Biafran Airlift

The World Is Deep


Biafran Airlift

David L. Koren, Nigeria 9 (1963-1966)

March 2007


The first time I went to Africa the sun was rising over an endless stretch of palm trees as the Pan Am Boeing 707 banked steeply on approach to Lagos Nigeria, January 1st 1964.


The second time I went to Africa, two years later, the captain of the green and white painted Nigeria Airways/Pan Am 707 announced that we were denied permission to land at Lagos, because there had just been a military coup.


We circled for some time before we were cleared to land.  Soldiers with guns watched us disembark.    I was supposed to make a connecting flight to Enugu, capital of the Eastern Region, where I had been stationed for the last two years as an American Peace Corps Volunteer.  I was just returning from home leave.


There were no connecting flights that day.  Nobody knew what was happening. Arriving passengers were escorted to the Catering Rest House, where we were put up for the time being.  While we were in the dining room all the lights went out.  When the lights came on we had all stopped eating; nobody was speaking; we looked around the room at each other.  Later I went to bed, in a small room, in a distant land, unable to adumbrate any sense of future.


The next day a flight was arranged to the Eastern Region.  Nigeria Airways found a pilot who would fly a DC3 to Port Harcourt, but no one would risk going to Enugu.  As for news of the coup, there were only rumors.  One rumor had it that pilots landing in the regional capitals were being hauled off the planes and shot.  Passengers were given the option of remaining in Lagos until things stabilized or risking the flight to Port Harcourt.  I chose to get out of the capital and try to reach the village where I was stationed, near Umuahia, which was between Port Harcourt and Enugu.


When the plane was loaded and the doors closed, an official came running out of the terminal waving a handful of papers. The pilot, a beefy Englishman, yelled to him out of the cockpit window.  “No!  I’m not singing the bloody manifest!  This plane is way overloaded, and I’m not taking responsibility for it!”  A DC3 is a venerable old plane widely used in World War II in uncertain circumstances like this.    We landed at Port Harcourt with no problems.


The airline arranged for a small bus to transport the passengers to Enugu.  I got off in Umuahia and took a bush taxi – a Morris Minor – to my school, Ohuhu Community Grammar School in the village of Amaogwugwu.


The school was a proprietary school started by Dr. Michael I. Okpara, a prominent man from the village and also the Premier of the Eastern Region of Nigeria.


News began to unfold of what happened with the coup.  A group of junior Army officers took over the government with the goal of ending corruption.  In the process they killed a number of government officials, including the Nigerian Head of State, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Belewa and also the Sultan of Sokoto, the religious leader of the Muslims of Northern Nigeria.   The coup soon took shape along regional and religious lines.  Many of the coup leaders were Igbos from the Eastern Region, while the ousted leaders were Housas from the North.  General Ironsi, a Sandhurst educated soldier who had commanded the United Nations forces in the Congo, an Igbo, was installed as Head of the military government.  Northerners were mostly Muslims and Southerners (Eastern and Western Regions) were predominantly Christians.


Peace Corps Volunteers got news from the local newspaper and from what we called

time-n-newsweek.  The international editions of Time and Newsweek were available in Umuahia, and we bought both of them from the news boys, onye akwukwo.  PCVs would gather at someone’s house on the day the magazines came out and we would read them -devour them- cover to cover, including the ads, in complete silence.


After six months another coup ousted all the Igbos (Ironsi was shot, Gowon was installed) and led to the massacre of Igbo civilians in the North and a mass exodus of refugees back into the Eastern Region.


I saw this from my home in Amaogwugwu, an Igbo village.  Although the school was established for the benefit of the community, students were accepted from all over Eastern Nigeria.  Many were Effiks and some were from the Rivers areas near Port Harcourt and Calabar.


Trains arrived from the sabon garis of the North carrying refugees; on one there was a headless body.  All of these people were absorbed into their villages of origin, even where generations had passed between those who had left and their descendants who returned.  New huts were constructed and donations of food and clothing were requested.  We all contributed.  Although this was a great burden on the local population, it was effective in caring for the refugees.  And therefore there were no refugee camps with deplorable conditions to catch the attention of the world media.


Toward the end of 1966, there was increasing talk of war.  I discussed it with my students.  I told them that war would be very bad.  They were less concerned about it.  (I read about Vietnam in time-n-newsweek; they did not).  One student said, “We will fight them.  If we win we will rule them.  If they win they will rule us.”


Dr. Okpara hosted a send-off celebration for me and my fellow PCV, Ric Holt.  Dr. Okpara conferred on us the honorary title of Bende Warrior Chieftain, along with the appropriate garments – a wrapper and jumper of fine cloth and a woven cap.  Bende is a division of the Igbo people.


I stood up in my new clothes to give thanks.


Bende kweno!”


Ha!” (The response).


Bende kweno!”




Enyi mba enyi!”    [Footnote: I’m not sure how this translates.  Enyi means elephant and mba means no, or a negation.  The total phrase is an exhortation similar to Penn State fans yelling “Roar Lion Roar!”]




Enyi mba enyi!”




Dr. Okpara and the other dignitaries and guests seemed amused.


In December I took my loads to Enugu for my flight home.  Soldiers manned checkpoints on all the roads, looking for “contraband and spies.”  At one checkpoint a lorry pulled out while a soldier was still inspecting the load.  At the next checkpoint another soldier asked everyone if they had seen the “soja man.”


At this time the commercial planes were still flying between the Regions, and I left Nigeria with the memory of soldiers at airports.




The third time I went to Africa, October 1968,  I flew in a DC7 from Amsterdam to Tripoli to Ivory Coast to Sao Tome,  bringing relief supplies for Biafra.


After the Peace Corps I went to graduate school, for a Masters in broadcast journalism, but I was still not ready to settle into a long term career.  I followed the course of the Biafran War through the New York Times.  So when UNICEF contacted me looking for ex PCVs to volunteer again for food relief in Biafra, I was aware of the problem and I was free to go.  School was almost finished; I didn’t have a job; I wasn’t married; I had no commitments.  I was loose.  And I worried about my former students and friends.


