Lieber, Llewellyn, : Libya: 1953 – 1955: Wheelus Air Force Base

Life begins at 40″ was not the lure which prompted me to ask the St. Louis Board of Education for a “Leave of Absence” in mid-term from my top-pay position as a 19-year-veteran earning $5000.00 yearly. Rather it inspired me to attempt a whole new way of life when the death of my mother severed filial ties, even though it meant nearly a $1,000.00 cut in salary. (I figured transportation and lodging, less income tax would make up the difference.)

Having decided to go, I had to research, “Where is Tripoli?” since all I knew was the song, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli” and the library didn’t yield much more information! I received instructions to bring “lots of formals and swim clothes,” which meant a frenetic shopping spree in mid-winter since it was January when I received confirmation of my acceptance.

My orders arrived in February and I was off to a new life via a railroad compartment, which allowed me to sleep most of the way and recover from my exhausting preparations. My “Send-off” by faculty and students left a nice warm feeling and no regrets. However, when I arrived in Westover AFB, I discovered that I’d left my Travel Orders in St. Louis and I had no Visa to enter Tripoli! In about a week both matters were corrected and off I went in a C-130, bucket seats along the wall and cargo filling the center space. I was very grateful I was wearing a fur coat! After a stop in Harmon AFB in Newfoundland, the Azores and Nouasseur, Morocco, we touched down in Tripoli, Wheelus Air Force Base, at 1930 hours on Friday the 13th of February 1953, in the dark and with no one to meet me. I got a quick indoctrination on military protocol and the powers of rank, being rescued by a Colonel whose flight to Saudi Arabia was interrupted by illness and who saw to it that I got billets and the following day, forced the unnailing of window shutters and the cleaning of the small oil stove wicks when I informed him of the fume-induced illness of some women quartered there. He also escorted me to the Officer’s Club formal Valentine Dance where I wore my new white formal with red velvet trim. Then he was off to his assignment.

Wheelus had been a race track for the Italian colony established in Tripoli, so many Italians and a large contingent of military personnel lived in the town with Arabs a minority and the English language no problem. The race track was enlarged to become the military airstrip on the boundary of which was the “villa” Mussolini erected for his mistress and which became the Transient Billeting Quarters for women crew members arriving and dependents departing Wheelus. One large room held sixteen cots where I spent a few days.

When two more teachers arrived we three were moved to a small room containing three cots and one chest of drawers with enough room between the cots to sidle into bed. After several weeks one teacher persuaded an off-base family to rent her a room, so two of us shared the room. With flight crews arriving and fresh ones departing along with passengers quartered in the billets, we teachers were not getting much sleep or rest. We soon had to take sick-leave. One such day a toilet was jack-hammered out of the tile floor and another day Billeting came in with nice inner-spring mattresses to replace the two-inch pallets on our sway-backed cots. Ah! Luxury! Which ended shortly when we were finally moved off-base and the Base Commander ordered the nice, new mattresses to stay in the Transient Billeting quarters and we got our thin-matressed cots again (I finally got plyboard to preserve my spine).

The unusual arrival of four new teachers in the middle of the school year (three red heads and a blonde from all sections of the USA) was necessitated by the erection of a new school building of four rooms. The first teacher was billeted off base in a hotel room as were all the other teachers; the blonde got herself off-base with a military family, and they each secured a classroom. That left two of us to work in the school office; for a short time to work in a military office; and finally to pull substitute duty when the other teachers got fed up with their schedules and took sick leave.

Our predicament was the result of the military’s refusal to accept the new school building until the windows, which were three-sectional and opened outward, were property hinged from the top instead of the bottom as the contractor had installed them. By the next school year all rooms were functional and all teachers had a room albeit on double-session.

