During The Six-Day War, U.S. Fliers Suddenly Found Themselves In Hostile Lands
From the Middle East to North Africa, Americans faced the possibility of detention or worse
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
During the Six Day War pitting Israel against its Arab neighbors in 1967, Americans were thrust into the crisis — even though they weren’t directly involved in the fighting.
After Israel pre-emptively attacked Egyptian forces on June 5, 1967, much of the Arab world came to Cairo’s aid. Recently-declassified messages describe American fliers handling their own chaotic situations at bases in North Africa and the Middle East.
“The situation at Wheelus characterized by uneasy calm,” one cable reported on June 6, 1967, referring to the American air base just east of the Libyan capital Tripoli. “Evacuation continues throughout other affected Mid-East areas.”
War Is Boring obtained the two cables through the Freedom of Information Act. Back in ’67, the U.S. Air Force’s main headquarters had sent the messages to every major Air Force command around the globe in an effort to keep commanders informed.
Right up until Israel’s lightning offensive, Washington had done its best to maintain good relations with both Tel Aviv and Arab countries. Successive American administrations had felt this policy of not favoring either side was essential to preventing the Soviet Union from expanding its sphere of influence.
So strong was this belief, that Pres. Dwight Eisenhower effectively sided with Moscow after British, French and Israeli troops invaded Egypt in 1956. The three countries had banded together in secret to plan the mission after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal and threatened to close off the important gateway to Western powers.
The incident complicated Washington’s relations with governments throughout the region. Eisenhower and other American politicians refused to support the Anglo-French-Israeli operation and publicly rebuked the coalition.
“Washington indeed disliked Nasser, but it abhorred European colonialism even more,” American-born historian Michael Oren wrote in his 2003 book Six Days of War. But Eisenhower ultimately made pledges in private with Israeli officials to help protect the Jewish state’s security, as well.
With a victory in the international court of opinion, Cairo enabled Palestinian militants and otherwise sought to harass Israel. Continually frustrated by Nasser’s refusal to reduce ties with the Soviets, Eisenhower eventually began plotting to overthrow the charismatic Egyptian leader.
So, despite a thaw in relations with the United States following the crisis, Egypt ended up firmly in the Soviet camp. Other countries, including Iraq, experienced political upheavals and ultimately severed relations with Washington. However, the Pentagon continued working with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Libya.
And seeing Nasser’s secular nationalism as a threat, the Saudi and Jordanian monarchies had no qualms about taking American aid. But when the situation boiled over again in 1967, the Arab world felt compelled to challenge the Israeli assault.
“Converging on Sinai were military contingents from countries that only days before had regarded Egypt as a mortal enemy,” noted Oren, who went on to become U.S. ambassador to Israel and is now an Israeli politician. “Arabs across North Africa, throughout the Fertile Crescent and the Gulf, felt bound by a single, exalted effort.”
Washington’s troops and diplomats, their dependents and other American citizens quickly found themselves caught up in this rush to retaliate. The Pentagon raced to get its troops out of harm’s way.
Right in the middle of delivering gear to Jordanian forces, a C-130 transport and its crew wound up stranded at Mafraq air base when the shooting started. During the war, Israeli aircraft blew up Amman’s planes on the ground, along with some of the runways and a hangar at the base near the country’s border with Syria.
The crew destroyed “classified communications material,” according to one of the cables. “The remaining 37 personnel with crypto gear departed for Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudi authorities promptly impounded the cargo plane. American diplomats eventually convinced Riyadh to let them go and the Americans flew to safety in Turkey.
At Wheelus in Libya, the situation threatened to spiral out of control. A mob had formed outside the gates.
“A source of water off-base was sabotaged yesterday but the area has been isolated and repair is in progress,” one of the messages noted. “For the present, no water shortage is anticipated.”
Washington had no plans to abandon the base. Libyan authorities had put a curfew into place and sent police and fire trucks to guard the base’s main gate.
The Air Force ordered the 7272nd Training Wing and its nearly 50 F-100 Super Sabre fighter jets to stay put. The flying branch did move a RB-47E spy plane to Torrejon air base in Spain. More aircraft eventually left for Europe and other destinations.
In the meantime, the Pentagon gave the commander of the 7272nd the authority to use his planes to protect Wheelus if things got ugly. Four of the planes were sitting on the runway at all times, ready to go in 15 minutes.
If the situation changed, the Air Force determined that it would need to round up more than 3,300 troops plus some 9,700 dependents and American citizens in and around Wheelus and Tripoli proper. The flying branch estimated a group of C-130s would need to make 220 separate flights to get everyone out of the country safely.
American crews could pull off the mission in 72 hours. At that point, the 7272nd would have to destroy weapons and anything else its crews couldn’t bring with them.
“If the major air command gives no order, the local commander will initiate destruction of assets as the situation dictates,” a cable explained. “There are no nuclear weapons or classified conventional weapons at Wheelus.”
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington initially relied on commercial flights to move Americans out. Athens and Rome served as the immediate safe havens for these evacuees.
Back in the states, the Pentagon had five C-141 transports ready to go on one hour’s notice. The aircraft were situated at five different bases along the East and West Coasts. As the fighting continued, the Air Force ultimately did help both American troops and civilians escape the region.
In a still-controversial turn of events, Israel was actually responsible for the most American deaths during the conflict. Israeli planes killed 34 American sailors and wounded more than 170 others when they attacked the spy ship USS Liberty off the Egyptian coast.
Tel Aviv insisted the strike was a tragic mistake and Washington accepted this explanation. However, many Americans — then and now — believe there are unanswered questions and possibly a deeper conspiracy surrounding the incident.
Thankfully for many, the conflict proved to be short — hence its name. After less than a week, Israeli troops had trounced their opponents, seizing control of the Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Unfortunately, though the shooting had stopped, the conflict provoked more violence across the Arab world. Jews were arrested or deported in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Before Libyan officials could move Jews into detention camps, a mob killed 18 and wounded another 25 in Tripoli.
After the Six Day War, Damascus cut off relations with Washington. Two years later, Libyan military officers — including Muammar Gaddafi — overthrew the country’s monarchy and booted American troops out of Wheelus.
Nearly five decades after the war, Saudi Arabia and Jordan remain staunch allies of the United States.