Micronesia is a collection of thousands of islands and atolls in the Pacific. Many of the islands are inhabited although few have sizable populations — Guam, as U.S. territory since the close of the Spanish-American War, is the most populous with roughly 160,000 citizens. Some of the islands have formed a nation called the Federated States of Micronesia, which, collectively, has just over 100,000 citizens spread across hundreds of dots of land. About 500 of those people live on an atoll known as Kapingamarangi, a roughly one km^2 ring of land encapsulating 75 km^2 of what would otherwise be ocean.
It’s not the type of place the U.S. military would typically bother with, especially not during the relatively peaceful year of 1952. But late that winter, Boeing B-29 Superfortress — a strategic bomber used against Japan during World War II — was flying above Kapingamarangi. The locals gathered on the atoll’s beaches and started making hand gestures at the plane, which was flying low enough to notice what the people were doing. So the crewmen responded by dropping their payload onto the beaches below.
They’ve done it every year since.
That’s because the hand gestures weren’t lewd — the Kapingamarangi people were waving hello at the planes. And the crewmen didn’t drop bombs. As Wikipedia describes, “when they saw the islanders waving to them, the crew quickly gathered some items they had on the plane, placed them in a container with a parachute attached and dropped the cargo as they circled again.” The crew scattered what they had across a handful of inhabited islands in the region. Because of the time of year, this impromptu humanitarian mission became known as Operation Christmas Drop.
In each of the sixty-plus years since, the U.S. Air Force has repeated the operation, which makes it the longest ongoing defense mission which is still active. In recent years, residents of Guam have donated food, clothing, household goods, toys, school supplies, and of regional note, fishing nets. These are all gathered into boxes which, when filled, weigh roughly 400 pounds. The Air Force outfits these care packages and drops them just off-shore throughout Micronesian islands, ensuring that no one gets hit by a nearly quarter-ton crate from the sky while also getting the supplies to those who need it most.
For many recipients, this influx of goods is critical. Few of the islands in the area have an airstrip and it’s hard to dock a cargo ship on a ring of sand. Effectively, these islands are isolated from the rest of the world and have no meaningful means of importing stuff. The Operation Christmas Drop gifts are one of the few ways that new items enter their local economies. One Air Force member told the military press that Operation Christmas Drop “is a yearlong wait for these items, and for most of us it’s the only way to obtain new clothes and Christmas gifts.” And as a bonus, as one military news site notes, the operation “serves as a training mission” for the flight crew.
And besides, it’s fun to be Santa.
From the Archives: Pooped Out: Something else about Micronesia.
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