Between the time I made the decision to go and the time I arrived in Biafra, I did get married.  When I went to join UNICEF I looked up a Peace Corps friend who was living in New York, Elner McCraty.  The period of orientation and outfitting with UNICEF became an extended delay, long enough for us to renew our former relationship.  Hours after we married she put me on the plane for Amsterdam.


I joined three other former PCVs on Sao Tome; we were to act as a cargo masters on the relief flights.  But the job was ill defined and open to a lot of possibilities.  We were officially known as United Nations Field Service Officers.  The Portuguese immigration officials who examined our documents on arrival in Sao Tome asked us what that meant.  We smiled and shrugged and they let us in.  The Government of Biafra did not.  They were very careful about who they let in and for what purpose.  Even journalists had a difficult time getting in.  The United Nations was not seen as an organization friendly to Biafra. (The UN could not support the breakup of sovereign nations, yet UNICEF wanted to help the children in some way.  We were a way).  After more than a month Biafra gave us clearance to enter.


Sao Tome is a beautiful island, part of an island group known as Sao Tome and Principe.  At the time of the airlift it was a possession of Portugal and has since become independent.  It lies on the equator near the Greenwich Meridian, so its coordinates are (0, 0) – the navel of the world.  The city of Sao Tome is the largest town on the island of Sao Tome, near its Northern tip.  The town square is paved with ceramic tile, and it looked so neat and precise and clean that I imagined it had been constructed by Walt Disney.  The people were poor African fisherman, farmers, and servants to the Portuguese officials, hotel owners, and plantation owners.  The airlift had a huge impact on the life and economy and future of the island.


Because it was so near, we had to see the equator.  We drove down the island’s only central road to the southern part where we found a demarcation for the Line in the forest.  In an age-old tradition I stood in the Northern Hemisphere and peed into the Southern.


We kept busy while waiting for clearance to enter Biafra.  Food donations came to Sao Tome by air and sea and were delivered to seven different warehouses around town.  At random.  As each shipment arrived it was dumped in a warehouse with no organization, no inventory.  Preparing a plane load of relief supplies was difficult, because no one knew what food was available and what condition it was in.  The four of us Field Service Officers worked with Sao Tomeans and a Danish relief organization to organize the warehouses.


The relief effort on Sao Tome was put together by church groups, the Protestant World Council of Churches and Catholic Caritas.  This was distinct from the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, which operated from the island of Fernando Po.  The ICRC must have had an existing world-wide network for funneling disaster relief, but the operation on Sao Tome was ad hoc.  WCC and Caritas were established entities, but the airlift they put together for Biafra took form as it went along.  They created a company called ARCO – I don’t know what the letters meant – to buy and charter planes.  A German church group called Das Diakonische Werk was designated to provide flight operations.  The United Nations contributed a handful of Field Service Officers.


The relief came in as a hodgepodge.  Pat Nixon made an appeal to the American people to help feed the Biafran children.  The response was great, and tons of canned goods arrived in Sao Tome.  One day we spent 16 hours on the docks unloading a shipload of cases of canned milk.  These donations were well meant, but inefficient.  A DC7 carrying 10 tons of canned goods would be carrying 7 tons of water and metal.  A pharmaceutical company sent a shipment of sun tan lotion.  It was said that they wrote it off as a charitable donation.  Other medical donations were more appropriate.


That was what I saw when we were organizing the warehouses.  Things changed when we began receiving 50 pound bags of dried food and powdered milk.  The food was called CSM, for a mixture of corn meal, soy beans, and milk.  There was a similar mixture called Formula II.   The logo on the bags showed a black hand and a white hand in a handshake.  The words were, “From the people of the United States of America to the people of India.”  By the time I began flying into Biafra we were carrying those bags, bales of dried stockfish, medicines, and fuel and batteries for the lorries used to distribute them.


So I got to fly into Biafra.  I had last left the area as war was impending, and now an ugly war constricted the people into a small hungry enclave.  I wondered about the people I had known.  I did not think it likely that I would learn about them in the middle of the night on a widened road called the airstrip at Uli.


We flew at night to avoid the Nigerian Migs.  The Nigerians also had a night bomber that would drop its bombs when we were coming in for a landing.  We took off from Sao Tome while it was still light and timed the flight to arrive over the coast just at dark.  We could see the burn-off flames from the oil wells in the Niger River delta.  >From my seat near the back of the plane I could also see the traces of antiaircraft shells arcing up toward us from below.  The planes flew without navigation lights, so the gunners had to track us by the sound of our engines.  The pilots didn’t seem worried about this.  When I mentioned it to Captain Delahunt – he had been a carrier pilot in WW II – he banked the big plane around to identify where the AA was coming from, so he could alert following pilots.


The task was to land a four engine plane on a road in the rain forest at night without lights or radar.  I stood in the cockpit door as the flight engineer explained how it was done.  The pilots followed a radio beacon that was centered on the airstrip.  A needle on a dial in the cockpit told them when they were on the right heading.  When the needle flipped 180 degrees, they were directly over the beacon.  The frequency of this signal was kept secret and was changed every night so the bomber could not find Uli the same way.  The pilots said it would not be too hard for the intruder to find the signal anyway, and he was often waiting for us.


When the needle swung, the pilot flew on a certain course for a definite number of minutes, then came to another course for a few minutes, and so on until by dead reckoning the plane should be lined up with the end of the runway.  The pilot did his letdown.  At the right altitude, when he reckoned that we were over the threshold, the pilot called for runway lights.  When we had lights the pilot made hasty adjustments to line the nose up on the centerline.  As soon as the wheels screeched on the pavement, the lights went out.  This is when the intruder got his fix and rolled his bombs.


The bombs didn’t fall at every landing, but often enough.  One night we were coming in with a load of gasoline in 55 gallon drums strapped to the deck.  As we were on final approach the ground controller waved us off.  The pilot went to full throttle and a steep climb to the left.  I didn’t think a fully loaded plane that size could be so responsive.  I watched out the window as a line of bombs walked along the side of the runway.


