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SCHOOL LIFE AT WHEELUS Air Force Base By Victoria Giraud

Wheelus Field Dependents School

While in Tripoli, Libya, Air Force personnel and their dependents  lived in Wheelus Air Force Base housing for the most part, but the families of men who worked for the State Department and some of its agencies, or for oil companies searching for black gold, lived in many different areas of Tripoli from Garden City to Georgimpopoli, a coastal area on the western edges of the city. Our school bus, one of many that picked up American children all over the city, traveled down Sciarra Ben Asciur on its eight-mile journey to the base. I still have a very tattered mimeographed copy of my school bus route. It did help me identify my old home on Google Earth.

During the rainy season, from November to March, all busses faced the possible flooding in the tiny town of Suk el Guima, (Friday market in Arabic), which was near the base gate on the only route to Wheelus. Although the town’s street was paved, there were no gutters or drainage systems. When it rained, it generally flooded, and the street could be as deep as three feet in some spots. The Libyans took it in stride, but the Air Force didn’t. Servicemen would be up to their knees in water and armed with water pumps whenever they were needed. Others have since told me the little town had quite an odor because of a tannery, but I never noticed.

Enrolled in eighth grade when my family arrived, I joined a class of forty students. Wheelus High had an enrollment of only 170 students, from seventh to twelfth grade. The entire class of 1956 consisted of a mere four seniors. There were twelve in the junior class, fifteen sophomores and thirty-two freshmen! We underlings were by far the most populous, and I was considered practically a high school student. One alumnus remarked that because it was such a small school there was more intermingling among students;  younger students weren’t treated as much like outsiders. The following year, we new freshmen had to suffer the indignities of freshman initiation. As I recall, wearing clothes backward was one ritual.

A class on the Arabic language was a requirement for all students, but few took the class seriously, especially the friendly, eager-to-please teacher, Haj Ali (pronounced Hi Jolly). I can still count to ten in Arabic and learned a few phrases, hopefully accurate, such as molish (who cares), bahi (good),  ana nagra (I am reading) and baksheesh (free). I was told that zup meant the same as fuck. What inquisitive American teen didn’t learn that word and its equivalent in other languages! The boys probably knew a few more.

I had an opportunity to see the difference between American and European educational systems. Our freshman high school class visited Lecio, Tripoli’s Italian high school. In contrast to our casual attire, the boys dressed mostly in suits, the girls wore black smocks. Italian students acted as our guides and took small groups of us into various classrooms.

Practicing international relations with two Lecio students at my school bus stop

In drawing class students were copying Roman columns, an appropriate theme because of the nearby Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. Since most of their students studied French, I tried out my decidedly novice abilities with a young man. His French was impeccable; I wish I could have said the same for mine. In an entirely male physics class I was asked to put an algebra problem on the board. A volunteer student worked it immediately and returned the favor. Algebra, or should I say math in general, was not my strong suit. I called for Karen, one of my classmates to help, but we were both stumped. The class laughed good-naturedly at us, delighted to prove their male superiority while gawking at American girls.

Miss Gobi teaches French at Wheelus High–Fantastique! C’est si bon!

The Italians were even better at basketball. From my young viewpoint, I had always assumed it was an American game played more adeptly by Americans. Our high school team played Lecio every year and were continually trounced. Of course Wheelus High didn’t exactly have a huge talent pool from which to draw.

 

This story has been published in a new Libyan magazine Kalam, the December edition.

84 Comments

  1. Victoria says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the comments. There’s a very active group of Wheelus kids from all ages. Check out Wheelus Ex-Student Association on Facebook. My sister was 7, 8 and 9, I believe — Joan or Tupper (that was our nickname for her) Williams, in case you knew her.

    Victoria (Viki in Tripoli)

  2. John Geist says:

    Was there 54-57 would like to hear from others. I was in the 3-4-5th grades. My sister was 2 years older. Loved the theater and sense of family we all had.
    John Geist

  3. John Geist says:

    Our family was at Wheelus 54-57. Dad was 1st Sgt of security squadron. We lived in Tripoli for about a year before moving into a duplex accross from the school. Mom worked in the PX office. Had a GREAT time there. I was in the 3-4-5th grades there. In little league. Talk about sandlot!
    John Geist

  4. Victoria says:

    Check out Wheelus Ex-Students Association — a group on Facebook of students of all ages. Victoria

  5. Victoria says:

    Philip — Check out Wheelus Ex-Student Association — a group on Facebook. It’s full of Wheelus students of all ages. Victoria