I was assigned the one-to-five p.m. schedule since by this time I had a Morris Minor convertible so I could get off and on base easily from our new off-base quarters which we were moved to when three new women arrived on base; a secretary, a court reporter and a Recreation Director. We shared a five-room, one bath “villa” (flat) occupied upstairs by a military family. Teachers were allowed single quarters, the other women had to share. Before we moved in, we two teachers were allowed to make suggestions so we had bars put in the windows, a bidet replaced by a second wash stand, brass nameplates put on the front door and chose our rooms in which we lived until Christmas 1953. Then we were moved on-base to brand new two-story billets with one large room for every occupant, a bath between every two rooms, and a corner room with a refrigerator in which we stored the milk we asked flight crews to bring back from Germany. We had none in Tripoli and missed it. I also missed tomatoes and lettuce while the GI’s missed ice cream!

Non-academic activities were mostly recreational and self-indulging since the billeting Arab-maids cleaned our rooms and made our beds. Self-hired Arab maids washed our clothes, and we ate largely in the Officer’s Club, so there were few demands on our free time. Although we were restricted concerning foreign travel resources, I never knew anyone to get “Rock Fever” since Tripoli is on the Mediterranean Sea and has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, excellent for swimming (but not surfing) and snorkeling wasn’t “in” at that time. So, in April, I learned how I could rent a seaside “cabana” and persuaded enough others to join me so that we occupied a double-deck of adjoining rooms, each with a door, window and sand floor subsequently equipped with electricity when I cajoled a Tech Rep to get the landlord’s permission to install the wires, thus improving his property. That enabled us to have hot-plate, fan and light. Supplemented with an iron cot and thin mattress, one could live quite well. With my teaching hours, I could stay out late and still get all the BOQ sleep I needed to function capably in the classroom. The out-of-school summer months were no drag! We had to release our “digs” after a Halloween party.

On the base, we had the Officers’ Club which had weekly Bingo. .. not one of my favorite pastimes, but during the colder months, good to be indoors. (I found my fur coat useful for many months even with wool clothes under it for the desert was at our back door and it can be cold.) I remember two occasions when I won at Bingo ..a whole case of wine! Embarrassed as a teacher, I promptly shared with all takers and left the club empty handed. There were frequent dances, of course. We had free movies on base but not until after I left did they air-condition the theatre for the hot nights, especially when a Ghibli blew off the desert filling the air with sand and raising the temperature which brought on sinus headaches. (St. Louis is noted of sinus problems but I thought I’d be cured in Tripoli!) Opportunities for off-base recreation consisted of numerous very good restaurants, many Italian owned with Italian food. The English had their Club and also a race track with a short season. There was a surprisingly little co-mingling of the English and American forces but no ill-will that I was aware of.

Several very nice hotels operated in town (Italy’s heritage) some of which our teachers were quartered in until the billets were built. They all had good restaurants with dancing (live orchestras) and one had all-night gambling. Local transportation was by horse-drawn carriage with Arab drivers. Folks with acute olfactory nerves complained of the manure but I was lucky, it didn’t bother me.

The base had a good PX where I bought Wedgwood items, German anniversary clocks, Hummels, and cloth which I took off base to an Italian dressmaker when I needed cool cotton clothes for the warm weather. I had my hair done weekly at the on-base beauty shop managed by an Italian man who cut my hair beautifully (not many know how to cut naturally curly hair). There was a large on-base beach (but it didn’t compare to our rented one at the Piccolo Capri, one of the several adjoining beaches in town ). There was a hospital on base where a GI gave me four shots in one arm which resulted in several days of sick leave and an arm that looked like Popeye’s. The theatre served as a Chapel

We had an NCO Club and an Airman’s Club. A couple of times all the teachers, secretaries, etc. who were unmarried, were invited to a dance at the Airmans’ Club to give them a “touch of home” and a chance to fraternize with American women whom, they complained would not “date” them, but only the officers. I met one such GI many months later at a church-showing of my slides, where he came up to me to complain of our conduct. So I asked him if he would date me now that I was in St. Louis, which quite visibly took him aback! I explained to him that all the teachers were much older than the GI’s and preferred to date the older men (those few who were single) just as he preferred his age group in St. Louis.

