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.

113 Comments

  1. Todd Patton says:

    My family was at Wheelus in 67, evacuated in 68, and then back through 69. I was 7 at the time. My sister was 10. Lived off base at first. To this day I still enjoy going to the Air Force Museum in Dayton Ohio. The stained glass window, in memory of the Lady Be Good, that had been at the Base Chapel is now there. Brings back fond memories. Feel free to contact me. No links, no pictures. [email protected]. Take care all.

  2. Danny Pope says:

    I was at Wheelus A.F.B. from 65 to 67 and went to KTAM elementary 3 rd and 4th grade and the main school for most of 5th then we had to leave. had a good buddy there Bruce and another friend Leonard with peg leg pants and remember being in love with a blonde girl named Sandy!
    Danny Pope

  3. Kelly L Spicer says:

    Hi, I find this interesting since I my family was at Wheelus from July 1965 until June 1967, when we were evacuated due to the Israel 6-day war. I have lost all photos from our time there. I was in 5th and 6th grade, going to the school on the base. But we lived off base, South east from the base. It was a rural area, but near the base salvage yard. We lived down a dirt road, renting a house from “Mohammad Fel Fel” or something like that. It was a farming area. I recall exploring and mapping the area. We could ride our bicycles in the winter (due to rain packing the ground), but in the summer the ground was too soft. I recall staying at friend’s for the weekend who lived near Tripoli, and getting up baseball games with the native kids. My brother’s and I were on the little league teams on the base. Before school we would walk down to the beach and watch the waves breaking (we were dropped of sometime before school started. I recall some cold mornings when we could see our breath. I recall snorkeling at the beach on base in the summer. I recall being in the boy scouts and camping off base, near the beach. The waves were much higher, because the area had no coral reef like the one around the area of the base.

  4. Hi Joanne! It’s always great to hear from folks who have a connection with Tripoli and Wheelus. There are a lot of us who keep in touch. If you have any photos from that time, please feel free to send to me. Let me know and I’ll send you my personal Email.
    Victoria

  5. Joanne Katzman says:

    I stumbled upon your story because someone posted pre-war pictures of Libya. My Father was stationed in Tripoli @Wheelus 59-63 and my mother was an Italian who moved there in late 40’s. My G-PA had a trucking company. I remember her talking about the schools on the base. Also the dances at the base. My Aunt and Uncle won a lot of those a couple years earlier. It’s great to see so many people talking about that time.

  6. Hi John,
    What grade did your mother teach and what school.
    Victoria

  7. Thanks for sharing, John. Feel free to add more.
    Victoria

  8. John Tirohn says:

    Mom taught school here in 1958, here name was Barbara Topper. My dad Charles Topper flew 5-57’s.

  9. Thanks for the memories, Kalifa. If you remember the teacher’s name, please post and you might discover more about her. I have many connections and people contribute their remembrances.
    Victoria

  10. Kalifa Aboudra says:

    This is fascinating …. I was born and grow up just near the base late 50s…. I ended up going to college in the NW, state of Oregon… I have stumbled on your blog as I was checking the live and the area where I was born….. In late 60s I have an English teacher from the base, she comes to my school just outside the base “ Shutt Elhensher Elementery”… that was 5th grade…. I would love to know what has become of her…. I lived in the US since 1978 till last year, now I am in Dubai…..

  11. Glynda Pino says:

    I started in the eight grade and came back to the states for 10th grade. My dad was stationed there. My best friend was Lorraine Cardinale and would love to hear from her. My name at time of being there in school was Glynda Flynn

  12. I will look for Wheelus Ex-Students on Facebook. What fun–thanks for letting me know about the group!

  13. Thanks for the lovely and touching personal story, Kirsten. We all have our lessons in life! We have a group of Wheelus kids on Facebook — Wheelus Ex-Students. Check it out. People post lots of photos and memories, from the younger ones to the high schoolers. We’ve even got some honorary Libyans and a a lady from FLA who married a Libyan and lives in Tripoli. The Internet provides so many wonderful connections.

  14. Glad to see this post about Wheelus and read so many comments from people who were there. I went through kindergarten at Wheelus and was so shy and unpopular with my class that my best friend on the playground was a nursery schoolgirl. On the other hand, during my last school year at Wheelus, when I was in sixth grade, I was elected the classroom president. My dad had three tours of duty in Tripoli so my shyness was tempered by familiarity, although I didn’t campaign for my “presidency” and was astonished when my classmates elected me!

  15. Thanks for getting in touch, Michael Blantz. I hope you find some connections. You might also try Facebook, which has a Wheelus Students Group that is active. Thanks for reading my blog. Victoria

  16. Michael Blantz says:

    I lived in Tripoli from 1960-1963 with my family when my dad was stationed at Wheelus AFB. I went to 1st grade for half a year during the 1962-63 school year before returning back to the states in January, 1963. My teacher’s name was Miss Gent, and my best friend was Mike McCloud. It was quite an interesting experience looking back.

