For 61 years, the Alaska National Guard has used December to deliver Christmas cheer to at least one of the state's very rural communities.
This year the island-town of St. Michael, northwest of Anchorage on the south coast of the Norton Sound, was selected for a December 5 visit. The island's population of about 400 is largely Yup'ik Eskimo, one of the state's many native tribes.
The program, known as Operation Santa, delivered wrapped Christmas gifts for every child, infants through age 18. Guard members provided fruit and served ice cream sundaes, and all of the students received new backpacks. The children and teens walked through a line of tables and filled their backpacks with snacks, stuffed animals, books, socks, toiletries, basketballs, footballs and beautiful hand-knit hats made with love from a group of volunteers who live in Florida.
Santa and Mrs. Claus took about 30 elves on their visit. They caught a ride up from Anchorage on one of the Alaska Air National Guard's brand new HC-130J Combat King II aircraft from the 211th Rescue Squadron.
"It was an honor to step in for Rudolph and the other reindeer and fly these folks here in one of our rescue aircraft, still shiny and new," said Lt. Col. Eric Budd, 211th RS commander.
After the aircraft arrived in St. Michael, a flurry of activity began as elves stepped out onto crunchy snow and large boxes were off-loaded and transferred to vans and pickup trucks driven by community volunteers. The jolly out-of-town guests were welcomed with hospitality and smiles as they arrived at the all-grades school, feverishly unpacked, organized items and finished preparing for the big event.
Faculty and students at the Anthony A. Andrews school where the event took place had eagerly anticipated the Christmas event, evident by the many colorful decorations, lights and an impressive display built by the students to house Santa and Mrs. Claus.
"We've been looking forward to Operation Santa for months," said Jon Wehde, the school's principal. "Our community is so excited for this visit and we really appreciate the generosity and kindness of everyone involved."
Operation Santa began in 1956 as the Anchorage community assisted the village of St. Mary's after negative impacts of natural disaster left them with no money to buy Christmas gifts. The Air National Guard's 144th Airlift Squadron delivered donated goods to the remote village in a C-123J Provider. Since then, ANG C-130 Hercules, Army Guard C-23 Sherpa, UH-60 Black Hawk, and other aircraft have transported Santa and Mrs. Claus, elves and gifts to tens of thousands of children throughout rural Alaska.
"The event is important because it began due to the impact of natural disaster and continued as a way to reach rural Alaska for building community relationships, serving those in remote areas, and providing joy and comfort to Alaskans during the holiday season," said Maj. Gen. Laurie Hummel, adjutant general for the Alaska National Guard.
Many Alaskans in rural communities may go most of their lives without personal interaction with service members in the U.S. military, and Operation Santa allows Soldiers and Airmen to build connections in a personal and tangible way.
"Engaging Alaskan communities is a priority for the Alaska National Guard and Operation Santa Claus is one way we can show our Alaskan neighbors that we care," said Hummel.
Airmen and Soldiers in the Alaska National Guard worked with The Salvation Army and community volunteers to coordinate and execute the Operation Santa mission.
"Operation Santa really isn't possible without all of the volunteers who pull it together," said Hummel. "This community outreach program is a time-honored tradition that we hope to continue for many years to come."