The longest-running humanitarian mission ever undertaken by the U.S. military had added urgency this Christmas season for remote western Pacific islands devastated by super-Typhoon Haiyan.
On sparsely-populated Kayangel Island, part of the Republic of Palau, the immediate need was for food and water rather than the toys and gifts that usually make up the cargo for "Operation Christmas Drop." The Category-5 typhoon with sustained winds up to 145 mph caused no fatalities on Kayangel, but the storm swept away homes and infrastructure, including the island's water collection and storage facilities.
Only a relief team and about 240 residents were left on the island. "They were hungry and very thirsty as no local water or coconuts are available," said Bruce Best, station manager at the University of Guam's Telecommunication and Distance Education Operation.
Earlier this month, Air Force C-130 Hercules flights from the Yokota Air Base's 36th Airlift Squadron and Andersen Air Force Base's 36th Wing air dropped more than 4,800 pounds of water and food.
"The vital water and food drops saved the day and were very appreciated," Best said.
Joyce Isechal, from the U.S. Embassy Palau, confirmed that the U.S. Air Force 'Santa' had just dropped water and food for the residents of Kayangel.
Operation Christmas Drop has been an Air Force tradition since 1952, delivering presents ando food to about 30,000 people each year on more than 50 islands scattered across Micronesia.
"This is the mission at Yokota [Air Base, Japan] that everyone wants to go on," Capt. Dereck Monnier, a 36th Airlift Squadron pilot and aircraft commander, said in a statement. "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."
The first air drop in 1952 reportedly was an ad-lib affair. The crew of a B-29 Superfortress on a weather reconnaissance mission spotted islanders waving to them from the Micronesian atoll of Kapingarmarangi. The crew scooped up what they had on the plane, rigged it to a parachute and let it drop.
With donations from businesses on Guam and in Japan, and from the aircrews themselves, the Air Force has made it a tradition ever since.
In addition to toys and food, the pallets dropped by the Air Force include clothing, fishing equipment, sporting goods, tools and other equipment.
"The yearly success of this drop is a testament to the generosity of the civilian and military population of Guam," said Master Sgt. Bobby Lynch, the Operation Christmas Drop committee president on Guam. "We continue to do this to help improve the quality of life of the islanders. We may take it for granted that we can go to a mall to purchase our daily needs, but these folks do not have the same privilege from where they live."