GRAND CANYON, Ariz. --
As the red Arizona soil cloud cleared from the sky, the observing Havasupai tribe people turned around from protecting themselves from the dust stirred up by the loud swooshing sounds. They were finally able to see a Marine CH-46E helicopter landing in middle of their village. The children cheered not only for the Marines but the special guest they have been awaiting for.
When one of the crewmen lowered the stairs to the helicopter, a big, jolly man in a red suit and white beard made his way down. The kids and adults alike started to wave at a friend they knew very well.
With the help of the Reserve Marines from the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 764, veterans from the Flagstaff Marine League Charities, Flagstaff Toys for Tots organization and different civilian charities, St. Nicholas was able to travel down to the bottom of Grand Canyon, Dec. 14, to help deliver the toys in a mission called Operation Havasupai.
“The operation would never happen if the Marines would not do this operation for us,” said Christine McGee, coordinator for Northern Arizona Marine Corps League and the one responsible for arranging the squadron for this operation. “Supai is such a remote location and the only access to Supai is by foot, mule or helicopter.”
The village is inaccessible by roads and the only way is an eight-mile steep and narrow path that has an approximate 3,000-foot elevation change and takes more than five hours to complete.
The trail to the village is not easy due to the landscape of the Grand Canyon. For the Marines flying in, the canyon poses their own unique challenges.
Roughly 48 Marines from the HMM-764, the Moonlighters, Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing turned back Dec. 12 to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., due to the bad weather. A two-day storm made it impossible for them to fly in as it dropped over a foot of snow in the Northern Arizona region.
“We have certain weather requirements if we were to operate safely,” said Col. Jon E. Bork, CH-46E pilot, HMM-764. “The biggest one for us, in this type of environment, is operating in the icy conditions, which is unsafe for this air-frame.”
"With all the fog and clouds, they said it was unsafe to fly so we turned around and flew home,” said Sgt. Christopher Morris, air-frames mechanic, HMM-764.
Finally, on the third attempt of flying into the Grand Canyon, Morris and the Moonlighters returned Dec. 14 with four CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters with hopes of helping Santa and his efforts to deliver the toys to approximately 150 Havasupai children in the village.
Morris has been with the unit for four years and he participated in the entire Toys for Tots process, from collecting toys to sorting them, and finally delivering them into the village. He was one of a handful of Marines that handed out the toys to Havasupai children during a big celebration with the Santa Claus after the Marines landed.
“It’s just awesome to come out here and see what this is all this is about,” added Morris.
The Supai village is home to more than 400 permanent Havasupai tribesmen, women and children. The Havasupai is the most remote and isolated tribe in the United States. The Flagstaff Toys for Tots organization and the Marines have visited the tribe for the 16th year, providing logistical support to transfer toys and other supplies.
The operation has grown over the years, said McGee.
“The amount that we provide to the tribe has grown in size and quantity when we realized that we could provide them with more than just a Christmas tree and toys,” said McGee, who began doing the event 13 years ago with her husband, Lt.Col. James McGee, a retired Marine who passed away in 2010.
“We evolved to providing them other necessities,” she said.
In addition to toys, Marines also flew in Christmas trees, crates of food, firewood and other supplies provided by two charities, the St. Mary’s Food Bank and The Friends from Utah.
Helping out the local children and the village people was not the only benefit for the Marines.
The actual flights between narrow canyons, difficult weather and confined landing areas helped the Marines gain valuable experience in operations.
“Operating here in Grand Canyon definitely catches your attention and you want to be aware of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it,” said Bork, who participated in the operation for more than five years.
“It’s very challenging to fly up here in the high altitude and the cold weather,” he said. “Dealing with all the weather issues, ice, motors and oil all getting cold is some of the things to think about.”
“Getting Marines in this kind of environment with different type of clothing, staying warm and staying hydrated, all those activities are all necessary to provide safe operations,” he said. “It needs to be done continuously to maintain the proficiency so we can get out here and operate.”
Bork said continuous training in this type of environment is important because over time Marines can lose the experience in formation flying, cold-weather operations, mountain operations and confined areas.
“That is a great gift that both (locals and Havasupai people) get, seeing the Marines and the Marine Corps story come to them,” said Bork. “It supports them, the children, and the families who live up here as well as the folks down inside the canyon.”
The operation had brought much needed help and Christmas spirit to the children here as they have next to nothing here, said Roland Manakaja, the tribe’s wisdom keeper. This year the children were growing especially impatient as the event faced possible cancellation due to weather. The operation has grown somewhat of a Christmas tradition for the tribe.
“The warrior birds, eagles, were flying around this morning and that was a good sign,” he said “They told us you guys were coming, the warriors.”
Despite all the obstacles, the warriors did arrive this year, bringing happy holidays to the most isolated tribe in America.