Operation Christmas Drop 2015: View from the islands, drops from the heart
Federated States of Micronesia -- Strong winds blew and raindrops beat down on the tin roofs until the storm blew past to reveal a flaming sunset which gave way to a magnificent nightscape in which millions of stars illuminated the sky as far as my eyes could see. As I stood on this small tropical island in Micronesia, the clouds seemed to fly so low I felt like I could catch them.
This was my view from Falalop, a small island in the Ulithi Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia. This was an island I had only seen photos of and heard stories about. It is also one of the islands the U.S. Air Force aircraft dropped gifts to during Operation Christmas Drop 2015.
My trip first brought me to Yap Island where I flew in on a U.S. Air Force C-12, assigned to the 459th Airlift Squadron. From there I transitioned to a smaller plane that took me to the Islands of Falalop and Fais.
As we prepared to land on Falalop in Ulithi atoll, we saw the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean transition to the bright turquoise color of the lagoons. It was almost as if someone built a small road in the ocean. The Ulithi Atoll is a string of islands in the westernmost part of the Caroline Islands, 360 miles southwest of Guam and 1,300 miles south of Tokyo.
During the final approach, devastation from Typhoon Maysak, which struck here on April 1, 2015, was clearly apparent. Many coconut trees either had their tops chopped off or were bent beyond recognition. A high school used by many students from all of the islands lay in ruins, roofs removed, and desks and furniture were destroyed. Most of the houses still remained covered by white or blue tarps donated by various international organizations in the area.
For the past eight months, recovery efforts have been underway, but progress has been slow because of the remoteness of the islands. I had a chance to speak with Stephen Mara, an Outer Islands High School agriculture science teacher who explained that now students study in tents donated by USAID. The floor inside one of the tents was made of white coral sands from the beach nearby. It was very comfortable. "This was the student's idea," said Stephen with a big smile.
"We lost everything by Typhoon Maysak. But, it taught us how important it is to help each other, sometimes we forget that here on the islands," Mara explained.
On this small island where so many residents were uprooted and impacted by this natural disaster, I witnessed hope. Everyone moved with a sense that now was the time to rebuild and improve the condition of the place in which they lived.
The next day, The United States Air Force, Japan Air Self-Defense Force and Royal Australian Air Force simultaneously delivered numerous bundles of donated goods during Operation Christmas Drop. But my trip wasn't over. I hopped on another plane to travel to my next destination the island of Fais. Fais Island is a raised coral island in the eastern Caroline Islands. It was an island so rich in natural resources that the Japanese traded with the islanders to use the island as a phosphorus mine 78 years ago.
This is the island where "Santa 11" a 36th Airlift Squadron C-130H Hercules dropped its first low-cost low-altitude bundle.
After we landed, we were greeted by the Fais Chief and villagers who wore a mix of western style clothes and traditional island attire. Some people watched the aircraft from bushes nearby. As I stepped out of the aircraft, I immediately felt the humidity of the island and the sun relentlessly beating down on my skin.
Louis Mangtau, Fais Chief, told us that there are no cars on the island, "So just follow me." The airfield was in the center of the island, which was surrounded by a jungle and villages that face towards the beach. As we hiked through the jungle for about 30 minutes the dark colored road turned to a white colored road, made from coral sands. These roads connected the three villages on the island. Kids sat under the coconut trees playing a game with coral rocks while the women cooked lunch in their homes. The men, ranging in ages from teenager to elder, worked diligently carrying lumber, tin roofing and oil drums from their boats across the beach to the village above.
We followed the chief to the men's quarters (only men allowed) where we sat with the villagers as they explained to us how life is on the island. Chief Mangtau explained that everything that is harvested on Fais, fish that are caught by their fishermen, or goods donated from elsewhere are all divided evenly throughout the three villages on the island.
It was time to head to the drop zone, so people started gathering in the middle of the field in the jungle. A man spread out a giant blue tarp to signal the aircraft where to drop. Villagers waited under trees and watched the sky. The only noise came from the sound of wind blowing through coconut trees. A villager armed with a knife that seemed to come straight out of the movie Rambo brought us coconuts to enjoy while we waited. I felt like I had some sort of energy drink, I was amped.
Moments later I heard the familiar sound of turboprop engines. Villagers looked around the sky to find where the noise came from. Suddenly, a C-130 at full power sped over the coconut trees that lined the drop zone.
I asked myself, "Am I watching some movie?"
This was the first pass, as the aircraft with the distinct "YJ" tail circled Fais, the islanders below hid in bushes to wait for the bundles to fall.
The USAF C-130H pilot reduced its altitude. The ramp opened, and loadmasters waved to the islanders as they prepared to drop their bundles. After another flyby, the aircraft dropped the first of two low-cost low-altitude bundles to the ground. A parachute opened, and the bundle quickly dropped towards the island. Villagers ran out of the bushes. After checking the 500lbs bundles, seven men carried them to the men's quarter from the jungle. Chief Mangtau opened the box and evenly divided everything among all three villages. Villagers waited patiently as they were not allowed to touch the gifts until the chief is finished separating the goods. Chief Mangatau was the only one who could decide who gets what.
We did not have time to observe kids and family receive the gifts, but after speaking with Chief Mangtau, he said, "I have watched the U.S. aircraft fly by Fais Island, every December since my father brought me to the drop zone as a child. I was so curious about what was inside the box. It was as exciting then as it is now."