The capture and death of dictator Mummar Qaddafi by Libyan rebels brings an end to the brutal 42-year regime of a true madman.
The news had me remembering the last time I visited Libya, way back in the 1960s.
Actually, it was the only time I visited Libya, just before Qaddafi led the military coup led that deposed the ruling family of King Idris.
My trip to Libya before Qadaffi included visiting the incredible Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, pictured above, visiting with troops at Wheelus U. S. Air Force base and the small U. S. Coast Guard base on the shores of Tripoli, and the World War Two cemeteries at El Alamein and Tobruk.
Yes, there were American boots on the ground in Libya before Qaddafi, or Gadhafi, or however it’s spelled in the English transliteration of his Arabic name.
Note – This article was written and posted in 2011,
before Libya descended into chaos
following Qaddafi’s death.
I had quit my job as a news writer for Associated Press in New York to embark on the ‘grand tour’ that I didn’t do straight out of college.
There were four of us, in a beat up Volkswagen micro-bus, driving east across North Africa from Morocco, towards our goal of Egypt and the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel.
Libya simply was a long stretch of road we were travelling through to get to Cairo.
It was long before the phrases off-roading or overlanding existed.
It was long before travel blogs existed.
We had joined up in Germany, where we bought the car, which rode the ferry with us from Gibraltar to Ceuta, in what was then Spanish Morocco.
We were the first Americans anybody had met, especially in small villages where we stopped for food or gas, and welcomed with smiles and the words “Kennedy”, or “Marlboro”, the only American words they knew. It was instant celebrity.
Often, we camped out on beautiful, desolate beaches.
One morning, somewhere in Algeria, we woke to the sound of bleating goats, watched over by two boys, who offered us eggs and fresh yogurt.
We gave them some pencils in trade, and then shared tea, once our little gas camp stove got the water hot enough.
They had never seen anything as exotic as a camp stove before, and were wide-eyed fascinated.
Sleeping on the beach in Tripoli
We had arrived in Tripoli on a day the banks were closed. Since we had no Lybian money to pay for a hotel, our only alternative was to camp out somewhere.
The beach we found just outside Tripoli was as beautiful and desolate as the one in Algeria.
But we were awoken in the middle of the night by a group of soldiers on horseback, waving rifles in our faces.
The Libyan soldiers didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Arabic, but their actions and intent were clear.
They started going through our things, grabbing stuff, including my portable manual typewriter, probably the single most valuable item in the van, which I used to keep a travel diary to send them home periodically by regular mail.
(My mother saved those letters, which I still have, still readable on crinkly parchment paper, tucked into envelopes marked AirMail.)
We tugged back, yelling and screaming. Eventually, they left.
We were terrified they would return with reinforcements, and decided to pack up and drive away immediately, in the middle of the night.
Wheelus U. S. Air Force Base, Tripoli, Libya
Our VW was pretty recognizable, so we decided to keep driving east out of Libya, and as fast as possible.
Our plans changed when we saw the American flag waving outside the entrance to Wheelus U.S. Air Force base, just east of Tripoli.
Americans have had ‘boots on the ground’ in Libya for nearly 200 years — until 1969, when Qaddafi took power and kicked out American and NATO forces and turned Wheelus into a domestic airport re-named Methega.
Security was different when I was overlanding in Libya, and the gates of Wheelus swung open to welcome four hungry and dusty Americans who just showed up, literally in the middle of nowhere.
Hot showers! Apple pie with ice cream! Washing machines! Real beds!
And friendly conversation about home with the sailors stationed there, thousands of miles from home.
I even saw the entire Libyan Air Force, then based at Wheelus. It was two vintage planes the Americans were teaching the Libyans to fly.
Wheelus played an important role in the Cold War, as a base for the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC), and then as a training ground for NATO forces.
The base was built originally by Italy in the 1920s, after it invaded and conquered Libya as a colony. It was captured by the British Army in WWII and became an American installation in 1945.
There also was a small U.S. Coast Guard Base a few miles east of Wheelus.
U. S. Marine Corps Hymn
The Marine Corps Hymn starts with “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our Nation’s battles on the land and on the sea.”
That refers to a mostly forgotten – except by historians and the Marines — U. S. war early in the 1800s against pirates along the Barbary Coast of what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya who were regularly attacking U.S. merchant ships, holding American sailors for ransom.
Congress formally created the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps in response to these attacks.
After failed diplomacy with the tribal Muslim nations of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco, President Thomas Jefferson decided to stand up to intimidation, sending the Navy and Marines across the Atlantic to wage a coordinated attack on the land and on the sea.
The American heroes of this war include naval officers Edward Preble and Stephen Decatur and General William Eaton, who crossed 500 miles of African desert to capture a city and for the first time raise the American flag over foreign soil.
The First Barbary War (1801-05) would subsequently inspire the Marine Corps hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.”
World War Two cemeteries at El Alamein and Tobruk
The Barbary wars were not the only time the U.S. fought on the land and on the sea for this territory.
Thousands of Allied soldiers from many lands buried at Tobruk, a few miles west of the Libyan border with Egypt.
It was the site of a decisive World War II siege and battle against the Afrika Corps, German and Italian forces under Lt. General Rommel.
There’s an even larger World War II cemetery at El Alamein, a few miles east of Libya’s border with Egypt.
The white marble gravestones shine in the sunlight against the drab, flat, beige desert landscape, silent sentinels to the lunacy of two other dictators named Hitler and Mussolini, who preceded Qaddafi
Tourism to Libya
Tourism to Libya had been been growing the last few years, with cruise lines adding Tripoli and Benghazi to Mediterranean itineraries, and land operators offering tours around themes of history and culture.
Tourism is a peaceful and productive way to stabilize and grow an economy, because it creates local jobs, from staffing hotels and souvenir shops to driving tour busses, to supporting local farmers who feed everybody.
So, it is a shame that one of the major victims of this victory against tyranny is international tourism.
I decided recently that I wanted to return to Libya and revisit the fabulous Roman ruins at Leptis Magna and Sabratha, and the ancient Greek cities of Cyrene and Apollonia, the cemeteries of soldiers from many lands at Tobruk, and by my presence show that Americans are still good guys.
And to take photos, since the album of black and white photos of my drive across Libya before Qaddafi has disappeared.
Note – This article was written in 2011, before Libya descended into chaos following the death of Qaddafi.