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Special Air National Guard flights bring an early Christmas to Alaska villages

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Posted: Sunday, November 28, 2010 2:43 pm | Updated: 8:37 am, Sat Dec 29, 2012.

TANANA, Alaska — Col. Mike Rauenhorst has flown a lot of missions and traveled all over the world during his 22 years with the Alaska National Guard.

But his favorite mission was earlier this month when he, several other Guard members and a few of their spouses acted as Santa’s helpers when they flew into this Yukon River city.

The mission was called Operation Santa Claus, and it’s something the Alaska National Guard has been doing for more than 50 years.

Each year, the Guard selects a handful of remote Alaska communities off the road system where prices are high and luxuries are few and brings some holiday cheer by distributing toys, clothing, books, school supplies and even fresh fruit and ice cream — two foods that are extremely rare in the Bush.

“I’m glad I was able to come here,” Rauenhorst said.

“This is a memory I’ll carry for the rest of my life. As a guardsman it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Operation Santa Claus traces its roots back to 1956 when the combination of floods and a drought devastated the food supply of St. Marys in Western Alaska.

Nuns at an orphanage in the village were worried that by spending all their money on food, they would have nothing to buy the children of St. Marys for Christmas.

But a letter from one of the nuns found its way to an Air National Guard unit in Anchorage, and a tradition was born.

The air guard expected to pay visits in 2010 to Tanana, St. Paul, Holy Cross, White Mountain, Little Diomede, Pilot Station and Hoonah.

For the Nov. 17 trip to Tanana, Santa, played by a Vietnam veteran, Tom Gollwitzer, didn’t come directly from the North Pole, though he was close — he had flown out of Eielson Air Force Base, which is just down the Richardson Highway from the city of North Pole.

And rather than dropping in on a sled pulled by reindeer, Santa and his Air National Guard elves arrived in style on a C-130 military cargo plane.

After touching down on the village’s single runway, Santa and the group boarded two buses in below-zero temperatures and headed to nearby Maudry J. Sommer School on the banks of the frozen Yukon.

Efforts to hide Santa in the back of one of the buses did little to confuse the 30 or so children of Tanana who immediately rushed him for hugs as he stepped off the bus.

“We tried to pull a little military deception on the kids and hide Santa Claus and make them look at a different vehicle, but they were smarter than us and they smelled Santa Claus out right away,” Rauenhorst said.

Santa was eventually able to hide in an office for a few minutes before entering the school’s gymnasium to “Here Comes Santa Claus,” played by the Air Force’s Band of the Pacific. The Air Force band is also part of operation Santa Claus.

Old Kris Kringle even danced a few steps as he headed to a recliner on a small stage to hear the holiday wishes of the village’s little ones.

One by one, each child of the village sat on his lap and received their presents courtesy of Santa and the Air National Guard. Most were happy to see him, but a few of the youngest children were still more scared of him than anything.

Afterward, many kids bounced brand new basketballs around the gym floor or tossed around small footballs Santa had brought them.

“I think it’s pretty cool, except Christmas is still a month away,” Christian Sommer, 14, said as he clutched a football.

Most of the village turned out to see Santa.

“This means a lot to them,” said Judy Moore, who led the schoolchildren in traditional Athabascan songs following Santa’s visit. “The kids love it.”

Perhaps the only ones who enjoy Operation Santa Claus more than the Alaskans who receive the gifts are the Air Guard members who spend months preparing for it.

“It’s great to take a day like today out of our normal workday and go out and see the eyes of these schoolchildren,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Roach, commander of the 1-207 aviation battalion based in Anchorage. “When Santa Claus comes off the bus it’s an amazing thing… “The light in their eyes, the smile on their faces, it’s worth all the effort everyone puts in.”

Contact staff writer Chris Freiberg at 459-7545.

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