  6. Phillip Janzer says:

    I was at wheelus from 1963 to june of 67 was 14 yrs old when we left. It was one of the greatest times of my youth. 4th thru 7th grades lost touch with everybody, let me know if any one remembers. My brother was steve who was in high school. Drop me a line if you were there during those years

  7. Victoria says:

    Glad to hear from you, Rod. There’s a web site for Wheelus alumni. Check out Wheelus Ex-Students or Wheelus High School. There’s also a group on Facebook if you’re interested and a reunion next May in Albuquerque, N.M. Feel free to share more memories with me. Victoria

  8. Rod Anderson says:

    Attended Wheelus School in 1961, as an oil brat. My Dad worked for Oasis Oil. We first lived in Garden City and then moved to the beach and what a great beach it was. Played guard on the basketball team and we went to Rome for a tournament. Have a number of photos and the year book from the class of 61. I was a Junior, class of 62. Yes, we beat the Italians!!

  9. Victoria says:

    Too bad you didn’t have a great time, Nathan. But thanks for your comment.

  10. nathanmatthews says:

    was at wheelus 1968-1970 played football ran track waqs in transportation nt a very hyappy tour couldnt wait to leave

  11. Victoria says:

    Thanks, Alan, for getting in touch. Sorry to hear that your dad died there. What happened? Let me know and I’ll post more information. If you want to get in touch with others from Wheelus, look up Wheelus Ex-Student Association on facebook. It’s supposed to include even grade school kids. I have an Ebook on Amazon– An Army Brat in Libya with more detail about my Tripoli adventures if you want to check it out. And there are lots of stories on my blog. Victoria

  12. Alan Kimberley says:

    My pops was a air force Master sargent 24 years. I attended Wheelus Elementary School. 1963-64-65. Absouloutly the best time in my life as well. In 65 my pops and 4 others were killed off base along with a drummer from England. As a result we were transferd back to Patric Air Force Base In Fla. After leaving I saw only one of my frinds once..Keven England or Engrim I think the last name was. Never saw him again and would like to. My frind Doug lived across the street. His sister had the first Beetel hair cut I ever saw. I was given a littel terrier by the guys from the fire station. He went to florida with us..my buddy. My brother was in high school there. Dick Kimberley Im Alan…. Miss Sutherlins Class

  13. Victoria says:

    Thanks, Donna, for your own Wheelus story. I’ve published my Tripoli memories as an Ebook on Amazon: An Army Brat in Libya, Memories of Tripoli in the 1950s. I’m also planning to put it on Barnes & Noble as an Ebook for the Nook. Wheelus Ex-students have a website and a facebook page in case you’re interested. And I’d welcome more stories since I keep putting Tripoli stories on my blog.

  14. Donna (Basehart) Gray says:

    Hi Victoria! My sister (Jan Basehart) sent me this link. So many memories. I think it was “ma-alish.” My mom used that phrase for many years: “Get rid of that ma-alish attitude or I’ll get rid of it for you!”

    We had Greek friends who lived in Georgimpopolis (I’m sure I botched that spelling) and used to visit them there. Their name was Captinopolus. Probably spelled that wrong too. We played Monopoly on their British-made Monoply board with pounds instead of dollars.

    I went to 3d-5th grade at the Wheelus school from 61-64; had Ms. Smith (who later became Mrs. Issa!) in 3rd grade, Miss McKenna in 4th, and Mrs. Sigfried in 5th. No one could stand her. We called her Mrs. Sick-freak. All she did was read Pippi Longstocking and tell us about her pilot husband and the callouses on her knees from scrubbing floors. Then, when it was time for math, she couldn’t help me with it. So, I hid my homework in my toybox and went across the street to the beach. I repeated 5th grade in San Bernardino, CA, and did just fine, thank you, and it was worth an extra year of my life to spend it in the Mediterranean Sea!

  15. Victoria says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Jan, and for sharing your experiences. We Wheelus alums have a facebook site: Wheelus High School Ex-Student Association. Check it out.
    Victoria

  16. Jan Dru Basehart says:

    Hello all, and thanks for this article and comments. My dad was a Personnel NCO at Wheelus and we were there from 61-64. I was in the 4th & 5th grades. Miss Griesemer & Miss Guy. My dad also moonlighted as Mr. Magic, performing magic tricks at the NCO club after Sunday School, local orphanage and on the TV station during the cartoon hour.

    I remember some animosity from the locals, but no overt violence. Some of the boys would take their privates out and wave at us, but we kept our distance. Also remember learning Zup or Zupudemuk (sp) at the school bus stop. Our bus broke down once in Suk el Guima and we were treated to a display of camel butchering right in the middle of the road.

