to time. It's where I saw Born Free. And I remember the treat of ice cream flown in from Germany. I think your comment below about finding traces of a vanished past hits home.

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    4. Yes, I think there have been a couple of comments here from people who were not in military families, but who nevertheless have fond memories of the base and what it offered.

      As many commenters here seem to be my near contemporaries, I do get a picture of the alternate life I might have led if my parents had stayed in Libya rather than flying home.

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  50. Thanks for the leads -- after years of being on the far side of Tibet internet-wise there seems to be no shortage of fresh insights (and pics!) to help fill the void of my this-is-MY-hometown-blues...

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  51. As usual, I am really struck by the wellspring of feeling that people seem to tap when they revisit their memories of Wheelus and Tripoli. I think it must be because there is a sense of a vanished past that they are surprised to still be able to find traces of.

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  52. Just this past weekend, about three people in happened to casually ask in passing "where were you born?" that always prompts a variety of resonses, the most common one of late is to point into the heavens in the direction of Vulcan and say, "See that planet over there...?"

    That's SLIGHTLY easier than explaining, "Tripoli."

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  53. I'm sure I would only know it from the Marines Hymn if my parents had not actually met there.

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  54. 'Civilian'/non-Foreign Service stateside people just won't get it.

    It's like trying to teach a pig to sing...

    At least I have the good fortune to be in a large urban area where great numbers of expats, exiles, refugees and immigrants reside. Those with (or in need of) the coveted Green card and/or asylum seekers get it. Like when Kirk tries to explain he's actually from Riverside, Iowa.

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  55. Mark, well, right now, the Star Trek reference might actually help a lot.

    And though I think being in some way in exile must be harder than those of us who aren't can really understand, I do think your part of L.A. must be a fascinating place to be. I hope you are chronicling it.

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  56. It's a logical extension of the StoryCorps project regularly heard on NPR; wherever we happen to find ourselves, inevitably there are entertaining, enriching and educating stories all about us we can easily miss as we go about our lives, we know all so well that each of us are afforded an opportunity not available to everyone --and scarcely existed but for a rarified few until fairly recently in human history.

    Whether abroad for a few weeks or most of our lives, our individual experiences become part of the greater mosaic (and enchanting tales for the grandkids in years to come).

    Am reading "Why We Write" ed. by Meredith Maran. The common thread of the authors interviewed is just as you described.

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  57. Although I am actually not very zen, I have recently been thinking something along those lines. I was down in Carmel recently and watching people on the beach, I was struck by how much 'story' there was in each of the little tableaus I was witnessing, and how different each little grouping was.

    I have also been trying to hold in my mind lately, though not always successfully, how the random, passing encounters with strangers are such unique events and gifts. It is just this moment and no more that you get of them. The "be in the moment" part is what I'm not really good at, but it seems good to realize it as often as I can.

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  58. Great technique for fiction writing. Amazing how much inspiration you can get, merely from the stuff people shout into their phones....

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  59. Yes, when I somehow find myself in the midst of someone else's drama, I do try to remind myself that it's all material.

    Doesn't always work, but sometimes does...

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  60. WHEELUS GUEST
    I was a guest at Wheelus almost sixty years ago and I still recall the warmth of the welcome which matched the 90degree heat everywhere. In 1955 food-rationing from WWII in England had only just ceased and for an English youth my eyes had popped out at steak sizes I’d never seen, breakfast portions undreamed of, and chocolate bars in abundance. (I’d never heard of Hershey bars –but I soon learned). Suddenly England seemed even more austere when I saw the goods on offer in the commissary.
    I was sixteen and had gone to Libya as a young actor for desert location scenes for a movie we were making at Pinewood Studios back in England.
    A couple of days after my arrival at Idris airport the once-daily flight from London’s Heathrow ended in tragedy when a BOAC DC4 Argonaut crashed in flames on landing killing fifteen and badly injuring many of the forty-seven on board. Idris facilities were about what you’d expect of one of the world’s poorest nations with an international terminal that looked like it was the film set from Bogart’s Casablanca and the boys and girls at Wheelus had mobilised immediately, with helicopters ferrying the injured to the military hospital.
    A few days later, at a break in the filming schedule, I visited the base with a young woman survivor of the crash.. Tearful eyes all round including those of the chopper-boys filled with laughter when Rosemarie discovered the bouquet they had given her was swarming with ants which had joined the consignment somewhere locally. (Where had they had come up with fresh roses in such a desert?).
    The base was enormous. I had been fearful that the sight of aircraft so soon after the tragedy at Idris airport on the other side of the city would be upsetting but my companion was enjoying the tour as much as I was. At one stage our jeep rattled its way over the tarmac beside twenty or more very business-like looking fighter jets with US Air Force emblazoned on each silver fuselage together with the big white star. “F-86 Sabre-jets” our driver told us proudly. “See them swept-back wings? They’ll take-on anything those Commie-bastards can throw at us – they’ll out manoeuvre any of Jo Stalin’s boys”.
    Stalin had died two years before and his successor Nikita Kruschev had appeared to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards the West in an attempt to end the Cold War. Our driver, if he knew of the demise of the despot, cared little for the changes and continued to extol the superior virtues of the Sabre-jets over the Russian MiG-15s which he told us he had seen in dogfights in the Korean war a couple of years before.

