Nigerian MiGs were trying to shoot us down

A whole lot of things come to my mind when I think about the Nigerian Biafran War.

Nigerian MiGs were trying to shoot us down
David Koren shares his Nigerian-Biafran War Memories. Photo by Ian Tharpe
Nigerian MiGs were trying to shoot us down

A whole lot of things come to my mind [when I think about the Nigerian Biafran War]. The main thing would be working on the airlift when we used to fly in at night and unload the food. Sometimes when the planes were empty, we would eh, return to São Tomé with some children who were eh, um, almost dead from starvation.

They were cared for by eh, an orphanage there at São Tomé and then later when their health was restored, they were returned home. I think to me that was kind of like the core experience of the whole thing.
I felt some personal connection to it all because I was a Peace Corps teacher in eastern Nigeria for three years and I formed a lot of very close contacts, and friends. As a matter of fact, on the anniversary, fiftieth anniversary of Biafra, I’ve been invited to a conference in Houston, Texas where some of the actual students [I taught as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria] that I had at those times would be there and I will meet them for the first time. I expect that’s going to be a very emotional connection…You know they also, I guess, just read the book too, [He wrote a memoir called, Far Away in the Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift] and seeing their names in there and um, so um, there’s the – some people had arranged that we would all be able to meet. There’re a number of them living in the United States and Canada and uh, yeah, that’s probably the reason- the experience that I had as a Peace Corps teacher there was the reason that I was motivated to join the [Biafran airlift] working for UNICEF. I don’t normally run around the world doing things like that. No. That was my motivation.

[The conference] in Houston, Texas. The group that’s sponsoring it is Ohuhu Development Union [Ohuhu Development Union International is a U.S.-based Igbo diaspora cultural organization] and they’re gonna have this at the Holiday Inn in southwest Texas. So I guess in Houston. There will be a conference of their group from all over the country meeting there. And you know, it’s similar to what we did at Ama Ndigbo [Ama Ndigbo is a U.S.-based Igbo diaspora cultural organization; the group invited David Koren to a forum in 2012 to speak on his experience during the war] and also another group from Anambra State invited me to Dallas last October [2016] where I went and met with them, and eh, yeah, that was also very good reunion although I never knew any of the people there. One man, no longer a young man now, said that he was one of the Biafran fatigued workers that were unloading the planes while we were bringing in the food. He said that brought back a lot of memories to him. Because you know I made audio tapes during that experience and that’s what I based the book on and I played some tapes from that experience unloading the tapes. And this man was listening to that and remembering a lot of things. I agreed to go and work on the airlift.

After I left Nigeria in December 1966, and I came back home [to the United States], resuming my education and planning a career but I was following the news of what was happening in the New York Times and eh, it was distressful to hear all that but I had no plans to do anything until I got a call from a group that was recruiting volunteers who then handed me off to UNICEF and I agreed to go and work on the airlift for the purpose of expediting the unloading so we could get planes turned around very quickly and go back for more food.

The central experience I think was bringing one of those starving children back out.

When we were finished unloading the plane, one of the missionaries there approached me at the bottom of the ladder in the dark and said he wanted my help. So we went over to a van which was full of these young children. He wanted us to help load them into the plane and bring them back to São Tomé. One young boy was laying on a mat, delirious. His eyes were just vacant. I don’t know how much he is aware of his surroundings. But he said something to me which I didn’t understand. I came to find out later he was probably speaking Efik. But the man who brought him there said that “My father, why don’t you speak to me? Don’t you know me?” That really choked me up. I was very emotional but I didn’t know what to say or do. Lifted him to the plane and put him on a blanket on the floor of the plane and carried him back to São Tomé where he sat on the floor.

He never spoke.

Never cried.

His eyes were open the whole time but he was not otherwise responding. We brought him to the orphanage. A week later, I visited him and at that point, he could sit up and take some bread in his mouth and eat. He was beginning to recover as a lot of children did soon after they had something to eat.

