Conversation in a L.I. Bar With a Soldier of Fortune
He Flew Food to Biafra
NASSAU COUNTY, N.Y.--Ours is not a romantic age, and so it's hardly surprising that, except for his green jump suit, Philip (Phil) McGuire with his broad face and fading hairline looked about as ordinary as any other of the dozen or so people sipping beer in a Long Island bar on a hot afternoon last week. Like them, he was relaxing from work, but his line of business was perhaps slightly more demanding than theirs. McGuire had just returned from two months of flying arms and food into the beleaguered African state of Biafra.
"We flew guns one trip and baby food the next," he recalls with a chuckle. And he sees no irony in the combination. "They (the Nigerians) are offering the Biafrans a choice between starvation and massacre, and the Biafrans need something to fight both."
In the beginning, it was apparently a straight business proposition. McGuire, who began flying for the Army Air Forces during World War II and had shipped supplies to isolated French units during the Indochina War, was working for a small European airline. He stopped over at Lisbon in May, and saw some Lockheed Constellations parked in a guarded portion of the airport there. "I knew what they were," he laughs, "In our business word gets around." Word had also reached him of the $1500 per trip salary for pilots ($1000 for flight engineers) and after a few inquiries, he joined the Biafran airlift as a flight engineer.
The company which flies food into Biafra under contract to the Red Cross, and guns in under contract to the Biafran government (cash in advance), is called North American airlines, and is run by an American named Hank Wharton: nicknamed "Hanky-Panky, cause that's the only kind of business he'd want," McGuire says. Unoffical headquarters of the outfit is the Hotel Tivoli in Lisbon, where "Hanky-Panky" lives in Room 228--a room registered in the name of 'a little mini-skirt with red hair"--and his chief assistant resides in 336.
Flying Constellations and DC-7's brought from Lufthansa, the aircrews change registration numbers on the otherwise unmarked planes from American to Mauretanian as the circumstances require. "We carry our registration in a can of paint," McGuire says, stirring it up with a free hand.
"Hanky-Panky" makes no announcement of flights until about a half hour before they take off, McGuire notes, though the air-crews often suspect a flight is in the offing when the maintenance on a plane is finished and night approaches. Once the crews in their respective bars are alerted and "poured out into the planes," they take off on their flights for Biafra, juggling flight plans so as to fly always at night, when the Egyptians piloting Nigeria's MIG's refuse to fly.
The complete round trip from Lisbon to Biafra takes 30 hours, so two pilots and two flight engineers sleeping in shifts are on every flight, he says. The planes generally fly straight from Lisbon to Biafra, unload and then fly to Bisau, Portuguese Guinea, or St. Isabel or St. Tome, Fernando Po (also Portuguese). Once there, they sometimes fly a short triangle, carrying only food, between Biafra, Bisau, and Fernando Po before returning to Lisbon.
"Finding the airstrip (in Biafra), that's a problem sometimes," McGuire says. Biafra's sole airstrip is a hard-top road slightly widened by cutting away at the jungle on both sides. It is lit by two rows of lights, none of them very strong. The outboard engines of the four-engine Constellations hang out over the brush, which, if it fouls the engines, means an abrupt end to the flight.
The airlift runs a delicate course between the thunderstorms always encountered at night, and the radar-directed anti-aircraft fire which grows heavier as the storms fade. When he began flying for the outfit, it had six Constellations and one DC-7. of the Constellations, one was hijacked and flown to Madrid; a second was impounded when it made a forced landing on Malta (when its flight plan said it was going to New York). A third crashed in the jungle killing all aboard, and a fourth was blown up in Bisau, reportedly by a South African who is now in his native country enjoying a $100,000 peward from Nigeria.
McGuire does not mind talking about his closest call while flying to Biafra and, one might even suspect that he takes a certain delight in it. Scheduled as a crew member on one flight, he transferred to an earlier one partly because of a quarrel with the other flight engineer, but mostly because of "a certain feeling; you get to be like a cat or some kind of an animal sometimes." The flight to which McGuire transferred was supposed to be a dangerous one. Its pilot, since given other duties, carried the sobriquet of "Mr. Magoo." It landed safely at the Biafran airstrip, and McGuire waited in vain to meet friends on his former flight, but "they got clobbered."
