Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Libya 1955-1960

Libya has been in the news since old King Idris formed the "Kingdom of Libya" in 1952.  It was my good fortune to be stationed there off and on during 1955-58.  My official assignment location was listed as  Wheelus Air Force Base, a large airbase on the edge of town. Actually we spent very little time there. We flew in on C-119 "Flying Boxcars" with our guided missiles, launch equipment, Radar communications gear, guidance electronics, and vehicles of all descriptions. We landed at Wheelus and quickly made ready to go into the desert.

Between Tripoli and Bengazi, the only large towns in the entire country, there was a smaller town named Miserata.  South of Miserata is a scrub and sand desert all the way to the Atlas Mountains. This  vast area was taken over by the USAF and became the "European Guided Missile Test Range". Why "European"?  We presumed because the USAF had no guided missiles stationed in North Africa.

My unit fielded the Martin Matador Tactical Missile 61C, the first tactical missile stationed in Europe following World War II.  Our usual operating sites were in the forests of West Germany. The missiles were intended to reach military targets in East Germany. None was ever launched toward them.  Actual launches were practiced in Libya at the Test Range there.  I was part of the Electronic Guidance Team. The missile, when launched, took off from a location not far south from Miserata, and pointed further south toward the Atlas Mountains.  There were four  Guidance Teams sent with their tents, antennas, electronics and power generators, sent to four different sites, south about 100 miles into the desert.

 Wheelus Air Force Base isn't far from Tripoli and there was an intermittent stream of USAF vehicles going into town and back. Anyone who needed a ride got one. The Arabs were, even then, not very happy with the American service men.   Great Britain also had a large base just outside of Tripoli. The Arabs were  even more unhappy with the Brits.  

Most  Arabs were friendly and glad we were there. Or maybe they just liked the money we spent?  But young Arabs in particular flat didn't like us. They threw small pebbles at our slow moving convoys,  attempted  to cheat at every transaction,  picked our pockets as often as they could, and generally spit at our feet when ever possible. We were ordered not to respond in kind or act belligerently toward the host population. It was "turn the other cheek time" for the Americans.

Not so for the British. Now THEY knew how to handle the hostile Arabs (Wogs) effectively. They physically beat the devil out of the antagonistic Arabs.   The result was that the Arabs were very careful to avoid the Brits  even though they  absolutely hated them. 

Does anyone remember when Churchill was turned out to pasture? His long time associate Anthony Eden took over as Prime Minister. This poor guy undeservedly stepped into a holy mess. In Egypt Nasser was strutting and posturing and feeling his oats. He thought it was his destiny to join all of the Arab nations (The United Arab Republic) and, of course, he would be the top dog. Nasser attempted to take over the Suez Canal, a vital life line for Great Britain. The Suez floated most of the goods to and from India, which was then part of the British Empire. It became Prime Minister Eden's job to prevent any obstruction to Suez traffic - and still keep the United Arab Republic from starting another war.

Egypt, as a country, had a lot of horsepower. Libya essentially had none. Egypt had military might. In Libya the shop keepers threw pebbles. But Nasser had friends in Libya. They were the larger business men, ship owners, and bankers. The other Arab citizens were mostly impoverished and desperately poor. Houses were tiny and made of mud. There were no forests or even stands of trees. No lumber to build with. Fences of mud topped with broken glass surrounded small land holdings. Fresh water was raised in buckets of goat skin bags from wells that used  burros walking an armature in circles. The Arabs that were not of the cities were homeless, itinerant and always going somewhere else. They wandered the desert and the sea-shore. Many were called Bedouins,  dwelled near desert oasis's, were Africans from the south and from small camel caravans coming of going to market.

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