They were all killed in the crash

The recovery started to come fast. Some of those kids who were in that shape, in a few months on the island [São Tomé] were running around and screaming and yelling and singing and when I go in there and see ’em, they’d run up and grab my hand. They were, they were once again enthusiastic, healthy young children playing. And uh, so that was a very central part of the emotional thing that I felt. Another one was um, the uh, one of our planes that I worked on crashed and I knew the crew. They were all killed in the crash. Um, they were buried at the churchyard in the church in Uli [a town in Anambra State where an airstrip was located].

And um, I have just seen in the last couple of days, for the first time since that time, somebody sent me pictures of the heads- of the markers on the graves. And when I zoomed in on it, I could read the names of those people on those markers. He was the one- the one who took the picture was another Peace Corps volunteer who was working in Biafra for the Red Cross helping to distribute food. He took these pictures and I’d never seen anything like that but it was a really strong personal connection to that. There were a number of people who– this was a dangerous thing. People died you know, doing it.

I was recruited to help unload the planes. I was therefore called a loadmaster. I was not a pilot or flight crew of any kind. I was just there to help with the loading of the plane in São Tomé, following it in and unloading it. And the way the assignment worked out was after I unloaded the- helped unload the first plane which involved directing the fatigue workers to unload it and sometimes doing it myself or participating in that. But, when one plane was unloaded then I would get down, the plane would go back for another load and I would meet other ones that came in and did the same process. And I’d stay there all night and then go back with the last plane out for that night. And so, that was my main job.

But I ended up doing other things too. Almost anything that was necessary because this was, you know, pretty much an ad hoc operation. There was no huge organization, you know, bringing in all the skilled people. We were doing whatever was necessary. And at one point it amounted to helping the mechanics keep the planes flying. Because they were really overwhelmed with um, these were old planes. They needed an awful lot of mechanical attention. They needed to be patched up and worked on all day to keep them flying all night. And so I worked, I volunteered to work as a help mechanic so I was under the direction of the licensed mechanics. I worked on the engines to keep the planes flying.

Also, another thing I ended up doing was working in the warehouses, organizing all the food because when ships or planes were coming to the island bringing tons and tons of food and they had to be loaded off the ships helter-skelter and they were just put here and there, buildings all around in town. And they were a mess. And nobody really knew what it really was and so some of us had to get involved in organizing all those warehouses and weighing things, and sorting things so that we knew where all the milk was, we knew where all the stockfish were and how much we had of all that. So there was a multitude of things that we were doing there.

…at the last stages of starvation

This airlift was started by a group called Nord Church Aid. A group of northern European churches like Danish, the Norwegians, Swedes, and they worked together and bought a lot of these used old planes that were no longer in service and they started flying this food into Biafra.

So they owned these old planes and eh, UNICEF was only involved indirectly by hiring five or six of us ex-Peace Corps volunteers to come and work as uh, helping with the distribution the loading and unloading of the planes. Now, later on, the organization got more sophisticated. Bigger planes came in.

Another organization called Joint Church Aid, churches including Nord Church Aid but then also North American planes and crews from the United States and Canada.

The airlift grew in size and intensity and organization as time went on.

[The food was coming from São Tomé]. Yes, yes, our base. There was also the International Committee of the Red Cross flying in from Fernando Po which is now called [laughs]- I forget. It’s an island right off the coast of Nigeria.

Some [Biafran] children who were at the last stages of starvation, um, we're not orphans. Their parents had to give them up to us to try to save their lives and um, so they brought to them to the airport and um, at Uli, and uh, gave them to us to take back to where they could get some eh, you know, proper medical and nutritional care. Um, and eh, this happened not every night but you know, every once in a while— uh, enough children would be brought so that we’d get a, you know, a plane full of people, you know, to go back there. Most of the, most of the Biafran children did not leave. They had to stay there. They lived or died but I think there was a very significant part of what we’re doing is, the ones that we could bring out, we did.

