Operation Christmas Drop

The longest operation U.S. Department of Defense mission in full operation

Operation Christmas Drop is a well-known event in the Pacific. In many of our destinations, like Palau or Truk Lagoon, everyone awaits it with excitement each year. You may never have heard of it, but we are sure the name will give you a hint of what it is.

Operation Christmas Drop  organisationlogo

What is Operation Christmas Drop?

Operation Christmas Drop is a humanitarian airlift operation. The US Department of Defense has been running it since 1952. This makes it their longest-running and oldest operation. In fact, it remains the longest-running operation in the world!

The US Air Force uses two main bases for Operation Christmas Drop. The bases are Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and Yokota Air Base in Japan. From these bases, every December, flights cover a territory as wide as the continental US. They try to reach the most remote islands in the Pacific which are mainly in the Northern Marianas, Federated States of Micronesia, and The Republic of Palau.

Operation Christmas Drop 2017
Operation Christmas Drop 2017 – credit: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

On each outing, the air force air-drops boxes, each nearly 200 kg, that contain supplies. The contents of these boxes can vary, but tend to be first-necessity and critical items that these remote populations need. Also they will generally include things like fishing supplies, medicines, educational materials, toys, construction materials, food, and clothing.

Locals from the Carolinian island of Satawal
Locals from the Carolinian island of Satawal wave back 7th December 2016 – credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Arielle K. Vasquez)

The history behind Operation Christmas Drop

The drop began during Christmas season, 1951. A B-29 Superfortress aircrew saw islanders waving at them from the island of Kapingamarangi, Federated States of Micronesia. In the spirit of Christmas, the aircrew quickly gathered some items. After attaching them to a parachute, they air-dropped the chute to the islanders below.

This event gave birth to the formal operation in 1952, as well as its name. To date, they use this operation as a training exercise. In short, the US Air Force gets the chance to practice humanitarian air-drops every year. Also, it gives experience to the air crews. These skills are crucial and may be needed later (as in deployment or in case of natural disasters.)

While Christmas Drop remains a military operation, most of the supplies are sponsored by volunteers. Over time, Operation Christmas Drop has become a tradition in the Pacific. Even the most remote islands await it with impatience.

A box of supplies
Number 37 Squadron C-130J Hercules loadmaster Warrant Officer Nicholas Stubbs-Race watches as a box of donations floats down to the Micronesian island of Magur during Operation Christmas Drop. Photo credit: Corporal David Said

How does it work?

Throughout the year, the organisation collect funds and donations. In the months leading up the drop dates, volunteers create donation drop-off boxes and raise money from local businesses and citizens.

Operation Christmas Drop volunteers pack boxes on 3rd December 2016 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Over 200 volunteers packed clothes, rice, fish hooks, school supplies and more! Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by SrA Alexa Henderson

A week before the drop, military volunteers, civilians, contractors, and families assist in picking up and sorting the donations. Once the goods are sorted, rigger volunteers build dozens of boxes to hold the supplies. Then, the boxes are loaded in the planes and the air crew depart to their designated destinations. Once they reach the island, they get in touch with the villages by radio to coordinate the drop.

In numbers

Islands59
CountriesFederated States of Micronesia, Palau
Population impact20,000 islanders
Maximum amount of boxes140 is the record
Maximum weight of the supplies50,000 pounds (22,679 kg) is the record
Armed ForcesUS Army and, since 2015, Japanese, Australian, and Filipino armies
AlsoA Netflix movie
Our team in Palau watching the Operation Christmas Drop in December 2020.

Operation Christmas Drop is always looking for donations and volunteers. You can help the organisation by clicking here.

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