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.