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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 Dane, Smyth the Englishman, Ben the Israeli, 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.

We began our career as mechanics by removing parts from the damaged DC-7, 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 DC-7, 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 MiGs 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.


There was a 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.  Reverend Aitken appeared.

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


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. I 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.


On an afternoon when I had just finished loading a plane, and the engines were started, Father Byrne 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?” He didn’t. It was sanitary napkins for the Nuns.

We washed a DC-7 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 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 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. In jubilation Biafran soldiers fired their guns in the air.  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 petitioned Biafra to enforce firing discipline.


Before a return flight, Reverend Aiken 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.  They were placed on a mat on the ground. Their eyes were open but unseeing. I kneeled down looking at one boy, appalled at his condition. He 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?’”

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.

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.

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. The motivation to learn and to grow into a modern society kept Biafra going.


On my final trip to Biafra I was arrested as a Nigerian spy. 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 confrontational; I was not indignant. 

After the interrogation I was led to a small room, my cell, furnished with a simple couch and some chairs. 

Reverend Aitken showed up. He brought me a bag with some fresh clothes, 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, then the seat of the Biafran government. The head of the government was General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. 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 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.  “Onye wetara oji, wetara ndo - He who brings kola, brings life.”  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 Aitken 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. 


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 one of our relief planes. I helped unload it, and then I flew back to Sao Tome for the last time.


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.


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.

--- David Koren

(Cover photo shows Relief Goods being loaded into a Red Cross Plane.)



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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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