FAIS ISLAND, Micronesia — “Santa One-One” was late, and the chief of this tiny island in the western Pacific was concerned: Would there be no Christmas this year? No toys or school supplies?
“They are coming today? You are sure?” Louis Mangtau asked.
But soon, the afternoon stillness was broken by an Air Force C-130 cargo plane flying low over the palm trees. In its wake was a crate decorated in red-and-white Christmas wrapping, floating gently to earth on a military-green parachute.
Strong, young men wrestled the bundle from the open field where it landed to the nearby village center. There, amid broad smiles and cheerful banter, Mangtau passed out the contents: toy trucks and soccer balls, rubber sandals and T-shirts, fishhooks and fishing line and all manner of daily necessities unavailable on remote islands in the Pacific.
Welcome to Operation Christmas Drop, the longest running humanitarian airlift operation in the world.
Each Christmas for the past 64 years, the Air Force has been parachuting donated gifts and humanitarian supplies to tiny islands dotting this vast area of the western Pacific. The effort is supported by hundreds of civilian volunteers in Guam and Japan and U.S. air bases across the region.
The operation is staged out of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. This year’s flights took place over eight days in early December and delivered roughly 40,000 pounds of supplies to 56 islands across 1.8 million square miles of ocean.
“The islands they’re flying to are the most remote islands on Earth,” said Bruce Best, a communications specialist at the University of Guam who has helped organize the program since the 1970s.
“They are the farthest away from civilization, they have the least amount of contact with the outside world. They don’t have water or power. They don’t have phones. Most of them don’t have airstrips or ports,” Best said. “Christmas Drop is the most important day of the year for these people.”
The operation traces its roots to Christmas 1952, when the crew of an Air Force B-29 spotted people waving from the island of Kapingamarangi, some 3,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. In the spirit of the season, the crew gathered up a few items from the plane, attached a parachute and dropped the bundle to islanders below.
The effort grew from there into a major annual training exercise. This year, four Air Force C-130s and one each from the Japan Air Self Defense Force and the Royal Australian Air Force conducted 22 flights. They dropped a total of 100 bundles on uncharted fields, narrow beaches and shallow reefs.
“It’s like taking off in South Dakota and flying all the way to Los Angeles for an airdrop. (Then) turn around and head all the way back to South Dakota to land — and there’s nothing in between,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Campbell, who this year flew several Christmas Drop missions, some of which last nine hours or more.
The program doesn’t cost the public much. All of the gifts are donated, mostly by civic organizations, military personnel and family members. Additional money is raised through golf tournaments, school car washes and other private efforts.
The Air Force uses parachutes that have outlived their military usefulness, but are still strong enough to support bundles weighing up to 500 pounds.
“You can get the supplies … for Operation Christmas Drop at any Home Depot or Lowe’s or any hardware store and build these bundles for about $20 apiece,” said Col. Douglas DeLaMater, commander of the 374th Airlift Wing, based at Yokota Air Base, Japan.
With an area of one square mile and a population of 300, Fais is one of the larger islands to receive the annual drops.
The island, located 400 miles southwest of Guam, was heavily damaged by a typhoon in April, and Mangtau said this year’s two bundles are especially appreciated.
He spent an hour carefully sorting the contents into three piles — one for each of the three communities that make up the island’s main village. Toys brought smiles from the children, but it was fishing line and fishhooks that brought the most nods of approval from the islanders who largely live on a diet of fish caught offshore.
“That’s what we really want from Christmas Drop — fishing gear,” Mangtau said.
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