Each day either WCC or Caritas would choose the cargo for the flights that night.  The trucks would go to the warehouses, load, and return to the flight line.  My job was to help supervise the loading, in terms of what went into each plane and the distribution of the cargo within each plane.  We learned this skill under the tutelage of a young German named Rudi, who worked for Das Diakonische Werk.  The load had to be secure against shifting, especially during violent maneuvers.


All flights for the night would be either WCC or Caritas, alternating from night to night.  This arrangement had been negotiated to avoid the nasty infighting that had taken place at Uli between the Protestants and the Catholics over who would get the food from each plane.  WCC and Caritas had separate distribution networks in Biafra.  Flight Ops scheduled alternating nights for the two, and made adjustments at the end of the month to equalize the deliveries in case some flights had been cancelled because of weather or enemy action.


One afternoon, after our loading was finished, the Irish priest in charge of Caritas came to the flight line in a rage.  It was a real dandy rage – his face was bright red and he was screaming.  The Flight Ops manager, Rudi, was cowering and getting red as well.  All he could say was, “Yes, Father.  Yes, Father.” The priest had learned that WCC had used its night to fly in all the medicines from the warehouses.  He ordered all the food to be removed from the planes.  So we reloaded the trucks and sent them back to town where the food was exchanged for batteries – all the batteries, so the Protestants couldn’t get any for their lorries.


The four of us UNICEF volunteers took turns flying into Biafra.  We would go in with the first plane, help with the unloading, and come out with the last flight.  Those who stayed in Sao Tome helped load the planes.  Between the four of us, we knew what the planes were carrying.  One day I was lying on my bed listening to a BBC broadcast.  It was a lengthy report about the Biafran airlift.  The report described how the churches were using the cover of relief flights to smuggle arms to the Biafran army.  The reporter read lists from the cargo manifests of all the guns and ammunition.  He had details, like the make and model numbers of the weapons, and the tonnage, and he gave the dates and the aircraft on which they were flown.  Those were my planes, and I was on duty those days.  I put the cargo on those planes in Sao Tome or took it off in Biafra, and I never saw a single weapon.  Not those days or any other.


I had always heard, and believed, that the BBC was the world standard in journalism for accurate and unbiased reporting.




My first landing in Biafra was uneventful, but emotional.  The night air was fresh and tropical and familiar.  It felt, in a sense, like coming home.


The airstrip was indeed a road.  It was not flat, but slightly undulating.  The wings extended over the edges of the pavement.  “So this is Airstrip Annabelle,” I said.


“How did you know that?” asked the captain.  “That’s supposed to be a military secret.”


“I read it in the New York Times.”


A flight schedule was published every day listing the planes and their arrival times over the beacon in Biafra.  At the bottom of the schedule was a notice: “THIS SCHEDULE SHALL UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES BE EXPOSED IN PUBLIC.”  But everybody had a copy; it defined our evening’s entertainment.  We called it TV Guide.  Because we were flying into a war zone, some security was required.  However, things were pretty lose, and it would have been easy for a reporter to get information about what was going on.  It’s not surprising that the NY Times knew about Airstrip Annabelle.


My job was to get the planes unloaded and turned around for another load.   I don’t know what I thought that meant – making people work faster?  But it turned out not to be necessary.  The workers who unloaded the plane were tired, hungry Biafran soldiers who worked as fast as they could. So I just helped move the sacks closer to the door.

After the first plane was unloaded I got down and waited in the night for the next plane to arrive.  Sometimes the wait would be a couple of hours as the first wave of planes returned to Sao Tome for a second run.   It was kept very dark.  If someone showed a light, even briefly, there were shouts from unseen soldiers all around, “Off de light!  Off de light!”  Because of the bomber.


Out of the night someone would quietly approach me and begin a conversation.  We would exchange information about ourselves, where we were from, what we did before the war.  As the four of us made repeated trips we developed our own regular contacts.  They would find us in the dark. This led to some personal trading.  Personal care items like soap were a tradable commodity, and a carton of American cigarettes was very valuable.  I traded for Biafran souvenirs, such as a drum, ekwe, and High Life records – I got a “Baby Pancake.”


When the second wave of planes was due we often heard the bomber cruising overhead.  My contact showed me where the bunkers were, next to the unloading bays.  If the bombs started falling we were to dive into the bunkers.  He told me he had watched planes bombing in Umuahia, with a kind of fascination, while a friend urged him to get in the bunker.  “Take cover before they give cover.”


When the bombs started falling you could hear them screaming down.  After some experience with this it became possible to tell by the Doppler shift and intensity of the scream whether a bomb was going away from you or coming toward you and about how much time you had before it got there.   One night after I had unloaded the first plane and climbed into the second one, the bombs came. The air crew and   the soldiers who had been gathering outside the plane went for the bunker.  By the sound I knew that the bomb was coming my way, and I judged that I didn’t have time to climb down the ladder and get to shelter.  It was coming right now.  There were sacks of CSM piled neatly on either side of a narrow isle in the center of the plane and I dove in there, hoping they might absorb some of the shrapnel.  The blast shook the plane and deafened me, but we escaped damage.  The next day on Sao Tome, I walked around the plane for a closer inspection.  I found a few hits, one near a tire, but none more than nicks or scratches.


Immediately after that bomb went off, a second one hit further down the runway.  We kept unloading the second plane as the first plane, which I had come on, was preparing to take off.  I heard the engines rev up, and I heard it roaring down the runway.  But then it stopped all of a sudden.   As soon as we finished unloading I ran down to see what was going on.  I saw our DC7 sitting on the runway with its nose wheel yards away from a huge bomb crater.  The pilot and a missionary were examining the hole.  The missionary had heard the explosion and thought it was near the runway.  He found the hole and also saw the DC7 starting its run toward him.  He stood at the edge of the crater, facing the plane, and waved his arms frantically with a flashlight in each hand.  The pilot told me that the flashlights were very faint from his perspective in the cockpit, but he could tell that there was something on the runway, so he throttled back and stood up on his brakes.  With the plane roaring at him, the missionary never budged.


