Gen “Chappie” James Jr and Libyan History


BLUF: An Very Interesting Historical Note at the suggestion of Colonel Daniel Merry from Mr Mark Howell, 100 ARW Historian.

The US Army Air Force (USAAF) began using Mellaha Field, Libya as a base in January 1943. It was used by the 376th Bombardment Group to fly B-24 bomb missions into Italy and Germany. On 15 April 1945 Mellaha Field was taken over by USAAF’s Air Training Command and renamed Wheelus Army Air Field (AAF) on 17 May 1945. On 16 October 1951, the 7272nd Fighter Training Wing became the host unit at Wheelus AB until the base’s closure on 11 June 1970. On 1 September 1969, King Idris I was overthrown by a group of military officers loyal to Muammar al-Gaddafi. Before the revolution, the U.S. and Libya had already reached agreement on U.S. withdrawal from Wheelus. It was returned to the new Libyan government on 11 June 1970.

Why is this era worth a historical note:

On 5-10 June 1967, Israeli forces defeated Egypt, Syria, and Jordan; seized the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Israel had close ties to Washington, and it was not a surprise that the war created anti-American sentiment throughout Libya. The US Embassy was stoned, and two vehicles from Wheelus were burned, and their drivers severely beaten. The US Embassy evacuated all Americans willing to leave Libya. The influx of contractors and civilians raised Wheelus’ population to 9,000. 6,300 Americans were evacuated as soon as possible.

The best the United States could achieve was agreement that the Base Rights Agreement would be adhered to until “the last airman and last aircraft had departed.” While the US sought to delay the turnover until September 1970, Libyan negotiators insisted that the final transfer of the base be concluded by 30 June 1970.

The often irrational behavior of the Libyan government, and Qaddafi personally, led to a legendary confrontation between Libyan leader and Col. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr, the base commander. In a face-to-face encounter during the base’s final days, James noted that Qaddafi was wearing a sidearm in a holster strapped to his leg. As the two men talked, moreover, the Libyan leader moved his hand onto the grip of the weapon. James later recalled, “I had my .45 in my belt. I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster.” Qaddafi withdrew his hand and the confrontation ended without violence. Whatever happened to Colonel James?

Col. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr, in September 1975, became the first black officer in the history of the United States military to attain 4-star full General rank as commander of the North American Air Defense Command.

3 Replies to “Gen “Chappie” James Jr and Libyan History”

  1. My dad was stationed in the Air Rescue squadron, flying first C97s and later C130s at Wheelus from December 1964 to December 1967. My mom and I were some of the few “dependents” not able to leave the base. When it was finally our turn to depart Wheelus on a C141, we were told it was now too dangerous because it was thought the Libyans were trying to shoot down US aircraft. Therefore, we stayed the entire time at Wheelus. I still remember the daily attacks to the base, the pipe bombs being thrown over the wall and the masses charging the gates. A couple of notable points. The rock walls surrounding the base were really high, I guess 16 to 20 feet, with barbed wire and broken colored glass embedding in the wall. At the gates, they took metal dumpsters and blocked the entrance by filling them with sand and rocks, then stacking them as high as the top of the wall. In addition, they had runway fire trucks at the gates to “foam” anyone trying to scale the gates. They also had sand bagged machine gun positions around the area. And finally, the 7272 was a fighter training unit that flew F100s. But for some reason the base had taken an F105, moved it back about 100 yards from the gate and pointed it to the gate with someone in the pilots seat. It was understood if the base was attacked and the gate overrun, they would use the fighters guns to shoot at the gate. I personally saw some crazy activity as a teenager waiting for the shuttle bus.

  2. The above legendary confrontation between Col. James and Qaddafi is probably just that and is most probably an enhancement of a confrontation I witnessed between Col. James and his Libyan Wheelus base counterpart at the main gate in September 1969. I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli having arrived there with my family two days after Qaddafi’s coup. During my Processing I went to the base to obtain an ID card to enter the base and use the facilities. The ID section was located directly across from the guard house at the entrance to the base. While outside awaiting a ride back to the embassy a commotion happened at the guard house (the guard house was manned by U.S. and Libyan airmen .) A vehicle had pulled up to the main gate containing a driver and two black women in the back. There were a lot of loud voices and commotion going on. Within a matter of a few short minutes there was a U.S. Air Force vehicle with it’s emergency lights flashing screeching to a stop at the gate. Col. James exited the vehicle and began a “royal a$$ chewing” of the Libyan air force gate guard. Apparently Mrs. James was in the car with a guest and there was apparently in the Libyan guard’s mind, a problem with Mrs. James’ friend getting on base. As the confrontation escalated, the Libyan guard pulled his pistol out and that is when the U.S. guard called Col. James. I believe the crux of Col. James’ “conversation” with the Libyan guard was that if he ever pulled his gun on Mrs. James or another American, it would be the last time. He was truly pi$$ed!

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