WHEELUS FIELD – TRIPOLI, LIBYA 1954 – 55 ERA OF KING IDRIS
Almost didn’t make it to Wheelus Field. Two times my Visa for Libya expired before I could leave the U.S. I had to take a train across the United States. The train ride was necessary because of an airline strike. In Washington, D.C. I had to go to the British Embassy to get my third visa. Then another train ride to Springfield, Mass. where we caught the plane to Wheelus.
The Military Transport Service provided our plane which was not plush. We had a Navy crew with sailors for stewards. They even charged us 85 cents for our box lunches. We crossed the Atlantic and had a two-hour stop at the Azores. Then on to Wheelus where we landed at 3:45 A.M. An hour later we were taken to our BOQ. Our rooms were quite a shock. Two people to a room, no hooks, towel racks, lamps, just an iron cot with a thin mattress. Needless to say I was ready to get some sleep at 5:00 A.M. An hour later I was awakened by an unrecognizable sound. It was a donkey serenade.
The buildings on base were spread over a large area. They did have a sort of shuttle service, but mostly it was walking through sand, sand everywhere, in buildings and on your clothes. Shoes were the worst victims of the sand. Even the golf course was sand.
After my trouble getting a Visa to enter Libya, I had to go into Tripoli to get a stamp in my passport that allowed me to stay in the country.
Shopping in the main city was difficult. Arab stores closed on Friday, Jewish stores closed on Saturday, and Italian stores closed on Sunday.
Some things remembered:
The beautiful Mediterranean, a place to swim and enjoy the beauty. We would be on a beach without a soul around, and in a second we would be surrounded by Arab children. Never did figure out how they appeared from nowhere.
The city of Tripoli with the Shores of Tripoli fort, tree lined streets along the sea, and the old town were always a source of pleasure to visit. The Ghiblis – the winds blowing from the desert sand brought dust storms and heat. Sabratha and Leptis Magna were magnificent ruins of Roman cities facing the Mediterranean.
Teachers did not have commissary privileges. Most of the food for the commissary and mess halls was flown in from the bases in Germany. Parents had to order milk for their children.
The greatest gift was when the parents of some of our students would bring us fresh vegetables. My favorite gift was a carton of cottage cheese. If we knew the right people we could order good products. One time I returned to my room to find 12 quarts of milk, 2 stalks of celery and 2 packages of cream cheese (no cottage cheese). A friend and I drank a quart of milk at lunch. I sold some of the milk. I had a great time enjoying the celery and cream cheese. I used to pass up celery, but we seldom got fresh vegetables so the lowly celery was wonderful.
It was always fun to visit the Suks, the markets, to see the bread, watermelons, pottery, dates, camels and donkeys bought and sold. The women wore several yards of cotton material wrapped around their bodies and heads, only a slit open for their eyes, The men always wore a type of white or red skull cap on their heads.
One Saturday morning from 8:00 -12:00 we attended a mandatory meeting of all civilians. We were instructed as to what we were supposed to do in case of atomic or biological warfare.
At the time of my year in Libya, oil had not been discovered and only four people had a college education. There was abject poverty for most of the people. We visited three Arab schools that were built and staffed by an organization known as the LATAS, Libyan American Technical Assistance Service. After seeing all the poverty stricken children it was amazing to see these showplace schools. One was a vocational and agricultural school, the second an arts and crafts school, and the third a teacher training college. The Libyans were trying to improve the lot of the population.
I remember the multitude of flies and how they really stuck on to you. You had to put forth some effort to get them off of you. The Libyans were always covered with flies and just let them stay put.
My living quarters improved as we were given single rooms, but still kept the iron cots with the thin mattress. We got to know the right people and how to scrounge to make the room more livable.
The school consisted of three separate buildings at different areas of the base. There were 32 teachers and staff members and 600 students. My 3rd grade room was in a portable building with no air conditioning, so the first month we had double sessions. The playground had no equipment for the students, just sand and more sand. Playground duty was just a delight. All the supplies were kept at the other two schools, as was my mailbox. The phone only received incoming calls. The desks were not the right size for my students. I made my flash cards out of scrounged materials from one of the schools and then had to walk two blocks to the primary buildings to the use the paper cutter. These are just samples of some of our problems.
Unfortunately the school and Civil Service were at odds a great deal of the time. We just didn’t fit their ways of viewing the hours of the workday, the workweek and they certainly did not agree with the school holidays. There was much discussion with the Civil Service here and our Superintendent and the Head of the European Dependent Schools. We managed to get our usual school vacations, but had to spend a few Saturdays putting in compensatory time. This meant just sitting around at school for so many hours.
We did manage a trip to the Holy Land and Cairo during Christmas vacation. It took two months of discussion and much changing of plans to get it together. Nothing came easy here.
Thanksgiving was really nice. Two football teams from German bases put on a really good game. After the game some of us flew to Rome where we spent the rest of the vacation.
Did manage to get to Cyprus, Malta, and Sicily. I am still sorry I never got to visit Carthage.
Even though we didn’t do much traveling while at Wheelus we still had plenty to do on base. There was square dancing, Italian lessons, bridge, visits to the beach, exploring Tripoli, sampling Arabic food, parties with friends, bowling, golfing in sand, and more parties. The year had its ups and downs and, being young, I thought it was quite an adventure.
PHALSBOURG AFB, FRANCE
A quote from the September 18, 1955 issue of Overseas Weekly: The huge runway at this stillborn NATO Air Defense Base is sinking in the mud and USAFE has closed the runway.” Therefore, I arrived at an air base that had no planes.