The plane maneuvered around the crater and took off.  There was enough runway left for it to get airborne.  From the bottom of the crater I pulled out a large piece of twisted, blackened metal, part of a tailfin from the bomb.  It was still hot.  I put it in my bag.  I still have it, along with my drum and Baby Pancake.


I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember that missionary’s name, if I ever knew it.  I only had a few contacts with him, but they were significant.  I’m not even sure of his denomination, although it seems accurate in my memory to think of him as a Catholic.  I will call him a generic “Father John.” After the plane took off Father John asked me to come with him, and we went to find the flight line officer.  He was referred to as the “2IC,” or 2nd In Command, at Uli.  We found him in the dark, and we all got in Father John’s station wagon.  We drove to a house near the airfield. The residents of the house were asleep.  The officer pounded on the door.  “Wake up! Wake up!  You’re holding up the Nation.”  The man who emerged was in charge of airport maintenance.  We drove him to his bulldozer, and he filled the crater.  Tomorrow he would pave it, but tonight planes could land and take off on it.


The Biafrans had a Bofors antiaircraft gun.  It had a distinctive, complicated sound, a low-throated pulse, “thoomp, thoomp,” with a kind of twang wrapped around it.  One night it started firing and I got near a bunker but didn’t go in.  When the bombs fell I could hear them tracking away from me, so I watched.  They were phosphorous bombs and they made quite a light show, like fountains of fireflies in the night – umumuwari.


A bomb hit near a DC7 one night.  The crew was standing outside.  The copilot was severely injured and taken to the hospital.  The plane was hit, but the pilot and flight engineer managed to get it airborne and headed for Sao Tome.  The pilot also was injured with shrapnel in his legs.  He told me later that he kneeled on the seat with his legs tucked under him to keep from passing out from the pain.  Soon after takeoff one engine failed, and the second one on the same side gave out as they were landing.  The oil filters in both engines were shredded.  All the way back air was screaming through holes in the fuselage.  The pilot spent a couple of months in the hospital on Sao Tome, and came out with a cane and a limp.  I spent a couple of months working on that plane, but more about that later.


Some of the off-loading areas perpendicular to the runway were paved and others were covered with a steel mesh mat.  A plane had gotten stuck in the mud off the runway and was vulnerable to attack the next day.  By luck, it wasn’t.  A few weeks later a plane arrived in Sao Tome with a load of those steel mesh mats.  It was said that they had been diverted from Vietnam where they were to be used as helicopter landing pads.  Whenever something odd like that happened, we all looked at an American missionary who was not affiliated with either WCC or Caritas.  “He repeatedly said, “I do not work for the CIA!  The only exercise we get around here is jumping at conclusions.”  He was a small round man who looked like he could use some exercise.


Father John was tall, slender, and earnest.  He never said much, but he listened attentively.  After a bomb fell beyond the end of the runway one night, he came out of the dark and said, “Come with me.”  Once again we rode off in his car.  The bomb had fallen in a village compound, and there were casualties.  Three members of the same family had run out of their house seeking cover when the bomb hit.   A boy of about 20 years was dead.  There was a ragged hole in his forehead and another near his navel.  A boy of about 6 was hit in the leg.  His leg was twisted at an odd angle. His eyes were open, but he made no sound.  A young woman was hit in the arm.  She was singing.  The song was high, plaintive, haunting, and continuous.  We put them in the station wagon and drove them to the hospital.  When we left them the woman was still singing.


Uwa di egwu.  The world is deep.



For R&R on Sao Tome the four of us UNICEF Volunteers – Larry, Barry, Leo, and I -explored the limited number of roads, and we cruised around the island on a fishing boat, with dolphins riding the bow wave.  Some who went scuba diving said the sea was teaming with life.  Local restaurants served a plentiful variety of seafood.   Large crabs moving back and forth to the sea would cover the roads morning and evening.  We went to a beach at the Bay of the Seven Waves (Baia de Sept Ono), a beautiful sandy bay with no one there but us.  I saw mud skippers, fish that come out of the water and scoot purposefully across the sand for a time.


We ate and drank at places like the Hotel Salazar, high on a hill overlooking the bay, the town, and the Aerogare.  Most of our daily meals were taken at Senor Costa’s, where we also rented our rooms.  There were afternoon snacks at the Baia where they served Cuca a Copo, a Portuguese beer, and sausiga, which was something like a hot dog.  From the Baia we could look across the bay and watch planes landing.  Our old planes were all propeller driven, but about once a week a DC8 jet landed with some cargo or dignitaries.  For more formal meals we dined at the Café Yong.


At these places we met the others who had gathered for this airlift.  Missionaries.  Mercenaries.  Air crew and mechanics.  Portuguese.  Biafrans.  Diplomats. Journalists.  Africans of Sao Tome.


The mercenaries preferred the Hotel Salazar, the high ground.  Most of them had little to say: they sat quietly and drank and watched.  They were from South Africa, Rhodesia, Germany, Britain.  Johnny Correa, a Puerto Rican American from New York City, breezed in once in a while, always ebullient.  Taffy Williams, who looked something like Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia, gregarious for a clandestine fighter, boasted of their exploits. He told of Steiner leading a few Biafran fighters through enemy lines to blow up some planes in Enugu.   He said that Biafrans were the best fighters in Africa. “With a company of men like that we could make it all the way to the Mediterranean, and no one could stop us.”  I thought, why the Mediterranean?  Why not Lagos?


Williams’ fingers were stained yellow and brown from heavy smoking.  My wife had joined me by then.  She told him that he should stop smoking because it was bad for his health.  He nearly choked to death on a coughing fit provoked by laughing.  He talked of a code of honor and behavior among mercenaries.  They respected their fellow fighters, and they respected the women of their fellows.  So he said.  But I was surprised when the South Africans and Rhodesians treated my wife with great deference – she’s African American.  I wonder, did they think I was a mercenary?


