Looking back at Operation Christmas Drop
YOKOTA AIR BASE - For children in Micronesia, Santa comes each year bringing toys and other gifts for them, just like in other parts of the world. Well, almost just like in other parts of the world. For these islanders, Santa doesn't ride a sleigh; he rides a C-130 Hercules from Yokota Air Base, Japan, and wears a U.S. Air Force flight suit.
For more than 60 years, Airmen have flown over these islands around Christmas, dropping donated goods in makeshift bundles to help more than 30,000 islanders inhabiting tiny islands spread across an area roughly the combined size of Alaska and Texas. The yearly endeavor, called Operation Christmas Drop, is the longest-running humanitarian airlift mission in the world.
"This is the mission at Yokota (Air Base, Japan) that everyone wants to go on," said Capt. Dereck Monnier, a 36th Airlift Squadron pilot and aircraft commander. "We work really hard to practice these airdrops, and this is the opportunity to do a real-world mission that's actually doing some good."
This large-scale humanitarian mission had relatively humble beginnings. According to the 36th Wing historian, the exact origin of the operation is unknown, but legend has it that the first supplies were dropped around Christmas in 1952. An aircrew, assigned to the 54th Weather Squadron at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, flew a WB-29 aircraft over a tiny island and saw the villagers below. The crew then packed a box and sent it down on a parachute used for weather buoys. This became tradition and continued each year until Operation Christmas Drop was officially named and organized in 1958.
Holding the same curiosity and compassion as the founders of Operation Christmas Drop, Master Sgt. Cameron Leslie, the 36th Wing career assistance adviser, wanted to learn more about the islanders who benefit from the supplies. Carrying a single, waterproof case holding his belongings and camera gear, Leslie took a missionary flight to Falalop, a small island in the Federated States of Micronesia. He spent the next two weeks traveling to different islands by boat and learning about the culture.
"My goal was to capture Operation Christmas Drop from the islander's perspective," he said. "They don't have much of anything ... it's not like they take trips to buy something. The further you go out on these tiny island chains, the more primitive it gets ... and the less they have."
He witnessed the islander's joy and excitement when they received an airdrop, as well as how they distributed the supplies they received, making sure everything was used and each family was given their fair share.
"Going there was a really good plus in the sense that we were able to get more focused on what we're sending to help rather than just taking the random things we don't use anymore," Leslie said. The islanders are practical people, and the best things to donate are items such as fishing tackle, flippers, snorkels and spears for spear fishing.
Following his visit, Leslie gave presentations, often as a duo with the Operation Christmas Drop president, Capt. Mitchell Foy, gathering support for future operations. His honest depiction of the islands through words and photos has captivated Airmen from those at Andersen to senior Air Force leaders.
Thanks in part to Leslie's presentations and photographs, this year's operation saw far more donations than usual. Several organizations including the University of Guam, the official Operation Christmas Drop nonprofit organization and other units from Andersen and Yokota worked together to deliver the parcels to each island.
Before returning to his family in Guam, Leslie had a chance to talk to one of the island chiefs. Leslie asked a simple but poignant question, "Why is Operation Christmas Drop so important?"
The chief said it wasn't necessarily the supplies themselves that were most important. The islanders know that the United States is a big country and is involved in many operations at home and abroad. It's important to them that, with everything else going on, Americans still find time to do this for them and has done so for more than half a century.