    My sister, Donna is still looking for her best friend, Patty Kinder. It would be great to be able to reconnect with someone from that time.

  17. Victoria says:

    I remember singing that song and can still remember quite a few lyrics. I sang it when I realized that Dulles Airport in D.C. was being built in Chantilly, Virginia! Can’t believe it was banned for so little. Americans can be prudes!

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    My husband and i got very ecstatic when Emmanuel could complete his homework through the entire precious recommendations he made from your very own blog. It’s not at all simplistic to just continually be releasing concepts which often others could have been making money from. And now we recognize we need the blog owner to give thanks to for this. All the explanations you have made, the simple website menu, the friendships you can make it possible to engender – it’s awesome, and it is facilitating our son, in addition the family understands the topic is cool, which is extremely indispensable. Many thanks for the whole lot!

  19. Don Flatgard says:

    Hi Victoria,
    I just want to tell you about another song we use to play a lot on both the radio and TV. I am sure you’ll remember “Chantilly Lace” by The Big Bopper.
    It turns out the base commander’s wife thought the song was to risque for the young people to hear so we had to quit playing it on the air.

  20. Victoria says:

    Thanks, Don. I would imagine the station closed when Ghadaffi came to power around 1970. I remember the music and the requests for songs — A White Sports Coat and A Pink Carnation, A Rose and a Baby Ruth–at least those were lines in the songs. Victoria

  21. Don Flatgard says:

    Someone wanted to know when the TV station closed at Wheelus. I was stationed at Wheelus AFB from late 1958 to early 1960. I was the the maintenance supervisor of the station. I don’t remember when the station closed but I remember when we played music and broadcasted Saturday dance programs for high schools kid. I hope you all remember it…
    I enjoy reading the posts. I enjoyed Wheelus also.
    I live in Windom, Minnesota now.

  22. Pat Amour Embling says:

    I have fond memories of Wheelus. It was my first location overseas (followed by thirty years abroad). I met my future husband at the first faculty meeting in the summer of 1966. We were civilians with DOD and lived on base in BOQs. I taught high school math and Jack taught art.

  23. Michael Matthews says:

    I’m a little surprised that nobody seems to have mentioned the hostility from locals that some of us encountered in the mid-1960s, but maybe some of us were a bit rebellious. Me and most of my friends were among the oil company brats. I arrived in mid-1963 with family as my father began managing pipeline installations in the Sahara.
    Although arriving with few preconceived notions about the indigent population, the hostility became apparent fairly quickly. Of course, we were somewhat warned beforehand, and to be very vigilant, and women were advised to remain home most of the time.
    But I was about age 17, a guy from Texas, and my father bought me a motorcycle. You simply cannot expect a 17-18-year-old to stay home!
    Well, ok, if nobody wants to address this aspect of life in Libya, I’ll pass, but me any many of my friends were frequently attacked by locals. Personally, I was very happy to leave there after high school at Wheelus the next year.

  24. Just how do you figure all of this out concerning this topic? I enjoyed looking over this, Ill have to visit other pages in your site immediately.

  25. thomas lee says:

    I was in tripoli from 55 to 58 had a great time. my name was tom lee and my sister was susi lee lived in town and had a lot of arabs and italian, french, german, and other friends. met a man named john fox. was there in the 60s just a few years ago.

  26. Carl Rothwell says:

    Extremely interesting blog post thank you for sharing I have added your site to my bookmarks and will be back By the way this is off subject but I really like your sites layout.

  27. Clyde Harms says:

    Does anyone remember the date Channel 8 of Wheelus AFB was closed?
    I’m writing a series of articles for two Aruba newspapers on my experiences in Tripoli as an employee of Esso Libya 1966-1973. A future article will deal with Wheelus, the evacuation in 1967 and Chappie James. Thanks

  28. back pain says:

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  29. It’s really a nice and helpful piece of info. I am glad that you shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  30. Ron Himebaugh says:

    I was in 3rd grade, 1956, Mrs. Reed; 4th grade, Mr. Caderette. I lived off base, but came to the Sat. movies every chance I got; bought, read, and traded Classics Illustrated Comics from the PX. We went to squadron parties on the beach and I hung around the Officers’ Club with friends after school. I do remember Patti South as a girl I was crazy about. We played tetherball ’till our hands were bruised blue. I remember the dust so bad I could hardly breathe; the smell of Suk el Gima; the Cokes in funny cans with pyramid tops; the day when REAL WHITE BREAD was available at the Commissary; the tiny ice cream cones from street vendors; the lemons, dates, and oranges; and the donkeys going around in circles pumping up water from the wells. The entire outside wall of our house was covered from time to time with FLIES! I found a Roman coin while digging in my yard. Most of my friends were Italians. God I was happy there.