Phalsbourg AFB was located in a beautiful area of France, Alsace. It was about a 45-minute drive to Strasbourg on the Rhine River.
When arriving by train from Paris there was no one to meet me in the small village of Phalsbourg as was promised. Luckily an MP truck happened by and I got a ride to the base. I was let out at a BOQ and found a room. This room contained a narrow cot, a straight-backed chair, and a dresser, no lamp, no desk. During the year I tried to make it homelike by putting desert scenes drawn on paper over the windows, painting the ceiling squares yellow and blue, and finally getting some cast off curtains. Three civilian women employees and several officers lived in this BOQ.
For several months I didn’t know whether or not I would stay on this base. There were 34 students and 4 teachers plus the principal who also taught. The powers that be said we were over-staffed. The following is the chronology of my staying and leaving episodes:
1. Sept 11 – I heard I was going to a new school in Italy.
2. Sept. 13 – I will stay in Phalsbourg. In the middle of the morning my teaching assignment was changed from second and third grades to grades 3,4 and 6. There were no 5th graders in our school. No warning about this change, no text, no chance to prepare.
3. Oct 14 – A new principal arrived and she took my two sixth graders.
4. Oct. 24 – Rumors had it that I would leave Phalsbourg.
5. Oct 31 – I may stay.
6. Nov. 1 – Probably stay.
7. Nov. 3 – Staying even though I had orders to go to Chambley. The school officer said I was not leaving.
8. Nov. 25 – The chiefs of schools in France and Germany visited our bases and said we were entitled to only two teachers. Our school officer convinced them to hold off shipping one of us out until after Christmas.
9. After Christmas – I stayed.
The morale of the base at this time was at a low ebb. Funds and personnel had been cut. There were not enough employees to keep things going efficiently. The Officer’s Club was closed so we ate in the regular mess. There were no paved roads on base and so after a year of fighting the awesome sand in Libya, I now faced the sticky, gooey, and slippery mud of Phalsbourg. The day I finally got boots to help me through this phenomenon was a cause for celebration.
A BIG problem I had this year was the fact I did not get my hold baggage until Nov. 8th. Another problem was that Paris kept losing or misplacing our payroll records. Only once or twice during the year did we get our checks on time. The fact that they closed the American Express office on our base compounded the problem, as we had to go looking for a place to cash our checks. We usually had to go to Ramstein hoping we could get there before the office closed. The BX closed, but we did have a little snack bar. A bright spot was when they put a refrigerator in my room and the principal got a commissary card. When we purchased a hot plate and an electric pot for heating water we were really ecstatic. We produced some fabulous meals with this meager equipment.
Our Post Office was open from 9:30 AM until 12:30 PM. To use the Post office we had to go during school hours. We were with the children from 7:45 AM – 2:30 PM. We only ate with them in the snack bar. We served their lunch and cleaned the tables.
Somehow, we managed to put on a Christmas play – The Littlest Angel. My job one Saturday morning in December was to move costumes and scenery from the school to the Service Club. I couldn’t use my car because you couldn’t park near the school and you couldn’t park near the Service Club. We practiced the play on the stage of the Service Club Friday and were going to do so again on Saturday afternoon, but this is Phalsbourg and they were in the midst of tearing up the stage floor and would continue to do so on Sunday. I was going to put up the scenery, but of course that was impossible. We didn’t have Murphy’s Law here, we had Phalsbourg’s Law.
Another job I had was that of the secretary at the school. The powers that be requested forms to be filled out, but neglected to send the forms. So, I typed up the forms and then put in the information
Our school library had about 500 books. Some of the children’s mothers typed library cards for them. We had to classify and arrange the books on the shelves. This took care of our compensatory time for the rest of the year. We followed the Dewey Decimal System the best we could.
We got a day off from school in May. Strange reason – the troops had been working hard to make Phalsbourg, the base, beautiful. In appreciation everyone had the day off.
We had many unusual happenings this year in Phalsbourg, but this event topped them all. We four lady employees were enjoying a game of bridge when the base chaplain came in and told us there was a woman in labor in the dispensary. The couple was on their way to a new base in France, coming from Munich, when the woman started having labor pains. There were no nurses on base so one of the dependent wives acted as nurse. My principal volunteered to take care of their other child who was only 9 1/2 months old so the father could pace the floor. History was made in Phalsbourg – the first birth ever on base and then it turned out to be a multiple birth – twin boys. No scales in the dispensary so don’t know the weight of the babies. A helicopter flew the twins to a hospital in Landsthul, Germany. I was chief bottle washer and diaper scrounger for their other child. I went to the trailer park where the dependent families lived and did manage to obtain six diapers. The baby stayed in my room that night and her father picked her up the next morning. That summer, I worked six weeks in the base library.
Even though we had problems at Phalsbourg it was a great year, especially meeting some wonderful people. Because there were so few people there it was like one big family. I still correspond and have met with some of these people during the years since 1956. The location of Phalsbourg was just perfect for my VW bug and me. We were in the beautiful Voges Mountains, and just driving through the small, picturesque villages was a treat. I had the chance to take many trips during the year. One of the most beautiful drives was from the base to Saverne, a distance of about ten miles. In the fall the leaves on the trees were spectacular, so colorful. Coming from desert country this really made an impact on me.
This year could not have been that bad because in September I would be on my way to Rhein-Main for another go.