Operation Santa Claus brings 'Joy to the world' for Hoonah

Posted: Thursday, December 02, 2010

Three of Santa's sleighs, sans reindeer, sat at the Juneau Army National Guard hangar on Wednesday, ready to soar into the sky with toys for little girls and boys.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Laden with toys and elves and ice-cream sundaes, the sleighs were actually three Sikorsky helicopters; An Army National Guard Black Hawk from the 207th Aviation Squadron in Juneau, an Air National Guard Pave Hawk from the 210th Rescue Squadron in Anchorage, and a United States Coast Guard Jayhawk from Air Station Sitka.

"It is one of the best flights of the year," United States Coast Guard pilot Lt. Brooks Crawford said. "People are generally excited to see the coast guard but nothing beats the kids' faces when they see Santa."

Crawford, who has flown "Santa missions" for Coast Guard families in Astoria, Ore., was one of many "elves" who were accompanying Santa and Mrs. Claus to the village of Hoonah as part of the 54th Annual Operation Santa Claus.

"We are really excited to go back to Hoonah," Gov. Sean Parnell said, standing amidst the throng of workers and packaged goods. "It is a miracle for the children to see Santa. He is always the biggest draw. This is one of the true honors of being governor, to bring smiles to the children's faces."

Anchorage Tastee Freeze owner Rich Owens has been providing ice cream to the operation for more than 10 years and had 220 sundaes ready to personally distribute.

"This really gets me into the spirit of the holidays," Owens said. "It is not just the kids either. Elders of some of the villages will come up because they have never seen this before. By the time you get through the first couple villages, if you are not in the spirit then you must be a scrooge."

Operation Santa Claus started in 1956 when the Alaska Air National Guard answered a request for toys for the children of the St. Mary's Mission. Spring floods had denied that year's fishing season and a following drought had eliminated big game in the area. St. Mary's had used its money to pay for food to be shipped in so they had no money for the children's Christmas that year.

Guardsmen would accept used new or used toys in those days and rehab them for Santa Claus to deliver on an Air Guard C-123J Provider. Now many villages, schools, and groups receive the Christmas spirit from Santa in their communities via this military operation courtesy of St. Nick's good cheer.

Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bill Clutton has been involved in various Operations Santa Claus, but this is his first as facility commander in Juneau.

"We are providing the home port," Clutton said. "This is for the kids. Hoonah had a tough year so this is nice that it worked out to be their visit. It is a major coordinated effort with coast guard station Sitka and the air guard."

The 17th Coast Guard District's head "elf," Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin, said "It is wonderful to participate, especially with the sadness in Hoonah, to bring this holiday celebration; to bring a new start, a new beginning, and to put sadness behind."

Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.'s director of National Guard Business Development, Tom Nicolett, brought a team from their Connecticut headquarters to participate and see how their companies "sleighs" were being used and thank the "North Pole pilots."

"This is the ultimate volunteer trip for our team," Nicolett said. "Many have been involved with humanitarian issues from United Way to Habitat for Humanity. The guard units here really make us look good. It really boosts our spirits too, as long as they keep us warm."

Sikorsky Process Engineer Amisha Kapadia added "I love Christmas, I still do! It is an honor to help out and bring Christmas to these kids and to see Alaska."

"Santa," a retired Army National Guardsman, and "Mrs. Claus," a retired Coast Guardswoman, have been participating 25 years and 18 years, respectively.

"It makes our Christmas," the woman who identified herself as "Mrs. Claus" said. "All those smiling faces. Even if it is just for a few hours a little bit of happiness can last a lifetime."

With a twinkle in his eye, the man who identified himself as "Santa" added, "I remember my first village was McGrath, and when I returned the next year and the children sat on my lap and I remembered their names, that meant more to them than any gift."

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@ juneauempire.com.

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