Separated by a long expanse of beach was “The Camp” where contingents of men lived in tents for the period of time they came down from Germany to practice flying in the perfect sunny weather of Tripoli. It was almost like a separate base, sort of hush-hush but I don’t know if that was fact or fiction as we were free to go to their small club and they to ours.

Dating was a problem not only for GI’s. Most men our age were married with children whom we taught. Single men on rare occasions married one of the Italian girls (including my lady hairdresser) but the Italians protected their women and were not eager for inter-marriages. No one dated an Arab. I don’t know about the English who were also largely married with families. However, our Recreation Director did marry a Tech Rep after a whirlwind courtship of a couple of weeks. He was there to photograph Libya aerially, prospecting for oil deposits, which were found and later brought great wealth to the country, as well as an Army and Qadhafi.

No on-base tour agency existed despite the proximity of magnificent Roman ruins, some say the best preserved in the world due to being buried in the sand for so long. Archeology seemed to be of desultory concern with almost no protection of the great treasures easily obtained by visitors. The young GI whose car I bought when he was suddenly shipped to Germany, had several tea-cup size clay oil lamps he had picked up from the sand. He gave me one which I sent to the St. Louis school system’s Audio-Visual Department along with a wooden plow, rake, a man’s cap and gown (barracan and fez), reed flute, reed-and-goat-horn, drum and tambourine, and a wooden cowbell which were displayed in a large case for years. Herodotus wrote in the Fifth Century that Berber tribes occupied the coast of Tripoli with successive armies of Egyptian, Greek, and Phoenicians conquering the land. The latter founded the towns of Leptis, Oea and Sabraths (Tripolitania). The Romans arrived (146 BC – AD 450) and created a Golden Age of olive groves, dams, roads, oil-presses and monuments, many of which are visible today. The Vandals came next (A.D. 450-533) only to be unseated by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian who restored Leptis Magna for use as his capital. But the Arabs conquered Tripolitania and fought with the Berbers for 500 years to control it. The Norman Dukes of Sicily occupied the land until 1160 when the Arabs regained control. In 1510 the Spanish conquered the country and gave it to the Knights of St. John/Malta who ruled until 1553 when the Turks took over and ruled until Italy secured control in 1912, then granted it autonomy in 1919 when it became the Tripolianian Republic. But the Italians didn’t give up easily and started a colonization of the coast, which ended with World War II in 1943 when Tripoli was captured by the Allies. In 1951, His Highness the Emir Sayed Mohammed Idreiss el Senussi formed a government and became King of Libya. Occasionally, he allowed tours of his palace, which I was able to take. There was a great resemblance to French rooms I had toured in Europe … not overly ornate, but, obviously expensively furnished in very good taste. I don’t recall ever having seen King Idress, as he was familiarly known, but he was well liked and highly regarded by his subjects. Years later, when he went to Europe for health reasons, he was over thrown by Colonel Qadhafi.

At the time I was in Tripoli, native schools were functioning but it was said that only one person in the entire country was a college graduate. This, they said, was due to the loss of many young men in the constant warfare Tripoli experienced. We were privileged to tour one girls school where they wore uniforms. The school appeared quite modem in its facilities. Education ranked high on the country’s agenda.

We sometimes visited the open-air market where Bedouins came with their camels, livestock, grains and trinkets to sell. It was a large square of sand where merchandise was displayed on the ground and sellers squatted, or sat or stood, as appropriate with business conducted in a low-key atmosphere and our presence was accepted. But there was another market, the souk, or bazaar, where skilled craftsmen lived, worked and sold their wares in the Old Town. I have copper plate with silver inlay of an Egyptian scene with hieroglyphics which I purchased in the souk and two brass name plates widely used on doors of houses. There were butcher shops where fresh meat hung on hooks without refrigeration and myriad flies swarmed over it. I tried to photograph this but the flies did not show up. It was not considered safe to be in the souk after dark although everywhere else presented no problems.