The four of us United Nations Volunteers would sit at Costa’s and talk about the motivation of those who came to the airlift.  Some people were there to make money.  Many were there because they were compelled by their religion to help the poor and suffering in the name of God.  Yet many of these, missionaries included, openly distained or detested Biafrans.  It was an abstract duty and the objects of their charity were irrelevant.

For some others who engage in charity I think that there is a set of expected behaviors between those who give help and those who receive it.  The givers see themselves as somehow “above” those who receive, and they expect some acknowledgement of that status.  Years later, when I worked in a deli on Second Avenue in New York, a man brought a bum in off the street and ordered a “hero” sandwich for him.  I piled extra meat on it, knowing what was coming.  As the bum ate he kept his head down and flicked his eyes up to his benefactor once in a while.  The giver of the food then expected that he had the privilege, or the duty, to lecture the man on his life and how he should improve himself.   More years later, when I worked in a mental hospital, a patient told me that he felt as if the staff did not want him to get better, because then they would not be “better” than he was.  Their own needs required that distinction.  The bum and the patient were victims of charity.


Biafrans did not behave in the expected ways.  They were grateful without debasing themselves.  They accepted aid and remained proud.


Another UN volunteer had been on Sao Tome before we arrived.  He left in disgust, labeling the whole operation as “The White Man’s Burden’s Last Stand.”


It did not occur to the four of us, not then, to consider why we were there.  Barry, Leo, and Larry had all been PCVs in Nigeria, although I didn’t know them then.  Barry and Larry were about my age, 27, while Leo was about 50.  He was a WW II veteran, who had been wounded by artillery fire.


One man I met, Johnny Moloco Dentista, belonged to no category.  He was a small, poor, middle-aged, bald, Italian Jew with a little black bag full of dental instruments.  He was an itinerant, meandering from place to place providing basic dental care to those who had none, strong enough within himself not to require payment or homage.  He came out of Biafra, and I last saw him headed for Brazil to work with Indian people up the Amazon.


A lower level official from the U.S. State Department came through Sao Tome on a fact-finding mission to Biafra.  Over a beer at the Baia he said, “What amazes me is how all of you relief people have swallowed the Biafran propaganda about starving children.”


As an aviation job, the Biafran Airlift attracted a fraternity of fliers from all over the world.  They were British, American, Canadian, Scandinavian, and German crews and mechanics.  ARCO hired a DC7 captain from Lapland who used to herd reindeer.  Crews from Iceland were there flying off the equator.  A few men had recently flown with the other big aviation job at the time, Air America in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  The CIA had conducted a food relief operation in Laos with Air America.  But no one talked about that, much.


I liked the Icelandic guys.  They taught me how to pronounce Reykjavik – it took a lot of practice.  When they first arrived and learned that they were to fly over Biafra without navigation lights, they refused.  It was too dangerous.  No one had told them anything about flying without nav lights.  Then someone told them that if they used lights, the Nigerians would shoot at them.  “Oh. Okay.”  And they flew.


I flew back from Uli with them one night.  I was sleeping in the back of the empty plane when I woke up floating in air. Leo drifted a few feet away, suspended face down with his hands crossed in front of his face, elbows up, eyes wide. After several seconds we settled back down.  I imagined that we were plunging into the sea.  The flight engineer opened the cockpit door and peered back at Leo and me to see if we were all right.  When he saw that we were not hurt, he smiled.  “The pilot wanted to make joke on you.”


I said, “You mean, he did that on purpose?”


“Yes! Yes!” nodding with delight.  The pilot had arced the plane up into a ballistic trajectory, and for a brief time we were in freefall, zero G.  Thanks to them I got to experience weightlessness without ever becoming an astronaut.


Barry and Larry often worked as a team, and Leo and I as a team.  On a night that Barry and Larry were flying, Leo and I were drinking with the ARCO mechanics.  There was Arnie the Swede, Helmut the German, Smyth the Englishman, and three or four other Europeans.  They complained about being overworked, that it was too much for the handful of them to keep those old planes flying.  Leo and I said that we could turn a wrench, and we would be glad to help them if they showed us what to do.  Chi nyere m aka.  “God gave me hands.”  And I can use them.


The next day ARCO hired us as help mechanics, and the Portuguese airport authorities issued us flight line IDs as Ajudante de Mecanico.  And so we became more formally connected with the airlift, not just nebulous Field Service Officers.

ARCO paid us $25 a day, $50 if we flew into Biafra.  Meanwhile, UNICEF started us off at $50 a week.  They said they had no idea what we really needed, so if we wanted more, just ask.  So we asked for $75 a week, and that became our volunteer allowance.  By comparison pilots were paid $500 per flight.  Copilots and engineers got $300.  DC7s were fast enough to make three runs on a good night; $1500 a night was good pay in 1969.  However, there was no insurance, and if you went down, the churches had never of you.  At the end of each week I lined up at the pay table with the other ARCO employees.  I have never seen so many $100 bills in my life.  Dollars became common currency on the island, with the dollar bill used as a 7 Escudo note.


We began our career as mechanics by removing parts from the damaged DC7, noting carefully how we did it.  Then we would ride into Biafra with the first flight, and work all night removing the same parts from another DC7, which was down at Uli, and then come out with the last flight.  The downed plane had had mechanical trouble and couldn’t take off.  The next day the Mig shot it up.  The right wing and the fuselage burned; remarkably the left wing was still intact, with fuel still left in the wing tanks.  Leo and I washed grease off of our hands by turning a petcock under the wing and letting the gasoline run over them.  It was 140 octane aviation gasoline, very volatile, and it made your hands cold, even in the tropical heat.

Leo.  When I look back on all this, I’m sure I do not know why Leo was with us.  As a wounded WW II vet and a PCV he had already done service in this life.  He didn’t seek adventure, nor fortune and glory.  He didn’t brag.  He never did say very much.  Sometimes he would cock his head to one side, squint, and chuckle.  On a hot, dry, still afternoon, as we worked quietly turning wrenches, he said, “In South Dakota it gets too windy to haul rocks.”