I don’t know the statistics on that [numbers of children who died in Biafra] but the ones I saw when I went to visit were healthy and running around and singing and all that and there were probably some that were so far gone that they didn’t survive but I think most of them were okay.

Not me personally [worked on reuniting the children with their families but they [children airlifted to São Tomé and brought back to Biafra (southeast Nigeria)] would return to their families. They had an identification with them, like a bracelet with their name and where they were from so that they um, so they could be taken back and reunited with their families.

…the Nigerian MiGs were trying to shoot us down

We had to fly at night because the Nigerian MiGs were trying to shoot us down during the day. In fact, they did shoot down a Red Cross plane just like ours over Eke, and um, so to avoid that we had to fly by dark at night and there was uh, there was no such thing as radar or anything like that. It was just a very simple radio beacon over the airstrip at Uli which we followed in the dark. And the pilots would just have to navigate by dead reckoning. There was no radar there to keep control of all the planes swirling around in the dark and so the pilots talked to each other on the radios to keep their separation remarkably over this whole time there were no mid-air collisions but there probably were a lot of planes flying very close to each other in the dark.

They [Nigerian federal forces] did know where we were because there was a bomber, Nigerian bomber –  that would  – they also knew where the Uli airstrip was and they knew we were coming in every night. And so they would fly over there, hover around in the dark and we had to land without landing lights or runway lights until the very last second because the Nigerian bomber was up there ready to throw his bombs and that’s usually when they did.

We were often landing as bombs were going off

So at the last second when they turned on the landing lights just before touching down, they would see us and then get a fix and drop the bombs. So we were often landing as bombs were going off and unloading the planes while bombs were falling around us. And um, so they were, they were trying to stop the– several of our planes were hit. I think one plane in 1969 was actually destroyed by a bomb while others were damaged but we managed to get them back out and go back and bring some more food. They were trying to stop us or at least harass us. an incredible amount of misery and suffering.

That [the large-scale death of children] was very distressing and I think that was a great motivation from all of us who were doing it, flying in at night, then the aircrews, the ones who died. You know um, I think we all considered that to be powerful motivation to keep doing it. The fact that they were all just children and they were starving, you know. I mean we knew that the whole population was facing danger and all that but the fact that so many children were victims of this is – we needed to do what we could.

I don’t like most wars anyway. You know, I think they’re probably all not good, not really that well justified but, I think the means of prosecuting the war was inhumane and then using starvation to reduce the population and get them to surrender. That’s abominable.

I’d say that there was an incredible amount of misery and suffering.

So it was very extensive and it was difficult for information to get in and out of there as well as food. But um, whatever we did learn about what was happening, we came and went on those planes. Not only were we bringing back children to be saved but also there were a lot of journalists, government – foreign government officials-  missionaries, flying back and forth on our planes. They’d be sitting on the sacks of food when we went in. So that was an uh, it was a conduit for information as well as nutrition.

And some people were very definitely– you know, journalists covering this war to the extent that they could from there. And they were recording, taking pictures of the great suffering to the extent that that got disseminated into the consciousness of people around the world, I don’t know. But there were people trying to convey that.

Yes, there were some moments when there was great fear like for one time when we were taking off from Biafra with an empty plane going back, one of the engines burst into flames.
anti-aircrafts guns off going all around us. And uh, and we had to stop, and didn’t take off. But then we discovered there were other problems. And uh, the plane was in really bad shape but we had to get it out of there because if we left it overnight then the MiGs would bomb it the next day so we flew it out anyway even though it was losing oil, flames were coming out and all that. We had to fly it all the way back to São Tomé to fix it up and get it going again. And yeah, I was scared out of my mind all the way back for about an hour and a half. Other critical times would be when I was throwing food sacks out the door and bombs would be going off outside. Um, I could hear the– the concussion was so bad that it gave me powerful headaches and that, but, we just had to keep throwing the sacks out. You couldn’t stop.

