March 5th, 2014:

WHEELUS AFB WAS ONCE A RACETRACK

I’m sharing some more interesting information I received from Terence Sharkey about Libya. What makes his piece even more interesting to me is the fact that I edited a memoir last year – The Gods Who Fell From the African Sky by Dick Mawson – that related Mawson’s adventures on the racing circuits (another name for racetracks)  in Rhodesia and South Africa. I didn’t know Tripoli had its own racecourse long before I lived there.

***

Before World War II part of Dictator Mussolini’s grand scheme for the Italian protectorate of Libya had been his motor racing circuit. When built in 1933, it was said to be the fastest in the world and its eight and a quarter mile circuit round the centuries old salt lake at Mellaha attracted the world’s drivers. Its start/finish line was dominated by a tall white control tower and the vast 10,000-seater grandstand with cantilevered roof of reinforced concrete was the first of its kind.

 

Race track before Wheelus AFB was built.

Race track before Wheelus AFB was built.

Sadly, as sport does, its popularity attracted crooks too. The $3 million  fraud (2014 US values) is retold in  Wheelus USAF? (a chapter in Terence’s book: Love, Life and Moving Pictures). The USAF base that had arisen from its Italian/German/British airfield  at the beginning of the war had been sited on the home straights of the circuit and many traces of its glorious racing days (1933-40) could still be seen in the old asphalt when I visited in 1955. Track that had echoed to the screeching Michelins and Dunlops of the Buggattis and Maserattis now supported the more sedate aircraft-starting trolley-accumulators and the coffee wagon from the base exchange.

I was visiting the base with one of the survivors of a BOAC DC4 Argonaut aircraft crash at nearby Idris International Airport. We were there to thank Wheelus helicopter pilots who had speedily rallied the previous week to ferry the injured to Wheelus facilities.

Wheelus’ activities kept cropping up in our film location activities. (Terence was a young British actor) Not just the F-86 Saberjets that would scream across the desert skies ruining our sound (“those****ing Yanks!”) as we began yet another retake.  The Wheelus hillbilly band came to the Grand Hotel where the film unit’s ball was held.  The 1950s saw Arabic music influenced by the West and the air was full of familiar dance music but still redolent of the East with tarabaki drums, piccolo and cymbals a constant reminder of Tripoli’s world around us. The appearance at one point of a bejewelled Eastern belly dancer undulating to  the Wheelus band’s “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” was an unforgettable mark of East meeting West.

I only spent a few weeks in Tripoli but there’s no doubt that the time I visited Wheelus Air Force Base is warmly remembered as a welcome contrast to the arid desert around. The personnel and families had made the sands their own. Maybe it’s in the genes from those wagon train pioneering days, but any people who can make a golf course without grass and stage tournaments on it, get my vote.

 

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