Netflix brought us a brand-new holiday movie in 2020, “Operation Christmas Drop” — Hollywood’s twinkling rom-com version of the Department of Defense’s longest-running humanitarian airlift operation. This holiday season, we’re bringing you the real story behind the film, the mission, and the remarkable service members who make it happen.
The story of Operation Christmas Drop didn’t originate in the writers’ room of a multi-billion dollar production company, but in the cockpit of a B-29 Superfortress. In 1952, an aircrew flying over the islands of Micronesia noticed a group of islanders waving at them from one of the beaches. Kapingamarangi is a 272-acre island 3,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. A literal blip on the map. As the story goes, the aircrew was so moved by the spirit of the season that they dropped a bundle of supplies down to the islanders via parachute.
A tradition was born.
Seventy years later, Operation Christmas Drop is a fixture in the DOD’s airdrop training schedule and humanitarian outreach efforts. To date, the mission has delivered over 55,000 pounds of critical supplies to approximately 20,000 people across 56 Micronesian islands.
Netflix certainly got many of the mission’s central facts correct — the operation does fly out of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. Capt. Dan Mumford, a C-130 pilot who flies down from his duty station in Japan to contribute to the mission, walks us through exactly how the Air Force partners with local civilians and organizations to make this mission of holiday kindness happen.
Operation Christmas Drop serves as a valuable training mission for pilots and aircrew honing their airdrop skills, which is essential to the Air Force’s goal of being constantly ready to respond to humanitarian, disaster, or wartime needs anywhere in the Indo-Asian Pacific region. But what makes Operation Christmas Drop doubly important is the opportunity it provides the Air Force to participate in cooperative training alongside regional allies like Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
“For many of us,” Mumford shared, “this is an Air Force operation similar to the many missions we run a year.”
The C-130J is often used for humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions that rely on airlift and airdrops. But Operation Christmas Drops holds a special place in the hearts of airmen for its unparalleled history and tradition. December 2021 will mark the 70th anniversary of the drop.
“That’s 70 years of training with our Pacific partners,” Mumford points out. “70 years of showcasing our capabilities, and, most importantly, 70 years of supporting the longest-running humanitarian effort in the Air Force.
“The thing that really got me was when I was told the children on these islands don’t believe Santa Claus flies a magical sleigh; he flies a C-130. They look up and see our aircraft and believe they’re looking at Santa Claus.”
Another holiday read: Santa is on the military’s radar
Though the costs of the mission — flight hours, fuel, maintenance, etc. — are federally-funded, and the humanitarian side is entirely volunteer-run. Without the generosity of the local communities, “we wouldn’t have the supplies to drop,” Mumford said. “Local businesses donate food and hardware by the tons. Families volunteer their time to pack and build the boxes.”
The drop only delivers to islands that wish to participate and includes items specifically requested by the islanders — fishing lines, mosquito nets, lamps and fuel, medical supplies, rice, and educational materials. “After the goods are sorted, riggers from Yokota [Air Base] and Andersen volunteers build dozens of boxes to hold the materials.”
“We try to bring a bit of the Christmas tradition by adding a few toys and candies to the bundles we drop,” Mumford added. The islands Mumford and his crew deliver supplies to are the very definition of remote, and they often go four to five months without a visit from the boats that make supply runs. “This is the biggest day of the year for them. It is the largest resupply they’ll get in the year and it truly is Christmas when we fly over.”