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Reservists bundle Christmas joy for remote islanders

'Camouflaged' Santas air drop presents to those in need in the South Pacific

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When you think of a traditional Santa Claus, you probably imagine a jolly old fellow with a long white beard in a red suit in a sleigh drawn by magical reindeer, right?

Well for some people in Micronesia, the large group of small islands in the South Pacific, Santa looks like an Air Force crew in a huge C-130J cargo plane airdropping presents from the sky. This unorthodox version of jolly St. Nick stems from a U.S. military training exercise known as Operation Christmas Drop, a military tradition at Andersen air force base in Guam that has existed for 66 years.

It all started quite spontaneously back during the Christmas season of 1952 when the crew of a weather reconnaissance aircraft flying over the small island of Kapingamarangi saw some islanders waving at them below. In the spirit of the holidays, the crew bundled up whatever extra supplies they could find on the plane, attached them to a parachute, and dropped them to the islanders. What started as a kind gesture quickly became a yearly tradition, with toys, construction materials and various other supplies added to the bundles. Eventually, it became a full-fledged military exercise.

"We saw these things come out of the back of the airplane and I was yelling: 'There are toys coming down,'" Andy Nepaial, who witnessed a drop on the island of Agrigan in the 1960s, told Stars and Stripes in 2011.

Life on the Micronesian islands can be tough. When the operation first started, many of them did not have running water or electricity, and they often suffer torrential weather during typhoon seasons. These harsh conditions make the aid a godsend.

Today, Operation Christmas Drop encompasses 1.8 million square nautical miles, which includes more than 50 islands and more than 20,000 people. This year, more than 65,000 pounds of aid were delivered.

In addition to the humanitarian aspect, the operation is also good practice for the airmen. The Air Force releases the bundles from low altitudes, giving them good practice for disaster relief operations.

"It's continued on and it has grown from the initial 'Hey, let's just deliver something to random people that we've found,' to [an] actual full-up training mission to better enhance our guys in humanitarian assistance disaster relief operations," said Maj. Christopher Dolby, the commander of Operation Christmas Drop.

The military personnel who participate in the operation thoroughly enjoy it. The load masters responsible for releasing the bundles often consider it a highlight in their careers.

"I'm very blessed and proud to serve in this capacity," said Dolby.

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