There were uh, anti-aircraft guns off going all around us. We were inside the plane moving the food out and in the darkness, all these gun flashes going off outside the window um, just sort of lit up the inside of the plane so it’s like a strobe light in a dance hall, you know, and uh, it was very surreal seeing jerky movements people doing this. And everybody was scared, I mean, the workers were scared. I was scared. But you know, you just had to keep going.

There was nowhere to run. There was no- you know, um, just do the work and get out of there you know, and um, try to get the planes in the air again as soon as possible.

I didn’t have any direct experience with um you know, the armies on the ground. My connection was flying in at night and you know, the bombs would fall on us and that. That was all very, eh, how do you say this right, but like an impersonal connection. You know, I wasn’t looking in the face of someone who was shooting me, you know and so, um, I never personalized the, what the Nigerian bombers were trying to do. I didn’t see the faces of the pilots or anything like that. There were just…explosions going on around me. Um, and I think back on it, I wonder that you know, I never did develop like uh, an intense personal animosity toward the people who were dropping the bombs. It was more of an abstract kind of thing that we just had to keep working on in spite of this. But do I, as far as the heavy-handedness of the military operation…I can’t give a better answer than that the keyword is healing.

Um, it wasn’t ’til I got back home later that I became aware of the news coming out of there and the way people were working to boost money and raise food and uh, all the discussions going on, political discussions and everything about it. But while I was there, it was just every day going out, doing what we had to do and living our own isolated life on that island.

Beautiful island. [Chuckles.]

We could swim when we weren’t working. Beautiful beaches but I was frustrated sometimes at the lack of information I was getting from the outside world. ‘Course, we talked to people like journalists who were going in and out. And so when they’d come back out, they would talk to us about what they saw and what they were doing.

I got there in October of 1968 and I left in April ’69. So I was their total of my six months, myself [working on the airlift to São Tomé].

[To help people cope with the trauma of the war] I think the key word is healing, um, and part of it will come from information. Um, I know that there’s not much been talked about anywhere in Nigeria, including in former Biafra about that situation. And um, I think more needs to be known, human nature and the cost not only in the Biafran side but Nigerian side because there were, there were an awful lot of families who lost soldiers in the war fighting Biafra. Um, it was a really brutal war and I think some of the reasons for the war have been settled and uh, a full discussion of what was going on by all parties would be helpful to the healing. And I would like to see that that be the ultimate outcome here you know, that uh, that the country can heal. And you know, there are so many other things to be dealt with there. I mean, there’s um, in northeastern Nigeria starvation is going on there. It’s a problem where if people come together, may be able to address that.

I’m retired and um, most of my time’s been taken up by, uh, you know, writing that book [Far Away in the Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift] about, you know, Biafra and going around places talking about it. And um, other than that, you know, I have a few acres in the country here and I spend a lot of time, you know, working outside with my tractors and growing a garden. Um. I also do work, civil work, you know, like for local planning commission in the township work and building parks. Um, I’m actually a very busy retired man.

we still have an organization called Friends of Nigeria

Yes, I do [talk to my family about my experiences in Nigeria], yeah and there’s various interests. Some people are, um ‘Oh well, that’s very nice, you know.’ But they aren’t deeply interested. Other ones are. They’re very much involved in all this.

And then I keep active with former Peace Corps volunteers from Nigeria, you know. There’s been no Peace Corps over there since 1968 because of the war. But we still have an organization called Friends of Nigeria. And um, we uh, we meet and we talk, we uh, have programs about what’s going on in Nigeria now and these were all Peace Corps volunteers for the whole country, all around Nigeria.

So you know, I formed, a very close personal association with the people of eastern Nigeria and my friends did the same thing in northern, and western Nigeria. People who had various experiences with the whole population and everybody has, still has this connection with Nigeria that uh, you know, we maintained after all these years.

Nwannedinamba [an honorific title given to him by an Igbo community to recognize his work in helping save Biafran children]. I don’t know if you know that but, you know, I guess it’s like a brother from a foreign land or so.

David Koren, author of Far Away in the Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift, granted this interview to Chika Oduah via telephone.