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Zugspitz 2

Living in Tripoli

While out on the test range we shot several missiles toward the Atlas Mountains in the south.  We usually stayed deep in the desert for a few weeks before returning to Wheelus A.F.B.  From time to time we had a short rest period. We took a supply helicopter or a weapons carrier back to the big city.  While in Tripoli they tried to keep us separate from regular base personnel. Impossible. Space was short on the base and our crews had to find a place to stay outside of the base. Our Lieutenant at the time, (probably Manny Groves, Richard Bass, or Prahalis), after a major search,  found a small house for us. It didn't look like much from the outside, but inside it was worse. The rooms were small with much sand on the floor, but generally clean. It was  a palace compared to our nearest neighbors hovel 100 yards away. Each of our small rooms held from 4 to 10 of us, and we slept on war surplus Army cots, wires and springs, and no mattresses. Folded blankets under and one lay on top. 

There's not much wood in Libya. As the waring troops moved from Tunisia through Libya and on to Egypt, and then reversed (from Egypt through Libya and back to Tunisia) the various military forces denuded the impoverished land and used up all of the wood. Because raw materials were in short supply, the local arabs used every possible substitute. Our Libyan house, for example, had beams running across the flat ceiling of every room. The beams were the frame rails of large trucks.

Libya has been in the middle of several wars. It has been inhabited by Romans, Germans, Italians, and British. One conflict was replaced by another. While in Tripoli we obtained some cars and a couple of weapons carriers and visited Leptis Magna. I had never heard of the place and was shocked when we finally arrived. Nothing but piles of stones and broken columns.

Leptis Magna was my first exposure to Roman ruins. In school I'd passed over the history of the Roman Empire way too fast. I slogged my way through the Gibbons "Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire", but didn't, apparently, get it. From biblical studies and the movies I knew at least the names of a few people from that time, but not so many. I'd been to the Coliseum in Rome and a couple of other buildings dating back to those times, but I never formed a picture of ancient Rome in my mind, nor did I understand the impact of the Holy Roman Empire. I felt like I tried to take my first step and had missed the earth.

Several of the men loaded themselves into a weapons carrier and drove to Leptis Magna. It's an easy drive from Tripoli. We first saw it in the distance and it wasn't particularly impressive. As we drove closer it became a huge and astonishing ruin of a very large city made of stone. There were standing pillars and broken ones, brick alleys and roadways, formal public bathes, water supply systems, broken grand buildings, and broken and whole statues near important constructions. In the middle of all the random bricks and stones and archways was a huge amphitheater not unlike the coliseum in Rome, but in a more ruined condition. There was a central ground (gladiators and lions), a stage of sorts for plays and fantasies, and a 3/4th circle of cement and brick seats for (perhaps 20,000) people. It seemed to be about 1,000 feet across (diameter) but my memory isn't clear. I do remember that it was easy to visualize gladiators and lions on the main stage. 

Struck the tents and returned to Wheelus. Packed up the gear, put on the parachute and hit the flight line at dawn. C-119 Flying Boxcars were sitting there with no pilot in sight. Co-pilot and Loadmaster were ready to go. It was the normal "hurry up and wait" syndrome. An hour later the pilot pulled up in a Jeep with his bags packed and said: "okay Charlie, load her up", and Lt. Timothy, (Co-Pilot) please join me for a walk around check". In less than ten minutes we were rolling toward the take off end of the runway. The plane never slowed down but did a fast turn to the right and on came full power. In 20 seconds we were over the Mediterranean headed for Rome. Why Rome? 

The Pilot spoke over the intercom and said he wanted to make a quick stop in Rome to pick up a couple of officers that were stranded there. We landed. Our Lt. gathered the Sembach guys on the tarmac under the left wing and told us we were semi-officially on leave until 4:30 pm. That gave us about six hours to take in the sights or whatever. An Air Force bus pulled up, we left all our gear on the aircraft, got on the bus and headed off base to the city of Rome. We got there in mid-morning and the first thing anyone thought of was beer. There was a pizza cafe with chairs and tiny tables on the sidewalk in front. A few of us broke away from the group and ordered beer and pizza. All of the group was to meet exactly where the bus dropped us off, at exactly 3:30 pm.

At the cafe we watched the Italian men pinch the girls bottom and warble a song as they strolled the sidewalk. The pizza was great and the beer was better. There was very little time. A cab was hailed. Then another. They were dented and worn Fiats of some description and were intended for a driver and three occupants. We managed six Airmen stuffed into each cab. We took in a few tourist sight but I've forgotten most of them. Some formal gardens, the Colosseum and a government building, and a shopping street. We expanded out of the cabs and walked down this fantastic street where a person could purchase tomatoes, bread, a motor scooter, fragrances for the lady, pumpkins and other squash, clothes for men, second hand anythings, a brand new bicycle, squid, a live lobster, wrenches and screw drivers, and on and on. A veritable Sears, in the middle of the street. No traffic, but a billion people pushing and shoving along.

Surprisingly, everyone made it back to the pre-arranged bus stop at the appointed hour, and we got back to our airplane before take off time.



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