YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – Parachutes falling on the tiny Pacific island of Agrigan looked, at first, like toys to the children who lived there in the 1960s.
The kids, watching their first U.S. military aid drop, took a while to realize there were real troops and supplies dangling from the far-off parachutes, recalled one of them – Andy Nepaial, now a 52-year-old Yokota Air Base resident.
“We saw these things come out of the back of the airplane and I was yelling: ‘There are toys coming down,’” said Nepaial, who left Agrigan for the larger U.S. island of Saipan and eventually settled at Yokota with wife Elizabeth, a middle school teacher.
Preparations at the base this month for Operation Christmas Drop – an annual effort to parachute aid to about 50 Micronesian islands - sparked Nepaial’s childhood memories.
“The island was trembling from the airplanes because they flew really low,” he said of the first supply drop he saw on the Agrigan. “The whole island was freaking out.”
Life on the Agrigan was primitive in those days, with no electricity or running water and locals surviving on what they could hunt, fish and gather. Help from the outside world was welcomed, especially after typhoons that periodically ravaged the area, he said.
The U.S. personnel, who parachuted down to Nepaial’s village, offered medical treatment to the islanders while local men cracked open containers full of tasty military rations, he recalled.
Not all the containers hit their marks. Islanders paddled into shark-infested water to retrieve some while others were discovered, half buried in the sand, months later, by fishermen and hunters miles from the drop zone, he said.
The U.S. Air Force has parachuted aid to Pacific islands each Christmas since 1952, according to members of the 374th Airlift Wing participating in this year’s Operation Christmas Drop.
Three C-130s and 68 airmen will participate over the next two weeks, according to Capt Brian Miller, a 36th Airlift Squadron pilot who will fly air drop missions as part of the operation.
The Yokota-based aircraft will collect donated items in Guam and then drop 275-pound containers of food, fishing tackle, tools and medical supplies to 54 islands, including many in the Federated States of Micronesia as well as some U.S. territories, Miller said.
The Christmas drops are great real-world experience for members of air crews, who can expect to drop supplies to troops in places like Iraq or Afghanistan when they deploy, said Miller.
“What strikes me every time I fly in the Pacific is how empty it seems,” he said. “You just see nothing but water and then, occasionally, you come upon an island. If I lived on one of those islands, I would feel pretty isolated.”
Lt. Col. Mark Leavitt, a 374th pilot who flew Christmas drop missions in the 1990s, said airmen involved in the missions can expect to see groups of villagers waving from beaches each time they swoop in to drop aid.
“There’s lots of jumping up and down and kids running out to try and catch the chute,” he said. “That’s why we drop it out in the water off the beach – because we don’t want it to land on anyone.”
Leavitt, who has spent time on isolated Pacific islands such as Truk, Pohnpei and Kosrae, said it’s rewarding for air crews to know that their efforts are helping the islanders.
“There are always plenty of volunteers for this mission because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said.
Nepaial can still picture the parachutes falling and tells colorful stories of island life in an era when villagers still dressed in traditional costumes. But he doesn’t have any photographs from that time, even of his friends and family: Back then, nobody on the island had a camera, he said.