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50 years ago, Air National Guard brought Christmas to troops in Vietnam

By Capt. William Carraway | Georgia National Guard | Dec. 18, 2015

MARIETTA, Ga. - In November and December, 1965, air crews of the Georgia Air National Guard and Citizen-Airmen from other states volunteered for a special mission to Vietnam. Nearly 80 Air National Guard aircraft ultimately participated in Operation Christmas Star, a multi-state airlift operation designed to provide service members in Southeast Asia with Christmas gifts contributed by a grateful nation.


As the winter of 1965 approached, Department of Defense officials faced a unique, but fortunate problem. American citizens had donated so many gifts and baked goods for service members in Vietnam that U.S. Air Force transportation assets were overwhelmed. Operation Christmas Star would resolve the issue by asking for volunteer Air National Guard crews to augment Air Force transport missions. Guardsmen responded by the hundreds and coordinated efforts with local officials and citizen groups for the staging of gifts for transport.


On November 20, 1965, a C-97 of the Tennessee Air National Guard departed Nashville with 4,500 pounds of cargo. Two days later, three aircraft assigned to the 116th Air Transport group departed Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Georgia.


With Lt. Col. Charles H. Allen at the controls of the first aircraft, the Georgia Air National Guard C-97s began the long journey to Vietnam carrying thousands of pounds of gifts donated by family members of the Fort Benning-based 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), which was then deployed in Vietnam. WRBL-TV Columbus arranged for transport of the goods to the municipal airport with the assistance of Georgia Army National Guard Soldiers of the Columbus-based 560th Engineer Battalion. From Columbus municipal airport, a C-97 transported the goods to Dobbins.


The next day, three C-97s of the Savannah-based 165th Air Transport Group launched from Travis Field. At the controls of the first ship was Lt. Col. Charlie Miller. The four-engine C-97 Stratofreighters, with a maximum speed of 375 mph, took 11 days to make the round trip to Vietnam.


Air Guard crew met each other coming and going throughout the vast Pacific. From Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, crews generally flew to Kwajalein Atoll, a missile testing site. The next stop was Guam's Andersen Air Base, then Manilla in the Philippines. There, the crews received a comprehensive briefing on procedures for entering the combat zone of Vietnam.


Greeting the Georgia Air National Guard members at Tan Son Nhut was a fellow Georgian and former Air Guard pilot, Capt. Loy Shipp. Crews stayed close to their aircraft and never left the flight line to expedite the offloading of their Stratofreighters.


The Georgia aircrews completed their mission before December 15, 1965. Nearly 49,000 pounds of Christmas gifts and mail were delivered to South Vietnam by the Georgia Guardsmen in addition to 97,000 pounds of Air Force cargo.


Nearly 80 Air National Guard crews flew Christmas Star missions hauling more than 400 tons of gifts. In all, 731 tons of gifts were collected by various groups around the country. So great was the response that 270 tons had to be sent by ship.


The Christmas Star aircraft came from 26 Air National Guard squadrons across the country such as Maine's 157th Air Transport Group and the 166th Airlift Group of the Delaware Air National Guard. Air National Guard units from Arizona, California, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania also participated in making Operation Christmas Star another spectacular example of the value of the Citizen-Airmen.