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Yokota brings holiday cheer to islanders

ULITHI ATOLL, Micronesia (AFNS) -- More than 1,200 miles from the nearest western civilization, a man stands on a beach wearing only his lavalava. He lifts the bright orange flag with yellow brim and stakes it in the ground, marking the spot to ensure it is easily seen, especially from air.

The 80-degree weather, palm tree-covered islands and miles of surrounding ocean does not typically bring Christmas to mind, but this man knows the day has come for Operation Christmas Drop and soon a C-130 Hercules would fly above his island to deliver holiday gifts.

His island is Mogmog, just one of the more than 50 Micronesian islands that receive airdropped items from a 374th Airlift Wing's C-130 every year.

"It's always exciting, especially when Christmas is around the corner," said Ignatius, the Mogmog village chief. "I know everyone here is excited, not just about the package itself, but the plane is something for the kids (to look forward to also)."

Ignatius said every year islanders gather to be a part of retrieval, taking peeks in the box to see what it contains.

"We don't know what is in the package, so it's just like a Christmas gift," Ignatius added.

In preparation for the drop, village elders ensure children do not go into the designated drop area. They also ensure a retrieval team is standing ready near the beach, with another in a boat in case the bundle lands in the water.

Nearly 150 people inhabit the island, some living in small concrete buildings, some in metal shacks and others still living in tradition homes with coconut thatch roofs. They live off of a steady diet of banana breadfruit, coconut and fish. Many never leave their island, but Operation Christmas Drop is one of the connections they have to the rest of the world.

This reminder of Christmas has been airdropped to the islands of Micronesia for 63 continuous years. For the past 35 years, Bruce Best has helped the process by improving communication between the islands, Guam and the service members running Operation Christmas Drop.

Best is a telecommunications specialist and the Pacific program coordinator from the University of Guam. He coordinates the drop dates and times via radio to the outer islands.

"This is a major operation for humanitarian (aid) -- the longest humanitarian operation in the history of the (U.S.), over 63 continuous years," Best said. "(It is) all donated equipment, all going directly to these outer islands that sometimes have no transportation or communication. Little radios being their only communication off the island."

Best has installed solar powered radio communication devices for 40 years throughout Micronesia. It is with his devices that the islands communicate with him in Guam, receiving weather updates and drop information. With his help, the hundreds of miles of ocean that separate the islands seem a lot smaller.

"We have good support here at the university and good support in the community," Best said. "We hope to keep the Christmas Drop spirit and humanitarian aid effort alive for many years."

According to Ignatius, Operation Christmas Drop brings a certain Christmas spirit to the islands, but the holidays are felt throughout the island beginning Dec. 1.

"Every night the whole island gets together to sing church songs and Christmas carols," Ignatius said. "We assign two houses a night, every night. On Saturday nights we get together by the church and have plays and (events) to motivate the Christmas spirit."

In continuing the tradition, Ignatius said toys are given to the children on Christmas Day. They remove the toys from the bundle on drop day to be wrapped and distributed to the children on Dec. 25.

Ignatius said he and everyone on the island truly appreciate the airdrops and wishes everyone involved in the operation a happy holiday.

"Merry Christmas to each and every one of them, every Christmas!" Ignatius added.