by Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead
Napakiak and Tuntutuliak welcome Op Santa its 63rd year.
The Alaska National Guard has a tradition of serving communities throughout Alaska during the holidays, delivering Christmas gifts and a variety of delights to children during Operation Santa Claus. In its 63rd year, two small Native villages along the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska were selected for a visit this season.
Santa and his elves visited Tuntutuliak Nov. 25 and Napakiak Dec. 3, traveling in an Army National Guard C-12 Huron twin-engine turbo prop aircraft from here to Bethel, then in an Army Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to access the small villages, which don’t have airfields to accommodate the C-12 landing.
“I do love to travel with my reindeer,” said Santa Claus of North Pole. “But they are resting up for Christmas Eve, which gives me an amazing opportunity to fly with the National Guard,” he said.
The Salvation Army worked together with the National Guard and other community organizations to coordinate Op Santa and ensure every child, infants through age 18, received a wrapped Christmas gift from Santa Claus. Ice cream sundaes were provided for everyone in the community, and all students received new backpacks with personal items and snacks. Volunteers also handed out beautiful hand-knit hats made with love from a group of volunteers who live in Florida. Everyone in the villages expressed gratitude and enthusiasm to their out-of-town guests, there to spread holiday cheer.
“There’s a reason we’ve been doing this since 1956,” said Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard. “What a great way to show the communities of Alaska that we care about them, and this is likely the first time some have had an opportunity to meet a Soldier or Airman.”
After the helicopter arrived in each village, volunteers stepped out onto frozen ground and into the back of a four-wheeler or pickup truck for a ride to the village school. There, they quickly unpacked boxes of gifts, organized items, and finished preparing for the arrival of students. Many adults from the villages attend the event, bringing infants, toddlers and elders to enjoy the festivities.
“Op Santa began after St. Mary’s experienced natural disaster and there was a lack of food from subsistence, so extra money could not be spent on gifts for the children,” said Saxe. “We’ve continued this outreach to serve those in remote areas, to hopefully bring the joy of the season, and to build relationships in the communities.”
In 1956, the Air National Guard’s 144th Airlift Squadron delivered donated goods to the remote village of St. Mary’s in a C-123J Provider. Since then, Air Guard C-130s Hercules, HC-130 King, C-17 Globemaster III, HH-60 Pave Hawk; and Army Guard C-23 Sherpa, UH-60 Black Hawk, and C-12 Huron have transported Santa and Mrs. Claus, elves, gifts and other desirable items to thousands of children throughout rural Alaska to more than 90 villages.
The last time that Op Santa was in Napakiak and Tuntutuliak was in 2000. Both villages have a population of about 350-400 people.
Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead writes from the Alaska National Guard at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.