  17. Good luck finding them!
    Victoria

  18. George E. Browne says:

    I arrived at Wheelus Aug. 1953, became editor of the base newspaper—Tripoli Trotter—as well as the Wheelus Trotter page in the Sunday Ghibli, Tripoli’s English-language newspaper. Base CO was Col. Rollen H. Anthis (ret.as Brig. Gen., now deceased). I am in contact with his three daughters. Anyone remember them?

  19. George E. Browne says:

    I was stationed at Wheelus for 18 months, arriving Aug. 1953. I became editor of the base newspaper—Tripoli Trotter—and the Sunday Trotter page in Tripoli’s English language Sunday Ghibli. The base CO was Col. Rollen Anthis (he retired as a Brig. General, is now deceased.) I have been in touch with his three daughters. Anyone out there know them?

  20. M Kay Hovious says:

    Does anyone have copy of the 1958 yearbook? If so, please email to me at [email protected].

  21. Thanks for reading my blog, Dave. If you’d like to share more about your Wheelus activities, get in touch and I can write something about them on my blog. Victoria

  22. Dave Webber says:

    Stationed at Wheelus from 62-64..Air Police, sentry dog handler..played guitar and sang on base and had roles in several on-stage shows at the high school.

  23. Rick Wolcott says:

    I lived in Georgianpopoli until end of 62
    Saw Jeff and his dog he was a year behind me.
    Sorry to hear of so many classmates who have passed
    Especially my flame Martine Henrard (Hoffman).
    Tops to a
    Rick

  24. Andrew Wender says:

    Anybody have any recollection of my dad, Dr. Leon Oxman, the base Doctor at Wheelus from around 1959-1961? I’d love to hear them. Thanks!

  25. Thanks for reading my blog, Cindy. Check out Facebook — there’s a group of Wheelus school kids you might want to join. Victoria

  26. Cindy l. Ahl says:

    Hi!
    I too was an AFB at Wheelus. I was there from 1967, then evacuated in 1968 then back again for another year and a half. Love to hear from anyone that went to elematary school at the same time.🐬

  27. Rick Huff says:

    I lived in Georgimpopoli from 1959-1961 and did 8th and 9th grades there. I had a little black & white dog named Sam. I’d love to hear from anybody that attended school at Wheelus or remembers me or my wall walking dog.

  28. Thanks for replying, Pete. I’d love to share interesting photos and stories along with them on my blog. I’ll get in touch with you. Thanks for reading my book on Tripoli. You might enjoy or know someone who will, my historical fiction MELAYNIE’S MASQUERADE.

    Victoria

  29. Pete Remmert says:

    Victoria,
    Thanks for your quick response! I have downloaded (and already read) your book and it brought back many wonderful memories!
    The reason I had asked in my earlier comment if anyone remembered “The Western Swingsters” live program on AFRS-TV is because I learned to play the guitar while we lived in Tripoli and I actually got to play and sing on that show. I had a crush on a girl named Jennifer Harvey and her parents, Lloyd and June Harvey, were singers and musicians on the program. Another “bandmate” was Don Quesenberry. Does anyone out there recognize these names or remember seeing the program? It was alot of fun being a part of bringing a little Americana to the folks stationed at Wheelus. Your story about being on one of the local TV shows brought back some great memories of the base TV station. I have a great photo of the band that I would be more than happy to share with your readers, if you like.

  30. Good luck, Pete. My family didn’t have a TV over there, although I appeared on a musical show. It’s amazing we had so much entertainment in those days.

  31. Pete Remmert says:

    I lived in Tripoli (off and on Wheelus) from 1958 through 1961. Does anybody remember a live AFRS-TV show called “The Western Swingsters”? This was a coutry and western band made up of enlisted personnel who performed on Wednesday nights on the base TV channel.

  32. Always appreciate comments about our time in Tripoli. Thanks, Robt Coats. If you’ve got any Tripoli photos with you in them, send them and I can post for others to enjoy. Thanks for reading them!

    Victoria

  33. Robert Coats says:

    Hello Victoria,

    I just wanted to tell you thank you so much for creating this blog, I really enjoy reading and writing about all of our shared memories, even if we never knew one another, we have shared some very unique experiences together. All of of my life I’ve told people of my childhood in Libya and most everyone is fascinated by such a unique time as a child. Its odd to see so many people on this blog writing of living there and then realizing at the same time that we really are so few in number… I just want to sincerely say greetings and good wishes to all of my Libyan friends. Robert Coats.

  34. Robert Coats says:

    Hi John Geist, I also note that you and I were kids there at the same time, likely the same age and perhaps in the same elementary school classes, but I don’t know, and sadly don’t remember any names. The Wheelus Field “year book” that I mentioned to Mrs. Maxine Taylor contains lots of photos of elementary school kids, little league and cub & boy scouts, perhaps you are in one or more of the photos? Please reply if you see this, my first post was in August 2011 if you would like to read it for some of my memories of Wheelus. Robert Coats.

