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Marines bring Christmas to the Grand Canyon;HMM-764 delivers toys to tots in Havasupai village

By Cpl. Kevin Paul | | January 9, 2002

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Marines from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-764 were not going to let 12 degree weather or snarling winds blowing snow, which created limited visibility, stop them from completing Operation Havasupai.

The helicopter squadron had the Herculean task of carrying more than 16,000 pounds of food, supplies and toys from the Grand Canyon Air Port to the Havasupai Native American village deep within the Grand Canyon.

This wouldn't be the first time the squadron has been tasked with the Toys-for-Tots effort to deliver toys to children in the Native American village. They have performed the operation seven straight years, so they had the routine and mission down pat.

But, Mother Nature has a way of ruining the best-laid operation, and snow began pelting the runways of the airport that morning.

Although several inches of snow had gathered on the runway, Maj. Marcus Malais, aviation safety officer at HMM-764, decided it was still safe, and that Santa would still be visiting the children of the small village, which has a population of about 350.

Malais said the weather did not pose a safety risk but was a good training opportunity.

Malais applied the old Marine motto to the situation: If it's raining, Marines are still training, and if the snows blowing, Marines are still going.

"We've been tasked with this (operation) since 1995," said Malaise. "We've been tasked because of our CH-46 (helicopters), which is the Marine Corps' medium lift helicopter.

"(The weather situation) goes a couple of ways. As a squadron, we love doing the operation. We get to work with kids, the Marine Corps League and former Marines, so it's a lot of fun for us. In the training aspect, we get high altitude cold weather training out of it."

According to Malais, the operation was the brain child of Hal Jensen, a retired Marine and a member of the Flagstaff Community Toys for Tots.

"Toys for Tots provides toys for over 10,000 kids in the Arizona area, but this is the only location where we have to fly in by helicopter," said Jensen. "When we initially discussed the operation, the question asked was how exactly do we get the toys in?"

According to Jensen, the village is in a very remote location.

"The only way they get supplies in here is to bring them in on foot, mule, horse or helicopter," said Jensen.

Donkey and horseback were immediately ruled out because it would have taken days to get the toys down to the canyon floor. So Jensen and the 4th Marine Air Wing elected to use CH-46 helicopters for the operation.

"It's the only way to get in (quickly)," said Jensen.

That is why Malais ordered his small detachment of Marines to board the four helicopters and prepare to "weather the storm"; 170 kids were waiting for the toys.

The squadron accomplished the mission using relays of two helicopters to bus the supplies. The next relay wouldn't leave until the other had returned from its 40-minute trip, which involved cutting through the snow storm, navigating the Canyon walls and finally landing in the remote village.

Havasuipai villagers began gathering around the makeshift helicopter landing pad as the sound of whirling propellers began bouncing around the canyon's walls, heralding the arrival of the U.S. Marines.

Some came to help unload the helicopters, some to catch a glimpse of the men in uniforms and others to see a piece of modern technology.

Modern technology was in short supply  at the village, smog and automobiles would never penetrate the cavern and some things common to suburbia, like the Internet, were alien to its inhabitants.

"I know of only two families that have the internet in their homes," said Roland Manakajn, natural resource director for the tribe and school board president. "People do have satellite dishes now and VCRs, but I'm not sure if many people have computers in their homes."

Manakajn said the  annual bounty given by the Toys-for-Tots is appreciated by the villagers because a lot of parents wouldn't be able to provide toys for their children during Christmas.

"A lot of the parents don't have jobs, especially during the winter time," said Manakajn. "I'd say 30 percent of the tribe is employed permanently, another 30 percent is unemployed and the rest work seasonal jobs."

Manakajn said the children in the village had suffered many harsh Christmases before Toys-for-Tots began donating toys.

"I remember when I was a child in the early 1960s," said Manakajn. "It wasn't the helicopters that brought the toys in, but the Air Force. They used to parachute the toys in, but they only did for three or four years then it declined."

In 2002, Jensen and the Marines delivered dozens of bikes, toys, construction paper and school supplies and turkey dinners to the children.

Velma Eisenberger, principal at Havasuipai Elementary School, said the sight of Marines donning red hats to be Santa's helpers, especially during these times of increased tension in the world, was  amazing.

"I think it's awesome people have kind hearts and are willing to share with the children in this community," said Eisenberger. "The children really look forward to this day. The children are so excited they can hardly stand it."

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