One other hot afternoon, while I was on top of a flimsy aluminum ladder with my hands stretched way back in the engine, up to my armpits, I looked to my right and saw Leo open the petcock and wash his hands – with a cigarette in his mouth.


“Leo!” I screamed.  “Get away from there!”


“Huh?  Oh.”


There was at night at Uli when a late fog rolled in.  I could hear a plane cross overhead and circle around, waiting for an opportunity to set down.   It never came, and the plane returned to Sao Tome.  That was my ride back.  In a way I was glad, because I got to spend a day in Biafra.


The sky turned slowly from black to grey as the morning light filtered through the fog.  Father John appeared.


“I’m going to Umuahia.  Do you want to ride along?”




It was a short visit.  I didn’t see my old school, Ohuhu Community Grammar School, because the road to Amaogwugwu was not on our way.  I did see a convent school where another PCV, Nancy Amadei, had been stationed.  It looked the same.  I walked along a street in Umuahia and saw women on the side selling food from enamel pans.  I saw garri, peppers, and vegetables.  I saw one woman frying yam chips in palm oil over a charcoal fire.  I saw chickens, which surprised me – I thought they’d be all gone by then.  This was the heart of Biafra, but I saw no begging.



The planes we flew were no longer first line equipment in world commerce.  Jets had taken their place.  The Douglas DC7 had been the ultimate in the evolution of reciprocal engine propeller driven passenger planes.  It was much faster and more powerful than the DC6.  The Lockheed Super Constellation was a comparable plane.  The Boeing 707 and the DC8 replaced these in airline service.

And the DC7 quickly became nearly worthless.  Its powerful R4350 engines were more sophisticated than the R3350 engines in the DC6 and the C46, but they were also more finicky and required almost daily maintenance.  They were much more expensive to operate, and they no longer generated the revenue.  As jets took over, secondary carriers continued to haul freight in the old propeller planes, and they preferred the reliable workhorse DC6.  That is why when ARCO chartered companies for the airlift, these companies brought DC6s.  That is why when ARCO bought their own planes, they bought DC7s, because they were very cheap.  And that is why I was hired as a help mechanic.


One day Helmut was looking for the source of an oil leak in the left inboard engine of a DC7.  He told me to go up and start the engine.  I’m sure I stood there looking stupid.  “Do it,” he said.  “It is easy.” But Smyth was in the cockpit checking instruments, and he started the engine for me. Back on the ground, Helmut stood next to the exhaust port looking into the engine.  The propwash blew his hair back.  The exhaust was a cone of blue flame 6 inches in diameter and 3 feet long.  Inches from his head.  At night when a DC7 flew over, you could always tell it from other planes by the deep sound of its engines, and by the intense blue flames behind each prop.


Wait small.”  That phrase turned my head around to see who had spoken it.  It is Pidgin English, and so far I had heard only Portuguese and standard English.  The speaker was named Valerio, and he was from Cape Verde Islands, a Portuguese possession like Sao Tome.  He and his brother Oscara became my good friends.  They had learned to speak Pidgin or “Broken English,” or just “Broken” at various jobs along the coast of West Africa – in Calabar, Port Harcourt, Warri, Lagos, and other ports.  “Broken” was a common market language in Nigeria, where there are 256 different languages, and it was also used by travelers and traders in French West Africa.  Valerio and Oscara, along with other African workers, were help mechanics and maintenance crew with our planes.  The Biafran airlift was an attractor for many peoples.


Valerio and Oscara expressed strong political views about the Portuguese and about independence for Cape Verde.  They, and the people of Sao Tome, observed the massive effort to assist Biafra.  They watched those of us who came to the island, and the way we behaved.  A few years after Biafra lost its bid for independence, Cape Verde and Sao Tome became free

The R4350 engines on a DC7 had two banks of cylinders arranged radially around the propeller shaft.  Each cylinder had two spark plugs.  So when we changed plugs on a plane, we changed 144 of them.  The back plugs on the second bank of cylinders were hard to reach.  The plug wrench used to tighten them had three flexible elbows.  Leo dropped a plug he was trying to insert in one of the most difficult spots to reach.  I watched as he came down the ladder, found it, blew the dust off of it, and put it in.  When that plane was ready to take off that afternoon, it taxied to the end of the runway, and the crew performed the engine run-up, a standard procedure on prop planes.  The flight engineer noticed something wrong on his oscilloscope.  The captain turned the plane around and brought it back to the maintenance area.  Of the 144 plugs on the plane, the engineer could tell that one of two was not firing properly.  We replaced the one Leo had dropped, and the plane flew its mission.


That incident scared me.  We were help mechanics, not experienced, certified professionals.  Suppose we did something to cause one of these planes to go down?

No doubt the old planes needed help.  I heard the backfiring as some of the engines tried to turn over.  I saw planes take off from Uli on three engines.  On the way home one early morning a prop came off the right inboard engine and ripped a gash in the fuselage as it spun away.  Somehow I had slept through that in the back of the plane.  I pointed to the hole when I woke up, and the engineer just grinned.  One more thing to fix.


Individual planes were designated by call letters: TRZ, Tango Romeo Zulu; FOP, Foxtrot Oscar Poppa; BCW, Bravo Charlie Whisky.  Bravo Charlie Whisky was the flagship of our DC7 “fleet” and my personal favorite.  It was involved in a secret diplomatic mission that I observed only from the far periphery.  We were told to get it in top condition, put seats in it, and clean it.  It flew a high level delegation from Biafra to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Presumably, there was an attempt to negotiate an end to the war, but after Bravo Charlie Whisky returned, and we removed the seats, I never heard another word about it.

Through the open door of one of the hangers on Sao Tome I could see the wingless bodies of two small jets.  They were Fouga Magisters.  Here is the story that one of the mechanics told me about how they got there.  Biafra bought the two jets for its Air Force.  They paid an American cowboy-type pilot, who had his own plane, to fly them in pieces to Sao Tome.  He brought the fuselages.  On the next trip he brought the wings.  Right after he landed, he and his crew were seen running from the plane.  The plane blew up.  No more wings.  Supposedly, he was paid by Biafra to deliver the jets, and he was paid by Nigeria to destroy them.  Sabotage and betrayal.  I don’t know how much of that is true, but I did see two Fouga Magister jets in the hanger with no wings.