    An international incident was narrowly avoided when this naïve British visitor took a photograph of his beautiful companion. I had not noticed that the background included some tents and several large aircraft. I still have the Zeiss camera which I had bought cheaply a couple of days before, just a museum piece now in our age of digital photography but I always remember that day when I had to hand over the film to the fierce military policeman declaring us off-limits.
    Actually he turned out to be quite an affable sort who having executed his official task seemed more than happy to assist my companion who had discovered that the ants were now invading her blouse. Uncle Sam’s Military Police are clearly up to anything the day throws at them and the Snowdrop produced some magic mosquito cream which he applied liberally to her neck. His enthusiasm for the task knew no bounds and soon it was the turn of the visitor gently to point out what was off limits.
    Apart from the loss of my pictures it was a memorable day with hospitable hosts, an air-conditioned day that offered a welcome contrast to the sweltering Sahara filming days that lay ahead.
    Happy days! More are captured at http://www.lovelifeandmovingpictures.com/

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    1. Terence, thank you for taking the time to post such a great story, ants and all.

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    2. Thank you Seana, I feared it was TOO long, thank you all for your patience. But that's Wheelus for you. So many have memories - and I was only there for a day!

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    3. No, not too long at all. I hope others will see it here. I also thought others might like to know that "The Black Tent" is available to watch at Amazon, which I certainly intend to do. I hope there will be at least a few desert scenes, but I think it will be a lot of fun in any case.

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    4. Seana. Making the movie was a lot of fun, not least because of the Americans I met from the base. The unit was housed at the Grand Hotel and the Wheelus Hillybilly Band came down to perform at a film ball.
      In 1950s, Arabic music was influenced by the West and I've never forgotten the bejewelled Eastern belly-dancer undulating to "I want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" courtesy of the Wheelus music.

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    5. Terence, I would give a lot to see that cowboy belly-dance amalgam.

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  61. Wow. As my Dad was serving as navigator with a search and rescue unit, it's quite likely he had a hand in that operation. He'd mentioned some years back one British aircraft they'd come across that dated to the WW II North Africa campaign some 12 or so years earlier.

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  62. FYI:
    On June 14, 2014, the Japanese American National Museum will once again be the site of the daylong "Mixed Remixed Festival" celebrating and sharing among those of multicultural, multiracial, mixed heritage. There will be films, poetry readings, a reception and a whole lotta family-friendly things (even for grown-ups) who have lived their lives checking the "other" box when it came time for self-identifying. It's a very cathartic experience, with some tears amid the laughter. Check out their Facebook page for latest information.

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    1. Thanks for that information, Mark. I'll add that the museum is in L.A. for anyone who happens to be able to go. I checked it out on the website and it looks like quite a happening place.

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  63. I was stationed at Wheelus AF Base from August 1949 to 1951. It had recently been opened as s MATS base 1603d AB Group . It also served as a winter training base for fighter groups out of Furstenfelbruck AF base in Germany and eventually became a SAC base. Facilities wee pretty primitive in some respect...NCO Clubl was two rooms with a parachute covered ceiling and a 6' bar with a light bulb over it. By the time I left we had a five room club with a night club outdoor terrace and a 25' bar and imported shows and bands from Rome. Daily "bus" rides to the beach (less in in his house on the beach . CO was a "strange' and remote b ird Colonel (last name (Beeks)) who forbid any civies being worn and who the troops loved to salute every night on a base music call in show with the then popular 'Aint' nobody here but us Chickens." Col Beeks was CO on eevening and had been flown out that night never to be seen again we all cried. Lots more memories but so long ago. Bob Klemm

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  64. Hi Bob, I'm glad to see you adding your bit to the Wheelus mosaic here. I don't know if my parents were in that NCO club or not, as he was a lieutenant, but I know they and practically everyone else was in one bar or another. I think there was an odd officer when my dad was there as well, but this would have been slightly after your time and so presumably he never met your colonel.

    I sure wish I'd thought to take notes on their stories.

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  65. It was the 20th TFW that did the airstrike. Flying the F-111. F-111's were never used for training at Wheelus, it was the f-100.

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  66. Thanks for this information, Anonymous.

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  67. I was born in Tripoli in December, 1970. Thank you for these memories of Wheelus which my family visited quite often.

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  68. Thanks for posting in here, Anonymous. Yes, the commenters here seem to cut through a very wide swath of time and cultures, which is just great.

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  69. Interesting to say the least. Born at Wheelus AFB in 1952.
    Apparently it was 110 degrees in the shade that day... which is probably why I'm an only child. Pop was a transport pilot for MATS ...Mom from the UK. I think they lived off base in an apartment for $25 a month. Camels everywhere .. smell was not to be believed. Thanks indeed for the meories.

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous. I just saw this. I don't know if I said in the main post that my dad was at MATS too, though not a pilot. If your dad was still there in 1955 they may well have known each other.

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