‘Santa’s helpers’ bring Christmas to Micronesian islands

  • Published
  • By Jerry Bynum
  • 624th Regional Support Group
The holiday season is upon us with the sounds of festive music, the hustle and bustle of shopping, and the wrapping of gifts to be placed under the tree. At night children dream of a visit from Santa Claus, and everything the holiday season brings. It’s a little different, however, for those living in the far reaches of the Pacific. For 56 Micronesian islands, it’s not the sounds of reindeer or Santa’s sleigh children listen for, but the sounds of military cargo aircraft flying overhead.

Ever since 1952, it’s become a tradition for those living on the remote islands to anticipate bundles filled with rice, clothing, fishing supplies, toys, shoes and other critical items to float down on parachutes from the sky.

In order to deliver packages during the two-week operation, “Santa’s helpers” also known as Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 44th Aerial Port Squadron stationed at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, used their expertise as “Port Dawgs” to ensure timely delivery.

“It’s really special for our Reserve Citizen Airmen in Guam to be part of this effort,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Carla Lugo. “Along with getting the hands-on training they need as aerial porters, it helps so many remote island communities, and improves morale for everyone involved. There’s something special about helping our neighbors.”

U.S. Air Force Airman Brandon Phillip, an air transportation apprentice with the 44th APS, knows first-hand how important this operation is for the people inhabiting the isolated islands.

“I personally know the impact Operation Christmas Drop has on those who live out there,” said Phillip. “This is really special for me because my father benefited from this operation while growing up in the Mortlock Islands. Back in 1977 he received his first pair of shoes and learned about Chinese checkers.”

Operation Christmas Drop bundles provide more than just the goods found inside. According to Phillip everything that drop is used, even the box and rigging materials, and the parachute.

“Everything we drop is put to good use,” said Phillip. “I’m excited to know we’re going to put a lot of smiles on faces.”

The 44th APS Airmen worked alongside their active-duty counterparts from the 734th Air Mobility Squadron and others to prepare bundles for the surrounding islands.

“From a total-force perspective, [Operation Christmas Drop] gives the active-duty component and the reserve the chance to work together,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Gordy II, U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center commander at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. “The 734th Air Mobility Squadron is our active component working day-to-day alongside the 44th Aerial Port Squadron. Building relationships matters. The things we do [together] everyday builds that capacity and capability anytime we might need it in the future.”

Reserve Citizen Airmen were responsible for sorting donations, preparing bundle boxes and loading bundles onto aircraft for the airdrop missions.

“It’s been great working with our active-duty counterparts at the 734th AMS,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. David Popp, 44th APS noncommissioned officer-in-charge of cargo. “They’ve given us a chance to take the aerial port lead. We’ve organized everything that was donated throughout the year so it could be packaged, and once it was ready, we made sure it was loaded onto the aircraft. It’s been an amazing opportunity for our Airmen.”

Operation Christmas Drop, the world’s longest running airdrop mission, is a joint effort that included U.S. forces and allies, community partners and local area residents who came together at Andersen to pack the donated critical supplies and gifts into the bundle boxes.

“So we got a call from the ‘North Pole’ asking for goods for the children and those who live on the islands, and Operation Christmas Drop was here to answer the call,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Aubrey Lugo, 734th AMS air transportation specialist and this year’s president for the Operation Christmas Drop organization. “This is an outstanding opportunity for [everyone] to get involved with their community. It’s that whole ‘service-before-self’ idea … to show our community how we’re involved and how important it is to help [our] fellow man.”

Once the boxes were packed, Operation Christmas Drop personnel prepared the bundles for the next step, rigging. Bundles were secured for airdrop and equipped with parachutes by riggers from the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base, Japan, along with observers. The process gave Airmen a chance to work with different services, U.S. allies and international partners.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to bring the full team capacity together, whether it’s active duty or reserve, or our trilateral partners,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Otis Jones, 374th AW commander. “We bring different partners together to share in our tactics, techniques, and procedures and practice how we do humanitarian airdrops. It feels great to see our Airmen share ideas, and to know they have the confidence to execute this mission.”

Once rigging was completed, 44th APS Airmen loaded the bundles onto U.S. Air Force, Japanese Air Self Defense Force and Royal Australian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft, and the “presents” were on their way.

Volunteers in Guam coordinated the airdrops through radio communication with dozens of remote island villages throughout the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. When the actual missions occurred, aircrews were able to communicate with villages as they flew overhead and dropped the bundles.

“Along with the operational benefits, it’s special for the 44th APS to be part of something that’s going to help the islands surrounding us,” said Popp. “It provides a lot of resources they can use and repurpose. So many people have stepped up to help make this event a success.”

In addition to helping “Santa” make all of his deliveries reaching nearly 20,000 people in a timely manner, this operation results in training for low-cost, low-altitude airdrop tactics and procedures over unsurveyed drop zones, the same type of mission used during contingency operations or in response to a humanitarian crisis.