8 December 2022
Inside a hangar on the island of Guam, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aviators at Operation Christmas Drop 22 have pitched in to pack gifts for communities in Palau and Micronesia.
On December 3, air force personnel from five Indo-Pacific nations joined hundreds of local volunteers at Andersen Air Force Base for Operation Christmas Drop’s Bundle Build Day.
Resembling Santa’s workshop transplanted to the west Pacific, the hangar was filled with two hundred large cardboard boxes that were each filled with donated goods for remote island communities.
The festive atmosphere was complete with carols and Christmas decorations around the hangar, with members of RAAF’s 37 Squadron helping pack donated goods in the boxes.
These included snorkels, flippers and fishing equipment; rice, eskies, containers and cookware; and gifts including colouring pencils, books, sporting equipment and toys.
The boxes, weighing 200 kilograms each once filled, were decorated with personalised festive greetings before they were expertly packed and prepared for airdrop.
During Operation Christmas Drop, the loads have been delivered by C-130 Hercules crews from the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea and Australia.
Fresh perspective for an Australian squadron
The RAAF’s 37 Squadron is experienced at flying Hercules missions to deliver aid to remote communities in the Indo-Pacific region, but these loads normally come to them packed and prepared.
Operation Christmas Drop offers a fresh perspective, with the Bundle Build Day allowing them to create the loads and see the essential items that will help these communities.
'It’s special for us to pack these loads and know what it is that we’re contributing to.'
Flight Lieutenant Hamish Krippner, an Engineering Officer with 37 Squadron, has been experiencing Operation Christmas Drop for the first time.
“It’s special for us to pack these loads and know what it is that we’re contributing to,” Flight Lieutenant Krippner said.
“We’re providing humanitarian assistance which isn’t being driven by a natural disaster or emergency – we’re here to help enhance people’s day-to-day lives.
“It’s a great experience to come here and be part of something where we’re supporting communities in Palau and Micronesia.”
How the Drop took flight
The first Operation Christmas Drop came about by chance in 1952 during a United States Air Force (USAF) weather reconnaissance mission.
The crew of a USAF WB-29 Superfortress spotted villagers waving from the atoll of Kapingamarangi in Micronesia, some 1700 kilometres from the crew’s home base in Guam.
The crew hastily filled a bag with rations and other items on their aircraft and dropped it by parachute.
This grew into an annual fixture for the United States Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), supported by the University of Guam, and a team of volunteers working throughout the year to coordinate donations.
Airdrop missions were flown solely by the USAF until 2015, when Japan and Australia joined, and Operation Christmas Drop has continued to grow in size and renown, even inspiring a romantic comedy on Netflix.
Biggest year yet
Mr Pablo Gonzales Martinez is the president of the private Operation Christmas Drop organisation responsible for coordinating donations.
“This is the biggest year for us in partner nation participation, in donations, and for the number of airdrops,” Mr Gonzalez Martinez said.
“Last year was our highest record, with 185 bundles delivered, and this year we’ll break that record with 200 bundles.”
From December 4 to 10, Operation Christmas Drop 22 missions will reach 20,000 people on 57 islands spread across 6 million square kilometres of the West Pacific.
“We have a lot of outer islanders who have moved here to the island of Guam, and that’s what’s driving more of the donations,” Mr Gonzalez Martinez said.
“People are getting interested in Operation Christmas Drop because it’s a way for them to help out their families.
“When we organise our donations, we interact with people who say, ‘I remember when I was a little kid [on the island and] seeing the aeroplane, and now I’m here in Guam. How can I help you out?’.”
The Operation Christmas Drop private organisation remains in contact with island communities throughout the year via a team of volunteers, including Brother Bruce Best – a retired researcher from the University of Guam.
“We have Brother Bruce, who set up the radio communications [to the islands], and during the year he reaches out to the islanders to ask, 'Hey, what do you need for this year?’,” Mr Martinez said.
“And the hot item is always fishing gear – fishing hooks, fishing lures, fishing lines and that stuff – and we work throughout the year to get those hot items for them.”
Everything in the bundle box is used by these communities, including parachute material and rigging cords that are valued for use in sailing and creating shelters.
Once Bundle Build Day is complete, the airdrop bundles are prepared by riggers from Yokota Air Base's Combat Mobility Flight.
'The hot item is always fishing gear – fishing hooks, fishing lures, fishing lines and that stuff – and we work throughout the year to get those hot items for them.'
After rigging, the Andersen Air Force Base’s 734th Air Mobility Squadron and the 44th Aerial Port Squadron (Reserve Component) Port Dawgs partner to load the bundles and service the C-130s for continued sorties.
First Lieutenant Madison King has two unique perspectives on Operation Christmas Drop.
As the aerial port operations officer for the PACAF’s 734th Air Mobility Squadron at Andersen Air Force Base, she is part of a team responsible for delivering the bundle boxes onto each C-130.
In a volunteer capacity, she is also the vice president of the Operation Christmas Drop private organisation.
“This is one of the most rewarding missions I’ve ever experienced,” First Lieutenant King said.
“After a year-long team effort, there’s nothing quite like seeing the local and military communities come together to give back. Getting to be a big part of that has truly been a gift.”