WID Biafran Airlift
The World Is Deep (Continued) Biafran Airlift David L. Koren, Nigeria 9 (1963-1966) March 2007
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.