Kuskus, or cous-cous, a grain dish was the mainstay of the Arab diet. Tea was the national drink (no liquor allowed by the Koran) served in tiny glasses, very strong and sometimes with peanuts added. Dates were eaten and exported. On Wheelus Air Base there were about 300 date trees, I was told. Each one was separately owned by an Arab who had to be individually tracked down to get permission from him for the Base to care for them with the proviso that the dates could be harvested by the owner when ripe. Occasionally, a date tree had to be moved for Base purposes which required the owner’s permission and involved the use of a huge tractor trailer to move it to another area for replanting. If the tree died, the Base owed compensation to the owner.

The Arabs used prickly-pear cactus compactly planted to form walls around their property, which bloomed in the spring with a mass of pretty yellow blossoms. The people were poor, labor was cheap and thievery was high. To protect my car while living off-base, I parked it nightly in a garage where it was cleaned and driven to my home each morning in time for me to drive to school. Two new dresses I picked up from the dressmaker in town and carelessly deposited on the back seat of my open roadster disappeared while I dashed in to make a car payment. Luckily my camera was in a bag on the floor between the front and back seat so I didn’t lose it. However, I never heard of any stealing by our maids. Children were frequent beggars for “Baksheesh” (a handout) and the word could be used in bargaining over a sale (cheap). There was a large stone quarry just outside town where I went to photograph, and found a Bedouin with two camels, which he permitted to be ridden (in my case for a picture of me on it). I never witnessed a real caravan of camels but individual ones were plentiful.

With a sturdy, trustworthy car, one could venture into the barren, sandy regions of not too distant coastal towns where ancient ruins remained partially buried. I had the good fortune to go with a friend who was also interested in photography. So, we visited the ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna which at the time were unattended and unguarded despite their great size and beauty. The ancient town of Oea lies buried under modern Tripoli. But an olive press, bits of Roman roads and the still well preserved Arch of Marcus Aurelius were still visible in Tripoli.

Also in Tripoli, right on the coast, is the Barbary Coast Castle, a reminder of the pirate days when tribute or capture was the fate of ships traversing the coastline of North Africa. From 1790 to 1800 the United States paid such tribute but finally went to war, which ended in a treaty. This is the basis of the Marines’ song: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”

At Sabratha, about 40 miles west along the coast from Tripoli, were Roman columns still standing like sentinels guarding bits of temples, baths, private dwellings and a well-preserved theatre seating 5,000 people. In the opposite direction, about 70 miles east of Tripoli, lies Leptis Magna, another port city wherein are the remains of a beautiful theatre, which is ranked among the world’s finest Roman ruins, the Greater Basilica, the New Forum, the market, the Baths of Hadrian and the Gymnasium, all in spectacularly good condition. What a feast for anyone who loves history as I do!

Then there were the small towns of Garian and Jeffra located inland and in more mountainous country, which we visited. They are of ancient origin but are lived in just as is Tripoli. Caravans used the route between Tripoli and Garian as evidenced by milestones found along the road. One of three early Christian churches lies about 12 miles southwest of Garian, proof that the religion had a foothold in the area. These towns provide a weekend getaway from the base and a chance to live among the natives away from the modem life more prevalent in Tripoli.

Getting out of the country was difficult with the solution being “charter a plane” which a group of civilians and military did for the Easter weekend in 1953…we went to Malta. There we saw the catacombs early Christians utilized for worship and burial. It was in Malta that the Hospitalers, an order of monks and knights, cared for the sick and wounded crusaders during the last crusade, making Malta their headquarters as the “Knights of St John.” We took a bus tour around the main attractions during our too brief overnight stay, the beautiful clock tower being a highlight

When school was to recess for the summer, I requested Environmental Leave to visit relatives stationed in Germany. Civilian Personnel routed me through Rome instead of directly through to Wiesbaden. With the assurance of my Principal that all would be O.K. despite my misgivings, I left and reached Wiesbaden without stopping over to sightsee in Rome which I’d done in 1950, for the Holy Year celebrations. When it came time to return to Tripoli, I ran into trouble because of the circuitous routing. After nearly a week during which I made arrangements to fly back commercially if I didn’t get on the last flight which would get me back before school started, a Colonel, who was also waiting, came to my rescue which I learned only later from a Sgt. The Colonel refused to board the plane unless I was put on it, too. I got back on a weekend in plenty of time for the opening of school but that didn’t prevent my Principal from being very angry (he conveniently forgot he insisted I go via Rome) and refusing to let me teach morning hours which, of course, turned out to my great advantage.

