For three weeks before their sand trek, "Classic" was located on a dry lake bed (it rains even in the Sahara-usually only once in two or three years, but when it does the water can form lakes) just south of the sand sea, beside an air strip used five years earlier by an oil team.
Earlier this month, the 20 men of "Classic" began shooting their line across the sand sea. The sand is too soft to support more than ¾ ton trucks. Their heavier trucks and trailers were taken back to Tripoli and then southwest to the north side of the dunes, a road distance of nearly 1,700 miles.
The "Classic" base camp has now been re-established in its new location. The men live in 11 Army hexagonal tents and sleep on cots. Their mobile kitchen and radio shack are on Army trailers. As a recreation room and dining hall, they have a Quonset tent.
"Discoveries" in the desert occur frequently for the engineers, as they do for the oil exploration teams. The dry desert air is a perfect preservative. "We've found shot-up truck convoys out there just the way they were the day they were hit," said McMullen. "Over near Homs, 70 miles east of Wheelus, we found an 8-inch naval shell lying underneath a bush. And there are hundreds of un-exploded mortar shells lying in the desert south of Giarabub, near the Egyptian border.
In the Sand Sea of Ubari, the "Classic" team found a British Land Rover truck, apparently abandoned by an oil team.
Of people, however, the engineers see few, largely because they often travel far from the caravan trails which criss-cross the desert. Last year, an Army survey team crossed the Jebel Harooj, a volcanic outcropping in central Libya nearly 100 miles wide, which not even the most experienced Arabs enter. "We were probably the first human beings in history to cross it" said McMullen.
People occasionally appear in unlikely places, though. Not far from "Classic's" former base camp south of the dunes, the engineers came upon a Libyan woman and her children living in tents. "We learned that her husband makes the 400-mile trip to Sebha, alone with his camels, once a year," said McMullen. "He sells or trades them in Sebha for salt and food, and younger camels, then returns. The round trip takes him six months. He's been doing this for years."
When the engineers finish their work in Libya about 18 months from now. their job still won't be done. "We'll move the whole operation to Iran," said McMullen. "We already have 60 men there now working up in the mountains near the snowline. The job should take us another five years or so." "The snow ought to be quite a contrast," he added.
Engineers Roam Wasteland "Where Nothing Lives and No Man Has Ever Trod"
64th ENGINEER BATTALION ARMY MAP SERVICE TRIPOLY, LYBIA
SGT. Lloyd Butler 1960 - 1963
By JAMES M. HALBE, Staff Writer
The question of what unit in the U.S. Armed Forces has the most isolated task is probably unanswerable. It could be a group of Army scientists in a Greenland ice cave, or an Air Force radar unit on a peak in Alaska, or a Navy weather team on a Pacific atoll, or it could be the Army engineers in the Sahara.
Since 1956, the Army's 64th Engineer Bn has been mapping Libya for the Army Map Service. When it is finished, early in 1963, it will have completed one of the most grueling surveys ever undertaken.
For five years it has had teams roaming over some of the most desolate country on the face of the earth—barren wasteland where nothing lives and no man has ever trod.
In teams of 15 to 25 men, the engineers have done three things:
They have shot "levels" to determine the elevation of the land above mean sea level.
They have shot a string of triangulations across northern Libya to pinpoint locations.
They have ascertained the precise local name of every physical feature that will appear on maps.
By the time the job is finished, they will have walked across Libya, a distance of 1,000 miles, three times. These three aspects of surveying-elevation, triangulation and classification-will enable the Army Map Service in Washington to produce the first accurate maps of Libya ever published.
The huge task is being undertaken by the Army for the U.S. Government acting in conjunction with the World Mapping Council. The Libyan government will receive a copy of every map the Army publishes.
Only 10 per cent of the world's land surface has been accurately mapped and only 90 per cent of the United States. Libya is the last unmapped space in North Africa. The British mapped Egypt and the French did Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco years ago, and the Italians did portions of Libya, but never completed it.
The U.S. Army's triangulations, for example, have closed the last mapping "gap" around the Mediterranean, For the first time In history all of North Africa Is now cartographically "tied in" with Europe. European map data, such as the distance between two points, or the relationship of several points to one another, can now be coordinated with North African data.
