The Story Behind the Netflix Movie 'Operation Christmas Drop'

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(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Elizabeth Baker)

Netflix's fictional "Operation Christmas Drop" is the first new addition to the queue of Christmas movies ready-to-binge this holiday season, but the setting where it takes place is very real -- and so is the mission.

Since 1952, U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo planes have been dropping Christmas cheer -- and critical supplies -- throughout 55 islands across 1.8 million miles of the Pacific Ocean. And despite what the movie implies, the program is in no danger of going away anytime soon.

"When we get that call saying it's our drop day and word gets out, the island has a different feel to it," Allentino Riugiufmal, Northern Islands Central High School vice principal on Woleai, told Air Force News. "The island just has this pure feeling of excitement that is shared across the community, like a child just waiting to see what's under the tree."

Boxes dropped on the islands contain items ranging from rice and other foodstuffs, canned goods, fishing nets, toys, clothing, school supplies or anything else island life might require.

For the Air Force and its allies, it's great practice for a good cause.

Tech. Sgt. Mario Montoya and Senior Airman Lauren Shaw cut free a Low-Cost, Low-Altitude bundle as part of Operation Christmas Drop 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Kyle Johnson)

Operation Christmas Drop uses Low-Cost, Low-Altitude (LCLA) drops, which means the aircraft will drop supplies from as low as 150 feet, releasing boxes with repurposed parachutes and expendable pallets that don't require equipment to unpack. This kind of resupply training is useful for future humanitarian or wartime missions as well.

The first drop came in December 1952 when the crew of a B-29 Superfortress was overcome by the spirit of Christmas over the island of Kapingamarangi. They decided to drop some of the supplies they carried to villagers waving at the plane as it flew by. These were just the supplies they had aboard the aircraft.

That first drop has since evolved into a massive Pacific Air Forces Partnership and fundraising effort throughout the Pacific region. From Joint Base Marianas' Andersen Air Force Base, airmen, business owners and residents of the island of Guam raise money and gather goods to drop in 400-pound boxes. Like many other Christmas food and toy drives, locals will leave donations at drop boxes positioned around Guam. Volunteers then build boxes, sort the goods and pack them.

Sometimes, foreign air forces, like those of Japan and Australia, will join in on the exercise.

For some living on these faraway islands, the annual Christmas Drop will bring some of their first toys or their first pair of shoes. The annual Air Force resupply mission also brings food and medicine for the villages on the islands.

A low-cost, low-altitude bundle sits on the back of a C-130H during Operation Christmas Drop, Dec. 8, 2015. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Melissa K. Mekpongsatorn)

"We all have childhood memory of seeing the planes fly overhead," said Riugiufmal. "As we each grew older, we truly understood how important it is for the islands. These bundles have toys, yes, but they more importantly carry bags of rice to help feed the 500 villagers we have here. The parachutes and their rigging is used to make sails for our boats and the wire for our spear guns. Some of our bundles were sent solely for our school and contained the educational supplies our students need to thrive."

The movie "Operation Christmas Drop" is streaming on Netflix. The real Operation Christmas Drop is performed live every December in the Pacific Theater.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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