Our next charter plane flight was for Easter vacation in 1954. That trip took us to Egypt where some time was spent shopping after we visited the Pyramids and Sphinx where I had a camel ride for a short distance and got a glimpse of the Nile River Valley. In Cairo, we saw the Citadel, the zoo, and Mosque of Mohammed Aly. Leaving Egypt, we flew over the Suez Canal and on to Jerusalem for the Easter Sunrise Service at the Garden Tomb where Protestants believe Christ was crucified. Then we took in areas which the Catholics venerate: the Via Delorosa or Way of the Cross, Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the Greek Orthodox Church was celebrating Palm Sunday since their calendar lags ours by a week. We were taken to Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives as well as Golgotha. We returned through the Damascus Gate to visit the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Omar. Of course we stopped but we were very careful not to look too long toward Israel and Mount Zion because we worked in an Arabic country which would have sent us back to the United States had we visited Israel and our passports were so stamped. We didn’t take a chance!

Our next destination was Jericho via the Dead Sea where the brave souls went in the water, but I stuck only my toe into the salt brine, which was difficult to wash off as the brave ones found. Jericho was our next stop via the River Jordan. We saw the Well of the Displaced Person, Temptation Rock and the famous Walls of Jericho in the process of excavation. It was on to Bethlehem to see the Shepherds Hill and the Church of the Nativity on the site where Jesus was born. Here we ate a box lunch furnished by the hotel which very quickly put my roommate and me horizontal on the back seat of one of the taxis used to drive our tour group to Syria. Once there, the hotel sent a doctor who prescribed something that overcame our distress so we didn’t lose out on the sightseeing. My roommate was very upset because she had watched her diet so carefully and I had not, but we both got something from our box lunch and nobody else in the group did. Once on our feet we visited the bazaar to shop a little, saw Mt. Hebron and the gate where St. Paul was lowered in a basket to escape.

It was a short journey to Beirut, Lebanon, where we toured the wonderfully preserved Temple of Bacchus and the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbeck. And for one dollar I had one of the best hair cuts of my life! Our flight back to Tripoli took us to the island of Cyprus and the town of Kyrenia where we toured the St. Hilarian Castle, saw the harbor and departed for Wheelus via Idris Airport in Tripoli to finish the school year.

Although school was out in June, getting a plane out of Wheelus, even space required was not easy because planes were few and far between and sometimes took no passengers, just freight. I had learned that one need not go directly back to the U.S., but could break one’s return in Morocco so I’d written ahead and booked myself for nearly a month of tourism. I mentioned this to another teacher, the wife of a Tech Rep, which almost proved my undoing as on the day I was booked to fly out of Wheelus, I was bumped by them. I remonstrated only to be told by the husband that he had Travel Orders requiring his presence in

Morocco. I asked him what business he expected to accomplish over the Fourth of July weekend? By the sheerest of luck, a cargo plane came through the next day (unexpectedly) and I was able to fly out on 3 July, 1954 in time to make connections with the expensive tour I had paid for but could have lost because I shared my plans to travel home in a fashion no one else had done before.