  31. Bob Wehner says:

    I attended Wheelus Junior High from 1961 to 1963 (my dad was the AB Provost Marshall). Our athletes had improved; we regularly beat the Italians, a Libyan junior high, and the “Oil School” in basketball, while the Italians and Libyans trounced us in soccer (I was goalie in my 1st exposure to the game.) By that time, if my memory serves, the primary foreign language class was Russian. (As a college freshman I ran into an old classmate from Wheelus who was majoring in Russian.)

    My favorite memory was the production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Sabratha Fine Arts Festival in 1962.

    BTW, I have the 1963 Uaddan.

  32. Gary McGraw says:

    I still have my Wheelus graduation diploma from kindergarten in 1958. As I recall, we lived in the last house (a one-story duplex?) at the end of a residential street on base; I think the school was at the other end of the street. There was also an on-base “zoo” near our house with a water buffalo, impalas, and other similar animals behind a chain link fence. Our houseboy “Hati” would take my sister and I to the zoo and then taunt the animals behind the fence to charge and bang into the fence. My sister and I were petrified; our mother never knew. Hati also used to climb the date palm tree in the front yard to get dates. I also remember there being camel rides on the beach. I have photos of my dad, a flight surgeon at the time, playing golf on the sand course.

  33. Robert Coats says:

    I don’t remember any names but I remember some of the greatest adventures of my childhood at Wheelus. I was there from ’53 to ’57. Oh Ed C., it was my Dad, the base engineer, and his squadron who built the golf course’s sand “greens”, I’ve never forgotten them and no one ever believes me when I tell them about the Sahara Golf Course’s “greens”, its too funny. I was almost 11 when we left. I loved Leptis Magna and spent lots of time there as well as at Sabratha. I have lots of photos and I was a Cub Scout. It was amazing how us kids had the run of the base, there wasn’t anywhere we didn’t go on our bikes and we could always hitch rides on virtually any Air Force vehicle. Remember the Saturday Matinee movies ? And the Beach Theater. Oh My Gosh, the Bowling Alley and the pin guys, also too funny to believe. Yes, school, but the beach, the cliffs, the reefs, the ruins, the WWII planes and equipment to play on, pet chameleons, pet hedge hogs and we had a pet goat named Socrates and a mean camel for a while named Homer… What a life for a kid, what absolutely fond memories, could you imagine going back in time ?

  34. I value the superior post you divide up in your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and have my readers skim here often.

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  36. Dennis Neal says:

    I was young when my Dad was stationed at Wheelus. I attended the elementary school for the first into the third grade. We returned from Libya in 1961….however, my older brothers and sisters were also in school there. My older sister Sandy (Sandra) Neal, Bill Neal, Jim Neal, Pat Neal and Vickey (victoria) Neal. If anyone has pictures that include them, I would love to see them.

    I remember living off-post for awhile in a house in Tripoli that, the bottom floor was a double garage that was gated and we had a guard we knew as “Babyface”. The 2nd level of the building was our house with a surrounding patio as our “yard”. The third level was another complete home.

    I remember vendors and carts going through the street below yelling in Arabic and hearing “Ba Naa Na!!” being shouted out. I also remember camels being driven through the streets and we were careful not to get too close to our railings in case they “spit”. There was an Italian family that lived across the street that sometimes had us “kids” over for spaghetti and Coke (in the bottle of course). I also remember living on post and how we thought we had it made. My Dad also ran the bowling alley and on Saturdays we would go to the theatre, library (I loved to read) and the bowling alley. What a life!

  37. Ed C says:

    This is great! I have had NO contact with anyone from Wheelus AFB Jr. Hi 1954-56 but would like to.
    Recently I went to my 50th reunion at Washington-Lee HS in Arlington VA (where Sandra Bullock went a generation later). One of the classmates was on active duty at Wheelus in the late 1960’s when Qaddafi took over the Base after deposing King Idris.
    The classmates I remember are William M, Connie A, and Karen G.
    What is the name of the FaceBook group so I can look there?
    Ciao,
    Ed

  38. Ed C says:

    My Dad was in charge of a big group on base.
    I was in the Boy Scouts and we hiked on the desert.
    My family visited Sabratha and L Magna.
    Remember the old military base on Wheelus and the little golfcourse with sand/oil putting greens?
    Ed

  39. Ed C says:

    Hi Victoria = keef Hah leek!
    I also took Arabic from Haj Ali.
    Ali.
    I was in Giorgimpopoli in 54-55 and Base Housing 56-57.
    I think I found a picture if our front yard by googling

    I have tried to read more about Wheelus AFB since the revolt.