On an afternoon when I had just finished loading a plane, and the engines were started, the Caritas priest came to me with a large package.  He ordered me to stop the plane and put the package on board.  I objected that the plane was already buttoned up and on its way.  We could put it on the next plane.  He said that the package was very important and must go on that flight.  I ran around in front of the plane waving to the pilot.  I pointed to the package, and he stopped taxiing.  Helmut helped me put it in the forward cargo hold.  When we backed away and the plane moved on, I said to him, “Do you know what is in that package?”  Helmut said, “I do not care what is in the plane, only that it flies.”  It was sanitary napkins for the Nuns.


We washed a DC7 one day.  It took all day and a lot of soap and water.  I was soaking wet, but that wasn’t so bad for a hot day on the equator.  The point of cleaning a plane was to reduce the skin friction, making it faster and more fuel efficient.  As we did every evening when we weren’t flying, we watched the planes take off, and later watched as they returned.  The plane we washed didn’t return.  We waited and watched and turned to the tower for news, but there was nothing.  It was gone.  I had the terrible feeling, as when we dropped the spark plug, that we had done something wrong when we washed the plane and caused it to crash.  The investigation later determined that it had hit an iroko tree on approach to Uli in the dark.   The iroko tree is one of those rain forest giants with the fluted roots at its base that project above canopy.  The plane disintegrated.


There was a church near one end of the runway at Uli.  The crew of our plane and others that went down during the airlift were buried in the churchyard.  I heard that after the war Nigeria bulldozed the airstrip to eliminate the memory of it.  And they bulldozed the graves.


In spite of the bombing, the mechanical challenges, and the hazardous navigation, the planes kept flying, most of the time.  At the height of the airlift, during the time I was there, we had up to 44 arrivals a night at Uli, which made it one of the busiest airports in Africa.  But there were two times that I remember when the air crews refused to fly, and the airlift stopped for a few days.  On one occasion a rumor spread that the Nigerian Migs would begin flying at night to shoot our planes down.  Caritas and WCC pleaded with the crews to fly, and eventually they did.  Another rumor stopped the airlift a second time.  One night the news spread that France had recognized Biafra.  This was a tremendous morale boost for a people who felt so isolated; who felt that the whole world was against them and their cause and their lives.  In jubilation Biafran soldiers fired their guns in the air.  The rumor wasn’t true, and some of the bullets struck a plane coming in at Uli.  There was no serious damage, but the crews stopped flying again until the WCC and Caritas convinced them to resume.


Before a return flight Father John summoned me again.  A van was parked in a clearing near the plane.  Several Biafran men were standing about, silent and uneasy.  There were children in the van in the last stages of starvation.  We carried them up the ladder one by one into the plane.  They were so very light.  Their eyes were open but unseeing.  One boy, staring up into the dark sky, mumbled something.  A man said to me, “Do you know what he is saying?” I didn’t.  “He is saying, ‘My father, why don’t you speak to me?  Don’t you know me?’”


Uwa de egwu.



There was a place I went, a stretch of beach where I could be alone.  One clear tropical night I watched across the bay as an aircraft landed, an aircraft took off.  I heard the sound of distant engines and the spill of the gentle surf.  Moonlight glinted along the curl of the breakers.  I became aware of another sound, a scratching, a scurrying.  Off to my right was the body of a dead pig, rocking back and forth in the waves.  It was covered with crabs, devouring it.  Maybe in everything beautiful that there is, somewhere in it there is a dead pig.



Evacuated children were taken to a convent called San Antonio.  After a week they could sit up, and they could feed themselves.  I went to see them.  As I came into the compound, about a dozen of them ran to my side.  They walked with me, and one of them held my hand.


I asked a boy where he was from.  “Ebee ka i si?”


“E si m Emekwukwu biya.”


“Do you know why you are here?” I asked.


“Boota Gowon.”


“What?”  “Gini?”

“Boota Gowon!”  He pointed to his foot and made a kicking movement.  Gowon had kicked him out.


A Nun told me a story about one of the children.  He led a protest against a particular spread the kids didn’t like on their bread.  At his signal all the children put down their bread and stopped eating.  Some of the very young ones were reluctant to do this, but they went along.  They won, and they were not served peanut butter again.




You never win, if you give up when things are easy.


Someone said that the airlift prolonged Biafra’s agony by bringing false hope.  Without food for their people the leaders would have given up sooner.  It sounds like a bad idea whose time had come, an idea that someone put forward and many others adopted without thought, a piece of facile wisdom.  It makes sense if you don’t stop to think about.  In fact, if you accept the idea, you can stop thinking altogether – no need to consider the complexities.


The idea can be accepted by people with no personal, immediate concept of large scale random killing.  They have not seen gangs running through their neighborhoods, dragging people out on the street and chopping them up.  Biafran people saw the trains full of refugees pouring in from all over Nigeria.  They accepted those refugees into their homes and villages.  And they heard their personal, immediate stories.


A people who know they are facing genocide do not give up.  Israelis say, “Never Again.”  An old Igbo proverb says, “Only a tree stands still when it knows it’s being cut down.”


Another dimension, beyond security, for continuing the fight, is the concept of freedom to control one’s own destiny – not just to avoid disaster, but to build a positive future.  In the shrinking Biafran enclave was the highest concentration of Ph.D.s in all of Africa.  Biafrans “know book,” and that got them in trouble in other parts of Nigeria and was partly responsible for the killings.  The motivation to learn and to grow into a modern society kept Biafra going.  That was also a motivation for their neighbors to keep them down.


As long as there was a possibility of winning, they continued the fight.  Until they just couldn’t.  Perhaps the Bravo Charlie Whisky mission to Addis Ababa was not about negotiating an end to the war, but about finding support to continue.  Whichever it was, it failed.