A few days prior to this event, I had a different problem because Civilian Personnel had neglected to inform me of the procedure for getting a pack-out. So, I busily secured a large wooden box and packed it as well as a couple of footlockers with all my possessions for shipping back to St. Louis. Again, a Colonel came to my rescue … a man whose child I had retained in the second grade. Whether he helped me to insure I wouldn’t be there next year, or whether it was sheer kindness (and that is what I really and truly believe was his motive), he happened to meet me as I left the Transportation Office wondering what to do next. We returned to that office and he requested the Sgt. handle my problem but was rebuffed to the point that I was almost sure a fist fight was going to occur. However, he told me he’d move my things himself and did so, driving a forklift to the office where he stood and watched the Sgt. properly bind and process my

outbound goods! Believe me, I bless that man to this day! Nor do I neglect the other two Colonels who so kindly helped a “maiden in distress”!

So, at last, on 3 July, 1954 I boarded a military plane going to Morocco where I disembarked at Nouasseur and Casablanca for a train ride to Tangiers. Happy to be on my way, I was dumbfounded to learn from the train conductor that I was supposed to have transferred trains several miles back (which no one had bothered to tell me). Train schedules being what they were, he suggested that I get off at the next stop, wait for a train going back to Sidi Slimane and wait there for the next train to Tangiers. Upon arriving in Sidi Slimane, I was the only passenger disembarking and it was getting dark. The porter frightened me so that I went into the station and called for the Security Police from the near by base, as I’d been told to do if I ever needed help. They responded quickly and since no train was due for two days, they suggested I take a room over a bar in town where an American couple lived so they felt I’d be safe enough. Safe I was, but I had no local money to buy food or pay my hotel bill and it was the Fourth of July, so the base was “closed down”. What to do? Hearing English below my window, I spotted three Sgts.. and yelled down to them to wait for me to come down and talk to them. (What a scenario!) I quickly told my sad tale and this time it was three Sgts. who came to my rescue. They drove me on Base, entertained me until time to return to my hotel and the next morning they were there to escort me on the train ensuring my safety. What good guys! I just hope my companionship was beneficial to them, also, for I know how lonesome the men overseas can get just to talk to an American woman.

So, without further mishap, I arrived in Tangiers, visited the Casbah, took pictures and caught the boat next day for Algeciras, Spain. I headed for Gibraltar, which was easily covered in a day after which I reached Alcobaca, Portugal, on the 8th of July. There I saw a 12th century monastery before traveling on to the Shrine of Fatima, which was impressive. Another monastery at Batalha and a Tomb to an Unknown Soldier. When I reached Coimbra, it was a Feast Day with much celebrating and a parade.

Having visited the northern portion of Spain in 1950, I was anxious to cover the southern area so it was off to Algeciras again where I joined a bus tour which went on to Seville where I saw the Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Chapel of Ferdinand and Isabela and the Alcazar. Next, to Madrid with the nearby walled town of Avilla. Having been there before, I quickly went on to Valencia where I visited the Museum and Cathedral. It was a Feast Day in Alicante and the site of Trogdolite Gypsy Homes. In Granada there was Flamanco dancing and the Summer Palace to see while my final stop was the Alhambra with its gardens, court of lions, and a Turkish bath, also the Tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella.

The tour over, I headed back to Tangiers, made the train trip correctly to Casablanca and Nouasseur where I managed a little sightseeing, especially the Casbah. I departed on 26 July for Westover AFB ,which I had left one-and-a-half-years before.

I had succeeded in having my year’s Leave of Absence extended by pleading that I would have a difficult time returning to St Louis in midwinter and locating an apartment, etc. Arriving home August 1st gave me time to find a very nice furnished apartment (with the help of my sister-in-law) and set up housekeeping just across the street from the school I’d left for Tripoli! But I’d caught the bug and let Civilian Personnel at Scott Air Force Base know that I might consider another tour somewhere in the Far East. So when the call came, I took Educational Leave (my only recourse) and agreed to earn thirty credits in the next two years. I promptly earned sixteen credits by enrolling simultaneously in St. Louis and Washington Universities, which made for a very busy summer culminated by sub-leasing my apartment (with my landlord’s consent) to a woman who moved in without my having to move all my possessions out. And so, I left for Japan via Seattle on a government troop ship in August, 1955. But that’s another chapter!

Copyright 2004 American Overseas Schools Historical Society