Cordova native flies Santa Claus to island village

Wrapped gifts, stuffed animals, knitted hats, books and Mr. and Mrs. Claus were piled into an HC-130J Combat King II aircraft, flown by Alaska Air Native Guard Capt. Wesley Ladd.

Born and raised in Cordova, Ladd was on a mission on Dec. 5 with the 211th Rescue Squadron to bring a early Christmas to children in St. Michael, population 413, a Yup’ik Eskimo community on St. Michael Island in southeastern Norton Sound.

The crew from the 211th Rescue Squadron were greeted by numerous pickup trucks, ready to haul the presents to the Anthony A. Andrews School where people eagerly waited for their arrival.

“They were all really excited to see us come in there,” Ladd said.

A group of Alaska National Guard Members and volunteers helped pass out the gifts to children 18 years and younger as part of the annual community outreach program known as Operation Santa Claus.

The children met with Santa Claus, enjoyed ice cream sundaes and were gifted school supplies, books and Christmas gifts.

“I was basically in the line handing out gifts,” Ladd said. “Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s looking forward to getting a gift.”

Growing up in Cordova, Ladd loved playing sports. To be given the opportunity to give footballs and basketballs to teenagers who passed through the line was something he remembers vividly from the day.

“(Giving) sports gear to the teenagers … that was probably the highlight of the day for me,” he said. “It’s just nice to be in a room filled with happy people.”

According to the U.S. Army, Operation Santa Claus began in 1956, when floods and a drought ruined the hunting and fishing season for residents in the Western Alaska village of St. Mary’s.

“With only enough money to pay to have food shipped in and nothing left over for Christmas, the mother superior of the village’s Roman Catholic mission wrote a letter to the Alaska National Guard asking for help. Radio and television stations and Anchorage’s two newspapers spread the word, and within days the Guard was inundated with donations of new and used toys. The mission closed in the late 1980s, but the gift-giving effort continued to grow. Since then, literally tens of thousands of Alaska’s schoolchildren have had their Christmas seasons brightened through Operation Santa Claus.”


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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.