On my final trip to Biafra I was arrested as a Nigerian spy.


Between flights I had seen some military activity that I was not supposed to see.  I was taken to the base commander, who interrogated me all the rest of the night.  They found a Nigerian Pound Note in my wallet.  I had got it as a souvenir form a journalist who was passing through Sao Tome. But it looked damning.

Throughout the interrogation I remained respectful.  I answered everything honestly, so when they tried to trip me up, I could always come back to what was true.  I was not confrontive; I was not indignant.


After the interrogation I was led to a small room, my cell, furnished with a simple couch and some chairs.  It would turn out to be a very interesting incarceration, because that room was also used as the VIP waiting room for the Uli airport.


I had two armed guards outside the only door.  They escorted me to the latrine and showed me the location of the nearest bunker.  By the end of the first day I had only one armed guard.  I was allowed to sit out on the veranda.  The guard sat there, too, looking calm, at ease, not the least bit mean or terrifying.  I looked at his rifle, wondering what kind it was and where it may have come from.  I remembered the BBC reporter giving all those details about Biafran weapons.


So I just asked.  “What kind of gun is that?”  Now remember, I’m under armed guard and under suspicion of being a spy, and I ask a dumb question like that.


“Here,” he said, holding the gun out for me to examine for myself.


“No thanks!”  I put my hands behind my back and leaned away.  I knew enough not be seen with a gun in my hand.


By the end of that day I had no guards.  It was evident that the gun was not loaded; all the ammunition was needed at the front.


Visitors arrived, mostly journalists.  I remember Graham Hovey, an editorialist for the New York Times.  He wrote down my name, and later back in New York, he bought me lunch.  Correspondents for Time and Newsweek came through.  One of them commented derisively how Biafran immigration officials acted as if this airstrip was a real place in a real country – they stamped his passport with “Enugu International Airport.”


“It’s an airport in exile,” I told him.


His eyes widened at that concept.  “Do I have your permission to use that in my dispatch?”  I don’t know if he ever did.


Father John showed up.  He brought me a bag with some magazines, a sandwich, and a couple of bottles of warm beer.  The look on his face was disappointment, not sympathy.  I didn’t understand it then, but I may have caused the airlift a real problem.


I was interrogated again.  This time the commander told me that they weren’t sure what they were going to do with me.  He said they were thinking of sending me to Umuahia.  Umuahia was then the seat of the Biafran government, a Capital in exile.  The head of the government was General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, sometimes called Emeka, for short.   His 2IC was Dr. Michael I. Okpara, who had been the former Premier of the Eastern Region of Nigeria and the founder of Ohuhu Community Grammar School.  I told the commander that I would be happy to go to Umuahia and perhaps meet Dr. Okpara again.  I would learn later that they took spies and saboteurs to Umuahia to be shot.


One of the young airport officials would sit with me and chat.  I gave him some money I had with me and asked him to buy some kola nuts, oji, and palm wine, mmanya.  We invited a few others and sat outside in the warm African evening.  We broke the kola and shared it.  “Onye wetara oji, wetara ndo.” “He who brings kola, brings life.”  We got very friendly drinking the palm wine.  Someone there knew my name, because he knew one of my students from O.C.G.S who told him about me.  I told them about the time I had helped Father John carry some wounded people from the village to the hospital.  I asked if anyone knew how they were.  None did, but later someone inquired and reported that the boy and the young woman were recovering well.


The next afternoon, in full daylight, the Bofors gun began firing.  I heard the scream of a bomb.  From the Doppler shift I knew it was coming toward me and I had no chance to reach the bunker.  I looked around the room and found no cover.  The best I could do was lie down on the cement and cover my head.  My “cell” was a government building at the end of the runway and no doubt a choice target.  The intensity built to a scream much louder than anything I had heard before.  I said, “I’m sorry, Mom.”  No child should precede its parent in death.


The scream passed right overhead, rooftop level, and continued away.  It was a Mig.  It had flown right down the center of the runway, and dropped its bombs in the marketplace beyond.


Months later at a fundraising party for Biafra in New York I met Johnny Correa again, the American mercenary.  He had been in Biafra at the time I was a prisoner.  In fact, he was stationed at my former school, because it was then a military installation.  He lived in a house on the compound that was just being built near mine at the time I left.  They interrogated spies at my house.  Out behind my house had been a large garbage pit.  A layer of garbage was thrown in, then a layer of dirt, then more garbage.  There they shot the spies.


Johnny told me that the Biafrans were conflicted about me.  They were afraid that if they shot me, the churches would stop the airlift, because I worked for them.  So Johnny suggested that they toss a grenade in my room and say that the Mig had bombed it.  He told me that.


Instead, I was called before the commander.


He said, “David, I am ordering you deported from Biafra.  You must never return again.”   As he said it, he was trying to sound very stern, but his demeanor was that of a father chastising an impetuous young man.  I was escorted out to Bravo Charlie Whisky.  I helped unload it, and then I flew back to Sao Tome for the last time.  Soon afterwards, I went home.



I haven’t said much about the people of Biafra.  This was all about them, right?




They were the node of a significant event in human history.


Of the people who came together for the airlift, whatever they loved about fighting, whatever they loved about flying, whatever they loved about religion, whatever they loved about life, their paths crossed in a filigree of human motivational trajectories, called Biafra.


Here is a link to the document Ojukwu issued when he left Biafra in January, 1970:  Ojukwu Farewell.


Years later I gave a talk to a group of college students in Buffalo, New York.  These were all students from the region formerly known as Biafra.  I told them my stories and I showed them my pictures.  I concluded with an observation.  Many Americans believe that most relief aid never gets to those who need it, that it is diverted by corruption.  One young man from the back of the room stood up.  He said, “When we were children, we heard your planes going over at night.  We never knew who you were, but we got the food.  Every person in this room is alive today because of what you did.”  Then they stood up and gave me a prolonged ovation.


Uwa de egwu.




The fourth time I went to Africa, October 1999, I went to see my son, Emeka, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea.