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The Biafran Airlift - How it started

The Biafran Airlift - How it started Photo Credit - www.saotomeprincipe.eu

The BIAFRAN AIRLIFT was the first and most massive civilian relief program in modern history. It flew 5,314 missions, lifting more than 60,000 tons of relief material and consequently saving an estimated I million lives.

It started after Nigeria imposed a food blockade on Biafra, which ensured that food and medicines couldn’t come into the secessionist enclave. Food production had dwindled as locals abandoned their homes and farms to safer places. The catholic missionaries in charge of parishes started reporting cases of massive starvation and death in their locations.

At that time, the only planes allowed into Biafra were flown by Hank Wharton, a gun runner, who was flying in arms for the Biafran government. Father Tony Byrne, one of those Catholic priests, got permission from the Vatican to negotiate with Wharton to fly in relief materials for the starving populace. But the church was faced with the moral conflict of having guns and relief in the same planes. This meant that relief material could only be flown in when Mr. Wharton wasn’t flying in guns and ammunition. This, in turn, meant that relief material, which initially constituted a few boxes of medications bought with funds raised by Catholic missionaries, was often delayed.

By this time news had started filtering out to the rest of the world about the crisis in Biafra. Western reporters, such as Frederic Forsyth, were going back to the United Kingdom with news and photos showing severely malnourished children and, for the first time, the disaster happening in Biafra was being shown on televisions around the world. This elicited shock and outrage from individuals and governments, and churches started mobilizing the media to appeal for help for the people of Biafra.

A group of Danish churches, headed by Pastor Vigor Mollerup, also started mobilizing help to start an airline whose planes would fly relief into Biafra. He met with Father Tony Byrne on the island of Sao Tome and, in the summer of 1968, an alliance was formed between Catholic and Protestant churches.

At this time, Port Harcourt had fallen and the Biafran government turned a road in Uli into an airport. But Wharton was still in charge and the churches were being accused of bringing in arms in the guise of aid. Worse, on one occasion, Wharton’s pilots didn’t fly for two weeks and this indirectly led to the death of 40,000 Biafran children. A timely solution to this problem came when Captain Gustaf Van Rosen, a Swedish Aristocrat and pilot, flew into Biafra and met with Odumegwu Ojukwu, a meeting which led to Ojukwu granting permission to the churches to land their own planes at Uli.

Wharton’s monopoly was finally broken and Joint Church Aid, fondly called Jesus Christ Airlines, started operations. The planes came from the United States, Canada and Scandinavia, and they flew more than 30 flights every night. Each one had two fishes, the oldest symbols of Christianity, painted on them. Some of the pilots were Axel Duch, a Danish-Canadian man who was the first to volunteer his services to the airlift; Phil Philip and Eddie Roocroft from Britain; Harald Snaeholm and Thosteinn “Tony” Jonsson from Iceland; and Gunnar Oestergaard from Denmark. Captain Gustaf Van Rosen was its first Chief of Flight Operations but he was soon replaced by Axel Duch.

Despite the fact that relief planes are usually welcome into conflict zones, the planes of the JCA were considered illegal. They were shot at and bombed by the Nigerian Air Force every night, and when crew members died, they were buried in a grave at the end of the runway. But the rest kept flying, even mastering how to land, off load their cargo and take off in 20 minutes.

But the planes didn’t always return empty to Sao Tome. Sometimes they carried precious cargo – children and babies in the worst and last stages of malnourishment and ill health. They were taken to San Antonio Orphanage on the island where they were nursed back to health.

In May 1969, Van Rosen returned to Biafra with Swedish sports planes fitted with rockets. These Biafran Babies, as he called them, wrecked a lot of havoc on Nigerian planes. The reprisal attacks were brutal. The airlift became more dangerous and pilots started leaving.

In January 1970 the war ended, and on January 12 a crew from Iceland flew the last mission into Biafra, to evacuate relief workers and priests. Its pilot was Thorstein “Tony” Jonsson. He had flown in and out of Bifara more than 400 times, more than any other pilot on the airlift.

Today, the carcasses of those planes lie in a field on the island of Sao Tome – silent, metal monuments to bravery [dare-devilry if you will], compassion and all that is noble in our shared humanity.

Many of the people who took part in that airlift are still alive. One of them is David L. Koren, a former Peace Corps Volunteer. He helped to organize the warehouses in Sao Tome, loaded and flew the cargo into Biafra, and sometimes evacuated vulnerable children. His account of his experiences will be the first in a new series – THE BIAFRAN AIRLIFT – starting on Saturday 27th January, 2018.

(Cover photo shows two of the aircraft used in the Airlift lying delapidated in a field.)


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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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