To get the mean sea level of the Mediterranean, the engineers set up 14 tide gauges across northern Libya.
To mark their triangulations they placed a 400-pound stone marker every 12 to 15 miles across Libya, 201 altogether.
To mark the elevations, they have placed a temporary bench marker every mile and a permanent bench marker every three miles.
Their accuracy has been almost incredible. Accurate map making allows an error of less than 1 in 50,000. The error in their 1.000- mile-long triangulation line was between 1 in 200,000 and 1 in 300,000. Over a period of eight months, they shot one elevation line a distance of 1,073 miles, enclosing a rectangle. They came within 43 millimeters of their starting point.
The 64th Engineer Bn is commanded by Lt. Col. Thomas W. Whitchurch of Casper, Wyo. Its headquarters are in a corner of Wheelus Air Base, five miles east of Tripoli. It consists of 230 Americans (it is authorized 328), 60 Libyans, 110 trucks, 12 light planes and 20 helicopters
All of its pilots can fly either planes or helicopters. All of its men, from Whitchurch on down, are licensed to drive all of its vehicles, from jeeps to five-ton trucks. All of its trucks are equipped with radios. Both its pilots and its mine clearers get hazardous-duty pay.
"We've picked up between 3,000 and 4.000 mines in five years." said Capt William J. McMullen. 33, of Huntington. N.Y., the unit's executive officer. "Areas that we don't clear we mark. We use a standard Army mine detector, but it also picks up shrapnel and tin cans. You have no Idea how much shrapnel there is out there."
Mine removal is more than hazardous. Many of the German and Italian mines are booby-trapped with devilishly ingenious devices The engineers have never found a booby-trapped British mine, however, according to McMullen.
The engineers have three teams in the desert now, two classification teams In Cyrenaica, 400 miles east of Tripoli, and an elevation team in the Fezzan, 600 miles southwest of Tripoli.
The two classification teams consist of 10 Americans and five Libyans each. Their task is to find out and record the name of every oasis, hill, mountain, gully, wadi, outcropping of rock or other landmark that will appear on future maps.
The names must be authentic—those in common usage by local inhabitants (and "local" can mean anyone living within several hundred miles.)
The classification teams thus do much of their work by interviewing Libyans, frequently the village or oasis "wise man," and nearly always they use a tape recorder.
The elevation team is commended by 1st Lt Michael H. Mulkey, 27, of Wheeler, Ore. It has just accomplished an extraordinary feat - crossing more than 100 miles of sand dunes, on foot and in ¾-ton trucks.
The move was the most difficult the team has made since it set out from Tripoli six months ago. It pushed its line 150 miles east to Misuratt, then turned south for 350 miles to Sebha, then southwest for 350 miles to the vicinity of Ghat, on the Tunisian border. From there the men moved north and by by late September had reached the southern edge of the Sand Sea of Ubari.
They were supplied all this time with 10 tons of supplies once a week, delivered by truck over a lengthening supply line, 1,200 miles long at its longest, only 50 miles of it paved.
The supply system of which Capt John P. Burdish of Omaha is in charge, meant keeping two convoys on the move almost constantly, one, laden with supplies, leaving Tripoli at the same time another, empty. left the elevation team's main base, dubbed "Arizona Classic" in radio communication.
In communications trailer: SGT. Lloyd Butler (Right) and SP4 Millard Burnk.
MAPPING THE LYBIAN DESERT
"Classic" base camp
1960 - 1963
They work in almost all kinds of weather except blinding sandstorms and extreme heat. The maximum temperature they've recorded is 139° and it can be 125° at noon for days on end.
During such heat, they stop work, not so much because of the heat itself but because the heat waves rising from the desert blur the numbers they must read through telescopes on the elevation rods. More than once they have worked all night with the lights from their trucks in order to avoid losing a day's work.
Frequently, though, the weather can be as balmy as Wisconsin in the fall-a brisk wind blowing (cool if it is from the east, warm if from the south) and temperatures in the 80s.
They work six days a week and have five weeks in the desert for every one week spent at Wheelus.