Radiomen keep Christmas Drop on target
The holiday season brings to the Pacific region each year Operation Christmas Drop, a humanitarian effort that provides needed supplies to over 35,000 residents of 56 isolated islands belonging to the Federated States of Micronesia.
Yokota Air Base’s 36th Airlift Squadron will once again take the lead in transporting the supplies, sending three C-130 cargo planes and about 70 crew members on the eight-day mission, which will drop a projected 60 pallets carrying about 20,000 tons of goods to waiting islanders from Dec. 11 to 18, according to Capt. Christopher Paxton, the mission commander for Operation Christmas Drop. Because of the squadron’s participation, many people on and around Yokota, located in a western suburb of Tokyo, donate money and goods to the mission.
But there is a special relationship to the program on Guam, where the nonprofit Christmas Drop Organization has been busy raising money through a number of activities, including a golf tournament, as well as collecting items, such as food, medicine, hand and construction tools, school supplies and toys, donated by people on base and off through drop boxes placed throughout the island.
Operation Christmas Drop is truly a Team Andersen event, with most of the organizational and other work on base performed by upwards of 100 volunteers, according to Mitchell Foy, president of Operation Christmas Drop.
One group essential to the success of Operation Christmas Drop is not well known, however. It is the five-man team, led by Manny Hechanova, at the University of Guam, which coordinates communication between the pilots of the C-130s and the islanders via high-frequency radio.
Team members, in fact, maintain daily contact with islanders throughout the year, providing news and weather updates that are urgently needed, particularly by fishermen, due to the changeable weather patterns and sudden storms in the area. They also help with search and rescue operations in emergencies.
For Operation Christmas Drop, team members are in constant contact with islanders, who use solar-powered radio stations, as the transport planes come to the islands one by one. They ensure that for lagoon drops, which comprise the majority of deliveries, that a flag is placed in the lagoon as a target for pilots and advise islanders when a plane is approaching so they can clear the drop zone as well as get people and boats in position to pick up the boxes dropped. They then check with the islanders afterward to ensure everything went all right.
“We make sure everyone is on the same page,” said Hechanova, a former professor of information systems at UOG who also served in the Air Force for four years as a radio communications analyst. This is crucial both to prevent accidents as well as to ensure that the parachuted supplies can be received.
“In Satawao, which is a difficult island to supply because it has no lagoon, packages must be dropped as close to the beach as possible. Last year, because of the wind and waves, the box went over the reef and couldn’t be recovered,” Hechanova said. “This year, Satawao will get two packages, one for last year and one for this year.”
A case of dengue fever that broke out on an island near Yap last year is another example of the importance of Operation Christmas Drop.
“Medical supplies ran out, so we coordinated a drop of three boxes of IVs. Two made it, but one didn’t,” he said.
The islands don’t have routine access to supplies. Some ships make monthly rounds of the islands. But because most islands don’t have dock facilities and the ships have to stay far offshore, all supplies must be offloaded on small boats or canoes, which can only carry 100 pounds or so, Hechanova said, making Operation Christmas Drop all the more necessary.
Of the items most requested each year, farming tools are especially important because they are used to maintain small inland gardens. And because of rising tides and the infiltration of salt water into sources of fresh water, as well as dry periods when there is no rain, the islands rely on water catchment systems and need construction tools to build and maintain them.
“Everything that has been dropped can be repurposed. Parachutes can be turned into sails, wrapping and rope can be reused. Nothing goes to waste,” Hechanova said.
“I have been involved with Operation Christmas Drop for two years,” he said. “What a thrill, hearing the voices of people and coordinating between islanders and the military, and knowing I am part of something that is helping somebody.”
As the holiday season approaches and you remember all the things you have to be thankful for, please remember that not everyone is as fortunate.
IF YOU'D LIKE TO CONTRIBUTE
Send monetary donations for Operation Christmas Drop to:
President, Christmas Drop Organization
APO AP 96542