The Nigerians claim they shot the plane down--McGuire believes it crashed of natural causes, one might say--but one thing is sure; it was demolished. "The tail, that's the only thing you can see, sticking up in the jungle." Aboard were Augie Martin, a black American pilot earning a little extra money while on vacation from Seaboard World Airlines; Martin's wife Gladys, whom McGuire thinks had come along to gather material for an article on Biafra; Jess Meade, also an American: and a Rhoedesian with the pseudonym of "Bill Brown." Mr. Martin's head was never found, McGuire says, so "the missionaries buried what they could find of him." "Bill Brown" reportedly had a wife and family in Rhodesia, who are vainly attempting to collect the money he deposited in a bank under his real name, for they have no proof that he is dead. "No death certificate, no anything."
The plight of the Biafran people is a topic on which McGuire spends relatively little time, because he feels the subject has been adequately covered by American reporters, and also because the airlift crews seldom stay in Biafra longer than four hours--the time it takes to unload 30 tons of baby food, or Mausers, or whatever from the Constellations. He does, however, venture to add a few vignettes to the picture of the people. Pilots on flights into Biafra carry canned hams and salt to give to the unloaders as an incentive for faster work. On one of his flights, a bag of salt burst; the Biafrans fought each other to lick the spillen salt off the runway, he says.
When he begins to speak of the war itself, its past, its future, McGuire uses phrases which seem slightly trite on paper, but which are probably just the honest opinions of an Irishman who has been around a bit. "It's just like any other war," he says, "they never solve anything, it never does any good." The war's origin is simple, he feels: "the Ibos were right to secede. They're smart, the smartest in Africa, they have all the doctors and lawyers." Though the origin of the war is tribal, its continuation may be due to intervention, he says, noting that "there's a lot of oil under Biafra," and that the oil might have something to do with English support for the Nigerians, and the French money and mercenaries aiding Biafra.
But in the end, the Nigerians and Biafrans are still the principal parties, and that doesn't make for a neat war. "Their psychology is different. We'd fight harder if we knew we'd be cut up into little pieces if we were captured, but they figure on putting a little fear into the other side," he says. Last April, McGuire helped to ferry Col. "Black Jack" Schramme's white mercenaries out of the Congo to Rwanda, and he says that even the mercenaries, by some accounts the most unpleasant white men around--felt a little bitterness at the African fighting style. "They (the mercenaries) feel that they're getting paid to kill a man. Okay, that's their business, so they'll kill him, but they won't tease him first; cut him into little pieces first."
Like the prostitute with the heart of gold, the soldier who quakes at the sight of senseless human misery (see the Green Berets) is becoming a well-known cliche, but McGuire slides into the type, probably not as a sham. He is more a soldier of fortune than soldier, however, for he says he never carried a gun, even for personal protection in Biafra. ("I figured we had enough guns and ammo on the plane already.") He left Biafra at the end of July, after his mother died in the United States and his close call made him suspicious of the safety of the airlift's flying procedures but he wants to return there, this time for expenses only.
The work of the missionaries, principally a Father Doran, convinced him that he should do something more than fly for pay: "They're good people, they're trying to do what they can," he says of the missionaries' efforts to keep the Biafrans' hair from turning blonde (the last stage before death by starvation) by flying in food, principally baby food for the festering mouths of the people. The problem is, McGuire says, that he as an airman can fly the food in, but there is no guarantee that it will reach those who need it. "It goes here, it goes there, it goes everywhere," he says sadly. So he wants to return, go back to Biafra, this time on the ground to supervise distribution of food supplies as a worker for the Red Cross or other charitable agency. "I know the people. I know the operation, I want to make sure this food gets where it's suposed to," he comments.
Though he doesn't say so, there's probably a little more to it than that. Life on Long Island is, to put it mildly, a little quiet for a man who, after a few beers, tells with relish a story of how he convinced a Chinese chieftain in a Viet-Minh controlled village to sell 1200 pigs to the French army. The chief, he concludes, wanted to keep things quiet, and a few extra silver bars--"oil money" he says, rubbing his fingers--"didn't hurt either."
So McGuire takes out his crumpled, purplish U.S. passport, which has $10 bills folded between the pages. He flips past an April 22 exit stamp from Rwanda, and points out a page filled with exit and entry stamps from Lisbon, with no intervening destination stamps--the souvenirs of his clandestine flights. Then, with a little chuckle, he stuffs it back into his flight suit pocket. It won't stay there long, you might guess.