  40. Harland "Mike" Harris says:

    Lindig is my sister, so her comments mostly apply to me as well. I recall the Suez Crisis, with machine guns on British & French embassies & King Idris’ guards beating heads with truncheons. Also snuck out of school to play on decommissioned WWII bombers. Don’t you miss the sandstorms & locust swarms? How about those 4th of July beach parties! Tortoises, skinks, Sabratha, Leptis Magna.

  41. Kathy Connett says:

    I lived in the city of Tripoli with my family from Jan. 1954 to March 1956, when my father was stationed at Wheelus. Wonderful adventure! I have been trying to remember names, but only a few come to mind. One in particular was Mrs. Ruby Deaton, who was my teacher in the last half of 2nd grade. Or maybe it was 3rd grade.
    I also remember very well the trip back home, via the Azores and Newfoundland. We were in the air for most of 24 hours, landed at McGuire on April 1, 1956, which happened to be Easter.

  42. Linda Jacquez says:

    From May, 1955 we were mesmerized by new scents, sounds, culture off base; finished last month of 7th grade there, and completed full 8th grade year (including jr hi grad ceremonies), began 9th grade up until late Oct. 56 when Dad’s job took us to Athens. We lived in a downtown apt. close to the main drag/school bus stop at first, then moved out to a remote, brand new two story four plex like a gated community– there was nothing around the property walls but empty space and some distant Libyan’s hovels. We would have stayed there except when the water turned out to deliver a dead fly to Mom’s sink–then being forced to haul in good water, Dad went searching again and found a great little walled in villa w/garden and working water fountain, big enough for we eight and more centrally located in the city–walking distance to friends and renting bikes, catching lorries somewhere, or sight seeing. Was also able to visit Wiesbaden alone w/Mom or Dad three times on MAC due to need to see an orthopedist for scoliosis. Life enhancing experiences, as was Athens! Mary Guzman’s family moved up to Athens from Tripoli/Wheelus later – just a few months before we returned to States (Eglin AFB, FL) Aug. ’57/

  43. Paulette says:

    I was there 1953-55 in the 5th-6th grade and had Mr. McRoberts as one of my teachers. We lived on the base in a trailer court. My father attempted to get us in an apartment in Tripoli and had a deposit on this unbuilt apartment. However, upon completion the military did not approve of the location and he
    lost the deposit. Therefore, we ended up living on base at the trailer court. I liked it anyway and it was only a half mile to the beach with a small zoo practically in our backyard. Could walk to school, BX, church and the movies. Quite the adventure for a 10/11 yr old.

  44. Nancy says:

    I was there from 1952-54. We lived across the street from the school in barracks built by Mussolini: Cement floors, two bedrooms (for a family of 7 + 2 dachshunds), backyard fences of palm branches, an olive grove on the side of us opposite the school where we played in the trees and among pear cacti, finding lots of empty (luckily) bullet shells from WWII. My dad was chaplain, the base was just being built up; when we got there we had gravel roads, Airmen were living in tents; the base was mostly MATS. We flew over in a C-76–an unpressurized prop plane, for which my ears are paying a price today. The base chapel was also Italian–was beautiful.

  45. Lindig says:

    I was in Tripoli Sept. 1955 to Aug 1957 and attended Wheelus school. We were Corps of Engineers civilians and lived in town across the street from the King’s Palace and next door to the Greek embassy, one block over from Shara 24 December. I’m enjoying your memories. There are a lot of us on Facebook who were in Tripoli.

    We transferred to Livorno Italy in 57 (Camp Darby).

    My name was Lynne Harris at that time.

  46. Karla Young says:

    This incident occured after our stay in Tripoli. Our family was there in1956-1957. We returned to the US due to our mothers illness. I remember having our car rocked and pounded upon once. The trip was long but adventureous. The ride in the prop driven Constellation was memorable as was the extended layover in the Azores due to mechanical problems. I was 13 at the time.

  47. Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

  48. Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  49. Dr. Earl Nissen says:

    I was the elementary school principal at Wheelus for the 1960-61 school year. On September 20, 1960 I was attacked in Suk El Guima resulting in injuries that needed to be attended to in Weisbaden, Germany. After returning to Wheelus I was transferred to Lakenheath, England. The Superintendent of Schools at Wheelus at that time was Dr. Scott Street and a Major Robertus was the schools officer. I still remember the long plane ride from North Carolina to Bermuda to the Azores to get to Wheelus in a prop driven Constellation.
    Do any of you remember this incident? Fifty years ago.
    Earl Nissen

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