  35. Robert Coats says:

    Hi Mrs. Maxine Taylor, I haven’t visited this blog since August 2011, but I am so happy to be back and read all of the interesting things written about a place and time in my life with so many wonderful memories. I don’t know if I can help you with your inquiry except that I do have in my possession a Wheelus Field “year book” with lots and lots of wonderful photos that may enlighten you and help you with your memoirs. We were there at the same time as you, I was in early elementary school but my father was the base engineer and his name was Col. Carl Coats and my mother was Caroline Coats, and I was wondering if you perhaps knew them? My mother was very involved in all of the Officers Club Womens’ groups and all of their activities. She was the artist who painted all of the giant monthly activities calendars that we displayed in the club entry and photo copied for everyone. I imagine I was in elementary school with your daughter Glenna. Please respond if you read this and I’ll try to keep up with the blog on a regular basis. Robert Coats.

  36. Go to Facebook groups and look up Wheelus High School and you can find classmates to connect with. Thanks for reading my blog. Victoria

  37. Maria Mcdevitt (Talavera) says:

    sue ; ted do you remember me? there were patricia, susan, steve, lou, hannah
    i would like to hear from someone

  38. Maria Mcdevitt (Talavera) says:

    Hello there,
    Its maria Mcdevitt(talavera)
    still looking for friends that remember me i was there 1965-1970 had a sister marty

  39. Hello Maxine, thanks for getting in touch. My mom, Garnette Williams, would have been your age if she hadn’t died young. We were in Tripoli from 1955-58, perhaps later than you. I have many stories of Tripoli on my blog and I also combined these stories and published an Ebook on Amazon called AN ARMY BRAT IN LIBYA. There is a link to that book on my blog. Look into the archives and you can find all the stories.

  40. Maxine Taylor says:

    I am 91 yrs. old and lived in Tripoli in the early fifties when my husband Glenn W. Taylor was stationed there. I had one daughter, Glenna, who attended the base elementary school. We lived in the villa Vittorio Corradi in Georgimpopli, a suburb of Tripoli. I am trying to write my memoirs for my grandchildren. If you can share any information with me, I would appreciate it a great deal. Many thanks.

  41. Yvonne says:

    My husband Frank was a 1955 graduate of high school and loves to attend the reunions when possible. Where can I can get specific information, especially dates of, the upcoming May 2013 reunion?

  42. Sue says:

    At Ted Laplante, Jody Arnold was last seen by me in 1971 at a ski resort in Utah, right outside Hill AFB where we went when we left Wheelus. @ Maria, we were there from Dec 1968 to May 1970 when the base closed.

  43. Victoria says:

    Sounds like you were enterprising! There are lots of Tripoli “brats” in Florida, James.
    Victoria

  44. james w. neal says:

    I was there 57-61 in junior high school i ran track but had no one to run with so we ran with the high school , they had no one to run with so we ran with the base track team against the arab police , italian air force and the english army. i left a couple weeks into the 10th grade, to settle in florida

  45. Victoria says:

    Hello Mike…If you’re looking for fellow students and friends from Wheelus, check out Wheelus Ex-Student Association on Facebook. There are a lot of us on it from all different classes. There’s even a reunion planned for May in Albuquerque, NM. Victoria

  46. Mike says:

    I lived at Wheelus in 1964-65 and went to the school that was 3rd grade only. The elementary school then was just 1st and 2nd grade and was directly across from my house! That photo looks like it was taken from our front yard.

    Next to that school was a large playground/open area.

    I’m wondering if Johnny Lightner is still around. He was my buddy and his dad was the Ambassador to Libya at the time. I visited the Ambassador’s residence, one of two with my friend Johnny Lightner. It was quite a big deal at the time. haha.

    Anyway, I learned to swim in the Med which was right around the corner from our house.

    More than anything, I remember the heat!….wow!

    So John Lightner, Jr., if you’re out there, post something here.

  47. ted laplante says:

    I was at Wheelus from 68-69. I was the lead singer in the local base band. My nickname was ‘squirrel” which I haven’t used since. I was dating Jody Arnold at the time. Does anyone remember her?

  48. Maria Talavera McDevitt says:

    Hey there,
    I’m looking for anyone that knew Maria or Marty Talavera. Looking for old lost friend. Love to hear from them

  49. Victoria says:

    Thanks for reading, Maria. There are lots of blogs on Wheelus and Tripoli and I have a book, AN ARMY BRAT IN LIBYA that is offered on Amazon. There’s a link on my site. If you want to check further on former students, check Wheelus Ex-Students Association on Facebook. Victoria

  50. maria Talavera (McDevitt) says:

    I would love to find some old friends. We were here 67-71. My sister’s name was Marty, If anyone remember me, please email
    thx

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